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Down in the Valley

Saturday, November 20, 2021

“[Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Philippians 2:6-7

As early as Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Christians understood Isaiah's fourth “Servant Song” (Isa. 52:13-53:12) to be describing Jesus. His humble arrival, his innocent life, the injustice and pain he suffered, his faithful obedience to his Father’s will, and, of course, his sacrificial death where he bore our sins on the cross (1 Pet. 2:23-25) are all found in Isaiah 52-53. Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29) and in him there is forgiveness (Col. 1:19-20).

In Philippians 2, Paul writes his own poem about the Messiah and he seems to adopt both the structure and content of Isaiah’s. Servanthood is emphasized in both. Jesus “emptied himself” just as the Servant in Isaiah “poured out his soul to death” (Isa. 53:12). Both Paul’s poem and the Isaiah-passage begin and end with Christ’s transcendent glory (Phil. 2:6, 9-11; Isa. 52:13; 53:12) and between those two points of triumph, the downward staircase that ends at the cross. Both Paul and Isaiah take us from the highest high in heaven to the lowest low on earth and back again.

Paul’s point was for us to emulate the same attitude of self-denial for the sake of others that Jesus had (Phil. 2:1-4). Just as the Servant did not hold on to the “rights” that were his but gave them up so that others may live, so are we to walk the same road. We are called upon to consider others as more important than ourselves,  to serve as he served, to empty ourselves as he did.

When we behave like Jesus, however, we must be prepared to be met with the same astonishment and rejection as he was (Isa. 52:13-53:3). One tragic aspect of our Christian love and service is simply being taken for granted. We pour out our lives for others, and they simply drink us up and throw us out without so much as a “thank you.” When that happens to us, when we find ourselves ‘down in the valley’ of that V-shaped narrative of Isaiah 52-53 and Philippians 2, we need to remember a few things.

First, we need to remember that we are simply being treated as Jesus was. “He was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Why should we think our sacrificial love should get universal recognition and appreciation if the world for whom Jesus died paid no attention to him? Jesus said, “A servant is not above his master” (Mt. 10:24) and “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18-21). While most people will take us for granted, there will be some who will be drawn closer to Christ as a result of him living in us. And most importantly, God notices our faithful service and will reward it in the end (1 Cor. 15:58).

Second, being treated like Jesus for acting like Jesus should fill us with hope, not despair. The apostles, after they were beaten and released, were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). They could rejoice because sharing in Jesus’ suffering is the sure sign that we will share in Jesus’ triumph and resurrection! (Phil. 3:10-11) When we are down in that V-shaped valley, we must always be singing that final song of triumph to get us through.

The burden of servanthood is to bear the burdens of others. Jesus carried our griefs and sorrows. While we can never bear others’ burdens in the same way or to the same extent Jesus did, we can at least help them carry those burdens to the place where Jesus can unload them. “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We are Christ’s wounded healers, bringing God’s healing love to bear in this broken world. Someday, he will take us from this deep valley up to heavenly heights.

Listening to the Sermon

Saturday, November 13, 2021

“As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.”

Ezekiel 33:30-32

Ezekiel had a tough job. He was commissioned to preach an unpopular message to people who wouldn’t listen. He was to act as a watchman and warn his fellow exiles in Babylon of judgment if they did not turn back to the Lord. Ezekiel announced the sad news that the siege back home in Jerusalem had begun (24:1-2). After two years of waiting, news of the city’s fall finally reached them in Babylon (33:21). This marked a turning point in Ezekiel’s career.

The prophet was recommissioned (33:1-9) and repeated his original message of repentance (33:10-20). After Jerusalem fell, the prophet was vindicated in the eyes of the exiles (33:21-22). Before, nobody would listen to him. But now, he had an eager audience. Ezekiel went from being an unpopular, despised prophet (cf. 2:3-7; 3:4-9) to a vindicated, popular prophet. Suddenly, he was the talk of the town. People came in droves wanting to hear what this eccentric prophet would say next (33:30). They hung on his every word but they viewed his preaching as mere entertainment (33:31-32). Ezekiel was to them “like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument.” Yes, they would listen and admire the words, but they would not obey the message. It went in one ear and out the other. They acted not in response to Ezekiel’s preaching but by their “lustful talk” and their “heart… set on gain.” (33:31)

God’s people today should draw three warnings from this text:

The dangers of becoming a “popular” preacher — Ezekiel had been both unpopular and popular, both “in season and out of season,” so to speak. It would be hard for Ezekiel not to be flattered by all this newfound attention and think he was now successful. Successful preaching, however, is not measured by the number of people who hear it, by the congratulatory words of the listeners, nor even by its reception. Rather, successful preaching is gauged by whether or not the message is God’s word. By this measure, Ezekiel was just as ‘successful’ in chapter 33 when lots of people were listening as he was in chapter 3 when no one was.

The dangers of listening to “entertaining” preaching — There are many preachers whose sermons lack substance and biblical content but, because they are entertaining, get an audience. On the other hand, there are many compelling speakers who also preach God’s word faithfully. Ezekiel, evidently, was one. But we can’t think that simply by attending the assembly and being entertained by the lesson that that, by itself, accomplishes anything. If we have not enjoined our listening with life-changing obedience, our listening does us no good (Jas. 1:22-25; Mt. 7:24-27). The exiles were entertained but not changed by the sermons. What about us?

The dangers of listening with impure hearts — Ezekiel’s fellow exiles had their hearts “set on their gain.” This possibly indicates they were trying to exploit the popular preacher for their own ends, trying to make a fast buck out of Ezekiel’s entertainment value. As with Simon (Acts 8:18-24), their receptivity to God’s word was distorted by greed. Instead of asking, “What would the Lord have me do?” they asked, “What’s in this for me?” God’s word bears fruit in us only if we “hold it fast in an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15).

Joseph's Three Coats

Saturday, November 06, 2021

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.”

Acts 7:9

Joseph is a great example of someone who lived by faith, an example we should strive to imitate. He was a God-appointed deliverer but was rejected by his brothers. In this respect, Joseph was a lot like Jesus, which seems to be the point of Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. One way to remember Joseph’s life is by his three coats. Most of us are aware of his first coat but we might not be sure about the other two.

Joseph’s first coat — (Genesis 37) Joseph’s story begins with him being alienated from his brothers in several ways. First, he reported his brothers’ bad behavior to their father (Gen. 37:1-2); second, he was given a special coat which marked him out as dad’s favorite (Gen. 37:3-4); third, he was given a series of dreams which indicated he would rule over his family and then told them the dreams, whic probably wasn't a great idea (Gen. 37:5-11). This had the expected result of provoking his brothers to further jealousy and hatred.

Later, his brothers plotted to kill him. Reuben restrained their hatred, opting instead to throw him into a “pit.” Then, the brothers conspired to sell Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:18-28) and lie to their father by bringing back Joseph’s coat dipped in goat’s blood as “evidence” of his death (Gen. 37:29-36). So Joseph received and lost his first coat and ended up in a “pit.”

Joseph’s second coat — (Gen. 39-40) Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a high official in Egypt. Despite appearances, we are told that “the LORD was with him,” a phrase that is repeated throughout this story. Though nothing is said of him receiving a new coat, we know that he had one because later he lost it. Also, it is not hard to imagine Joseph receiving a new change of clothes as he was put in charge of Potiphar’s entire house (Gen. 39:1-6a). Just when things were looking up, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, eventually forcing faithful Joseph to run away. Potiphar’s wife snatched his coat and used it as “evidence” against him, and, once again, Joseph found himself thrown into a “pit” (Gen. 39:8-23; cf. 40:15) where we are told (again) that “the LORD was with Joseph.”

A pattern emerges: Joseph faithfully served his father, received a coat, lost it and was thrown into a pit; Joseph faithfully served Potiphar, received a coat, lost it and was thrown into a pit.

Joseph’s third coat — (Gen. 40-41) While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who was released. Two years later, Pharaoh had a pair of dreams no one could interpret until the cupbearer remembered Joseph. He interpreted the dreams, gained his freedom and was put in charge of all Egypt. And what should he receive but a new coat! (Gen. 41:42-44)

But instead of using his power and position to get revenge on his brothers and Potiphar’s wife, Joseph continued to live faithfully. In fact, during a severe famine, his brothers came to Egypt to buy food and fulfilled Joseph’s dreams by bowing down to him not knowing who he was. Finally, he revealed his identity to his brothers but refused to retaliate against them. He attributed the whole situation to God’s good will and providence: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20)

How was Joseph able to exhibit such grace? Perhaps Joseph could never have worn that third coat as graciously and humbly as he did if he hadn’t worn—and lost—the first two. Our life goes through many unexpected twists and turns. But if we live by faith like Joseph, we will see God’s good purposes in the end (Rom. 8:28). Even in the most difficult times, God is with us when we trust in him. I’ll leave it to you to draw the many parallels between Joseph’s experiences of humiliation and exaltation and Jesus’s own.

Treasures of Wisdom

Saturday, October 30, 2021

“…to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Colossians 2:2-3

One of the main themes of Paul’s letter to the Colossians is spiritual maturity, something every disciple of Jesus should take seriously. Even though Paul had never been to Colosse (Col. 2:1), he had labored hard for them behind the scenes with the goal to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28-29). Next, he elaborates on the meaning of maturity by giving two goals to his work (Col. 2:2).

Encouragement through unity — First, Paul worked “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love.” We mature when our “hearts” are increasingly “encouraged.” And what is more encouraging than loving unity among Christians? Put another way, what is more discouraging than a lack of love and unity? Therefore, Paul’s ministry was aimed at fostering unity within the church.

Conviction through understanding — Second, Paul had worked so that the Colossians could “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is in Christ.” Love is useless if it is not directed toward the right things and expressed in the right ways. Likewise, unity is not true unity unless there is agreement on the important things. Therefore, we also mature when our “hearts” increase in “understanding” the truth. A proper “understanding” comes through faithful teaching which, in turn, leads to “full assurance,” that is, complete conviction. This is why one of Paul’s standard prayers for them was that “they may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col. 1:9-10)

These two marks of maturity, (1) encouragement through unity and (2) conviction through understanding, lead us to ask another question: how can we reach “full assurance”? Paul says “full assurance” comes through “the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” But how is Christ the “knowledge of God’s mystery”?

Hidden treasures in Christ — Christ is not a clue or a key to the “mystery of God.” He is himself the “mystery of God.” This means everything we might want to ask God, any questions we might have about God’s eternal plan and what he is doing in the world and in our lives, cannot be answered without reference to Christ. Everything points to him in some way.

Paul goes onto say that all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are “hidden” in Christ (Col. 2:3). But they are “hidden” not so that we might never find them! They are “hidden” “in” Christ. Therefore, all who are “in Christ” have access to all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge”! In Christ, all our deepest yearnings for understanding are answered. We don’t need to look for wisdom anywhere else because it’s all there in Christ for us!

Paul describes “understanding,” “knowledge,” and “wisdom” as “riches” and “treasure” to invite us to explore God’s “mystery” (which has now been revealed in Christ and by the Spirit [Eph. 1:9-10; 3:1-6]) with eagerness, curiosity, and hunger. It is as if Paul wants us to study our Bibles like treasure hunters! But instead of “X” marking the spot, the vast storehouses of God’s “riches” and “treasure” and found in Jesus.

Where do you go for “knowledge” (a correct understanding of the world)? Where do you turn for “wisdom” (the skill in applying that knowledge correctly so as to live well)? Look no further than wisdom personified: Jesus our Lord!

Believing in Providence

Saturday, October 23, 2021

"My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!”

(Psalm 31:15)

King David, who wrote the psalm quoted above, believed in God's providence, his power to direct events to accomplish his good will. Psalm 31 is David's trusting cry for God's help. In the same psalm, he prayed, "Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God." (v.5) David believed in God's providential power and placed his life in the capable "hands" of God. What practical effects would this have if we did the same?

Prosperity should never be the occasion for pride. Just because God grants us freewill to choose does not make us the source of blessing. The farmer must do his work in preparing the soil and wisely planting at the right time but he is utterly powerless to make the sun shine or the rain fall (Mt. 5:45Acts 14:17Jas. 5:7). Likewise, if we are financially successful, we must thank God who gives us the ability to get wealth (Deut. 8:17-18). 

If we are at peace with our enemies, we must thank God for teaching us the way of reconciliation (Prov. 16:7). If we are forgiven, we must thank God for his grace and mercy (Eph. 2:8-9). Israel’s rescue from Egyptian bondage was not due to Moses’ leadership abilities or Pharaoh’s cowardice but of God’s "hand" (Ex. 3:7-9). So it is with our deliverance from darkness (Col. 1:13-14).

Uncertainty should never be the occasion for panic. Judging by the frequency the topic is addressed in Scripture, God knows how prone we are to anxiety (Mt. 6:25-34Phil. 4:6, etc.). All our panic, anxiety and fearfulness is due to a loss of confidence in the phrase, “My times are in your hand.” Like Habakkuk, we might look at our broken, seemingly out of control world and say, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and you will not hear?” (Hab. 1:1)

It is easy to be overwhelmed by life’s uncertainties. We are always a step away from disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, danger and death “but in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loved us…” (Rom. 8:37-39). The antidote for anxiety is found in submitting our will to the Father’s and committing our spirit into the hands of the One who formed it. (Lk. 23:46Psa. 139:13)

Adversity should never be the occasion for self-pity. All self-pity can be traced back to a failure to realize God’s control. But there comes a time when we all ask, “Why me?” and forget that the question should be, “Why not me?” (Jn. 15:202 Tim. 3:12) Joseph had good reason to be miserable considering his circumstances and yet he said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). Joseph chalked the whole thing up to providence (Gen. 45:7-8). God can even use human evil to work out to his glory. And if we trust him, he can shape us into the image of his Son along the way (Rom. 8:28-29).

Providence should always cultivate a sense of humility. Ability causes most people to congratulate themselves but when Pharaoh asked if Joseph could interpret his dream, he didn’t say, “Oh, yeah! I’m great at dreams! I’m your man.” Instead, he said, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Gen. 41:16) When Goliath came slandering God’s people, David didn’t say, “Here I am! My name’s David, and I’m going to kill you!” Instead, he said, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand…” (1 Sam. 17:45-46). David knew God would provide the victory.

There was no pride in the words of Joseph or David, only humility and confidence in God’s power. We are dependent upon God at every level of our lives. Let’s not forget it by drawing attention to ourselves and trumpeting our achievements. Let us acknowledge that “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

Providence should always increase our sense of security. It is only when we are willing to commit ourselves to this truth, “My times are in your hand,” that we can ever be freed from the regrets of yesterday, strengthened for the challenges of today and safeguarded for the uncertainties of tomorrow. Believe in the providence of God. Even more, be trained by God's providence so that you can pray with David, "My times are in your hand."

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