Thursday, June 30, 2005


Asking for Forgiveness

I have heard 1 John 1:9 referred to as “the Christian’s daily bar of soap.” The idea is that, though we continue to sin as believers, we can get clean by confessing our sins and asking God to forgive us. It is too bad that people who teach this view don’t read the verse in its context, and read it with their eyes open.

First, the verse does not say, “when an individual confesses sins.” Take a look at verses 6 through 10. Five times John introduces a sentence with “If we . . . ,” each one suggesting a faith position or worldview commitment. Each “if we” has a corresponding condition that always is associated with that position. These are not separate actions that a given person could fluctuate among or repeat, but positions that people take.

In verses 6-7 we find the first two contrasting positions. “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness” is the position of the hypocrite. The hypocrite’s condition is that of lying. In contrast, “If we walk in the light” is the position of the obedient believer. The obedient believer’s condition is that of true fellowship and purity.

In verses 8 and 10 we have two other negative positions. “If we claim to be without sin” is the position of the amoral philosopher who believes sin is not a real concern—or the supposedly perfected religionist who believes he has got beyond sinning. The amoralizer/perfectionist lives in the condition of self deception. “If we claim we have not sinned" is the position of the self-righteous. The condition of the self-righteous is rebellion against God’s holiness revealed in his Word, calling God a liar.

In verse 9 we have the contrasting position to the two just mentioned. “If we confess our sins” is the position of the honest sinner acknowledging the truth of the Gospel’s claim. The condition of the honest sinner is forgiveness and purification. The condition of being forgiven does not change with each sinful act; it is the result of the position taken with regard to the Gospel.

Second, the context gives us teaching about what happens when an individual believer sins. “I write this to you so that you will not sin,” John says in 2:1. “But if anybody does sin,” a very different process kicks in from that advocated by the popular misunderstanding of forgiveness.

The sinning “anybody” is not exhorted to go through some religious ceremony, no confession or repentance is called for, no penance would be helpful. Instead, Jesus Christ the Righteous One goes into action on that individual’s behalf, as the forgiven person's defense attorney before the court. He presents his “atoning sacrifice” (really his “propitiation”) to turn God’s anger against sin away from us.

There is no repeated forgiveness, let alone a repeated asking for forgiveness. The work of Christ on the cross is the sufficient and only basis for the forgiveness of all our sins. All forgiven sins were paid for in that one act (at a time when all our sins were future). By taking the position of the honest sinner in 1:9 (only one time needed), we continue to be in the condition of forgiven and purified. Jesus will take care of it from there.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


The Gates of Hell

Preachers and writers look at Matthew 16:18 and find a battle between the church and Satan: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” All the forces of the devil, we are told, will attack and try to annihilate the church, but the church will survive.

Others challenge this interpretation and say, “Gates don’t attack. They are defensive structures. It is the church that is attacking the forces of evil, and we will not be held back.”

If we read with our eyes open we will see that both of these views miss the mark because they identify the “gates of Hades” with Satan and his forces of evil. Jesus is not talking about Satan, but about the death of believers, which is under the control of Jesus himself.

The primary meaning of the word “Hades” is the grave or the abode of the dead. Sometimes it refers to a place where souls are conscious after their death. Most of the time it refers to the place where the bodies are placed after death. We should expect the reference in Matthew, then, to be about physical death, unless the context forces us to look for another meaning. (It doesn’t.)

Probably the error of connecting this passage with Satan can be traced to older translations that had “the gates of hell” instead of “the gates of Hades.” However, that is no excuse because we know that Satan is not in any way the ruler of hell.

If Isaiah 14:9-21 connects the king of Babylon (Lucifer) with Satan himself, it would portray Satan entering the world of the dead (Hades). He is anything but a ruler. He who once made kingdoms tremble during his life finds himself in death with less power and less honor than any he meets in the grave. Thus, it would be ridiculous to associate Satan’s power with the phrase, “the gates of Hades.”

The Bible presents Jesus as controlling the death of men and women. Revelation 1:18 quotes Jesus specifically, “I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” The gates are the point of entrance and are opened to allow (or require) entrance into the realm of the dead. The gates are closed behind us by the Lord. Far from being a fortress of evil in the hands of an enemy, this reference is to part of Jesus’ kingdom. He rules the point of death as well as everything else.

The context of Matthew 16:18 is obviously talking about physical death. Jesus tells the disciples about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection (v. 21). Peter rebukes Jesus to insist that Jesus should not be thinking about dying (v. 22). Peter’s concern leads Jesus to explain that God’s way of thinking requires an embracing of death (vs. 23-26). The “Satan” in this passage is not a supernatural foe mustering armies for a sortie against the church from behind the gates of hell, but is Peter advocating an avoidance of physical death. Both for Jesus and for his disciples, such avoidance would be deadly.

Jesus’ followers must not view themselves as so indispensable to the church that they can’t die. We must take up our cross and follow Him. The gates of Hades (Peter’s death, Matthew’s death, Philipp Melanchthon’s death, Bill Bright’s death, your death, my death) will not overcome the church. The church will continue through the generations, leaving behind a growing “underground church” in cemeteries all around the world. When the Son of Man comes, he will open the gates for the great reunion. Through death and resurrection we come to our rewards (vs. 27-28).

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Friday, June 24, 2005


"Never, Lord"

Acts 10 and 11 record a vision Peter saw (animals lowered in a sheet for him to kill and eat), through which God taught the church that the Gentiles were not unclean, but were in fact objects for the Gospel. It was a turning point for the church. Yet, at the time, Peter objected, using the words of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 4:14.

When Peter said, “Never, Lord,” (Acts 11:8) when told to kill and eat, he was not speaking a contradiction (how can God be Lord if we are saying no to him?). He was merely arguing for a modification of the plan, on the basis of Ezekiel’s request regarding his instructions.

The Mosaic Law set rules about which animals could and could not be eaten without ceremonial uncleanness (Leviticus 11). It also had rules about touching corpses, skin diseases, bodily discharges, etc., which would also result in uncleanness (Leviticus 11-15). By the way, ceremonial uncleanness was not the same as sin.

There was no rule against entering the home of Gentiles or eating with Gentiles; these were man-made extensions of the God-given rules. The very chapter where Ezekiel made his “Never, Lord” protest, however, includes a prophecy of uncleanness in exile among the Gentiles. Ezekiel 4:13 says, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the Gentiles where I will drive them.” This, however, indicates that the food is otherwise defiled and that the judgment will be worsened by the cultural embarrassment of being captive among Gentiles at the time.

God told Ezekiel to act out the siege of Jerusalem, lying on his left side for 390 days (one day for each year of Israel’s sin) and bearing the sin of Israel, while eating a meager diet of barley and beans cooked over a fire burning human excrement. He would then lie on his right side for 40 days to symbolize the years of Judah’s sin.

Ezekiel protested (v.14), “Never, Lord, God of Israel, because my soul has never defiled itself with uncleanness, and I have not eaten anything found dead or torn by animals from my youth until now, and no unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.” He is not denying the authority of God to give him orders. He is expecting God to be consistent with His own commitment through the covenant.

God changed the instructions based on Ezekiel’s complaint, saying essentially, “O.K., I won’t make you defile yourself. You can use cow manure for fuel. But you must deliver and act out my message of judgment.”

When Peter saw the vision of the sheet of animals, he thought of Ezekiel’s prophecy. The italicized words above (from Ezekiel 4:14) are exactly used in Peter’s protest as recorded Acts 11:8.

In the initial account of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:14 the verbal correspondence is less complete, which might indicate that Peter himself, thinking about the experience between its occurrence and the time he met with the believers in Jerusalem, reported his experience to the Apostles more in reference to Ezekiel’s experience.

In Peter’s case, God does not change the assignment in order to protect Peter from defilement. Instead, He responds essentially, “No, this won’t defile you, since I have made these foods clean [and these people clean]. But you must deliver my message of salvation.” As the rest of the story indicates, Peter got the message, and eventually so did the entire church.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


The Weapons of Our Warfare

The apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 are often yanked out of context and made the basis for fantastic “warfare” against the world of evil spirits. The “strongholds” are made into a variety of beliefs that Satan has tricked people to follow. Preachers and authors proceed to insert various kinds of “weapons” they think Paul meant to be used against these supposed thought patterns. Would you join me in reading this with open eyes?

The whole theme of chapter 10 (and beyond) is Paul’s defense of his calling and ministry against people in Corinth who belittled him. These detractors were counting on the “meekness” of Paul in person. They thought he would not stand up to them, which would allow them to get away with distortions and false accusations. The verses in question assert that Paul, while not following a worldly approach to self-defense, will use divinely powerful weapons against his attackers.

The “strongholds” Paul is talking about are the charges of his critics. Their arguments and pretensions are not only against him, but also against the knowledge of God. He intends to take them on with reasoning from the Gospel itself. It is not a matter of comparing one preacher with another and passing human judgments. It is a matter of looking for evidence of God’s call and assignment for each one. Paul anticipates that such reasoning will demolish the negative insinuations they are spreading.

Paul is reluctant to put forward his own credentials, especially in terms of the world’s standards. He prefers to allow the Lord to commend him, through the fruits of Paul’s Gospel ministry. Of course, most of the believers in Corinth are the direct result of his ministry (the “letters of recommendation” he refers to in 3:1-3). The “credentials” he personally boasts about are his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, because they show that God’s power and not his own ability causes success.

Paul’s plan for his next visit is to demonstrate once and for all that God has called and is using him to transform lives. Then, he hopes, the church will be completely obedient and ready to punish the wicked troublemakers. As long as the church keeps listening to these unwise complaints, the work of the Gospel will be hindered.

The Bible might talk about spiritual weapons against evil spiritual forces, but it isn’t in this chapter. Let’s read with our eyes open.

Monday, June 20, 2005


King Saul's Godly Leadership

King Saul is famous for what he did wrong: jealousy, disobedience, resort to witchcraft. These actions are worthy of condemnation and certainly are not characteristics we would look to for leadership in the local church. Scripture endorses and praises, however, the leadership Saul showed before he turned away from his divine calling.

When Samuel anointed Saul to be king, as described in 1 Samuel 10, he told him “the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, . . . and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” When we read with our eyes open, we see that God really did change Saul’s heart, giving him the equipment he would need to be Israel’s leader.

Saul demonstrated the effects of this changed heart in the early actions of his reign. In chapters 10 through 12 we read of at least four traits that mark his leadership. Then in chapters 13 through 15 we find that all four traits were reversed in Saul’s downfall.

1. Humble Reluctance
At the very beginning, Saul shows a reticence to assume power. He seems unwilling to thrust himself into the leadership role. Perhaps the initial protests Saul offers to Samuel (9:21) can be attributed to formal politeness, and his withholding information from his uncle (10:16) to strategy and timing, but his hiding among the baggage (10:22) is definitely an uncalculated reluctance to seize a position. Later, Samuel recalls to Saul, “though you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel?” (15:17).

Wisdom urges us to beware of the person overly eager to become a leader. Such a leader may well bring his own agenda that is contrary to the work of the Lord. Too much confidence in human ability has often kept people from their proper trust in the Lord and in his power.

Such was the later experience of Saul. 1 Samuel 13 describes Saul’s impatience in waiting for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifice. In Saul’s own words, he “forced himself” into the unauthorized role of priest (13:12). Gone is the humility that made him hold back from the kingship. It is replaced by presumption, the ruin of godly leadership.

2. Spiritual Standards
Saul began his reign with a spiritual understanding of leadership. Following his coronation and return to Gibeah, he gathered around himself a group of men “whose hearts God had touched,” (10:27). They were valiant men, but they were spiritually sensitive. Saul seemed to know that the power of the kingdom was not in its armies but in its God. What a wise way to build a leadership team.

In the church today we also need a spiritual standard for leadership. The temptation is to grab leaders who are successful in secular jobs or who can perform a specific task, whether or not they are full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.

Saul’s standards eventually slipped into the secular approach. By 14:52 he is taking any soldier who is brave and looks good in armor. It is interesting to contrast the response to Goliath’s challenge of Saul’s valiant men (chapter 17) with that of David, whose heart God had touched.

3. Commitment to God’s Honor
After Saul’s victory over the Ammonites, some of the people urge him to take vengeance on his earlier detractors by putting them to death. Saul’s response (11:13) is “No one shall be put to death today, for this day the LORD rescued Israel.” He clearly wants the glory to go to God and not to himself. He knows enough about God’s honor to realize that killing off his own citizens will not honor God or strengthen his own position.

It is not long, however, before Saul becomes obsessed with increasing his own glory, at the expense of his own people. His jealous attacks on David are well known, but even his rash vow in the battle, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies” (14:24) indicates he has reversed his godly commitment. It is now his victory, not God’s, and he does not care what price others must pay By the time we get to 15:12 Saul is building monuments to himself.

Even at the local church level it is easy to begin to build monuments to ourselves. It gradually becomes “Pastor So-and-so’s church,” or we equate the success of our ideas and “visions” with the greatest glory to God.

4. Whole-hearted Obedience
Along with the rest of the nation, Saul joins with Samuel in a renewal of commitment to “fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart” (12:24). This is perhaps the central element in godly leadership. It recognizes that God is the ultimate leader and we take our orders from him. For Saul, this means a commitment to the covenant between God and Israel and a willingness to trust that God knows what he is doing.

By chapter 15, however, Saul is fulfilling only part of his assignment to wipe out the Amalekites, deciding to spare the king and the best of the animals. This is the final blow to Saul’s kingdom and dynasty. It is telling that his best excuse is that he feared the people—he who made a commitment to fear the LORD and obey him with all his heart. Then, in his rejection by God, Saul begs Samuel to keep up appearances so the people would not know anything was wrong (15:30).

May God protect us from the mindset of pleasing people at the expense of disobeying God, of keeping up appearances after the reality is gone. In churches that elect their officers and take up a collection to pay their pastors, it takes courage to fear God more than we fear the people. May God give us the equipment of changed hearts and the Holy Spirit to make us godly leaders in the positions we hold under him: humility, obedience, spiritual understanding, and the desire to glorify God.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Worship in a Variety of Music Styles

Some churches decide what music to use in worship by asking unchurched people what radio stations they listen to, and then copying their music style. Other churches allow the most influential attenders or the largest bloc of attenders to decide. A few might use whatever style the pastor or music director likes best.

These solutions miss the whole point of music in worship. The choice should not be a matter of personal preferences or of whose preferences are more important. The choice should not be an attempt to draw outsiders with their favorite style or to pacify insiders with compromise.

The choice of music style for worship should be, “What kind of music does God want to hear?” After all, worship is for the benefit of God, not people. The Bible doesn’t specifically say what God’s favorite style is, but it gives principles that point to using many styles, instead of one.

Musical style is so much an expression of a specific culture. Nearly everyone responds the same way when hearing the music of another culture: “That is not music.” Each culture’s music expresses its unique worldview and values. People from outside the culture don’t instinctively understand or appreciate the music. But, we can learn it and maybe even come to enjoy it.

God cares about every nationality and culture in the world. No single culture can adequately express what God is worth. Because of sin, every culture has developed elements that are false and wrong. We need to be careful to keep those elements out of our worship. But, every culture also includes elements that reflect the image of God. It would be good for people of every culture to gain those insights, even if they are not obviously lovely to our ears.

God made the church to be a unity of diverse elements. This blend does not occur naturally in the world, only supernaturally. The New Testament talks of the Gospel bringing Jew and Gentile together as equals, breaking down the dividing cultural wall. In today's world, and certainly in America, this mixing of people from many different cultures is possible in many churches. We ought to mix cultural insights and music styles on purpose, to celebrate spiritual unity across cultural lines.

Eternity’s worship will represent every culture and tongue. Scenes from the book of Revelation emphasize the presence of people from every nation and language and tribe and people. They sing praise to the Lamb with one voice. We can practice for heaven’s perfect music in our worship services now, if we are willing to draw from the insights of a variety of cultures, not just the one we grew up with.

The church worship service should provide tools for the congregation to use in responding to God’s revelation of Himself. We are better worshipers when we grow through variety.

The insights of different styles can enrich our focus on God. We can learn from each other’s favorites. Rather than argue over music style, rather than make derrogatory comments about other believers’ favorites, it would be good to discuss the reasons we enjoy certain styles—and listen to the other person’s explanation. It is understandable that each person may continue to “feel worshipful” when hearing or singing the music of their heart-culture. But nothing in Scripture encourages us to continue on a mono-cultural island when it comes to music.

Maturing disciples care about the interests of others. We could be blissfully oblivious to the worship available through new kinds of music. In fact, that is what most of us prefer. But Scripture wants us to look not only on our own interests but also on the interests of others. By forbearance, we take our eyes off ourselves, which is often the first step to growth. Our best worship expresses obedience to Jesus’ new commandment to love one another.

We can grow by stretching our comfort zones. Smooth waters do not make a strong sailor, nor calm winds a strong tree. If we seek above all else to grow into Christlikeness, we should do a little exploring outside of what we already know. Worship through new outlooks can be part of that growth.

Therefore, the best way to choose music for worship is to select good music from a variety of musical styles and cultures. This is the best offering we can make to God and the best strategy for helping each other become like Jesus.

Monday, June 13, 2005


Luxury Mansions in Glory

It’s in many songs about heaven. It encourages downtrodden and poverty-stricken believers. It gives us so much to look forward to in eternity. But it is mostly mistaken.

“I’m satisfied with just a cottage below. . . . But in those mansions . . ., I want a gold one that’s silver lined.” Based on a misconstruing of an antiquated English word, many of us expect to live in luxury for all eternity. Jesus said in John 14, “In my Father’s house are many mansions . . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” I’ve been told to imagine how great heaven must be after Jesus has been building it for 2,000 years. After all, look how beautiful this world is—and that only took him 6 days to make.

Of course, the word Jesus used didn’t imply a luxurious estate, and “mansion” didn’t mean that when the King James Version was translated either. Modern versions have more accurately rendered it “dwelling places.”

The thought process behind the wrong expectation of gold and silver houses is really troubling. The Bible tells us not to be greedy or lovers of money. But, according to this view, it’s okay to be a greedy lover of wealth in heaven. This seems more fitting for other religions than for Christians; those who believe that if you live a chaste life here you will be rewarded in paradise with unlimited sexual immorality. Shouldn’t we expect that a just God would have the same moral principles on both sides of death?

I don’t think the Bible wants us to imagine Jesus spending the past 2,000 years hanging drywall or selecting wallpaper for us. When he said he was “going to prepare a place” for us, his primary reference was his going to the cross. There he prepared a place for us in his Father’s house. Besides, the old heaven and the old earth will be destroyed to make way for the new heaven and new earth anyway. So whatever has been built physically over the past 2,000 years will not be our eternal home.

Most people I have talked to about this feel sad to have to give up their dreams of luxury. Haven’t we set our hearts on eternal things in terms of what is meaningful here on earth? I tell my friends, and myself, that the one good thing we really long for, and don’t have here on earth, is actually what Jesus is promising in John 14: home.

Notice the real attraction of Jesus’ promise, “Where I am, there you may be also.” And, a few verses later, “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” During our lifetime, we are strangers and pilgrims, exiles from our first home (Eden) where God and man had intimate fellowship, unbroken until sin brought the separation. But the separation is not forever. Jesus went to the cross to prepare a place for us. He will come back and take us to be with him. Now, that’s forever.

Revelation 21:3 expresses the fulfillment of our desire, and of God’s desire that runs throughout Scripture, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” Read that a few times with your eyes open.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Money and the Christian

Many Christians are sensitive about appeals for financial donations. We might resent hearing about needs and opportunities that require money, or we might respond out of a sense of guilt. Most of us do not like others telling us what to do with our money.

The Book of Hebrews gives us an outstanding example of a proper attitude toward money: Moses. In the list of those who believed “that God exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him,” Moses was looking forward to his reward.

Hebrews 11:24-26 tells us he “refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and chose to be mistreated along with the people of God, rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt.”

This does not mean that the treasures of Egypt have no value. Egyptian money could buy the necessities of life, and luxuries to ease the life of the wealthy. In a sense the treasures of Egypt were even a factor in the kingdom of God, since the Egyptians gave valuables to the departing Israelites, and these valuables were used to build the Tabernacle. But Moses knew that in comparison to the values of eternity, money does not amount to much.

Obviously, no one can be right with God by having money or things; nor can anyone be justified by renouncing materialism. Only the righteousness of Christ can make us acceptable to a holy God. But wise Christians will recognize, as Moses did, that eternal value and eternal comfort are more important than this world’s stuff. Our reward is received in the resurrection rather than now.

The treasures of this world are beguiling. We know they are less important than treasure in heaven; we know they are not ultimately satisfying; we know they are unreliable as a means of security. Yet we still find our hearts desiring earthly possessions. We still neglect the truly valuable pursuits of personal holiness, evangelizing the lost, and supporting missions—as we try to increase our wealth.

Jacob’s brother Esau did not live “by faith” to the extent of being included in Hebrews 11. He did not live as a sojourner in the land of promise, looking forward to his reward. He did make it into the Book of Hebrews, though, in chapter 12. He is mentioned as a bad example and as a warning.

Hebrews 12:16-17 points us to Esau who for a single meal sold his inheritance. In human terms he was not an especially bad man, and he probably did a lot of good things. He stands, though, as an opposite to Moses. His immorality focused his attention on the here and now, his physical appetite, and instant gratification.

Esau may have acknowledged God in the religious aspect of life, but when it came to earthly wealth, possessions, and satisfaction he lived as if there was no God. He was godless when it came to his finances and his indulgences. No person has ever heard God say, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.” By living for this world and despising the kingdom of God, Esau wrote himself out of the inheritance of faith. Can we learn from this?

1. Beware of the lure of the treasures of the world. They are not a trustworthy basis of security for the future. Certainly they cannot insure an eternal reward. They do not give the fulfillment and satisfaction they promise. They are not a friend of sanctification. How much like Christ can we become while setting our hearts on earthly wealth, when he refused to accumulate any of the world’s treasure?

2. Accomplish eternal good by the proper use of the world’s money. Use the money God entrusts to you to meet the needs of your family and other people he allows you to help. Be diligent in your work, prudent in your spending, generous in your giving, and wise in your investing. By investing in the kingdom of God we can store up treasure in heaven. Ask God to make you aware of needs and opportunities to spread the gospel. The things we accumulate for ourselves will be lost forever; the things we invest in the Lord’s work will be ours forever.

3. Live in light of eternity. Remember that God owns us and all our possessions. He promised to provide what we need, but our ultimate reward is still future. Some day we will stand before God and give an account of our handling of money and property. Will we resemble Moses because we had a proper perspective on earthly treasure? Or will we be more like Esau because we put too high a premium on earthly treasure?

May God give us the courage to live out our convictions about money. What a difference it would make for the church and missions if we would all apply the teaching of Scripture consistently. And, what a difference to us.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Fasting and Prayer

Fasting is sometimes misrepresented as a magical weapon to be used against God or other people. Or, more often, it is viewed as an archaic practice that doesn’t apply to Christians today. “Fasting” is a temporary giving up of an essential and good part of life (most often food, but it could be sleep or marital sex) in order to give yourself to prayer or sacrificial service during that time.

Don’t fall for these incorrect notions about fasting:
1. Fasting is not a means of impressing other people. Matthew 6:16-18 warns against fasting for other people to see, as certain religious leaders did in Jesus’ day. Don’t play up your fast for sympathy. (This does not mean that your fast has to be totally private, since people have often fasted together.)

2. Fasting is not a hunger strike to force God to do what He does not want to do. God is not impressed with us seeking suffering through self-punishment. Isaiah 58:3-5 indicates that such a fast is not what God has chosen.

3. Fasting is not a religious ceremony by which we can be acceptable to God. Colossians 2:16-23 warns us not to look to food restrictions as a means of being right with God. Only through faith in the work of Jesus Christ can we be acceptable to God. Matthew 9:14-17 demonstrates the emptiness of fasting as a ritual.

4. Fasting is not a form of dieting. While times without eating may have physical benefits and may be prescribed for certain individuals, this is not the same as Biblical fasting. Isaiah 58:6-12 calls people to spiritual responsibilities in their fasts.

Fasting is an expected part of the Christian life. The Bible commands us not to fast wrongly, but never implies that fasting itself is wrong or unusual. Matthew 6:16-18 quotes Jesus as saying, “When you fast,” assuming that his followers will fast. Luke 5:33-39 quotes Jesus as saying that his followers could not fast while he was with them, “but the time will come when the Bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” When Jesus declared, “The old is better,” he meant that fasting in sorrow is better than celebrating in joy. Acts 13:2-3; 14:23; and 27:9 indicate that fasting was an important part of the life of the early church, including groups of believers fasting together.

How Fasting Should Be Understood:
1. Fasting shows seriousness in prayer, as measured by the cost to us. See David’s sacrifice in 2 Samuel 24:24.
2. Fasting exerts discipline over the appetites of the body while we cultivate the appetites of the spirit. See Colossians 3:1-4 and Paul’s personal testimony in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 .
3. Fasting chooses to be nourished by God’s Word, rather than merely by physical satisfaction. See Jesus’ own example in Matthew 4:4 and John 4:31-34.
4. Fasting devotes time and energy to doing God’s work instead of pursuing our own desires. See the call to feed the hungry and help the oppressed in Isaiah 58:6-12.
5. Fasting utilizes the time usually spent in eating, sleeping, etc. for concentrated prayer instead, perhaps focused on a specific need. It also utilizes the feeling of hunger, physical discomfort, and a growling stomach as persistent reminders of prayer and priorities.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


The Lord Himself Will Descend from Heaven

It may be that Paul had Exodus 19 in mind when he wrote I Thessalonians 4. A number of parallels exist between the scene at Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments and the scene at the time of the Rapture.

1. It is an event designed for God to meet his people:
Exodus 19:17 – Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God
I Thessalonians 4:17 – to meet the Lord in the air

2. The sounding of the trumpet:
Exodus 19: 16, 19 – the sound of the trumpet grew louder
I Thessalonians 4:16 – with the trumpet call of God

3. The descent of the Lord from heaven:
Exodus 19:20 – The LORD came down to the top of the mountain
I Thessalonians 4:16 – The Lord himself will descend from heaven

4. The ascent of the people to meet God:
Exodus 19:13 – When the ram’s horn sounds . . . they shall come up
I Thessalonians 4:17 – will be caught up together with them in the clouds

5. Warnings about sexual activity as part of the preparation for the meeting:
Exodus 19:15 – do not go near a woman
I Thessalonians 4:3 – avoid fornication

The announced plan of all the Israelites meeting God on Mount Sinai did not take place. Exodus records that instead of going up the mountain to meet God at the trumpet's signal, the people remained at a distance out of fear (Exodus 20:18-21). They were unwilling to have a direct relationship and companionship with God. Instead, they asked Moses to do their talking to God and to do God’s talking to them. This led to the establishment of a mediated covenant between God and Israel at that time. The covenant was mediated through Moses, through the Tabernacle, through the Levitical priests, and through many additional commandments.

This “old” covenant lasted from the days of Moses until the death of Jesus Christ, who established a “new” covenant through his blood. The new covenant allows for one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus. Thus, believers today do not need a priest, ceremonial rites, or a veil to protect us from God. We have a direct relationship with God.

During our lifetime here on earth, however, believers are not yet in our full, face-to-face companionship with God. The full benefits of the new covenant are not yet in our grasp. This is not a mistake or a failure, but a predicted situation. As Jesus ratified the new covenant with the disciples at the Last Supper, just before his actual death, he commanded his people to remember him through the ceremonial communion observance. He, though, would not drink of the cup again until he drank it anew in the Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:27-29). So, there remained a future completion or consummation of the new covenant.

It seems, then, that the ultimate purpose of God is for Jesus’ followers to enter into a direct contact with Him, just as the original offer to Israel under Moses was for all the people to enter into direct contact with Him. God would come down with a trumpet signal to meet a people who had prepared themselves to enter his presence. At the appropriate time, the people would ascend to meet the Lord. This scenario did not occur in Moses’ day, because of the unbelief and fear of the people. It will happen some day for us, at the return of Jesus. At the signal, the sleeping saints will be raised from death and join the living saints in a going up to meet the Lord.

Paul wants us to comfort and encourage each other with this promise. How encouraging to realize that God has not abandoned his desire of meeting and being forever with his people, even if the full experience of that direct communion had to be postponed for centuries because of unbelief.

Let's keep reading with our eyes open.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


Elijah Did Not Run for His Life

Most English translations of 1 Kings 19:3 indicate that Elijah feared the threats of Jezebel and ran for his life. The traditional interpretation of this chapter is that Elijah uncharacteristically lost his boldness, panicked, and ran. Some preachers and commentators point out that his prayer in verse 4, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors,” reveals that his fear led him into depression and suicidal despair.

The Hebrew text in verse 3 actually says, “When Elijah saw.” Translators make a change in the letters to come up with, “Elijah feared.” But, this change is unnecessary and misleading. If we read this chapter with our eyes open, we will notice that Elijah did not make his journey to protect himself. He could have found safety in Jerusalem with King Jehoshaphat.

Elijah went to two different places and made two different speeches. The Biblical writer knew what those two places meant in the history of Israel and wants us to get the point about Elijah by checking out those two places.

Elijah’s first stop was in the vicinity of Kadesh Barnea. It was a place where God said to Moses, “I will . . . destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Numbers 14:12). Moses interceded for the people. God spared them, but vowed that the entire rebelling generation would die in the desert. This beginning point for Israel's wilderness wanderings was the perfect place for Elijah to declare, “Take away my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah identified with the Israelites because all his effort of calling people back to faith and obedience had brought them no further than they were back then.

God’s provision for Elijah mirrored his provision for Israel in the wilderness. God gave Elijah food and water for a forty day journey, as he previously had provided Israel food and water for a forty year journey.

Elijah’s second stop was at the other site where God asked Moses to stand aside. After the golden calf incident the Lord offered to destroy the covenant breakers and to rebegin the people of God through Moses. There also Moses interceded and God spared the nation. 1 Kings 19:9 tells us that Elijah went to Mount Horeb (Sinai) and spent the night at “the cave,” which readers would recognize as the “cleft in the rock” where Moses saw God’s glory.

The next day Elijah stood where Moses had stood centuries earlier. He gave God his second speech (quite different from the one near Beersheba), “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The writer wants us to recall Exodus 32-34 and connect what happened under Moses with what happened under Elijah. In a sense, Elijah has returned to square one. In all the years between Moses and Elijah, Israel has made zero progress. Despite miraculous demonstrations, the people still break the covenant, tear down the altars, and kill the prophets.

When we understand the point being made, we not only avoid the caricature of the story that is often told, but we have the context for the comforting words in 1 Kings 19:11-12, “The Lord was not in the wind, . . . in the earthquake, . . . in the fire. After the fire came a still, small voice.” The people with Moses saw great manifestations of God’s power at Mount Sinai, yet they quickly turned from the Lord. Faith is not created in majestic displays of power, but by an inner voice from God. There is a place for fire from heaven, and Elijah will be asked to do it again, but Elijah is not responsible for the faith or unbelief of his people--and he cannot produce faith through miracles.

But, you may ask, doesn’t 1 Kings 19:3 say that Elijah “ran for his life”? Literally the texts says, “he went upon his soul.” The word is the usual word for going somewhere. It does not imply a flight in fear. It does not require an implication of danger. “Upon his soul” could refer to Elijah’s purpose to enrich his soul by a visit to these key sites from Israel’s past. It may describe a pilgrimage or a spiritual field trip. When Elijah saw the sad response of Israel, he went to refresh his soul in the wilderness and at Sinai.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Giving the Pharisees Their Due

A major reason the Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus was his refusal to follow their Sabbath rules. Jesus went out of his way to challenge the Pharisees on the Sabbath, choosing this day to perform his miracles.

We obviously want to agree with Jesus and not the Pharisees. However, we need to give the Pharisees their due and not misunderstand the issues at stake. The Pharisees were not wrong to be concerned about keeping the Sabbath day holy. The Pharisees were obligated by the Mosaic Law. One of the Ten Commandments was “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy . . . .” (Exodus 20:8-11)

Under the old covenant, the Sabbath was not primarily a day for worship, although some extra sacrifices were offered. It was a day to rest from regular work. The penalty for individuals who violated this commandment was death. Exodus 31:13-14 declares, “You must observe my Sabbaths. . . . Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.”

In the wilderness wanderings, a precedent was set to carry this out literally. Numbers 15:32-36 records, “While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. . . . Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’” So for the Pharisees to seek Jesus’ death for Sabbath breaking was not a result of crankiness, but of trying to follow God’s word.

The consequences for failing to keep the Sabbath were serious for the nation, too. In fact, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 indicates that the Babylonian captivity was 70 years long because of missed Sabbaths over the years of Israel’s history.

After the exile Nehemiah addressed Sabbath violations on the basis of the danger that they would pose to the nation (Nehemiah 13:17-18), “I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’" As leaders, the Pharisees were responsible to protect Israel from further judgment that would undoubtedly come from God if Sabbath breakers were allowed to continue. They were helping the whole community by calling the people to observe the Sabbath and by persecuting those who refused.

Why, then, did Jesus not follow the Sabbath rules of the Pharisees? Because the Pharisees included human rules in the Sabbath restrictions.

God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai gave principles for what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Over the years, rabbis and scribes had to decide cases in the “gray areas.” Human interpretations were added to the Biblical commands, such as how many steps could be walked and what could be lifted without being considered work.

The Pharisees also added boundaries that were more restrictive. By the time of Jesus the laws enforced by the Pharisees were hardly recognizable as having to do with God’s law. Jesus’ Sabbath “violations” fell in the area of the human traditions, not in the area of God’s covenant.

In Matthew 12:11-12 “He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold if it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’” In their intricate system of do’s and don’ts, they had reversed the priority God intended. Jesus also criticized their Sabbath traditions in Mark 7:6-9 and John 7:23. But he did not criticize them for taking the Sabbath seriously under the Law.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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