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Herd Dynamics

Saturday, December 10, 2022

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

(1 Peter 5:8)

Hunting lions are always looking for easy prey; the injured, the infant, those who can be separated from the herd. Peter describes our “adversary” as a prowling lion, “seeking someone to devour.” This language from nature is helpful not only to inform us of the devil’s tactics but also to teach us how to respond to his schemes (Eph. 6:11). Scripture often teaches lessons from nature; the sparrow and the lily, the vine and the branches, the ant, the horse, the fig tree, etc. What can we learn from how individual members of a herd react to one another and respond to outside stimuli like danger from a predator? And what spiritual parallels can we find?

There is strength in unity — Animals that travel in herds don’t do so primarily for social reasons. They congregate because there is safety in numbers (see Ecc. 4:9-12). Here lies an important lesson for Christians. When we responded in faith to the gospel, we were added to God’s “flock” (Acts 20:28-29). By sticking together (Acts 2:46; Heb. 10:24-25) we not only survive but thrive and mature spiritually (Eph. 4:13-14). The early church endured many trials by worshiping, encouraging and strengthening one another (Acts 14:22; 15:32, 41; 16:5; 18:23). We combat the enemy’s strategy to divide and conquer (1 Cor. 1:10) through our commitment to unity. Alone we are weak, but together, with God, we are strong.

There is strength in uniformity — While each Christian is uniquely endowed by God (Rom. 12:1-8), we are also called to conform to one image (Rom. 8:29). When we pattern our lives after the Lord (1 Pet. 2:21) and his teaching (1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13), we find strength in Christ-like uniformity. This way no one among the herd stands out to the prowling lion as easy prey. Just as herd animals group themselves in a uniform manner to increase their chances of survival, Christians must follow their good Shepherd (Jn. 10:1-18) and keep in step with his voice (Jn. 10:27).

There is strength in vigilance — Every set of ears and eyes in the herd are attuned to sense incoming danger. Once danger is spotted, the alarm is sounded. While it is the duty of shepherds to watch for danger and protect God’s flock (1 Pet. 5:1-5; Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28-31), we must all be sober and vigilant for one another’s sake. Paul tells us that “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1) Jude says we must be diligent to “save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” (Jd. 1:23) Jesus taught his disciples to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mk. 14:38) Peter would know. Therefore, “be sober-minded; be watchful.”

The devil is our adversary and he is hungry. But there is another Lion, the Lion of Judah who has conquered the devil (Rev. 5:5). This Lion is also a Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). His sacrificial blood has purchased and cleansed us (1 Pet. 1:19). This Lion/Lamb is worthy to be praised. He sits on the throne and executes God’s just judgments (Rev. 5-8). Salvation belongs to him (Rev. 7:10) and he guides us as our chief Shepherd (Rev. 7:17; 1 Pet. 5:4). By this Lion’s strength we can resist the devil (1 Pet. 5:9; Jas. 4:7-8), because the Lion who seeks to protect us is far greater than the lion who seeks to devour us (2 Kgs. 6:16). May God help us to stay unified, uniform, and vigilant in Christ so that when our adversary comes, we can conquer him by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11).

Two Runaways, Two Approaches

Saturday, December 03, 2022

“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you.”

(Philemon 1:8-9a)

Paul's letter to Philemon has an interesting literary parallel in Pliny the Younger's letter to his friend Sabinianus. The two letters are only superficially similar, however, and serve to show the difference the gospel makes. Sabinianus’ freedman (one degree above a slave) had run away and come to Pliny for help in much the same way Philemon's slave, Onesimus, had run away to Paul.

Pliny was a powerful man, a Roman Senator. You may have heard of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a famous natural historian and contemporary of Paul, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Like Paul, Pliny (the younger) writes a letter requesting Sabinianus to accept the runaway freedman back. Unlike Paul, Pliny appeals to self-interest and sides with Sabinianus against the freedman. His request is not for full reconciliation and peace between the two but rather a concession to the freedman's youth and to Sabinianus' kindness. Pliny wants the freedman to apologize to Sabinianus and for Sabinianus not to beat the freedman too badly for running away. He is perfectly happy to keep the hierarchy in place upon his return.

Compare this to Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul does not simply ask Philemon to take Onesimus back and let bygones be bygones. He is aiming for the Christian virtue of love that will result in self-sacrificial forgiveness and full reconciliation. This requires humility on both sides—Onesimus must be humble enough to ask for forgiveness while Philemon must be humble enough to grant it. Paul bases his request on the theological fact that they both share fellowship with God together in Christ. Now that Onesimus is part of God's spiritual family he has become Philemon's “beloved brother” and spiritual equal (Phm. 1:16; cf. Col. 3:10-11). Contrast with:

21. Pliny the Younger To Sabinianus (Pliny the Younger [A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113] Letters. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14)

The freedman of yours with whom you said you were angry has been to me, flung himself at my feet, and clung to me as if I were you. He begged my help with many tears, though he left a good deal unsaid; in short, he convinced me of his genuine penitence. I believe he has reformed, because he realizes he did wrong.

You are angry, I know, and I know too that your anger was deserved, but mercy wins most praise when there was just cause for anger. You loved the man once, and I hope you will love him again, but it is sufficient for the moment if you allow yourself to be appeased. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and will have more excuse if you were once placated.

Make some concession to his youth, his tears, and your own kind heart, and do not torment him or yourself any longer – anger can only be a torment to your gentle self. I’m afraid you will think I am using pressure, not persuasion, if I add my prayers to his – but this is what I shall do, and all the more freely and fully because I have given the man a very severe scolding and warned him firmly that I will never make such a request again. This was because he deserved a fright, and is not intended for your ears; for maybe I shall make another request and obtain it, as long as it is nothing unsuitable for me to ask and you to grant.

24. To Sabinianus a reply

You have done the right thing in taking back into your home and favour the freedman who was once dear to you, with my letter to mediate between you both. You will be glad of this, and I am certainly glad, first because I see you are willing to be reasonable and take advice when angry, and then because you have paid me the tribute of bowing to my authority, or, if you prefer, granting my request. So accept my compliments as well as my thanks, but, at the same time, a word of advice for the future: be ready to forgive the faults of your household even if there is no one there to intercede for them.

Hallelujah! Amen!

Saturday, November 19, 2022

1 Praise the LORD! 

   Praise God in his sanctuary;

   praise him in his mighty heavens!

Praise him for his mighty deeds;

   praise him according to his excellent greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;

   praise him with lute and harp!

Praise him with tambourine and dance;

   praise him with strings and pipe!

Praise him with sounding cymbals;

   praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!

   Praise the LORD!

Psalm 150

The psalter includes five books, each one ending in a doxology (Book 1: Psalms 1-41; Book 2: Psalms 42-72; Book 3: Psalms 73-89; Book 4: Psalms 90-106; Book 5: Psalms 107-150). Psalm 150 concludes the whole book in a brief, loud, exciting doxology of praise. In it, “everything that has breath” is summoned to “praise the LORD” and we are taught the where, why, how, and who of praise.

The where of praise (1) — First there is a call to praise God “in his sanctuary” on earth where Israel gathered for worship. But the invitation extends to “his mighty heavens” where all celestial beings and bodies dwell (Psa. 148:1-4). Thus all creation in heaven and on earth is summoned to join their voices in praise for the LORD. “God’s glory fills the universe; his praise must do no less.” (Kidner, Psalms). From where should God be praised? From everywhere!

The why of praise (2) — Praise and worship are only logical (Rom. 12:1). God is to be praised both for what he has done (“for his mighty deeds”) and for who he is (“according to his excellent greatness”). These are the loci of all our hallelujahs; praise that is not motivated by God’s deeds, such as his saving acts toward us (Psa. 145:4, 10-13), and God’s character, such as his faithfulness and mercy (Psa. 117), cannot rightly be called praise. Why is the LORD to be praised? Because of who he is and what he has done!

The how of praise (3-5) — The method of praise is found in verses 3-5; praise him with, essentially, ‘everything you have!’ What stands out here is the sheer variety of expression. The “trumpet” was blown to mark the start of festivals such as Jubilee (Lev. 25:9), to summon troops or announce victory in battle; “tambourine and dance” for celebration (Psa. 149:3; Ex. 15:20; 1 Sam. 18:6); the “lute and harp” for everyday music making (Gen. 4:21; Job 21:12; 30:31). The point is that every kind of instrument and music, solemn or jubilant, percussive or melodic, gentle or raucous, is mobilized in worship. While under the New Covenant we are called to sing without instrumental accompaniment (Col. 3:16), we are to do so with our whole spirit, mind, and heart (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19). The completeness and diversity of our worship today is expressed in the unity of the multi-ethnic church, where every nation, tribe, people, and language join their hallelujahs together with one voice in Christ.

The who of praise (6) — The psalm (and the entire psalter) crescendoes with the glorious variety of God’s creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Rev. 5:13), from spiritual beings, celestial bodies, all nature and the animal kingdom, to all people, great and small (see Psalms 8 and 148) offering their praise: “everything that has breath praise the LORD!” “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:13) Let God be praised in all creation, by all people, in all things. Hallelujah! Amen!

Dwelling in Unity

Saturday, November 12, 2022

1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is

when brothers dwell in unity!

2 It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down on the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,

life forevermore.

Psalm 133

This tiny psalm celebrating unity is ascribed to David. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing exactly when he wrote it. Was it the moment when God united all the tribes under his leadership at Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5:1-10) or perhaps when two individual Israelites reconciled? Was it written early on in David’s reign when Israel enjoyed harmony or later after he had exchanged peace for the sword which would “never depart” from his house (2 Sam. 12:10)? Though knowing the occasion might color our reading of the psalm, the theme maintains its truth and beauty regardless of the situation.

The clause “when brothers dwell in unity” resembles Deuteronomy 25:5, where it applies to physical family living under one roof. But all Israelites were considered “brothers” by God. In fact, the same phrase appears in Gen. 13:6; 36:7 where the land could not support multiple families dwelling in close proximity. In such cases, they had to separate (as with Abram and Lot). Therefore, the psalm could be a celebration both of peaceful relationships between God’s people and the abundance of the land which God provides. Both would make it possible for brothers to “dwell in unity.”

Verse 1 is followed by two illustrations of that unity. The first describes unity with the image of Aaron’s anointing as priest (2). The blessing of unity overflows and spreads among God’s people just as the anointing oil intended for Aaron’s head also ran down his beard and the collar of his robes (Ex. 29:7). As the oil covered the priest and his garments making both holy (Ex. 29:21), so unity among brothers sets them apart from the world. Though fragrance is not mentioned directly, the oil for anointing was “blended by the perfumer” (Ex. 30:23-38). When God’s people “dwell in unity” it gives off an “aroma from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15f; cf. Jn. 17:20f).

Second, unity is like “the dew of Hermon,” Israel’s highest peak. Just as dew refreshes the land making it fruitful, unity provides an atmosphere conducive to growth. The emphasis in the last part of verse 3 is on God’s initiative; “for the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” This fact of God’s blessing coming down from above is further emphasized by the three-fold repetition, which is partly lost in translation: literally ‘descending… (2a) descending… (2b) descending’ (3a). The point being that unity is a gift bestowed upon us by God, “a blessing far more than an achievement” (Kidner, Psalms 73-150). But a blessing to be protected and cultivated.

Sadly, while heaven’s unity was to come down and find expression “there” (3), i.e. in Jerusalem, King David brought discord to the people instead (2 Sam. 11:1ff). But much later, it was also “there” in Jerusalem where David’s great ancestor and Lord died on a cross breaking down the barrier of separation between God and humanity (sin) and between Jew and Gentile (the Law of Moses). Through this achievement God unites humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). He “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” The challenge is plain: will we seek to maintain and cultivate that unity which Jesus died to create? (Eph. 4:1ff) Or will we dishonor that sacrifice by seeking our own interests and creating division? God help us to “dwell in unity.”

The Blessing Cycle

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
    who stand by night in the house of the LORD!

Lift up your hands to the holy place
    and bless the LORD!

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
    he who made heaven and earth!

Psalm 134

Psalm 134 is the final ‘Song of Ascents’ in a list of fifteen which began with Psalm 120. These hymns were used by pilgrims on their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem which was situated on a high hill called Mount Zion; hence, they must ascend to reach it. This particular song reads like a call and response. The “servants of the LORD” are the priests who ministered in the temple (“who stand by night in the house of the LORD”). They are called by the traveling Israelites to “bless the LORD.” The priests respond with a benediction on the visiting worshipers which concludes the psalm.

Levitical priests ministered in the temple in various ways. Still other Levites assisted them (1 Chron. 23:32) and conducted the musical worship (1 Chron. 25). 1 Chronicles 9:33 says, “Now these, the singers… were in the chambers of the temple free from other service, for they were on duty day and night.” And again, “they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD, and likewise at evening.” (1 Chron. 23:30). This description fits well with those “who stand by night in the house of the LORD.” (Psa. 134:1)

These singers are summoned to “bless the Lord” (v.1) by “lift[ing] up [their] hands to the holy place” (v.2), i.e. the temple, God’s dwelling. To lift one’s hands to God was a typical posture for prayer (Lk. 24:50). Paul addressed proper demeanor in worship by telling men to “pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). This posture signified purity; the hands lifted to God were holy and clean, free from the soil of “anger or quarreling.” (References to prayer with uplifted hands in Judaism, see 1 Kgs. 8:54; Psa. 28:2; 63:4; 141:2; 2 Macc. 14:32; Philo, Flaccus 121; Jos. Antiquities 4:40; for early Christianity, see esp. Tertullian, On Prayer 17.)

The keynote of the psalm is the verb “bless,” which appears in each verse. In vv.1-2, the blessing is directed toward God (“bless the LORD” or “praise the LORD” in some translations); in v.3, the blessing returns from God to humanity in the form of a benediction (“may the LORD bless you”). The exchange of blessing is unequal, however. For us to bless God is to gratefully acknowledge God for who he is, to praise him and give him what belongs to him. For God to bless us is for him to share with us what is his and to make of us what we are not. Blessing belongs to the God “who made heaven and earth.” But in his grace, our God returns that blessing upon us in ways that cannot be counted or measured.

Finally, note from where God dispenses his blessing: “from Zion.” This is a fixed place where Israel could go to give and receive blessing. Therefore, God’s blessing, like his commandment, is not “far off… it is not in heaven… neither is it beyond the sea… but… is very near you” (Deut. 30:11-14; Rom. 10:6ff).

Christ has come from heaven both to bless us and praise his Father. Though we were dead in our sins, God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 2:6). Being raised, we are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1), ever ascending to the true Mount Zion, that “heavenly Jerusalem,” from where our King reigns as “the mediator of a new covenant.” (Heb. 12:22-24) As his forgiven people, we have become both God’s “spiritual house” and his “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:4-5) In Christ, we bless the Lord and are blessed by him.

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