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Master of Multiplication, Part 4

We serve a God who gives and gives and gives. He never stops giving to His people. And His gifts to us are “magical.” Without exception, every gift God gives us grows – multiplies – before our very eyes! So far in this series, we’ve looked at these things that God has given us:

• Life and breath to everything, meeting every need. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and satisfies every need there is. (Acts 17:25b | TLB)
• Opportunities of service in which He multiplies the good that we do. The person who does the planting or watering isn’t very important, but God is important because He is the one who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7 | TLB)
• Victory in this life; victory of death, hell, and the grave, just like Jesus. How we thank God for all of this! It is he who makes us victorious through Jesus Christ our Lord! (1 Corinthians 15:57 | TLB)

This time, we’ll look at something else that God gives Christians. It goes without saying that all the gifts God gives people are given to HIS people only, not just anybody.

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 | TLB)

God gives His people wisdom. The Living Bible describes God’s blessing of wisdom as “bountiful,” and that’s a good way to describe the way God blesses His people. God never gives His people “just enough” of anything, but always a “bountiful supply,” and in this case, the blessing is a bountiful supply of wisdom. But there’s a catch. So before you start thinking you’re wiser than anybody else just because you’re a Christian, let’s take a look at what James was really saying.

James and his letter

This letter is a little different than other New Testament letters, but it is still a letter even though at times it feels like a sermon transcript. It is a letter, and it was written to Jews who had been scattered all over the world.

From: James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To: Jewish Christians scattered everywhere. Greetings! (James 1:1 | TLB)

These Jewish Christians were “scattered everywhere” after Stephen’s death when the Jerusalem church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, and as far away as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. It was leave town quickly and strike out to destinations unknown or stay in Jerusalem and face the same fate that Stephen faced: martyrdom. Many of the recipients of this letter were living in poverty or barely scraping by. Some of them were merchants and businessmen, but all the readers of James’ letter were facing hardship of varying degrees.

Though the New Testament names a number of men named “James,” many scholars believe that the James who wrote this letter was James, the half brother of Jesus. If this was the case, James was late to the party. He wasn’t a believer until Jesus appeared to him after the Resurrection. He doesn’t refer to himself as Jesus’ brother, but a servant. We don’t why he didn’t. Perhaps it was an act of humility. Or perhaps James regarded his primary relationship to Jesus as spiritual, not physical. Regardless of the reason, when we read his letter, James’ authority comes out clearly and his status as a church leader is unmistakable and undeniable.

Testing of your faith

Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete. (James 1:2 – 4 | TLB)

James wrote this letter to Jewish Christians who had fled their homes, who had been driven from their jobs and possessions and all they knew. They had become “strangers in a strange land,” many exploited by the rich, dragged into court, and slandered against just because they believed in and professed the name of Jesus.

To these people, the answer to James’ opening question was obvious: Of course! Of course their lives were full of difficulties and temptations! What a question to ask. And if James were to ask you that question, no doubt you’d answer the same, incredulous way. When have Christians not felt the pressures of the world closing in around them? When you feel those pressures, what do you do? Try to escape them? When you can’t control the incidents in your life, how do you cope? James, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, may have addressed persecuted Jews of his time, but in reality he is reaching out to all believers throughout the centuries.

His advice when the pressure cooker of your life gets turned up: “be happy.” Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but it is inspired advice and we’d be wise to heed it. Other translations put it this way: “consider it pure joy” when the tough times come. Strange advice, especially coming from a man who is safe and sound back in his church. Was James out touch with real life? Was he that ignorant of what real life is like for these people? Was he like the typical pastor who writes his sermons all day unaware of the suffering people are enduring?

Actually, James was well-aware of what people were going through. He had witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen, after all, and was living in and with the believers who chose to stay behind in Jerusalem. He knew his job as a pastor – to speak (or write) words of encouragement based on spiritual principles. James wasn’t the only one to give this piece of particular pastoral advice to people experiencing unending and unpleasant stress:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us-they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. (Romans 5:3, 4 | TLB)

So be truly glad! There is wonderful joy ahead, even though the going is rough for a while down here. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it-and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return. (1 Peter 1:6, 7 | TLB)

Can you detect a pattern here? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see how God wants His people to deal with the pressures of life. Don’t freak out. Don’t get angry. Don’t shout and stomp and blame your spouse/kids/car/job/co-workers/government. Instead, behave in a way totally opposite to the expected way! J.B. Phillips in his translation makes the pill James is asking you to swallow even bigger:

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!

Treat your trials and temptations as “friends.” They aren’t your friends, but treat them as such because those things you hate so much are the very things God will use for your benefit, if you’ll let Him.

Talk about a tough assignment! But even though James wrote the words, this is really God’s counsel to us. The problems of the Christian life have a purpose. In ways we couldn’t possibly comprehend, they are the means by which we grow into the likeness of God. Just as an athlete can find joy in the rigor of his training as long as he keeps the winning of the race in view, so the Christian can find joy, even in trials, when he sees those trials as a means of achieving Christlikeness.

What we need the most

In the midst of life’s trying situations, the one thing we lack the most is the one thing God promises to give us if we’d only ask Him:

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 | TLB)

That’s the wisdom God promises to give: Wisdom to see with perfect perspective – crystal clarity – in the midst of trials. Rather than seeking to avoid those problems at all costs, ask God to show you what’s really going on! Ask God to tell you what you should do next. God won’t get annoyed with you; He knows what you lack and He’s ready to give you the wisdom you need. But, this is one of those blessings you have to ask for. Why ask? God wants His people to learn what it means to depend on Him.

Something significant about what James wrote here was NOT what he wrote. James did NOT advise his suffering readers to pray and ask God to remove the sources of persecution, but for wisdom in the midst of it. In other words, the norm for the believer is a life of difficulties. Really, that’s the norm for every human being. But Christians have an edge over their unsaved counterparts. God tells us “why” bad things are happening to us and “how” we are to cope with them. That’s a blessing of incredible proportions. And it’s a blessing only available to believers because this kind of wisdom doesn’t come from experiences or natural education. It comes from the Holy Spirit in the believer. Jesus talked about this:

You men who are fathers-if your boy asks for bread, do you give him a stone? If he asks for fish, do you give him a snake? If he asks for an egg, do you give him a scorpion? Of course not! “And if even sinful persons like yourselves give children what they need, don’t you realize that your heavenly Father will do at least as much, and give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for him?”. (Luke 11:11 – 13 | TLB)

That’s really what James is getting at here. This wisdom is part and parcel of the gift of the Holy Spirit. So, part of the catch involving this blessing of wisdom is that you have to ask God for it. And then there’s this:

But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer. (James 1:6 – 8 | TLB)

To me, those three verses are scary. Who has never doubted when they’ve prayed? But there’s an incident in Mark’s Gospel that puts this doubting issue into perspective:

Oh, have mercy on us and do something if you can.” “If I can?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if you have faith.” The father instantly replied, “I do have faith; oh, help me to have more!”. (Mark 9:22b – 24 | TLB)

Maybe that’s how most of us need to begin our prayers. Since we’re asking God for help, obviously we have some faith, otherwise we wouldn’t be asking in the first place! But we need more. The good news is God will give us the faith we need. He sees the earnestness of our hearts when we pray. He knows our weaknesses; our unsound minds. And He has made provision for those things. He gives us the faith to receive all the wisdom we need to make sense of what’s going on in our lives. All we have to is ask.

God, the Master of Multiplication, gives us all that we need to live, not under the circumstances of our lives, but on top of them.

 

 

 

 

Pentecost Sunday Thoughts

We call it “Pentecost Sunday,” but where did it come from? While it’s not found anywhere in the Bible, it does celebrate a Biblical event. As a matter of fact, Pentecost is actually a two-fer. It’s a prominent feast in the Jewish calendar, celebrating the giving of the Law on Sinai, and it is also part of the Christian liturgical year commemorating the giving of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Some people call it Whit Sunday, Whitsun, or Whit, especially in the United Kingdom. It always falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Pentecost means “fiftieth day”: it is celebrated 50 days from Easter Sunday (including Easter Sunday in the counting), hence its name.

It’s always interested me that many Churches seem to love celebrating Biblical events rather than taking them seriously. If you look at the kinds of churches that make a big deal of Pentecost Sunday, with their banners, special hymns, and such, rarely if ever do they ever allow the Holy Spirit free reign in their services. Just an observation with a little criticism mixed in.

Something a lot of churches have forgotten is that the Holy Spirit is not just “an influence,” but rather God Himself. The Holy Spirit is as much God as God the Father and God the Son. Together, the form the Trinity. Even though He is always mentioned last, various verses in Scripture put Him on the same level at the other two members of the Trinity.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14 | TNIV)

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…. (Matthew 28:19 | TNIV)

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4 – 6 | TNIV)

A Person

The Holy Spirit is a Person just as much as Jesus is. It may be because older translations of the Bible refer to Him as “the Holy Ghost,” but a lot of Christians don’t look at Him the way the look at Jesus. But they should. Consider this:

He thinks: And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:27 | TNIV)

He wills: All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:11 | TNIV)

He teaches: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 | TNIV)

He shows love and affection: I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. (Romans 15:30 | TNIV)

He can be lied to: Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?” (Acts 5:3 | TNIV)

He can grieve: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30 | TNIV)

Those verses and more tell us that the Holy Spirit is a Person. Only a person can have those attributes.

God Himself

But like the Son who is also Gcd, the Holy Spirit is also God.

He is omnipresent: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7 – 10 | TNIV)

He is omnipotent: I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:18, 19 | TNIV)

He is eternal: How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrew 9:14 | TNIV)

He is the co-creator of the world: When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:30 | TNIV)

So the Holy Spirit is much more than so many Christians think He is. He certainly deserves more than the lip service too many churches give Him. The precious Holy Spirit has always been in the world and He has always been a powerful presence in the lives of His people. But His very public entrance into the new Church marked a turning point.

Incident at Pentecost

We’re all familiar with what happened in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:2 – 4 | TNIV)

But that was in fulfillment of something Jesus said a little earlier. In the Gospel of John, we read this:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:15, 17 | TNIV)

That’s the promise. But if you just read that bit, you miss the reason for the promise in the first place:

If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15 | TNIV)

That’s what Bible scholars call “a practical exhortation,” and the Bible is full of them. They are what the reader (or listener at the time) was expected to do. “Love one another” is another practical exhortation. In this case, our Lord gave His disciples a simple test to prove their love for Him. If you love Jesus, then you’ll obey Him. It’s a very simple test that involves His moral teachings. The problem is, though, living on earth as we are, it’s very difficult to live every moment of every day in obedience to the Lord’s teachings. Therefore, Jesus said, He would ask God to send the Holy Spirit. We are to depend on Him – the Holy Spirit – to help us live obediently to the teachings of Scripture.

In the lives of believers

Jesus gives us some valuable information about the Holy Spirit and His roll in the lives of believers.

He teaches, John 14:26

Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “another advocate.” Other translators use the word “comforter.” The word properly means “advocate,” “intercessor,” “pleader.” The original Greek word is actually a passive word that means something like, “the one who is called to someone’s aid.” The Holy Spirit is the helper, identified as “the Spirit of truth,” which brings us to verse 26:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 | TNIV)

As “the Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit is the great revealer of God’s truth. He is able to take the things of Christ – His words, sayings, and actions – and not only make them known to believers, but He makes them make sense. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the believer is supernaturally able to recall the teachings of our Lord. But His work is far more than just helping us to remember the words of Scripture, but rather the true meaning of those words. Barclay wrote,

The Holy Spirit saves us from arrogance and error of thought.

He guides, John 16:12 – 13

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:12 – 13 | TNIV)

Actually, Jesus was wrapping up His conversations with the disciples when He remarked that He had much more to tell them. The Lord’s wisdom and truth are truly inexhaustible! But here, He was laying the foundation for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. In spite of their enthusiasm and devotion to their Lord and His teachings, the fact is they were unable to comprehend or understand the depths of His teachings. It’s not that they were mentally deficient, but that the human mind is incapable of grasping the deep, spiritual truths of Scripture. But, fortunately for them (and us), One was about to arrive on the scene who would lead.   The Greek word translated “guide” looks a little funny, hodegesei, but is very serious. It means “to lead or guide along the way or path.” Jesus Christ is the way in which we must be led by the Spirit, and He is also the truth to which we must be guided.

The power of the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with secret revelations and mystical experiences, but rather in getting a believer to the place where he can not only recall Biblical teachings, but also understand them and apply them to any given situation or circumstance.

He intercedes, Romans 8:26, 27

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26, 27 | TNIV)

That phrase, “in the same way,” links the Spirit’s ministry of intercession with the hope of the preceding verses. Never underestimate the power of hope in the life of believers. It’s essential, and it’s an essential ministry of the Holy Spirit. Hope is essential because we are weak. We are so weak that sometimes we don’t even know what we should be praying for! It’s like writer’s block – a strange phenomena that writer’s fear: Too many ideas but not enough words – there are so many needs blowing around the hurricane in our minds that we can’t focus on any one in particular to pray for. When this happens, the Holy Spirit comes along and does it for us. Or perhaps a better way to put would be that the Spirit prays with us. Paul clearly says we are praying with “wordless groans.” I suggest this is what Pentecostals refer to as “praying in the Spirit.” Not all Bible scholars think this, but they’re sometimes wrong about other things, too. You may wonder what the point “praying in tongues” is. After all, who can understand such gibberish? God can! The words of Karl Barth are relevant on this point:

God makes Himself our advocate with Himself. He utters ineffable groaning, so that He will surely hear what we ourselves could not have told Him, so that He will accept what He Himself has to offer.

And once again, God comes through for us! He makes it possible for us to do what He wants us to to.  So, Pentecost Sunday is more than just a special Sunday that some churches celebrate.  It’s a good day to recall who He is and how indispensible His work and ministry in our lives is.  Whether we realize it or not, we can’t get along in this world without the remarkable Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 


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