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Peter and Jude, Part 4

Within the spectrum of orthodox Christianity there exists a tension between the idea of “works” and “grace.” So before we got too much further in this study, let’s make it clear from the beginning: There are no works involved in salvation. Nobody earns their salvation. Nobody’s good works touches God’s heart enough for Him to save their soul. Salvation is entirely a work of grace, initiated by God and appropriated by one’s faith in His Son’s work on the Cross.

In terms of maintaining or keeping your salvation, works are useless. Here’s how Jude put it in his brief letter:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude, vs 24, 25 | NIV84)

It’s God who keeps us saved, not our good works. Of course, that doesn’t mean once we are saved we can just go ahead and live any way we want to. That would be ridiculous. Paul ran into a bunch of Christians who thought just that way, and here’s what he thought of that preposterous notion:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? (Romans 6:1 | NIV84)

Those are good questions. Should we just sin, knowing that God in His grace will forgive us, anyway? As Paul would later say, “No way!” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but it captures how he felt. It is God who keeps us saved, not our good works, but we have a responsibility to live out our faith in the world and that necessarily involves doing good works. Peter addressed this tension in his second letter:

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10, 11 | NIV84)

The “these things” are – guess what – works! According to Peter, we make our “calling and election,” or our salvation “sure!” And if we do these good works, we will “never fall!” Is Peter teaching something different than Jude and Paul? It sounds like it, but he really isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at this and you’ll see that there really is no tension between the “works” crowd and the “grace” bunch.

Interesting characteristics of 2 Peter

Peter’s second letter is a little different from his first. One of the really interesting features of this letter is the number of time he uses certain words.

• There are 10 references to right, righteousness, and righteous;
• There are 17 references to knowledge and understanding;
• There are 16 references to Jesus Christ;
• There are 5 calls to remember.

What this shows us is what was foremost on Peter’s mind. Christians need to be righteous and live righteously. We can do this using the knowledge we gain from learning the right doctrines in Scripture, and paying attention to the example of Jesus Christ. When we remember what we’ve been taught and what the Lord has saved us from, we should want to live righteous lives in spite of the sin all around us. Perhaps the best verse that summarizes the overall teaching of this short letter is this one:

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17, 18 | NIV84)

Sufficient for Life and Godliness

This letter was written near the end of Peter’s life. Some scholars feel like Peter wrote it as a kind of farewell message to buck up Christians; to encourage them to stay the course of faith and not be lured away by a new wave of false teaching.

Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours: Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Peter 1:2, 3 | NIV84)

He’s writing to primarily Gentile believers who had received the same faith he and Jewish believers received; their new faith was just “as precious as ours.” This represents a bit of change for Peter. His first letter was addressed to suffering Jewish Christians who needed to be encouraged while in the midst of trials and tribulations. Here, his readers were Gentiles who may not have been suffering the same kind of persecution, but may have been tempted to give up on their faith and go back to the kind lives they have before.

“Grace and peace” are key components of salvation, neither of which may be obtained or experienced apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Peter wished both “grace” and “peace” be multiplied in the lives of his readers. That makes sense; those are wonderful blessings from God, and who wouldn’t want friends to have more of a good thing? But Peter adds a surprising word: knowledge; and it’s very significant. The Gentiles to whom Peter wrote this letter were being tricked into believing destructive false teachings from those who claimed to have a true knowledge of God and Christ, but who lived very immoral lives. “Knowledge” was probably one of their buzz words; they claimed to have a supernatural knowledge nobody else had. Peter, for his part, wasn’t afraid to talk about what TRUE knowledge of God brings into one’s life: grace and peace. We receive both of those blessings at our conversion, but they grow and multiply the more we read Scripture and seek to understand it. The Christian life is all about growth, not standing still, and growth is completely dependent on knowing more and more about God and Christ. And as the believer acquires more and more of that kind of knowledge, grace and peace will flow like crazy into his life.

Promises Plus Work

As Christians, we get so much from God. It really is astounding when you stop and give some thought to all that you received when you confessed Christ as Savior. We have tremendous blessings and promises from God for both this life now and our lives into the future. But wet-blanket-Peter slaps us upside the head with a big dose of reality.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith… (2 Peter 1:5a | NIV84)

The phrase, “for this very reason,” points us back to verse 3:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 | NIV84)

God has given us everything necessary to live the Christian life, so we have no excuse to sit back and be lazy. God’s amazing grace – the grace we sing about all the time – demands that we exert an effort to “do our part” to add to what God so graciously provided for free. In other words, because of everything God did for us, we need to do more. As one Bible scholar has noted,

The Christian life is like the use of power steering on a car. The engine provides the power for the steering, but the driver must actually turn the wheel.

He’s spot on. God has given us all the power needed to steer our lives, but first we must turn the wheel. In a very real  sense, each Christian determines not only the quality of his life, but also the course of it.

Just what are the things believers should add to their faith? There are seven in all that Peter mentions. There are more, but we’ll stick with his list. They’re all found verses 5 to 7:

add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. (2 Peter 1:5b – 7 | NIV84)

Virtue (or goodness) vs. 5

To faith, believers must add virtue, or moral excellence. As we have noted, the Christian life begins with faith and is carried on with faith – without faith nobody can please God. But to our faith we must add “virtue” or “goodness.” What good is it to possess all this faith yet be a miserable, cantankerous, morally challenged, cranky old cuss nobody can get along with? Christians should strive to be, simply put, decent, kind people who care.

Knowledge, vs. 5

But at the same time, faith is not blind or esoteric in nature. To faith, we must add some knowledge; that is, knowledge of God. The foundational idea underpinning Peter’s philosophy is that we will be living in obedience to God and His will, and therefore, we need knowledge of that, which is essentially knowledge of God Himself, as revealed in His Word. This kind of knowledge has nothing to do things we may learn in school or other places, and is not worldly in origin:

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. (1 Peter 1:14 | NIV84)

Self-control, vs. 6

Faith and knowledge are both key, vital parts of our lives, but those in and of themselves are not near enough. We need to know how to use what we’ve learned; there must be a common sense connection between knowledge and conduct. James, in his letter tackled this issue by saying:

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (James 4:17 | NIV84

Knowing and doing are two different things that must come together, which they do when we practice self-control. The Greek word is funny looking and funnier sounding, egkrateia, and has something to do with temperance. It’s one of the fruit of the Spirit, meaning this kind of self-control is not native to human beings; it must be put there by a work of the Holy Spirit as we allow Him to do that. “Self-control” is an adequate translation that puts across the idea that believers must not yield to their base, sinful desires. But “self-control” doesn’t go quite far enough. Perhaps “God-control” would be a little better, because it is only when we assign control of our temperament to God that we can be truly self-controlled.

Godliness, vs. 6

The Greek word here means “devout.” It’s something that nobody can manufacture; you are either devout or you aren’t. You can’t pretend to be Godly; Godliness is a virtue that comes from God Himself; He gives it to you. This is also a fruit of the Spirit, and the more we allow God to possess of us, the more like Him we will become. Godliness is simply taking on God’s attributes.

Perseverance, vs. 6

Of all the character traits believers should exhibit, I think this is the most admirable. James did, too. Here’s what he wrote about the subject:

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12 | NIV84)

The word means “to stick to it.” Essentially, a believer needs to be able to “hang on” and not give up no matter what. This, of course, takes determination and single-minded devotion to the task at hand, even if that task is simply maintaining one’s faith during difficult periods in life.

Brotherly love, vs. 7

This is a special kind of love. It’s a genuine love for the people of God. It’s not a love a believer has for those outside of the family God, though you should love them, too, as God does. But brotherly love is a love shared only with brothers and sisters in Christ.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10 | NIV84)

That’s the idea Peter is getting at, and it’s a unique feature of the church that people outside seem to be most attracted to. Love, honor, and respect are in short supply in the world, and when the lost see them manifested within the a local church, it’s something they want.

Love, vs. 7

The love that exists between members of the Body of Christ comes from the Greek word philadelphia. But there is another kind of love that we need to add to philadelphia, and that’s agape love. It’s a much deeper love – it’s the God-love that is unconditional and unearned. It is the highest form of love and ought to mark the Christian lifestyle.

The results

Peter tells us that when these virtues are working in our life, four results will immediately follow:

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:8-11 | NIV84)

In case you don’t see them, the four results are:

• Increased fruitfulness.
• A proper perspective – the ability to see afar off.
• An assured perseverance. In other words, these virtues won’t keep you saved, but they will enable you “keep the faith.”
• A guaranteed welcome into heaven.

Peter is nothing of not practical. He knows that if we do not add to our faith, we will become idle, and as we read in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee:

Idleness is the root of mischief.

Even our Lord understood the importance of keeping busy with the good work:

Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 | NIV84)

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Peter and Jude, Part 3

How can you tell if somebody is a “follower of Jesus Christ?” Is it because they and other people call them a “Christian?” Is it because they go to church? Is it because they wear a cross? How can you tell? Peter tells us:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21 | NIV84)

That’s it. A “follower of Jesus Christ” is one who follows in Christ’s steps; He learns from Christ’s example and then lives accordingly. By necessity that means following Christ will change a person’s life. For some, the changes will be drastic, and for others not so much, but every follower of Christ lives a changed life.

That’s the basis of this quick study. Let’s take a look at what kind of changes take place in a person’s life when they make the decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

Living blamelessly

Throughout 1 Peter 2, Peter wrote about the practical implications of one’s salvation, demonstrating that a believer’s new relationship with Christ would impact his existing relationships with the government, his employer, and his family. Being a Christian should make a person a better citizen, a better employee, and a better family member. In chapter three, Peter continues this line of thought by giving similar exhortations of a more general type. In all, Peter writes about five things a Christian should have going on in their lives.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. (1 Peter 3:8 | NIV84)

First, in verse 8, there’s this:

live in harmony with one another…

Christians are to “live in harmony with one another.” That sounds so easy, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s hard to get along with certain people. Disagreements easily arise when two people talk together for just a few minutes. What does Peter have in mind here? Simply put, the character of a believer is determined and revealed by the things that are foremost in his mind. As far as Jesus was concerned, His followers should be united in a common goal and common interests. That doesn’t mean that Christians should always agree with each other on every single issue in life. But it does mean that as followers of Jesus Christ, our minds should be controlled by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Paul had a similar thought when he wrote to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:5 | NIV84)

All believers should hold the same attitudes about things as did Jesus. Other translations refer to this as “having the mind of Christ.” His mind – His attitudes – serve as examples for us to follow. Essentially, that means that we need to adopt a Biblical worldview; a worldview that frequently, though not always, runs contrary to a secular worldview. In order to accomplish this, believers need to know the Word of God and need to follow Christ’s example.

Second, believers are to be sympathetic, also in verse 8. This means that Christians should have an active compassion for each other. In fact, the Greek word really means “suffering together.” That means Christians ought not to be selfish. What affects one believer should affect all believers.

Third, still in verse 8, Christians should love as brothers. It’s not that we form a brotherhood when we confess Christ, it’s that we become members of one big family: The family of God. Think about how you get along with your mom and dad, or your siblings. Surely you don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Surely you have your disagreements. But in the end, you would probably give your life if it meant saving a member of your family. That’s the idea Peter is trying to get across using the phrase, “love as brothers.”

Fourth, believers need to be compassionate. The Greek word carries with it the idea of being “kindhearted,” to be “sensitive to the needs” of other believers. Christians should never be afraid to show genuine affection to each other.

Fifth, followers of Jesus should be humble. This kind of humility has to do with being humble in spirit – it’s the same kind of humility that characterized Jesus. Humility is a big thing in the Bible, where it paints a humble person as one who sees himself as weak or dependent upon God, one who is a finite being whose existence depends on the God he serves.

Those simple characteristics should be obvious in every believer’s life. Next, Peter tells his readers how to manifest them.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9 | NIV84)

That, of course, is exactly opposite to our natural response: We strike when stuck. But because our lives have been changed, we won’t do that. To retaliate is not the Biblical answer. Jesus taught:

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44 | NIV84)

When Peter wrote that we should “bless” those who hurt us, the Greek word he used suggests that we speak well of those speaking evil of us. In other words, we treat them opposite to the way they treat us.

He then quotes from Psalm 34, which gives the believer certain guidelines to follow if he wants to live a life full of meaning and purpose.

Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:10 – 12 | NIV84)

In all, there are three things a believer must do. First, he must keep his tongue from evil and lips from deceitful speech. If you want to live a good life and love the life you’re living, never say words calculated to hurt another; never say anything tainted with falsehood. If you do, in the end you will regret it.

Second, believers must turn from evil and do good. There’s more going on in those six words than meets the eye. Doing evil takes planning; most of the time we don’t accidentally do wrong. Therefore, if you want to live a worthwhile life, instead of planning ways to sin, plan ways to do good things.

Last, we must seek peace and pursue it. This doesn’t mean Christians are to be passively sitting around letting fascists steamroll over them. What it does mean is this: We will live disciplined lives; we won’t say things that tear people down; we don’t repay evil with evil; we don’t run around insulting people we don’t like. Instead, we will be peacemakers; we will find peaceful solutions to arguments or disagreements.

Peter uses the rest of Psalm 34 as a reason to live this way. First, God is well aware of everything going on in our lives. Everything. Because of that, He is attentive to our prayers and ready to help us. But second, God is steadfastly against all who do evil. He will deal with evildoers in His own way and it won’t be pleasant. That’s reason enough to abstain from retaliating in kind!

Suffering is no problem

Then Peter askes a rhetorical question:

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? (1 Peter 3:13 | NIV84)

The cynic in me cries out, “Anybody!” And I’d be right. Plenty of do-gooders have been harmed or killed over the centuries since Peter wrote verse 13. Look at all the missionaries who became martyrs! But it’s verse 14 that’s important:

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14 | NIV84)

It’s important but paradoxical. If you are suffering because of your faith, you should consider yourself “blessed?” Really? Peter is not suggesting you should be thrilled with the prospect of losing your job because of your faith or with being lied about because somebody wants to cause your problems on account of your faith. The idea here is “privilege.” Jesus suffered because of who He was and what He believed, so if the same thing is happening to you, you’re doing something right. Something Paul wrote to the Romans makes this idea of suffering a bit more palatable:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18 | NIV84)

Then there’s this bit over in 2 Thessalonians 1 –

Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. (2 Thessalonians 1:4 – 7a | NIV84)

The unpleasantness a Christian goes through because he is a Christian prepares him for what lies ahead. God, as any good parent would do, allows His children to pass through difficult times to teach them discipline; to toughen them up. Neither Peter nor Paul has in mind suffering because of misdeeds, but suffering for living right.

Keep in mind that Peter wrote to suffering Christians. Suffering for doing wrong is easy to wrap our minds around, but not so suffering for doing good! It’s a challenge to accept the very notion. It’s funny that this Biblical teaching on suffering has been in the Bible for 2000 years yet even the most seasoned saint seems surprised by it to the point that they try to avoid this kind of suffering!

It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17 | NIV84)

It may well be that suffering for doing good is God’s will. Doing good, by the way, is rarely an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances. When suffering touches our lives, God uses it for good:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, a who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 | NIV84)

That kind of insight is usually only seen in hindsight. That’s why it’s helpful to know the Bible. Joseph, in hindsight, realized the truthfulness of what Peter and Paul taught. Here was a young man who had risen to the heights of Egyptian politics and was used by God to rescue his entire family from drought and starvation. But all that was possible only because of what his nasty brothers did to him.

You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20 | NIV84)

This is God’s amazing grace in action. When we choose to serve Christ and devote our lives to living for God with Christ as our example, the Lord promises to use everything for our benefit.

Peter and Jude, Part 2

What does it mean to be “a citizen?” For all the kerfuffle in the media, citizenship is still an important thing and there are some things a naturalized citizen can do that an alien or even a Green Card holder cannot. I went through the citizenship process years ago and I can tell you it was an expensive (very expensive, truth be told), intrusive, inconvenient, ordeal that ended up in a Federal courtroom with yours truly, along with 25 other immigrants, taking the oath of citizenship. I had been living and working in America for 13 years before I applied for citizenship. I had been obeying the laws of the land, filing income tax forms, and participating in many the things a citizen enjoys, all the while holding a mere Green Card (which is sort of pinkish nowadays).

As a citizen, suddenly I had more privileges than I imagined I would have. I knew that to vote I would have to become a legal citizen, but now I can’t be deported. I can now sponsor family members to bring them here. I can apply for all kinds of federal benefits (I wouldn’t, but I could), I can have a federal job (no thanks), I can run for public office (no way!), and I can get a passport. So, there are all kinds of benefits of being a citizen.

Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven because we are born again. We may be living here on earth, but our citizenship is in Heaven and we enjoy the benefits (or blessings) of our Heavenly citizenship and we have certain responsibilities, too.

Chosen

In 1 Peter 1:23, we read a verse that contrasts perishable (earthly) seed with imperishable (spiritual) seed:

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23 | NIV84)

We Christians have been born of imperishable seed – of spiritual seed – making us spiritual people, not carnal or worldly people. In chapter 2 Peter keeps up the contrast by using the Temple in Jerusalem as his example.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4, 5 |NIV84, read 2:4 – 8)

Through Jesus Christ (the living stone), and our new relationship with Him, we become “living stones,” alive in Christ, built into a “spiritual house.” That’s a curious thing to say, but if we read a verse Paul wrote, it become a little clearer:

And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:22 | NIV84)

The Jews had their precious temple in Jerusalem, where they supposed God lived. But as Christians, we become the place where God lives. God lives in us as individuals and corporately. We as a group comprise a great big “dwelling” in which God lives. But we are not cold and hard or rigid like the bricks the of which the Temple was made. We are “living” or “lively” stones.

As a group we are a spiritual temple in which God dwells and as individuals we are like the Jewish priests who worked in their Temple. We as individuals have been consecrated by God and we are holy as He is holy. We function as priests, offering up our spiritual sacrifices, our very selves, as opposed to offerings of animals. Our spiritual sacrifices are automatically acceptable to God because they are offered through Jesus Christ, who is our great High Priest.

You and I have been “chosen” by God to become holy people. When we became Christians, we received tremendous blessings that only Christians receive, but that same salvation carries with it responsibilities. Those things are briefly mentioned in the first few verses of chapter two, but essentially they form the rest of this first letter.

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1 – 3 | NIV84)

We have been chosen by God to be different from the rest of the world. God is holy – He is separated from all others – and we are to be holy, too – separated from all others by our behavior. That’s what Peter is getting at here:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9 | NIV84)

Verses 9 and 10 give us another contrast: the believer’s new, present life (verse 9) and their past (verse 10). Since God dragged us out of the darkness we were living in, we owe it to Him to start living like those living in the light. Or, put another way, because we are now God’s people, we should be proclaiming by word and deed the praises of God. Quoting Paul again, here’s his take on this:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

Imitate Christ

The question is, how do we do that? It would be nice if God made us live right, using His incredible power to force us into behaving the right way all the time. But that’s not how He works. So He allows us to the freedom to serve Him, and the easiest way to serve Him and to live right is to simply imitate Christ!

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21 | NIV84)

Peter is far cleverer than we give him credit for. Look at how he views the Christian living in the world today:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world… (1 Peter 2:11a | NIV84)

That’s the best way to introduce his topic of living good lives. Since Christians are “aliens and strangers in the world,” we don’t have to behave like the world behaves. Here are some very specific steps believers should follow in living good lives before God, the world, and each other.

Abstain from sinful desires, verse 11.

How obvious is this? Godly living must begin with giving up sin! “Sinful desires” are “fleshly lusts,” and they are always – always – going against the spiritual side of our being.

Live good lives among the pagans, verse 12.

This seems obvious, but it escapes a lot of Christians who seem to think they can live Christ-like lives when they are around their Christian friends but live like pagans when they get around their co-workers or non-Christians friends. That goes right against the notion of “holy conduct,” which is a huge theme in Peter’s letter. Our holy and honorable lives need to be obvious to all who see us. This was a big teaching of Jesus when He said this: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 | NIV84)

Silence the ignorant talk of foolish men, verse 15.

Part of this is submitting ourselves to every law of man for the Lord’s sake (verse 13). Now, keep in mind that Peter wrote this during the horrendous reign of Nero, emperor of Rome. Peter makes it clear that as believers, we should do all that we can to obey civil authorities. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should break God’s higher laws for the sake of the state. It was this same Peter who, when standing on trial before the Sanhedrin, famously said: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 | NIV) We are, after all, primarily citizens of Heaven.

Live as free people, verse 16.

Here’s another aspect of our salvation that seems to escape a lot Christians: Jesus Christ has saved us to live a life of freedom. In fact, the only truly free people on earth are Christians! Paul was big on freedom in Christ, and he wrote this:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13, 14 | NIV84)

The great freedom and liberty we have in Christ should never, ever be used as an excuse to sin. As soon as we do that, we will lose it and slip back into the slavery of sin. All our freedom in Christ needs to be tempered with love for others.

Honor all people, verse 17.

The word “honor,” timao, is also seen in Matthew 15:4 as part of Jesus’ admonition to “honor our father and mother” and to “honor the Son as we honor the Father.” It’s powerful. The mark of a true believer is that we should honor all people; we should never treat anybody shabbily or as objects for us to use and then discard.

Love the brotherhood of believers, verse 17.

The word Peter used here is agape, a love that transcends feelings and sentimentality. This love that we have for fellow believers should mark the true believer’s life. We ought to honor and respect all people, but love for other members of the Body of Christ should be obvious for all to see. John, the so-called “apostle of love,” believed this to be true and in his Gospel quoted Jesus as saying this: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34, 35 | NIV84)

Fear God, verse 17.

To “fear” God is really the greatest need of the Church, which has come to treat God with far too much casual familiarity. The Greek word Peter used is phobeomai, from which we get our word “phobia.” It means many different things, including: “to be in awe of,” “to revere or reverence,” and also “to be put in fear or fright,” and “to be afraid.” You get the idea.

Honor the king, verse 17.

We can imagine why Peter wrote this: Nero was the emporer and to dishonor him could mean losing your head! But there’s a bit more to it than that, although preserving your life or freedom is good reason to at the very least “honor” someone in political office. Here’s another one: At that time in history, many Christians were accused of treason because of their confession of and allegiance to Jesus Christ, King of the Jews. No wonder Peter advised his readers to be obvious in their honor and respect for the King.

In many cases, the laws of the land line up fairly closely to the Laws of God, and there’s nothing wrong when the government does things or passes laws that benefit all people. However, Paul expands on this idea in Romans 13, and adds a qualifier:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18 | NIV84)

There may be times when a Christian cannot live at peace with a governing authority. When that happens, he must remain faithful to God even if it means dishonoring or disrespecting the king, or any governing authority, for that matter.

Living as a citizen of Heaven is the most rewarding life a person can live. It’s not always easy. It requires wisdom and discernment and determination. But God promises to guide and give us that wisdom and discernment and even the power to do so.

Peter and Jude, Part 1

Peter wrote two letters that we know of and Jude wrote one. In the world of New Testament epistles, Paul gets all the press but Peter and Jude had some very significant things to say to Christians. And these three letters are very similar, and because of that, they are frequently studied together.

We’ll begin our look at these letters by looking at what Peter had to say about “hope.” Robert Schuller, who pastored his Crystal Cathedral for an astounding 55 years, had this to say about “hope”:

Let your hope, not your hurts, shape your future.

That sounds good, but it only works when your “hope” is built on the right foundation. I prefer what Mote had to say about the topic:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

And then there’s what Peter said:

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… (1 Peter 1:3 | NIV84)

Born again to hope

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:1, 2 | NIV84)

Peter was an interesting man who had an interesting career. He was a fisherman who had been called by Jesus Christ to become a “fisher of men.” Doremus Hayes, theologian, once described Peter as being: “…a likeable man…a hasty man…a going man…a loyal man…a “rock” man…a growing man…the Apostle of Hope.” He was certainly all those things at various times in his life and career.

The recipients of this letter are described as “God’s elect” by Peter. The Biblical doctrine of “election” bothers some Christians and has been a source of conflict among Bible scholars for generations. The Bible teaches “election.” In fact, you can find three kinds of Biblical election, according to Benjamin Field:

• The election of people to perform certain kinds of service;
• The election of nations or groups of people to receive religious blessings;
• A personal election of people to be the children of God and the heirs of eternal glory.

The third form of “election” is the one Peter is referring to. But this “election” of some to salvation does not exclude others from this blessing. God’s election and predestination are tremendous provisions and blessings for all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not an arbitrary predetermination of those who can believe. All who confess Christ become the “elect,” living with the realization that God will enable them to live victoriously on earth and enter eternity to stand before the Lord as His chosen.

That’s the foundation of the hope Peter’s readers had, and it should be foundation of your hope, too. Peter was writing to Christians living in horrible conditions. Although Nero had yet to begin his persecution of Christians, animosity toward them was growing in intensity. If any people needed some encouragement and to be reminded of the hope they have in Christ, it was the people to whom this letter was written.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3 – 5 | NIV84)

The “living hope” of the believer is based on his personal relationship with Jesus Christ – the living Savior. The hope of these believers, living in tumultuous, uncertain times, was in the One who triumphed over His circumstances; He rose from the dead. That’s not an insignificant declaration. We, as Christians, have a living hope because our hope is in a living Savior!

But that hope we share with Peter’s readers is also in the fact that we are part of God’s family, and are therefore heirs to the glorious inheritance of God! Everything He has is ours. This would have been a big deal to Peter’s readers, many of whom had lost or would lose everything as the heat of persecution got dialed up. The state may be able to take your home and property, but what you get from God can never be taken from you! You may lose your job and your family may abandon you, but what God has in store for you is permanent. Being faithful in this life guarantees your full inheritance. Paul wrote something very similar to the Ephesians:

Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13b – 14 | NIV84)

The basis of our hope

That the basis of our hope shouldn’t be in our circumstances is a thought that Peter expanded upon in this group of verses:

These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:7 – 9 | NIV84)

The “these” are all the problems his readers are facing because of their faith. Peter provides an invaluable insight into how God works. The trials and tribulations that his readers were facing, and indeed the trials and tribulations we face, too, were not unknown to God, nor were they punishment from Him, nor were they arbitrary! They served a very distinct purpose: to strengthen their faith in Christ. That’s right; those things we try so hard to avoid; those unpleasant things we plan our lives around escaping, are the very things God uses to make us better Christians! James thought about this very issue and came to the exact same conclusion Peter did:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2 – 4 | NIV84)

As you read what Peter wrote, you realize the power of our salvation. We believe in a living Savior! Ours is not a dead philosopher, whose philosophies couldn’t preserve His own life! Our Savior is the One, the only One in fact, who rose from the dead. Through the power that raised Him from dead, He has reached out and forward in time and space to save us, as we place our faith in Him. From time to time, hard times may come into our lives, but our lives are being actively preserved by that same Resurrection power to the point where what is meant to harm us – what would do irreparable harm to the unbeliever – does us good, making us stronger and wiser and far more valuable to God.

Our salvation is so special and so spectacular, that angels are fascinated with God’s work in man.

Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:12b | NIV)

That’s right. The salvation that we so often take for granted and abuse is so unique and so phenomenal that angels, those eternal spirit beings with amazing powers, are desperate to understand it. They can’t possibly because they can’t experience it. Only sinful human beings who have placed their faith in Christ and have had their sins forgiven can. Luke put it this way:

…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10 | NIV84)

Only man can know the salvation God provides through Jesus Christ. Johnson Oatman, a prolific hymn-writer who wrote some 3,000 hymns in his lifetime, captured the thought perfectly in his hymn, “Holy, Holy Is What the Angels Sing”:

Holy, holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of Heaven ring;
But when I sing redemption’s story, they will fold their wings,
For angels never felt the joys that our salvation brings.

Now would be a good time to ask yourself the question: What have the angels learned about MY salvation by observing MY life?

Transformed by hope into a holy person

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13 – 16 | NIV84)

As the Bard wrote, “Ay, there’s the rub.” God did so much for us Christ, but we have a responsibility – an obligation – to live holy lives. Uncertainty, difficult times, trials, and tribulations must not cause believers to give up and go back to their old ways of living, from which they’ve been saved.

Peter’s first bit of advice, “prepare your minds,” tells us something very important. The key to living a victorious Christian life is having and maintaining the right mental attitude. It all starts between our ears; by not allowing our minds to dwell too long on our circumstances, good or bad. Success in the Christian life depends on our intellect working with our moral and spiritual faculties. Paul knew the connection between the mind and the quality of our lives ran deep:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 | NIV84)

Changing our habitual way of thinking is up to us; God won’t do it for us. We wish He would, though. It’s not an easy thing to do. But if we’ll honor God, we must. According to what Peter wrote, we ought to be living and thinking as if Christ could return at any moment. The incredible privilege and glorious future of “the elect” demands that we adopt the “pattern” revealed to us: God is holy and we must be holy.

That phrase, “be holy in all you do,” has been translated by J.B. Phillips as:

Be holy in every department of your lives.

What is in the heart will be manifested in how you live your life. True holiness is not revealed in a church service where you are surrounded by other believers, but in how you live daily. True holiness is related to all civic, personal, religious, private, and public aspects of life. It is demonstrated in all your relationships. Holiness, morality, and ethics are all intertwined and cannot be separated because true ethical conduct is patterned after God, and He is our pattern.

Peter quoted from the Old Testament book of Leviticus to proof text what he wrote about the imperative to be holy:

I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44, 45 | NIV84)

The reason God wants us to be holy is because He Himself is holy. It is His supreme purpose for His people to be as He is: Holy. It is part of our election; our calling. We can’t be holy simply by doing things. It requires our minds being reigned in so that we begin to see life as God does. We become holy because our God is Holy and when we are in a relationship with Him, we become like Him.

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:4 | NIV84)

Holiness is God’s choice for the moral condition of His people. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Roy Nicholson makes a valuable observation:

Because of God’s nature it is right that man should resemble Him. He is the Creator. Because of man’s nature it is possible for him to resemble God. The possibility of being holy determines our duty to be holy.

 

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 6

Time. It’s the one thing we all have; it’s the one thing we all take for granted. We waste it, yet we wish we had more of it. Sometimes, time drags on and on, but other times it flies. Time. We’ll all get to the day when we’ll do anything for just a little bit more of it. Which is sad, because so many of us spend our time killing it. As Thoreau wrote,

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I dare say there many of us who, probably in our youth, did much injury to eternity as we frittered away the hours, killing each moment not realizing there would come a day when we’d be desperate to get them back. But, alas, once you use up an hour, you can’t get it back. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t get more than 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day. Or can you? Once upon a time, there was a man who managed to make time stand still. It’s never happened again, but it did happen once. And that’s our weird Bible story: Joshua’s long day.

It all began with a political coalition of five kings, allied against God’s people. You just know things will end badly for those five kings; going against God’s people is never a good idea, but that never stops some people from trying.

A peace treaty leads to war

If you know your Hebrew history, you know that by Joshua 10, the Israelites had finally begun to take the Promised Land, as per the Lord’s instructions. Their 40 years of wandering around the desert was over, and under Joshua’s able leadership, the land promised to them centuries before was theirs for the taking. But nobody said it would be easy! You probably noticed this in your life: Serving Him isn’t all sunshine and roses. Being obedient to the Lord’s will isn’t always easy, not because His will is all that difficult, but because those around you won’t always like the direction your life will take. Often, though not always, following God’s will can take you away from the will of others.

God was fighting for Israel as she pressed into Canaan, so all they had was success. Of course, this scared the local kings, who were afraid of losing their kingdoms to Israel. One of those frightened kings was the king of Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, this is the first time we read of Jerusalem in the Bible. His name was Adoni-Zedek, a name that means, “the Lord of righteousness.” His kingdom, Jerusalem, was formerly known as “Jebus” because it was where all the Jebusites lived. Of the Jebusites, this was said:

This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. (Joshua 3:10 | TNIV)

Israel was doing just that, and they were closing in on the Jubusites.

Now Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard that Joshua had taken Ai and totally destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and that the people of Gibeon had made a treaty of peace with Israel and had become their allies. (Joshua 10:1 | TNIV)

It was that peace treaty with Gibeon that caused Adoni-Zedek to create the five-kingdom alliance to stop Israel.

The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.”. (Joshua 10:6 | TNIV)

Gibeon was a huge city, although it didn’t have a king. The fact that this large city-state would defect and join Israel would send signals to other city-states that the only way to survive Israel’s invasion would be to join them. This was what terrified Adoni-Zedek, who quickly created a powerful alliance that, as far as he was concerned, would stop Israel in its tracks. He reasoned that punishing Gibeon would stop others from signing peace treaties with Israel.

The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.”. (Joshua 10:6 | TNIV)

Looking at the Gibeonite situation, Christians can learn a some lessons. First, when people identify themselves with God (or even God’s people), opposition arises. Our Lord understood this:

Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22 | TNIV)

The second thing we can learn from these Gibeonites was how they confronted this potentially devastating situation. In fact, they did three brilliant things:

• They unashamedly cried out to God’s people for help. All their other friends had turned against them.
• They showed that they had a very simple faith in God as One who had greater power than all the kings of the Amorites that dwell in the mountains. This simple faith was based upon the reports they had received of God’s miraculous work on behalf of Israel.
• And finally, they accepted the ready response to their need. From Gilgal came Joshua and all the people of war with him, and the Gibeonites discovered that identification with God’s people may lead to problems, but being on God’s side was much better than they ever thought possible.

The long day

Even as Joshua prepared to fight for the Gibeonites, the Lord reassured him of certain victory:

The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you.”. (Joshua 10:8 | TNIV)

That’s not a new promise from God; He had reminded Joshua many times not to be afraid, that victory was guaranteed. But there are two sentences in verse 8 and we’d better read that second one and talk about it. Yes, Joshua had been commanded by God to “not be afraid of them.” The “them,” of course, refers to the five-king confederacy and their combined military might. Any sane man would be fearful facing that, but the man who trusts in God is the most sane man. But it’s that second sentences that gives pause: “Not one of them will be able to withstand you.” In other words, victory was assured but Joshua and his army would have work to do; God’s people would have to do their part.

Many of God’s promises are just like that. God promises to do such and such for us, but we have to put forth a good-faith effort and the blessing comes as God takes our – sometimes – pathetic attempts and makes them more than adequate to the situation. Of course, salvation isn’t like that. We have no “part to play” in God saving us. But once we are part of His family, we have responsibilities; God won’t do everything for us.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands. (Psalm 90:17 | TNIV)

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. (Deuteronomy 28:1, 2 | TNIV)

Deuteronomy 28 was written specifically for the Jews, but the precedent is there for all believers. Accepting Christ as your Savior is obeying God, and therefore you qualify to have God’s blessings “come on you.” That English phrase comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning, “over power,” giving us a picture of two people running. “Over power” means that the person behind you is coming after you with greater speed and will soon pass you. God’s word is clear! As you journey through life, living in obedience to God and His will, there are blessings running after you and eventually you will be literally overwhelmed by those blessings! These are supernatural blessings. They are moving at a higher rate of speed than you are, and they are targeted especially for you. But the conditions have to be right. You have to do your part, just like Joshua did his.

So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his entire army, including all the best fighting men. The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you.” After an all-night march from Gilgal, Joshua took them by surprise. (Joshua 10:7 – 9 | TNIV)

That was what Joshua and his men had to do: Show up, ready to fight. It wasn’t easy, marching all the way from Gilgal to Gibeon. It was a long trip and they had to carry all their weapons of war. “Doing their part” wasn’t easy. But if God’s people wanted victory, they had to.

Verses 10 and 11 are the result of what Joshua did in verses 12 and 13:

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon. ” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. (Joshua 10:12, 13 | TNIV)

Many pages in many Bible commentaries are devoted to trying to explain how the sun could stand still. Did it really? Did the earth stand still, too? Did God halt the entire universe for the sake of His people? Verses 10 and 11 recount the results of Joshua’s prayer; the result of the sun standing still:

The Lord threw them into confusion before Israel, so Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely at Gibeon. Israel pursued them along the road going up to Beth Horon and cut them down all the way to Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them, and more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites. (Joshua 10:10, 11 | TNIV)

“Joshua’s long day” is not easily explained scientifically. And this causes skeptics to mock and make fun of what they believe to be a fantasy. The fact is,  nobody can prove that the sun stood still. Then again, nobody can prove that love exists, either. How do you know when somebody loves you? You just know. You can’t see the love that exists between a mother her and children, but nobody doubts that it exists. And only a fool would question “Joshua’s long day.”

We must all realize that He who made the laws of nature has a right to use them. He who used hailstones as weapons of mass destruction against the enemies of His people can certainly use light and darkness to accomplish His purpose. God’s sovereignty over nature enables Him to support His spiritual kingdom by the use of the physical world. The Psalmist emphasized that the whole visible universe exists for spiritual ends.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. (Psalm 19:1, 2 | TNIV)

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1, 2 | TNIV)

The uniqueness of a miracle

Verse 14 serves as a kind of commentary-summary of the whole story, and we can learn a lesson from what it says, too:

There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel! (Joshua 10:14 | TNIV)

Well, of course, the Lord listens to His people all the time. God answered Joshua’s prayer in spectacular fashion, and he became as much a leader of God’s people as was Moses. The Lord did fight for Israel, after Joshua asked Him to.

This miracle has never been repeated, which is why we call it a “miracle.”  A miracle by its very nature is rare. Verse 14 teaches us that God uses miracles carefully and with great reserve. He guards against man becoming dependent upon them. He insists that we depend upon Him, the miracle-working God himself, and not on the miracles themselves.

“Joshua’s long day” is a weird story that teaches Christians some very important lessons that get lost the more we try to rationalize a true miracle.

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 5

This weird Bible story is found in Genesis 38. It’s the whole chapter, and it is one weird story. Hollywood couldn’t do this story justice! It concerns some disreputable characters, immorality, deception, and all around nasty behavior. As a matter of fact, it sounds like what most of us are watching on Netflix these days. But it’s not on TV, it’s in the Bible, of all places, and it’s a weird story.

The story begins in this unassuming way:

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. (Genesis 38:1 | TNIV)

An out-of-place chapter and people God uses

At first glance, Genesis 38 seems out of place. It literally interrupts the fascinating story of Joseph. Just when his story gets interesting, we’re confronted with chapter 38 and the sordid story of Judah, one of the brothers responsible for young Joseph ending up in an Egyptian prison.

That phrase, “at that time,” should prompt you to ask the question, “At what time?” The answer is back in chapter 37.

Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:36 | TNIV)

So the events of chapter 38 are taking place during the events of chapter 39 and onward; they are occurring during Joseph’s story. And that shows us the genius of the Bible. Here in chapter 38, we see just what kind of lowlife Judah was and in the very next chapter we see the amazing character of his brother, Joseph. We see Judah, the man who never got it right, compared and contrasted with Joseph, the man who always got it right. And it would be through Judah that the Messiah would come! The Lord’s choices are, many times, surprising. He frequently chooses to work through people you and I wouldn’t want anything to do with. Just a quick glance through a list of Bible characters reveals some very interesting facts about its “heroes of the faith.”

Noah. Here was man who was living during the most sinful period of earth’s history. With no Bible and no God-based religions, and no civil laws, human beings were living pretty much however they wanted. You can imagine how bad things were. But Noah is referred to as a “preacher of righteousness,” and he and his family were chosen to be the sole survivors of a world-wide judgement from God that effectively wiped out all human life. From them, the earth would be repopulated. Noah, however, was a drunkard.
Abraham. This man was already way past retirement age – and living at home with his father – when God called him to become “the father of many nations.” Abraham was a man with a backbone of jelly; he couldn’t make a decision to save his life. He was a liar and lived a life full of fear and apprehension.
Leah. Well, the Lord would use her to continue the family line, through which the Messiah would eventually come. She was so ugly, her father, Laban, had to trick Jacob into marrying her. Her name means, roughly, “wearied,” or “faint from sickness.”
Elijah. Here was one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Many miracles accompanied his ministry, yet he was suicidal.
Rahab. Sure she saved the entire nation of Israel, but she was literally a lying prostitute.
Peter. One of our Lord’s “inner circle” and the man who preached a sermon that resulted in thousands of converts. We forget sometimes that he denied Jesus three times.
Saul, who would later become Paul. He was a towering figure in the early church. He founded many churches and his letters helped shape Christian theology. He was also the man whose zealous attitude resulted in the martyrdom of uncounted followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, God chooses to use and work through the most unlikeliest of people. Judah was also an unlikely – some might say, reluctant – follower of God. Chapter 38 of Genesis is not his best moment, that’s for sure.

On the hunt

There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him. (Genesis 38:2 – 5 | TNIV)

Verse 2 adds to the stupid things Judah did during his life. While his brother, Joseph, is in Egypt, resisting the temptations of Potifer’s wife, going to prison for his trouble, yet remaining steadfast and true to God through it all, Judah takes for himself a Canaanite woman, which was completely against what God wanted. He had no business getting involved with any Canaanite, but especially a woman. Her name isn’t given, a further indication of God’s displeasure with the whole situation.

At any rate, Judah had three sons by this Canaanite woman: Er, Onan, and Shelah. For the first son, a woman named Tamar was acquired to become his wife. Er, however, was so bad that God took his life. We aren’t told what he did that got him in God’s crosshairs; his sins are irrelevant to the point of the passage. But what is relevant is Onan and his responsibility. This responsibility would later become part of the Law of Moses:

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5, 6 | TNIV)

The significance of continuing “the family name” isn’t a big deal anymore to most of us, but it was a huge deal in the Israel of Judah’s time. It was Onan’s sacred responsibility to make sure that Er – his sinful brother – was not forgotten in Israel by giving his widow a son. But the nut didn’t fall far from the tree, and because this arrangement didn’t benefit Onan in any way, he practiced an early form of birth control to make sure Tamar didn’t get pregnant.

But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9, 10 | TNIV)

The “wicked thing” that caused the Lord to take his life was not the birth control per se, it was shirking his family responsibility. It was Onan’s solemn duty to look after Tamar and to ensure that her family line continued. Without a son, Tamar would be less than nothing in that ancient culture.

We assume that Judah never knew why children had not been conceived, for only Tamar would have known the cause. As far as he was concerned, the problem must have been Tamar, and he refused to give her to his third son, the next in line.

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household. (Genesis 38:11 | TNIV)

Well, the years rolled by and Tamar remained a widow, living with her father, a disgrace in her time.

Deception

Obviously Judah, like Onan, was shirking his responsibility as far as Tamar was concerned. When his wife passed away, after a period of mourning, Judah attended a sheep-sheering festival.

When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked. “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. “Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked. He said, “What pledge should I give you?” “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. (Genesis 38:13 – 19 | TNIV)

Clearly, Tamar knew Judah very well. She knew that moral purity was not one of his virtues. And just as clearly, this wasn’t Judah’s first encounter with a prostitute. He knew exactly what to do. He handled the arrangements with all the savoir-faire of a worldly wise expert. Tamar was convinced that if she could only look like a prostitute, Judah would take things from there. And he did. He gave her tokens of good faith: a cord, a seal, and his staff. Judah negotiated terms that were acceptable to both of them. Not that Tamar had any interest in payment for her services, she was only interested in getting pregnant.

Well, the deed was done but when Judah’s servant went to find the prostitute to make good the payment, surprise, surprise! He couldn’t find her. In this verse, we get a further glimpse into the sketchy character of Judah:

So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ ” (Genesis 38:22 | TNIV)

So, everybody assumed that Tamar was a “shrine” or temple prostitute. Judah, the man whom God chose to be the direct ancestor of His Son, was willing to not just avail himself of the services of a prostitute, but those of a pagan temple prostitute! His story gets worse all the time.

The jig is up

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Wow! What a dramatic example of Numbers 32:

But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23 | TNIV)

We also see the ancient double standard here. It was perfectly alright for Judah to have engaged the services of a temple prostitute but it was not alright for her to have become pregnant by one of her customers.

The jig was up. Tamar’s plan worked to perfection. And why wouldn’t it? She knew Judah’s weaknesses and she simply exploited them. His reaction, though, is priceless:

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah. ” And he did not sleep with her again. (Gensis 38:24 – 26 | TNIV)

Through deception Tamar obtained a part in the blessing of the firstborn, but she also obtained that which Judah should have rightfully given. Shelah , the son of Judah, was of age, and Tamar should have been given to him for a wife. Thus, in the end, the continuation of the line of Judah was not due to the righteous actions of the Judah but rather lay in the hands of the “righteous” Tamar.

What do we Christians in the 21st century learn from this sordid mess?

The over-arching theme of this entire section of Genesis is divine providence. From chapter 37 to the end of the book, we see that God is at work bringing about His purposes through men and women who are actively pursuing sin. In chapters 37 and 39 and following, God is providentially at work to fulfill His promise to make the descendants of Jacob (Israel) a great and mighty nation in spite of the fact that these brothers seemed intent upon diminishing their numbers. In chapter 38 God is at work, providentially fulfilling His promise to provide a Messiah through the descendants of Judah.

All things being equal, God’s sovereign power and all-wise and loving purposes are accomplished through obedient servants. But all things are rarely equal, and when His people go their own way, God’s infinite power is channeled through unwilling, disobedient men and women, who, in spite of themselves, achieve God’s plans. They do this unknowingly and often unpleasantly.

Unfortunately, this great doctrine of God’s sovereignty is misunderstood by many Christians, who have been taught that God’s purposes can only be achieved if we are faithful and obedient. What could they possibly say about this chapter? And do you really believe that God’s purposes are contingent upon our commitment and consistency? God is not limited by our sinfulness.

In truth, the doctrine of the providence of God is one of the most profound and comforting truths in all of the Bible, because it teaches that what God says, He will do, even if I am trying my hardest to thwart Him.  Thank God that my salvation doesn’t depend on what I do or on my good intentions.  If that were the case, I’d be just another lost soul.  And thank God He is the One with the plan and the infinite resources to carry it out.

 

Weird Bible Stories, Part 4

The story of Balaam’s talking donkey is, I think, the weirdest story in the Bible. Mind you, if you can accept that a serpent spoke to Eve, I guess it isn’t a stretch to believe that a donkey spoke to Balaam. Here’s what happened:

Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times? ” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now. ” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said. (Numbers 22:28 – 30 | TNIV)

It was just an ordinary donkey that the Lord used to get the wayward prophet’s attention. God can do anything He wants to; He is God, after all. My father used to say that I was so stubborn God would have to use a two-by-four to get my attention. Thankfully that never happened to me, but the Lord did open the mouth of this animal and it spoke, which definitely got Balaa’s attention!

Setting the scene

The Israelites had all but completed their 40-year trek around the desert. You’ll recall that 40 years before, they had been about the enter the Promised Land when they rebelled against the Lord and He punished the nation by forcing them to turn around and begin a four decade sojourn through the desert until that sinful, rebellious generation died off. And here they are, about to go in and possess the Land God had given them.

But before they could do that, they had to get themselves ready. A new census had to be taken and Moses’ successor needed to be chosen. Other things needed to happen before God’s people could claim their promise of a new home, so here they sat.

Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho. (Numbers 22:1 | TNIV)

Much of what took place there is recorded in the first couple of chapters of Joshua and parts of the book of Deuteronomy. Even though God had given His people the land they were about to enter, it wouldn’t be a cake walk; they would face obstacles and difficulties. The modern Christian can well understand this. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ, with all of His power and promises available to him, certainly doesn’t eliminate all of life’s trials and problems! We wish it did, but the reality is sometimes life gets a little harder when after we confess our faith in Christ and start living for Him!

They waited and went about the business of preparing to enter the Land. Meanwhile, the people across the Jordan were very aware that the Israelites were about to make life very uncomfortable for them. In the famous story of Rahab and Hebrew spies, we learn that the citizens of Jericho were, in fact, quite terrified of the Hebrews.

We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 2:10, 11 | TNIV)

Imagine, if you can, an entire nation sitting on the border of your country, waiting to march in and take possession of it. You’b be scared too! And that’s the setting for the story of Balaam.

A prophet for hire

The first encounter

Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field. ” So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land. Balak said: “A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said. (Numbers 22:2 – 7 | TNIV)

Balak was terrified of the Hebrews, so much so that he was sure no military in the Land could come against them. With no military solution at hand, he turned to the supernatural. In sending for a “seer,” Balak was doing what was very common in his day. The ancients believed in the power of the spoken word. He truly believed that if a seer like Balaam, who was the most powerful seer/prophet in the land, pronounced a curse on Israel, it would come to pass. Talk about misplaced faith!

Or was it? Balaam was pure pagan; he was not Israelite nor was he a man of God. And yet, he addressed the Lord properly and the Lord spoke to him. But make no mistake about it, Balaam was not a good prophet gone bad or bad prophet trying become good. He was a pagan, through and through. The Lord will speak through a donkey, and He’s about to speak to this pagan. This is one of the biggest lessons – and maybe one of the most difficult to grasp – of this weird story. Yet it serves to underscore the great doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He is God, and every living thing is His creation and He can do whatever He pleases with His creation.

Balaam was a “prophet-for-hire” in the ancient world. He made a living telling people what they wanted to hear. He looked at Yahweh as just another god; just another resource he could use to make a buck.

But this time, something went wrong. Balaam accepted payment to curse Israel, but God had other plans. He spoke to this man in no uncertain terms.

But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed. “. (Numbers 22:12 | TNIV)

So, he didn’t go with them back to Balak.

The second encounter

But King Balak was desperate, so he persisted.

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me. ” That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”. (Numbers 22:18 – 20 | TNIV)

The first time Balaam did the right thing. But the second time, he ups the ante. He knows he’ll get paid more if he goes with these men back to king Balak, so instead of doing what he did the first time, he invites the men to stay the night so that he could ostensibly go and pray about it. He didn’t need to do that; the Lord had already told the prophet what to do and what not to do. So why is he going through the motions to seeking the Lord? Haven’t we all done exactly what Balaam did? We went to God, didn’t get the answer we wanted, so we kept going to back until we did? We might be able to excuse a pagan like Balaam of treating God like this, but we Christians should know better!

Then the Lord did a curious thing: He told Balaam to go back with the men; the exact opposite thing He had previously said. Why would God do that; why would God essentially go back on His word? Here we see an interesting thing: God is actually allowing a person to do something that person really wants to do, even though it’s not God’s will. He’ll do that sometimes, usually to teach that person a lesson or others a lesson. Some theologians call this “God’s permissive will,” in that He permits people to do things that may be outright sinful or things that are not really beneficial to them.

At any rate, the prophet Balaam goes back to king Balak, and it’s during the journey that Balaam has a most fascinating conversation with his donkey.

The best part of the story

The story of the talking ass is by far the best part of the Balaam’s story. And it’s a classic set-piece in which we have the Angel of the Lord, a blind seer who says what he wants, and donkey who can see the Angel and speaks at the Lord’s command! Balaam, an obviously intelligent man sees less than a dumb animal, who itself knows God is near while the human is utterly clueless.

Some readers stumble over a talking donkey, but the Lord, once again, permitted something to happen in order teach us a lesson. It’s not the Lord talking through the donkey, it’s the donkey saying the things a donkey in such a situation might say. As a matter of fact, the New Testament affirms that this incident really did happen, just as it is recorded here in Numbers.

But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:16 | TNIV)

And you have to feel sorry for the poor donkey. She tried to protect her owner not once, not twice, but three times from the drawn sword of the Angel of the Lord, only to be beaten by her owner for her trouble. This really goes to show the sad character of Balaam, the supposed prophet. Here’s a man who “speaks for God,” yet treats one of God’s creatures in such a despicable way. This man is one messed up individual, and we see God going to extraordinary lengths to get his attention. If he’ll stop long enough to listen to an ass, maybe he’ll stop long enough to listen to God.

Peter mentions Balaam’s “wrongdoing.” What was his wrongdoing? We have a hint in the way The Living Bible paraphrases these verses:

So the next morning he saddled his donkey and started off with them. But God was angry about Balaam’s eager attitude, so he sent an Angel to stand in the road to kill him. As Balaam and two servants were riding along, Balaam’s donkey suddenly saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword. She bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat her back onto the road. (Numbers 22:21 – 23 | TLB)

Balaam’s “wrongdoing” was going to see Balak, but it started with his “eager attitude.” To discover what that was, we turn to a number of other New Testament verses. Peter cautioned against “the way of Balaam:”

They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:15 | TNIV)

Jude, in his one chapter letter, warned his readers about “the error of Balaam” –

Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude, vs. 11 | TNIV)

And finally, John in Revelation, talks about “Balaam’s doctrine.”

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14 | TNIV)

God evidently considers these warnings necessary and appropriate for Christians even today, and so He preserved them in His Word. “The way of Balaam” is simply greediness; a willingness to prostitute spiritual gifts and privileges for “the wages of wickedness” (II Peter 2:14). In other words, Balaam was more than willing to preach something contrary to God’s Word for his own personal gain.

“The error of Balaam” was evidently his willingness to compromise his own standards of morality and truth in order “greedily” to accommodate those of his pagan patrons (Jude 11). Balaam was willing to tell people what they wanted to hear, even though it went against what he knew to be true, and he was able to change his beliefs on a dime to match those of his employers.

Finally, “the doctrine of Balaam,” which even in John’s day was already infiltrating the church, was to use his own teaching authority to persuade God’s people that it was all right for them to compromise God’s standards of behavior, even “to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14) with their idol-worshipping enemies.

This sad sack Balaam stands for all eternity as an example of a worldly, wishy-washy, calculating believer in God who would do just about anything to further his himself and his interests. Jesus didn’t have Balaam in mind when He spoke these words, but they certainly apply to him and people like him:

And how does a man benefit if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process? For is anything worth more than his soul? (Mark 8:36, 37 | TLB)

No wonder Micah (the faithful prophet) urged God’s people to “remember” Balaam and his tragic end (Numbers 31:8).

Among those killed were all five of the Midianite kings-Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. Balaam, the son of Beor, was also killed. (Numbers 31:8 | TLB)

 

 

 

 


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