Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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THE JUSTICE OF GOD

 

Psalm 11

            The great paradox of human existence is the conflict between good and evil.  We can see that we live in a rationally ordered universe.  Moreover, we have within ourselves a moral consciousness – an awareness that there is an essential difference between right and wrong.  And yet all around us we see violence, cruelty and oppression – not to mention disease, poverty and natural disasters.

This, in turn, raises a question about God Himself.  Is this all a reflection of His own character?  The pagan deities of the ancient world shared the same faults as their human devotees.  The prophets of Israel, however, asserted that there is only one God, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Does He, then, share these contradictory traits?

Psalm 11 addresses the issue.  It is attributed to David, and it describes a crisis in his life in which his physical life was threatened by his enemies.  David describes the situation this way:

“For, behold, the wicked bend the bow,

They make ready their arrow upon the string

To shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.”

(v. 2: NASV)

Here it will be noted that we have persons who are “wicked” threatening the life of someone who is “upright in heart” – a scene all too familiar in human history.

David’s response was to look to God Himself:

“The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne

is in heaven;

His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.”

(v. 4)

The Hebrew word translated “test” (bachan) means “to examine to determine essential qualities” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).  God, as the Supreme Judge of all mankind, carefully scrutinizes all of our behavior, and is aware of everything we do.  He does not look the other way.

But what will God do about what He sees?

“The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,

And the one who loves violence His soul hates.”

(v. 5)

God hates “the one who loves violence.”  God is a God of love and compassion; but that means that cruelty, injustice and oppression are utterly repulsive to Him.  Hatred of evil is the logical corollary of love for what is good.

What we have, then, is a God who is perfectly just and holy, examining the behavior of human beings who are often cruel and unjust.  What will He do about it?

“Upon the wicked He will rain snares;

Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion

of their cup.”

(v.6).
“The portion of their cup” is the destiny that God has allotted someone in life, as if He handed you a cup and told you to drink whatever was in it.  In the case of the wicked, as described here, it is “snares, fire and brimstone and burning wind.”  What David may very well have had in mind was the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Gen. 19:24).  David would also have known that there were penalties for violating the Mosaic Covenant, curses that included physical disasters such as severe drought (Deut. 28:21-24).  And there are also a number of passages throughout Scripture foretelling a future “Day of the Lord” which will be accompanied by celestial portents and physical calamities (e.g., Matt. 24:29; Rev. 16:1-11).

The “bottom line” is that evil will not prevail forever.  The day is coming when God will punish the wicked for their evil deeds.  What that says about God, then, is this:

“For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness;

The upright will behold His face.”

(v. 7).

God is righteous in His own character.  As the Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth He is just, fair and equitable.  Moreover, He “loves righteousness” – He wants to see the same qualities in us.

David bend the psalm by saying, “In the Lord I take refuge” (v. 1a).  With his life being threatened by his enemies, he refused to cave in or resort to expediency.  Instead he put his trust in the Lord, his “refuge.”  God would know what was going on, and could take care of him.

The practical application for us is obvious.  We do not live in an impersonal, irrational and amoral universe.  God is the Supreme Being.  He is the final Judge.  He is absolutely just in His own character, and He requires that be just in ours as well.  And in the end He is coming to judge the world.  We need to live lives that are in accordance with His will no matter what we see going on in human society at any given moment in time.  May God grant us the grace to live lives that are pleasing to Him!

THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

 

Psalm 47

 

In what kind of world do we live?  One popular writer today, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, suggests that life is an ongoing struggle between order and chaos, and says that the experience of hunger, loneliness, thirst, sexual desire, aggression, fear and pain, “are elements of Being – primordial, axiomatic elements of Being” (12 Rules for Life, p. 101).  He says that everyone must be willing “to shoulder the burden of Being and take the heroic path” (p. xxxiii).

The Bible, however, paints a different picture of reality.  We live in a world that was created by an intelligent Supreme Being, but has fallen from its original condition and is ruined by human sin.  Our goal in life should be to bring everything back into conformity with the will of the Creator.

But is God in control?  According to the Bible, the answer is “yes.”  He is Lord and King over all the earth.  This is brought out beautifully in Psalm 47, a psalm that was evidently composed during the reign of King David and used in the worship at the tabernacle in Jerusalem.

The psalm begins, as many of the m do, with a call to worship: “O clap your hands, all peoples; / Shout to God with the voice of joy” (v. 1; NASV).  Significantly “all peoples” are exhorted to worship – worship is not just the prerogative of the children of Israel, as we shall see as the psalm progresses.  Moreover, they are to “Shout to God with the voice of .”  The word translated “joy” might better be rendered “a ringing cry” (marg.).  Worship should not be a dull, dry formality, but our expression of genuine, heartfelt love and adoration; and in this case of exuberant joy.

But why should we shout for joy?  Because “the Lord Most High is to be feared, / A great King over all the earth” (v. 2).  God is “to be feared,” in the positive sense of standing in reverential awe of the Almighty.  And the reason why we should be thus overawed is that He is “a great King over all the earth,” which brings us to the central thought of the passage.  We are to conceive of God as a powerful monarch whose dominion extends over the entire earth; and as such all human beings owe Him their obedience and respect.

The psalm then goes on to reflect on the immediate experience of the nation of Israel.   David was king, and God had given him military victory over the surrounding nations.  And so the psalm says, “He subdues the peoples under us / And nations under our feet” (v. 3).  The psalmist was conscious that David’s military victories were possible only through divine providence.  It was God, in effect, who subdued the surrounding nations and gave Israel the military victory.

The psalm also reflects on the fact that “He chooses our inheritance for us, / The glory of Jacob whom He loves” (v. 4).  The “inheritance” was most likely the land of Canaan (cf. Ex. 15:17; Dt. 4:21,28) which God had promised Abraham, and the promised land was the “glory” of Israel, God’s chosen people, whom He loved.  The psalmist was conscious of the fact that Israel occupied a privileged position.  They were God’s own chosen people, and He had blessed them with a land flowing with milk and honey.  But all of this was only possible because God was sovereignly in control of human events.

The psalm says that “God has ascended with a shout, / The Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (v. 5).  The “trumpet” was the shofar, the curved ram’s horn trumpet, which was sounded on special occasions, included the coronation of a king.  When the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem it was done “with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet” (II Sam. 6:15; cf. I Chron. 15:28), echoing the very language of the psalm.  By giving Israel victory over its enemies God had asserted His sovereignty, and this is seen as a cause of rejoicing for Israel.  God’s promises were being fulfilled and His righteousness was being established.

The next several verses then focus on the basic underlying principle, the sovereignty of God over all the nations.  He is a “King” (v. 6) who “reigns over the nations” and “sits on His holy throne” (v. 8).  God occupies the position of supreme authority in the universe.  As His creatures who owe our very existence to Him we are duty bound to obey Him.  He is our Lord and King.

Significantly the psalm says that “God is King of all the earth” (v. 7), and that He “reigns over the nations” (v. 8).  In other words, God’s sovereignty is universal – He is rightfully the Lord and Master of every human being.  The entire human race owes Him its allegiance and submission.  To refuse to acknowledge that, as in the case of modern secularism, is pure rebelliousness on our part.

The psalm concludes by saying,

“The princes of the people have assembled themselves,

as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;

He is highly exalted.”    (v. 9).

Today, of course, we live in very different circumstances.  We are not a part of a nation that can claim to be God’s chosen people; and in fact, as we look at the world around us, what we see is a steadily increasing godlessness.  How is God’s sovereignty manifested today?

First of all, God providentially controls all that goes on in the world today.  Men are wicked and in revolt against Him.  But God is omnipotent and ultimately in control.  He is working out His own purposes in history, and will allow the wicked to go only so far.

Secondly, the Bible reveals to us how history will end.  Christ will return, defeat His enemies, and institute a reign of peace and justice.

We are not dealing, then, with a weak and powerless Deity who stands by helplessly in the sky, but with the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.  Certainly such a God commands our reverence and respect.  He is to be “feared,” as we saw in verse 2 of the psalm.  But we are also to praise Him, to shout joyfully to Him.  He is merciful, compassionate and just, all at the same time; and He loves us, his chosen people.  His sovereignty means that evil will not prevail in the long run.  Good will eventually triumph.  We can have peace and joy even in the midst of sorrow and difficulty.  Our God reigns!

JESUS SUMMARIZES HIS MISSION

 

As Jesus comes to the end of His intercessory prayer He summarizes His requests, and in a way summarizes His whole mission here on earth.  That mission was about to end.  But what did He accomplish?

He begins by describing he condition of the world into which He had come.  “O righteous Father!  The world has not known You . . .” (John 17:25; NKJV).  The Greek word used here for “known” means to know something by observation and experience, as opposed to mere theoretical, abstract knowledge.  The world is estranged from God.  It may (or may not) acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being in some formal, abstract way, but it has no personal dealings with Him as the living God.  The average person rarely thinks about God at all, let alone prays to Him.  People go about their daily lives as though God simply did not exist.

And then Jesus reflects on His own relationship with the Father: “. . .but I have known You . . .”  In contrast with the world’s darkness and ignorance, its estrangement from God, Jesus was God’ the Father’s eternal Son.  He had coexisted with God the Father from all eternity, and enjoyed a warm, loving relationship with Him.

And then Jesus turns His attention to His disciples: “and these have known that You sent Me.”  Among the unconverted mass of humanity this small band of disciples had come to know that Jesus was no ordinary human being, but that He was, in fact, the Son of God who had come into the world.

But why had Jesus come into the world?  Jesus goes on to explain: “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it . . .” (v. 26).  The world translated “declared” could be rendered more literally “made known” (NASV).  But how did He “make known” God’s name?  In biblical times a person’s name was much more than a mere verbal marker.   It was meant to be a description of the thing itself.  Thus God’s name refers to the character and being of God Himself.  When Jesus made known the Father’s name He was revealing to mankind God’s essential character in a way that it had never been know before.  Granted, God had previously made a revelation of Himself through Moses and the Old Testament prophets.  But by coming into the world, by teaching and personal example, and ultimately by laying down His very life, Jesus made a clearer manifestation of the character of God – a God who is just and holy, but also loving and merciful.  It was a clearer revelation of God’s character than the human race had ever seen before.

But what was the ultimate aim of it all?  What did Jesus intend to accomplish by this?  He goes on to say: “. . . that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”  There is a broad, general sense in which “God so loved the world,” but as Jesus uses the term here He is referring to what theologians call God’s “love of complacency” or His “complacent love” – the kind of love in which God is genuinely pleased with someone.  Jesus notes that this is the kind of love that the Father has for Him as the Son.  And so now He prays that this same kind of love might also be “in them,” in His disciples as well.  This would be, first of all, that they too would become the objects of God’s complacent love – that they would be brought into such a relationship with God that they would experience God’s love personally.  But it may also mean that their own hearts would become filled with Christian love so that they would love others the way that God loved them – that God’s love would not just be towards them, but “in them.”

But Jesus goes further and adds, “and I in them.”  This points to the mystical union that genuine believers have with Christ – that Christ actually dwells inside their hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is not so much a matter of our own trying harder, in our own strength, to meet God’s standards.  Rather it is Christ living inside of us, transforming us inwardly, so that we live lives that are pleasing to Him.  As the apostle Paul would put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  What an amazing thing, to have the infinite, eternal and holy Son of God living inside of us!

That, then, is what Jesus accomplished by coming here to earth.  As human beings we were lost, rebellious, and deserving of God’s wrath.  Jesus came into the world as a light shining into the darkness, bringing salvation and eternal life to mankind.  As a result of what He did individual men and women can come to Him in repentance and faith, receive the forgiveness of their sins, and have eternal life in Him.  What a remarkable demonstration of God’s love and mercy!

“I stand amazed in the presence

Of Jesus the Nazarene,

And wonder how He could love me,

A sinner condemned unclean.

 

“How marvelous!  How wonderful!

And my song shall ever be:

How marvelous!  How wonderful

Is my Savior’s love for me!”

 

Charles H. Gabriel

THE BELIEVER’S ULTIMATE GOAL IN LIFE

168

The Stoning of Stephen

In this this last prayer that Jesus makes on behalf of His disciples, Jesus has reflected on their position in the world and the challenges that they would face in His physical absence.  Jesus has stated that they are not of the world (John 17:16), but that He has sent them into the world (v. 18), and that consequently the world hates them (v. 14.  But this raises a serious question.  If the disciples (and by implication believers in general) are expected to forego the comforts and pleasures of the world, what is the point of following Christ?  What advantage is to be gained?

The question is a pertinent one.  Today we in America live in a prosperous and materialistic society.  We are attuned to the here and now.  Our schools and our media concern themselves with our temporal existence here on earth.  Even many churches today are oriented towards helping people find happiness and fulfillment in this life.

But that is not how Jesus described the Christian life.  It is a life of discipleship, of sacrifice, and of faith.  What, then, is the point?  What could possibly be gained from leading such a life?  Jesus explains near the end of His great prayer: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (v. 24; NKJV).

Jesus, of course, was conscious of being the eternal Son of God, and of the position that He had held in heaven before His incarnation.  While He was here on earth many did not recognize Him as the Son of God.  And He was about to undergo the most humiliating trial of all.  But all of that stood in sharp contrast with His position in heaven.  There He was in direct contact with the Father.   He enjoyed the Father’s love.  The angels bowed down and worshipped Him.  He was fully recognized for what He actually was – the eternal Son of God through Whom the world was created.

And Jesus was conscious of the fact that He was about to be separated from His disciples and return to His Father in heaven.  But He loved His disciples too; and so He prays that “they . .. may be with Me where I am.”

Where Jesus was going to be, of course, was heaven, and heaven is a very different place from earth.  Here on earth we are exposed to illness and injury, to natural disasters, crime, corruption, poverty and war.  Death is an inescapable part of human existence.

But heaven is far different.  Jesus had once said that in heaven “neither moth nor rust destroys and  . . .thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20).  Peter could write about “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:4).  And we are told in the Book of Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.  There shall be nor more pain, for former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

But in His prayer Jesus specifically prayed that true believers “may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”  We will be in the very presence of God Himself, and will see Christ in all His glory.  The world “glory” sometimes has different significations in the Bible, but when John uses it, especially as applied to Jesus, it usually refers to His honor and reputation.  And it must be kept in mind that one of John’s major concerns in recording all of this is to demonstrate that the Jesus whom he knew personally, was indeed the eternal Son of God.  And so when we are in heaven we will see Jesus as He really is, in all of His divine glory.  Again, the Book of Revelation portrays a scene in which thousands upon thousands in heave say with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain

To receive power and honor and glory and blessing!”

(Rev. 5:8-14 – set to Handel’s music

no doubt!)

It is the pure joy of being in the presence of God and beholding His glory.

“In Your presence is fullness of joy;

At Your right hand are pleasures evermore.”

(Psalm 16:11)

If we truly love Christ our greatest desire, then, would be to be in His very presence in heaven.  The apostle Paul could say “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and that “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil 1:21-24).  And again, a little later he says, “Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).

Why, then, endure suffering and hardship for Christ?  It amounts to a simple cost / benefit analysis.  In the end the benefit (an eternity in heaven) outweighs the cost (temporary suffering here on earth).

And so the question is, what is our ultimate purpose and goal in life?  Are we living for the here-and-now, devoting our lives to the profits and pleasures of this life?  They are all here today and gone tomorrow.  It makes more sense to devote our lives to Christ, to seek to honor and glorify Him in all that we do, so that we can enjoy an eternity in glory.

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing thru,

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

From heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”

 

DSCN1136

YOUR WORD IS TRUTH

Jesus has been praying for His disciples, and for the entire Christian church by extension, and has been especially mindful of their position in the world once He has physically departed from it.  “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15; NKJV).  But how is that accomplished?

Jesus goes on, two verses later, to lay down a basic foundational truth of the Christian life: “Sanctify them by Your truth.  Your world is truth” (v. 17).  Again He says, another two verses later, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (v. 19).  To “sanctify” means to set apart from common use and consecrate to God.  When applied to Christ or to believers, it means to keep unspotted from the world and to be completely devoted to God.  But how is this accomplished?  We still have to live in the world.  As human beings we are social creatures.  We are very much affected by what goes on around us.  The world pressures us to conform – through the educational system, through the media, and through the legal system.  We face economic pressure.  All the while the world is pressuring us to conform to its debased values – its greed, its selfishness, its devotion to pleasure.  How can the Christian resist?

The answer, Jesus says, is “by Your truth.  Your word is truth.”  We might ask, first of all, whether or not there even is such a thing as “truth,” in the sense of a comprehensive explanation of reality.  Secular philosophy began by arguing that truth can be arrived at through pure reason alone.  But as time went on it became evident that there was a problem with this.  We are finite, mortal human beings.  Our range of observation is limited; we cannot possible know everything.  Philosophers have been had to question whether an objective, external reality even exists; and if it does, how can we know it?

To make matters worse, we are all subject to prejudice – we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe, whether it is demonstrably true or not.  In the end many philosophers finally concluded that there is no truth at all, in the sense of a comprehensive explanation of reality.  All ideologies are founded on prejudice, and the universe itself is essentially meaningless.

But Jesus said, “Your word is truth.”  Here Jesus is echoing the language of Psalm 119:160: “The entirety of Your word is truth,” and verse 142: “And Your law is truth.”  In the psalm “Your word” refers to what God has spoken, what God has revealed to us in verbal propositions.  And “Your law” is the whole body of instruction given to us, originally in the first five books of the Bible – the Torah (“torah” means instruction, direction, doctrine, precept, law).

And God’s word, Jesus says, is “truth.”  It is the explanation that completely corresponds to reality.  It is true because it comes from the Creator Himself.  There is nothing false or misleading in it at all.

Jesus prays, “Sanctify them by Your truth.”  Here again He is echoing the words of Psalm 119, especially Psalm 119:9: “How can a young man cleanse his way? / By taking heed according to Your word.”  And again in verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet / And a light to my path.”  The world bases its values on a false and distorted view of reality, one that tries to exclude the Creator from consideration – a worldview that was fabricated to justify mankind’s rebellion against God.  To live differently from the world we need a true and accurate view of reality, one that sees the true and living God as the Creator of the universe.

The Bible challenges the secular worldview in its very first verse; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  It is God who gives the created world its meaning and purpose.  And thus to understand things properly we are dependent upon the revelation which He has given us in His word, the Bible.  Thus God’s word helps us sort through all of the conflicting demands and false values of the world, and choose the path that leads to what God intended for us in life.  It is only in this way that we can find genuine happiness and fulfillment.

It should go without saying that true Christianity must be based firmly on the Bible as God’s infallible word and our only rule for faith and practice.  The great tragedy of modern church life is that the major Protestant denominations, which were originally founded on the principle of “sola Scriptura,” have largely abandoned their confidence in Scripture.  The result has been a profound confusion about the nature of Christian morality, and a lessening of influence on American society at large.  The mainline churches can no longer say “Thus says the Lord” because they themselves are no longer certain about what the Lord actually said.  The result has been disastrous for American society as a whole, as the nation sinks more deeply into the moral abyss.

As individual Christians, then, we need to meditate carefully on God’s world – to seek to understand it, and to apply it to our lives.  As a result we will live differently from the rest of the world around us.  We may encounter a certain degree of animosity.  Social an economic opportunities may elude us.  But in the end we will be received into heaven by our Savior         with open arms.

“It will be worth it all

When we see Jesus.”

Esther Kerr Rusthoi

 

THE PRAYER FOR CHURCH UNITY – II

 

Most American Christians do not realize how far removed our current practice is from that of the First Century Church.  There were no denominations then.  The entire Christian community within a given geographical area was conceived as a single church.  You were recognized as a member of that church by virtue of having been baptized.  There were no church buildings; the large metropolitan church met in small groups in private homes.  But they were all one church, under the oversight of a board of elders.  In that way they maintained their visible unity.

Jesus brings out a striking reason why visible church unity is so important: “. . .that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21; NKJV).  And again, “ . . . that they may be made perfect in One, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (v. 23).  Today a great deal of attention is paid to church growth strategies, with the emphasis often on the physical layout of the buildings, the style of music, and a friendly, informal atmosphere.  None of this is necessarily bad, but how much church growth is simply people who are already professing Christians transferring their membership from one church to another?  How many actual conversions do we see?  And meanwhile the surrounding culture sinks even more deeply into unbelief and moral chaos.  Our methods are clearly not bringing the results we expected.

But why would an unconverted person want to embrace evangelical Christianity in the first place?  Why would he want to give up a life of freedom and pleasure to follow Christ?  The obvious answer, here, is whether or not the claims that Jesus made for Himself are true.  And how can an unbeliever know that the historical Jesus of the First Century was the Son of God come down from heaven?  The answer, according to Jesus Himself, lies in the visible unity of the church.  How can the world know that Christ makes a difference in a person’s life?  They look at the church and what do they see?  Carnal, self-centered people dressed up in nice Sunday clothes?  Or a loving brotherhood of believers devoted to one another’s well-being?  The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes.

The Nineteenth Century Scottish preacher Charles Ross makes a telling observation: “Oh! Brethren, it is not until the spiritual unity of believers in Christ shall show itself strong enough to destroy the selfishness. Carnality, worldliness, and indifference that feed like a cankerworm at the root of our Christianity, in all the visible sections of it – it is not until then, that we may expect the world to be won to the Saviour . .. The Church of God is too much divided.  There is, indeed, a real spiritual union amongst all God’s true people; let us thank God for that.  But we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that there are too many divisions . . . Sectarianism is one of the crying evils of the day’ (The Inner Sanctuary, p. 231).  And if that was true of Nineteenth Century Scotland, how much more true is it of Twenty First Century America!

Granted, denominational differences are not easily overcome.  Theologians have been arguing and debating them for centuries.  But we should all be humble and honest enough to reexamine our positions in the light of Scripture and see what the Bible actually says.  Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  The question must always come back to what does He want?  In the meantime we can try to work across denominational line to achieve common goals, such as Christian schools and crisis pregnancy centers.  In this way Christ is glorified through the testimony that we can bear to the surrounding community.

George Whitefield, D.L Moody and Billy Graham were some of the most successful evangelists in history.  But what made them successful?  Was it loud praise bands and overhead screens?  (In Billy Graham’s case, maybe).  What brought results, real, genuine conversions, was the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.   And how did this happen?  Partially because they were willing to work across denominational lines.  May we all learn a lesson from their examples!

A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT – II

177

The Seventh Seal

America, of course, is not ancient Israel; and even the church, for that matter, is not under the Mosaic Covenant.  In that sense we have often heard the famous verse in II Chron. 7:14 (“. . .if My people who are called by My name . . .”) misapplied to America.  But, as we have seen, global pandemics do not happen by accident.  Ultimately the hand of God is in them.  What, then, are we to make of them?

When we turn to the New Testament we find Jesus making it very clear that “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there will be famines, pestilences* and earthquakes in various places” (Matt. 24:7: NKJV).  The Book of Revelation elaborates.  There are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fourth one of which is riding a pale horse, “And the name of him who rode on it was death, and Hades followed with him.  And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).

Later on a trumpet sounds in heaven, the bottomless pit is opened, and locusts emerge to torment those human beings who have not previous been sealed.  “In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them” (9:6).

Another trumpet sounds, and four angels are released to kill a third of mankind.  And yet such is the hardness of the human heart that the survivors “did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood . ..And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (9:20,21).

The question is, why does this happen to human society, and why does this happen to the church?  On the first question the Book of Revelation gives us a vivid picture of “Babylon,” the symbol of worldly, corrupt human civilization.  It is materially prosperous, and through its prosperity and its extensive international commerce it corrupts the rest of the world.   “For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wealth of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (18:3).  George Eldon Ladd, commenting on this verse, says that the word translated “luxury” (strenuous) suggests “self-indulgence and luxury accompanied by arrogance and wanton exercise of strength.”

This, in turn, led to pride (“she glorified herself” – v. 7), and exploitation of others – her cargo includes “bodies and souls of men” (v. 13).  According to the majority of Greek manuscripts, “her sins have been heaped up to heaven” (v.5).

God, then, will render to her just as she rendered to you, and repay her double according to her works; in the cup which she has mixed, mix double for her” (v. 6).  “Therefore her plagues will come in one day – death and mourning and famine.  And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord who judges her” (v. 8).

But what about the church?  Why should the church have suffered through all of this?  Part of the reason is that we are called to suffer with Christ.  But part of the reason is also that the church is not always as it should be.  In Revelation chapters 2 and 3 there are the letters to the seven churches of Asia, and in them the Lord is sharply critical of some of the churches.  The church at Ephesus, for example, was doctrinally sound, but “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).  The church had a dead orthodoxy.  Likewise the church at Sardis had “a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (3:1).  But perhaps the most scathing criticism was directed to the church at Laodicea.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish You were cold or hot” (3:13).  “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked –“ (v. 17).  Of this church Christ actually said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (v. 20).  He was outside!

So how does all of this apply to our current situation?  We are faced with a global pandemic, which would make it impossible to point to a single action by a single person at a specific time and place that would have occasioned the outpouring of God’s wrath and judgment.  But the pandemic has hit Europe and America especially hard, and these are places which were once nominally Christian but have since departed from the faith and have sunk into practical atheism and moral decay.  Most of these countries have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the same kinds of sin that brought the wrath of God down upon the ancient Canaanites.  Israel was warned, “Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all of these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you.  For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24,25).

To make matters worse, Western society tries to rationalize its immoral behavior with a kind of radical skepticism that denies universal truths and moral absolutes.  It is not wonder, then, that God would bring judgment down upon the corrupt and decadent Western world.

But what about the church?  At a time like this we need to engage in some honest sour-searching.  As Christ told the church at Laodicea, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  Therefore be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).  Measured by God’s standards, are we the churches that we ought to be?  Are we the individual Christians that we ought to be?  Can we honestly say that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength?  Do we immerse our souls in God’s Word?  Are we devoted to prayer?  De we honestly love the brethren?  Do we sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in our gathered assemblies?  Does our worship reflect the sense of mingled awe and joy that we ought to feel when we are in the presence of the infinite, holy and loving God?  If we are honest with ourselves, and our churches are typical of what we see so often today, the answer is probably “no.”

A day of prayer and fasting was long overdue.  Let us fall on our knees and humbly confess our sins, and plead with God for spiritual renewal.  And let us be earnest in praying for the conversion of the lost.  They are our fellow human beings.  But for the grace of God there go we.  Apart from Christ they face an eternity in hell.  In times like these we need to pray for revival!

“Lord, take my life, and make it wholly Thine;

Fill my poor heart with Thy great love divine.

Take all my will, my passion, self and pride;

I now surrender, Lord – in me abide.

 

“O Holy Ghost, revival comes from Thee;

Send a revival, start the work in me.

Thy word declares Thou wilt supply our need;

For blessings now, O Lord, I humble plead.”

J. Edwin Orr

 

*Most modern English version omit the word “pestilences.”  It is in the majority of Greek manuscripts, however, as well as the Latin Vulgate, although the Vulgate reverses the order: “pestilences and famines.”

A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT – I

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The Flood

Recently the Gospel Coalition, under the leadership of Dr. Julius Kim, called for a day of prayer and fasting to be held today, April 4.  There is a Prayer Companion Booklet in which Dr. Kim says, “Like many of you, I have been grieved and at times afraid as I’ve watched events unfold in our world in recent weeks.”   The booklet then goes on to give guidance as to how to spend the appointed time in prayer.

We are deeply gratified that at last someone has called for prayer and fasting on an occasion such as this.  And yet at the same time we cannot help feel a little bit of disappointment.  The prayer guide seems to treat the current pandemic more or less as a natural disaster which has people worried and frightened, and the guide is mainly focused on finding hope and comfort in a time of need, although the guide does contain instructions to pray for the conversion of the lost.

What is missing, however, is the sense that this may all be a divine judgment on human sin.  Pandemics do not happen purely by accident; God is sovereignly in control.  The question is, why did this one come about?

It is probably not possible to give an exact answer to the question.  The outworkings of divine providence are subject to the secret will of God, and only He knows the precise reason for the current crisis.  But Scripture does give us as least a broad idea of what is going on and how we should respond.

There is the case, for example, of Noah’s flood.  We are told “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:5,6; NKJV).  The result was that God wiped out nearly the entire human race in the great flood that followed.

Then there is the case of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “The Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry . . .” (Gen. 18:20,21).  The outcome on this occasion was that “the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens” (Gen. 19:24).

And then there is the example of God’s dealings with Israel itself.  Israel had entered into a formal covenant with God, and as a part of that covenant there was a series of blessing and curses conditioned upon Israel’s obedience or disobedience.  The curses are outlined in Dt. 28:15-68.  Significantly the list includes a large number of physical ailments.  In verse 21 we are told that “The Lord will make the plague cling to you . . .”  One commentator, P.C. Craigie, says that this “probably refers to a disease of epidemic proportions, which would cling to people (i.e., it would be impossible to halt its progress).”  The list goes on to include “consumption, fever, inflammation, severe burning fever” (v. 22), as well as a wide variety of other physical ailments.  In verse 59 it says, “then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues – great and prolonged plagues – and serious and prolonged sickness.”  God definitely uses sickness and disease to punish people for their sins.

What, then, are the people of God supposed to do when such chastisement strikes?  Years later, when King Solomon was dedicating the new temple in Jerusalem, he prayed, in part,

“Where there is a famine in the land, pestilence or blight or mildew,

locusts or grasshoppers; when their enemies besiege them in the land

of their cities; whatever plague or whatever sickness there is; whatever

prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people

Israel, when each one knows his own burden and his own grief, and

spreads out his hands to this temple: then hear from heaven Your dwelling

place, and forgive, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose

heart you know (for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men),

that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the

land which You gave to our fathers” (II Chron. 6:28-31).

God responded to Solomon’s prayer by saying, “When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people, if My people, who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (II Chron. 7:13,14).  What we must do, then, first of all, is to “humble ourselves,” is to get off our high horses and frankly acknowledge our utter dependence upon God.  Then we must “pray and seek His face” – we are to make a conscious effort to draw into the presence of God (“His face”) and communicate with Him.  Prayer should never be an empty ritual.  And then we are to “turn from our wicked ways.”  If the disaster was brought upon us because of some moral failure on our part, then we need to acknowledge it and change our behavior.  And if we do so, God has promised “to forgive our sin and to heal.”

As it turns out, Israel was not faithful to the covenant and was eventually driven into exile as a result.  But years later the prophet Daniel realized what must be done, and in Daniel chapter 9 he prays a prayer of confession on behalf of Israel.  Here we have a frank confession of sin (vv. 5-10 – “We have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled . . .”) and an acknowledgment of God’s hand in what had happened to them (vv. 11-14 – “And He has confirmed His words, which He spoke against us . . .by bringing upon us a great disaster; for under the whole heaven such has never been done as what has been done to Jerusalem” ).  And then he asks God to turn away His wrath (vv. 15-19).  It is a model of how we should respond then God brings chastisement our way.

Tomorrow: The New Testament perspective

THE PRAYER FOR CHURCH UNITY – I

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In the midst of all the trials and difficulties Christians experience in a hostile world, Christ’s plea for His disciples is that they would be one.  He prays, “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11; NKJV).  He comes back to this theme a little later in His prayer.  “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (vv. 20,21).

First of all, it should be noted that Jesus makes a distinction between believers and unbelievers, and He makes it clear that He is not praying here for unbelievers.  He prays “for those who will believe in Me.”  The phrase translated “believe in” is used throughout the Gospel of John to refer to personal faith in Christ.  What He is praying for here is the unity of a fellowship of believers – not a state church or a church with liberal theology.  And Jesus made it clear in verse 9 that “I pray for them.  I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”  He draws a sharp distinction between the world and true believers.  He is praying for the unity of genuine born-again Christians, not a mixed body of converted and unconverted church members.  It is a believers’ church that is in view here.

On the other hand Jesus makes it plain that He is praying for all genuinely born again Christians.  “I do not pray for these alone [i.e., His immediate disciples], but also for those who will believer in Me through their word” (v. 20).  His concern is not just for one particular denomination or sect, but for the universal church as a whole – all who genuinely believe in Him in every age.

Jesus describes the nature of church unity this way: “as You, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us” (v. 21).  “I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfect in one” (v. 23).  There is a certain amount of mystery here, the nature of the Godhead and the manner in which the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father.  But it does point to what theologians call the mystical union of believers in Christ.  If we have been born again we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts; and this connects us mystically to Jesus Christ and to each other.  All true believers have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We are all members of the body of Christ, regardless of our particular denominational affiliation.  We all share a common connection to Christ.  He is the head of the one universal church of which we are all members.  Thus every truly born-again Christian is a brother or sister in Christ.

It is for this church, this universal church, that Jesus prays “that they all may be one . . .” (vv. 21-23).  He prays that they might be one, not many.

Here we see the great scandal of modern American church life.  We are a nation made up of ethnic groups from every corner of the globe.  We enjoy the freedom of religion, the separation of church and state.  Unfortunately that has resulted in an incredible array of denominations.   There are at least six or sever conservative Presbyterian groups alone, each claiming to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Much to our shame we have come to accept this as normal.  Churches feel free to define themselves any way they wish, often putting highly debatable doctrines in their statements of faith, and then requiring their candidates for membership to subscribe to the statement of faith in full.  Individual Christians simply shop around and choose whatever church they wish to join, sometimes changing membership repeatedly from church to church.

Some of the more conservative or “Fundamentalist” churches practice what is called “Second Degree Separation.”  “First Degree Separation,” separation from unbelievers, is biblical.  Evangelical Christians should not be part of liberal, mainline denominations that deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith.  That would be tacitly recognizing unbelievers as brothers and sisters in Christ.  But “Second Degree Separation,” separation from fellow Evangelical Christians over secondary points of doctrine, is problematic.  If we are to take Jesus’ words in this prayer seriously, we should all be working for the visible unity of the church.

GOD AND THE CORONAVIRUS

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4.2.7

Pieter Claesz, A Vanitas Still Life, 1645

 

The current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, dramatically, how fragile life can be.  Within a matter of weeks, and even days, our lives have been turned upside down; and now we wait, not sure what to expect, but bracing for the worst.  Nearly everyone will be put to an inconvenience.  Many will get sick, and some will die.  Events have been cancelled and plans have been disrupted.  How will it all end?

There is a sense in which none of this is new – it is a part of the human condition.  Just ask the survivors of the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages.  And the frailty of human life is reflected in many of the psalms in the Bible.

One such psalm is Psalm 33.  The human author is unknown, but the psalm is found in the early part of the psalter that contains many of the psalms of David..  The psalm begins, appropriately, with a call to worship:

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.

Praise the Lord with the harp;

Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.”

(Psalm 33:1,2; NKJV)

Praise is the proper and fitting response to all that God is and has done, as the psalmist will go on to demonstrate.

The psalmist describes God’s character as one of “righteousness and justice,” and says that “The earth is full of the presence of the Lord” (v. 5).  Even natural disasters do not detract from the fact that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  There is evidence of Intelligent Design everywhere.

The psalmist points to the enormous power of God demonstrated in creation.

“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.”

(vv. 6,9).

\Contemplate for a moment the sheer immensity of the universe, the distant stars and galaxies millions of light years away, and then realize that all this came into being by the mere spoken word of God!  How amazing beyond all comprehension!  “Let all the earth fear the Lord, / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (v. 8).

But if God is the all-powerful Creator, it stands to reason that He exercised absolute control over what He has created.  And this means, in turn, that He can override the counsels of men.  “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; / He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect’ (v. 10).  Think of what has just happened in our lives.  A tiny microbe appeared in a distant city in central China, and within just a matter of a few months entire countries on the other side of the globe were shut down and the financial markets are in upheaval.  The most that the healthcare officials can do is to try to slow down the rate of infection; they are powerless to stop it completely.  And all of this because of an invading army equipped with tanks, planes, missiles and bombs?  No!  Because of a microscopic bug!  How fragile life is!  And yet God, the Creator and Lord of the universe, is in control of it all.  “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, / The plans of His heart to all generations” (v. 11).

The psalmist points out that God is perfectly aware of all that is going on down here:

“The Lord looks down from heaven;

He sees all the sons of men . . .

He fashions their hearts individually;

He considers all their works.”

(vv. 13,15)

What this suggests is that what is happening now did not happen by accident – God is perfectly aware of what is going on, and is controlling its course and determining its outcome.  It is all a part of His eternal plan.

The psalmist then makes a telling observation:

“No king is saved by the multitude of an army;

A mighty man is not delivered by great strength.’

A horse is a vain hope for safety;

Neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.”

(vv. 16,17).

An army, one’s own physical strength, and a horse are all things on which we are naturally inclined to rely.  But all of them, by their very nature, are finite.  There always exists the possibility that they will be overwhelmed by an even greater force.  And since God is infinite, He can easily overcome any of them.  As we have seen in the current crisis, there are even forces in nature that can overwhelm a government.  But God is greater than all of these.  God is ultimately in control.  In God we should place our trust.

And so the psalmist tells us that “the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him . . .to deliver their soul from death . . .” (vv. 18,19).  This in itself is remarkable.  Why would the infinite Creator and Lord of heaven and earth pay any attention to any of us finite creatures of the dust?  The answer is that it is precisely because He is infinite that He is aware of everything.  “The Lord looks from heaven; / He sees all the sons of men” (v. 13).  That being the case, He takes a personal interest in “those who fear Him, / On those who hope in His mercy” (v. 18).  To “fear” God does not mean to live to live in constant terror of Him.  God is good – He is kind and gracious.  To “fear” Him means to have such a deep reverence for His power and authority that one would dread to offend Him in any way.  It means to approach Him in deep and humble reverence.

To “hope” in God means to have a confident expectation which will then demonstrate itself in patient waiting.  “Mercy” might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV).  It is the kindness of God “in condescending to the needs of his creatures” (Brown-Driver-Briggs).  The key to weathering the storms of life is to put our trust in God’s unfailing goodness.  But that requires faith.

Thus the psalmist concludes by saying:

“Our soul waits for the Lord;

He is our help and our shield.

For our heart shall rejoice in Him,

Because we have trusted in His holy name.”

(vv. 20,21).

We put our trust in Him.  We rely on Him to get us through life’s trials and difficulties.  And as a result we patiently wait on Him; and we do more than that – we “rejoice in Him” – our heart is filled with joy and gratitude precisely because we have the confidence that He will come and deliver us.

The psalmist finally concludes with a prayer: “Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, / Just as we hope in You” (v. 22); His “mercy” again being His lovingkindness.

The question, then, is how firm is our faith in God?  Do we have the confidence that He will deliver us from all our trials and difficulties?  In a situation like the one in which we now find ourselves it may seem difficult.  The whole world seems in chaos – the things upon which we have always relied my no longer be there for us.  But if our faith is real and genuine, if God has a real presence in our lives, we will go to Him in prayer, confess our fear and anxiety, and wait for “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” to “guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).