Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2018

GOD’S AUTHORITY

 

The Bible describes God as an all-powerful King who has dominion over the entire world.  “For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2); NKJV).  He is also called “God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome . . . “ (Dt. 10:17), and “The Lord of Hosts . . . the King of glory” (Ps. 24:7-10), Who “has established Hi throne in heaven, / And His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).  Nor is this kind of language confined to the Old Testament.  The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, could say, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen” (I Tim. 1:17).  Theologians refer to this as “the sovereignty of God.”

But what does that mean in actual practice?  What it means is that God commands and we are to obey.  First of all, because God is the all-powerful Creator, He is the One who ultimately controls what happens in the universe.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . .

For He spoke, and it was done;

He commanded, and it stood fast.”

(Ps. 33:6,9)

Theologians refer to this as God’s “decretive will,” by which God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).

But God can also tell us how we ought to live our lives.  God could tell Moses, “But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgements which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess” (Dt. 5:31).  It is noteworthy here that Moses received a direct revelation from God himself, and that it took the form of verbal commands.  The commands, in turn, carried the full weight of God’s authority: “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you . . .You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (vv. 32,33).  This is what theologians call God’s “perceptive will,” the precepts and commandments by which we should live.

But, one may ask, doesn’t this sound tyrannical?  At first it may seem that way.  We as Americans in particular are used to thinking that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” to quote the Declaration of Independence.  But we forget that we exist as creatures of God – we owe our very existence to Him.  It is not for us to decide for ourselves the terms of our existence.

The apostle Paul, addressing the Greek philosophers in Athens, pointed out to them that God is the One “who made the world and everything in it,” and is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24).  He “gives to all life, breath, and all things,” and has created every nation of men “so that they would seek the Lord” (vv. 25-27).  But now God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (v. 30).  And why should they repent?  “. . . .because He has appointed  a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (v. 31).  As human beings, whether we like it or not, we live in a universe created by God and ruled by God.  In the end it is His will that will prevail.

But does that mean that we are doomed to lead a dreary life of abject slavery, subject to the will of an arbitrary tyrant?  No, not at all; because God is good, benevolent and wise.  His ways are always best.  Psalm 19 glories in the wisdom and goodness contained in God’s law: “The law of the Lord is perfect . . .The statutes of the Lord are right . . .The commandment of the Lord is pure . . . The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (vv. 7-9).   God has our best interests at heart, and because we live in a universe that He created, we can find happiness and fulfillment only when we live the way He wants us to.  To avoid an accident, obey the traffic laws!

What God’s sovereignty means for us personally is that we are called to fear Him.  Moses could tell the children of Israel, “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Dt. 13:4).  When it says that we should “fear Him,” it does not mean that we should live in constant terror of Him.  Rather it means that we should have a profound reverence and respect for Him, that we take with utmost seriousness everything that He says, and that we are always careful to obey Him.  He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants.  It is not for us to question His will for our lives.

But more than that, we should love God, and if we genuinely love Him, it will be our delight to obey Him.  “Therefore you shall love the Lord your God, and keep His charge, His statutes, and His commandments always” (Dt. 11:1).  God did not create us to have a hostile relationship with Him, and had we not rebelled and sinned against Him we would have enjoyed uninterrupted communion with Him.  And even now, in spite of our sin and rebellion, He sent His Son into the world to die for our sins so that our communion with Him can be restored.  The object, then, is not to keep us in servile fear, but that we should love Him – love Him for all that He is; love Him for all that He has done for us.  But if we love Him we will obey Him; we will always want to please Him.  God always remains God, and we are His servants.

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GOD BOTH FAR AND NEAR

 

Psalm 113

            God is infinitely greater than anything we can even imagine – unlimited in His being, knowledge and power – the Creator of heaven and earth.  Yet at the same time He is close to us, and has personal knowledge of us.  Theologians refer to this as God’s “transcendence” (God is exalted far above all else) and His “immanence” (God is present with us).  But how God could be both at the same time is truly extraordinary.

Both ideas are brought out in Psalm 113.  It begins with a call to praise the Lord (Hallelu Yah – praise the Lord – v. 1), and then reflects on God’s infinite majesty and glory:

“The Lord is high above all nations,

His glory above the heavens” (v. 4; NKJV).

The nations (goyim – Gentiles) are all the nations of the earth, whether they have any conscious knowledge of God or not.  Empires and civilizations come and go – some are powerful and hold sway over large portions of the earth.  Yet God is above them all.  They are all relatively nothing in His sight.

Moreover God’s “glory” is “above the heavens.”  God’s “glory” is certainly His reputation and honor, but the Bible also uses the term to refer to the splendor of God’s presence.  This is God’s brilliant radiance, which makes Him stand out above all others.  And this, the psalm says, is “above the heavens.”  We stand in awe at the vast expanse of the night sky, the distant galaxies millions of light years away.  And yet God’s glory is greater even still, and stands above all these.

But then the psalm goes on to ask a striking question:

“Who is like the Lord our God,

Who dwells on high,

Who humbles Himself to behold

The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?”  (vv. 5,6)
The underlying Hebrew is a little hard to translate, but the main thought is clear: God makes His dwelling in heaven, far above the sphere of human activity; yet at the same time He graciously condescends to view what goes on down here on earth.  How both could be true at the same time boggles the imagination, yet Scripture asserts both truths at once.

But then what does God do in light of what He sees?  The last three verses of the psalm describe the care He exercises on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged.

“He raises the poor out of the dust,

And lifts the needy out of the ash heap,

That He may seat Him with princes –

With the princes of His people.”  (vv. 7,8).

The language is very similar to that of Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:8.

Likewise,

“He grants the barren woman a home,

Like a joyful mother of children.”  (v. 9).

The implication here seems to be that in ancient Israelite society a woman’s social position within the home was not secure until she bore children, again apparently referring back to the experience of Hannah, who had been childless while her husband’s other wife had children.  In both cases God sees the situation, is concerned about it, and does something to resolve it.

Here, then, are the two sides of God’s existence: His transcendence and His immanence.  His transcendence, the fact that He is “high above all nations,” should move us to awe and wonder.  God is infinitely greater than any earthly, created thing, and infinitely greater than ourselves.  That fact should have a profoundly humbling effect on ourselves.  When we approach Him in prayer we should do so with the utmost reverence and humility.

And yet, at the same time, God is near at hand.  He knows about our personal circumstances, cares about what happens to us, and can take appropriate action.  And this, in turn, should fill us with joy and praise – that such a great God, high and lifted up, the Ruler of heaven and earth, can condescend to view our poor plight and come to our aid – who can conceive of such a thing?  And yet it is true!  And thus the psalm begins and ends, “Praise the Lord!”

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – II

 

 

We have seen that God controls the forces of nature and can even override them as necessary.  But what about the actions of human beings?  Can God control those as well?  Are we not at the mercy of others, stronger and more powerful than ourselves?  Can God answer prayer in the face of human opposition?

Some imagine that man has a free will, and therefore his actions cannot be determined by God – that if God can control what human beings do, that would, in effect, make God the author of sin.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, makes the assertion that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established’ (Westminster Confession, III.i).  The question is, how does divine sovereignty relate to human responsibility?  This is, in fact, one of the most difficult of all theological questions.

The Bible makes it clear that God “works all thins according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11; NKJV), and that includes His ability to control the human will: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  “A man’s heart plans his way, / But the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9)  God can control what a powerful human ruler does: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, / Like the rivers of water; / He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).  And ultimately God controls the destinies of entire nations. Hanna could exclaim:

“The Lord kills and makes alive;

He brings down to the grave and brings up.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

He brings low and lifts up.

He raises the poor from the dust

And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,

To set them among princes

And make them inherit the throne of glory.”

(I Sam. 2:6-8)

Even the worst crime in human history was done according to God’s plan: Peter could tell a Jewish audience, “Him [i.e., Christ], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death . . .” (Acts 2:23).  And yet God is not the author of sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:13,14).  But how can how can both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility both be true at the same time?

A classic illustration is Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.  God told Moses at the very start “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:3).  As the narrative unfolds God sends the plagues on Egypt to demonstrate His power, and yet it was not until after the last one that Pharaoh finally consented to let Israel go.  What happened in the meantime?  In five places the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10); and in three places it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34).  So which was it – God or Pharaoh?

The answer is found in the verse from James just quoted: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and entice” (Jas. 1:14).  “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).  Thus the immediate cause of sin is our own depraved human nature: we sin because we want to sin.

But how, then, could God be said to have “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart?  The answer is found in Romans chapter 1 where, describing human depravity, it says in no less than three different places that God “gave them up” (vv. 24, 26, 28) – gave them up “to uncleanness, to the lusts of their hearts” (v. 24), “to the passions” (v. 26); “to a debased mind” (v. 28).  In other words, the impulse to commit sin lies within human nature; God acts as a restraining influence.  God will then sometimes removes the restraint, allowing human depravity to take its natural course, knowing full well what we will do as a result.  The sin is ours, but the outcome is part of God’s plan.  And God can use the evil actions of human beings to bring about the ultimate good.  Joseph, in the Old Testament, could tell his guilt ridden brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).  And, of course, the ultimate example of this is the crucifixion of Christ himself – the most horrible crime ever perpetrated by mortal man, and yet all a part of God’s eternal plan.

God, then, is in control of human events, and as a result He controls what happens to us personally.  This, then, should affect how we respond to the various trials and difficulties that come our way.  We need to look to God for the solution to our problems, and put our trust in Him

“For exaltation comes neither from the east

Nor from the west for from the south.

But God is the Judge:

He puts down one,

And exalts another.”

(Psalm 75:6,7)

Or, as Hannah put it in her prayer, “For by strength no man shall prevail” (I Sam. 2:9b).  That consideration should cure us of the disease of self-sufficiency, and make us realize how truly dependent we are upon God.  But it should also give us confidence and strengthen our faith – no matter how great the obstacle before us, God is even greater.  If it is His will, it will be accomplished!

And finally, it should cause us to give God all the glory.  Everything we have we owe to Him – it came to us through His providence.  “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generation, forever and ever.  Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – I

 

Can God answer prayer?  Almost every Christian would emphatically say “yes.”  But skeptics remain unconvinced.  To them there are two major objections to the idea that God can answer prayer: 1) the physical world operates on the basis of natural law, in which every effect has a natural cause; and 2) human beings have a free will, making it difficult to see how their actions can be controlled or governed by God.  How, then, do we answer these objections?

We will begin with the first objection: how can God control what happens to us in life, if what happens in the physical realm is the result of natural causes?  Did God cause it to rain, or the cold front that moved through our area?  The weathermen, after all, never mention God in their forecasts.  So what really causes the weather – God or the forces of nature?

The answer is both.  God is the Creator of nature, and thus created the natural forces as work in the physical world.  But the Bible goes beyond that and asserts that not only did God create the world, He actively sustains it as well.  The apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenian philosophers, could say of God, “In Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:28; NKJV).  And writing to the Christians of Colosse he could say of Christ, “. . . all things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16,17).  And the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could say that Christ is “upholding all things by the word of His power . . .” (Heb. 1:3).  How is this possible?   Bear in mind that the idea that everything in nature must have a natural cause is only an assumption.  There is much in nature, from subatomic particles to the distant galaxies that we cannot observe directly, and much is shrouded in mystery.  And what is the ultimate source of energy and life?  Might it not be God himself?

Some theologians have explained the relationship between God and nature in terms of “concursus” in which God is the first cause, and the forces of nature are the second causes.  The first cause acts on the second cause, which, in turn, produces the observable effect.  In this way it is God who ultimately controls what happens in nature.

Scripture also makes it clear that God can override the course of nature and perform that which is miraculous and supernatural.  The Bible contains many accounts of such miracles, including everything from the Exodus out of Egypt to the resurrection of Christ.  It is at this point, of course, that skeptics will flat-out deny the biblical record.   But in the four gospels of the New Testament, all written in the First Century, two of them by eye-witnesses, there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles and Himself rising from the dead.  The Gospels according to Mark and John are especially vivid accounts, Mark based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and John being an eyewitness himself.  In both cases it is evident that Jesus left a very deep impression on those who knew Him personally.  If it were just a matter of only one account it could conceivably be dismissed as a fraud or delusion.  But the New Testament writers, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, were unanimous in asserting that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.

What, then, do we make of all of this?  First of all, we should be able to go to God in prayer for our physical and material needs in the full confidence that He can meet those needs.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” our Lord said (Matt. 7:7).  God is omnipotent; He is the Maker of heaven and earth.  He can “supply all your need according to His riches in glory” (Phil. 4:19).

By the same token it is pure folly to trust in human means when it is really God who controls our destinies.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,

They labor in vain who build it;

Unless the Lord guards the city,

The watchman stays awake in vain.”

(Psalm 127:1)

We may think that we have plentiful resources at our disposal: education, wealth, physical strength, and personal connections.  But how often have our plans been frustrated by forces beyond our control?  In the end it is God who determines the outcome, and thus it is on God on whom we must rely.  Our failures in life should be fresh reminders of Who is in control, and we should be humbled accordingly.

And let us never forget to acknowledge God’s blessings already received.  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17)m and we should acknowledge God accordingly.  As ancient Israel was about to enter the promised land, Moses sternly warned them of the spiritually stupefying effects of material prosperity.  They were about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, but the danger would be that they would forget the God who made all of these blessings possible.  “. . .then you shall say in your heart, ’My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”   Moses tells them “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Dt. 8:17,18).  When we are prosperous and successful we become complacent and self-satisfied.  We attribute our success to our own effort, and forget who sent the sun and rain, the health and strength.  It is then we spiritually wither and die.  Is this not what is wrong with contemporary American Christianity?  We don’t pray because don’t feel our dependence upon God.  And He is far from us; or, as we might better say, we have departed from Him.  May God help us always to remember the source of our temporal blessings.