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The Childlike Spirit

Saturday, October 15, 2022

1 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;

my eyes are not raised too high;

2 I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3 O Israel, hope in the LORD

from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 131

The heading of this psalm attributes it to David. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing exactly when David wrote it. Did he pen these words as an older man, broken from the fallout of his sins but still holding onto his faith? Or perhaps during his middle years, amid the turmoil of his crumbling kingdom? The psalm would certainly have its ironies read in this light. But it could have been written during the early years of David's modest dependance on and pure devotion to the Lord. These were the qualities which helped make him great.

This unassuming little psalm anticipates Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:1-4, where he called a child to him in answer to the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Here, David models the childlike spirit, the ideal frame of mind before God, with three characteristics.

The childlike spirit is humble (1) — Hearts “lifted up” and eyes “raised too high” are both expressions of arrogance (1a). Presumption issues from pride (1b). While pride undervalues others, presumption overestimates and overreaches oneself. Such people concern themselves with matters far beyond their comprehension, like “the secret things” which belong only to God (Deut. 29:29). They are not content with either the truth which God has revealed or the gifts which God has given. The childlike spirit counters pride with humble service (Phil. 2) and presumption with gratitude and contentment (Phil. 4).

The childlike spirit is calm (2) — His soul is like a “weaned child with its mother.” That is, like a weaned child, he no longer frets over things which he used to find indispensable. He is free from worldly ambitions and destructive self-seeking (1). He is not led away into bondage by the empty promises of the world or crippled by fear because he finds his contentment and security solely in God. The childlike spirit does “nothing from selfishness or conceit” (Phil. 2:3ff) because it has “learned… to be content” in Christ (Phil. 4:11ff).

The childlike spirit is hopeful (3) — The last verse is David’s encouragement to follow his example. If we possess this childlike disposition of humble trust and contentment we can “hope in the Lord” at all times. The childlike spirit does not lapse into despair or bitterness in hard times because it unreservedly trusts in the Lord.

When we learn to “wean” ourselves from the empty aspirations and false hopes of the world and fully “hope in the Lord” we are given solid food for the mature: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” (Jn. 4:34) Biblical hope is active. It is not a static, idle waiting but a dynamic striving. Thus, the childlike spirit is at once at rest in the Lord (2) and at work for him. In Colossians 1:29, Paul captures the correct balance of God’s control and human responsibility: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

Paul is at hard at work, striving for the Lord. Yet, he is aware there is a divine strength within him while he works. Therefore, like a child who trusts his father, he is free to work hard without the stressful motivations of either pride or fear; no pride (because it’s really God at work within him) and no fear (because it’s not all up to him).

Gentile Conceit

Saturday, October 08, 2022

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(Romans 11:17-24)

It is very easy to read a story about ancient Israel being judged for some rebellion or another, shake our head with a little smile on our face and think, “Well, that’s Israel for you, seldom faithful and always in need of judgment. I’m just glad I’m a Christian.” But caution, dear reader, pride comes before the fall. How easy it is to cross the line from biblical faith to gentile conceit!

We must remember who we are and where we came from. We must “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:12-13)

And how did that reconciling “blood of Christ” come to us gentiles except through Israel, God’s old covenant people? We are but hanging branches, grafted onto God’s Jewish olive tree (Rom. 11). Yes, some of the natural Jewish branches were broken off because of unbelief, “but you stand fast through faith” (v.20). What does that mean for us? No smugness when we read of ancient Israel’s complaining in the wilderness. No smirks when we hear of their rebellions, their idolatry, and their coming under judgment.

Sackcloth and ashes and awe should accompany our Bible reading, “for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (v.21). Do we honestly think we are immune to the same temptations that ensnared Israel? We must soberly note God’s severity toward Israel and kindness toward us, “provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (v.22).

Beware of thinking that just because we are Christians living under the new and better covenant that the record of Israel’s sins and the warnings under the old covenant have no bearing on our lives. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Paul tells us how Christians ought to handle the Old Testament Scriptures in Romans 15:4 — “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We are meant to learn from these stories so that we might have the courage to live with hope.

When we read the Old Testament, we are to see it as the earlier part of the story we ourselves are living in. Ancient Israel’s past explains the roots from which we’ve grown and provides a firm foundation upon which to build our understanding of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1). Let us, then, read Israel’s past with sympathetic and humble hearts, learning from their failures and their triumphs, all the while rejoicing in the grace of God.

Judicial Hardening

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.

(1 Samuel 2:22-25)

The aging prophet Eli heard about his sons’ flagrant immorality. They had turned the tabernacle into a brothel, a place where sins were committed rather than confessed. He tried to warn them that blatant defiance against God would leave them without hope. “But,” the text says, “they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (25b).

We expect the text to say, “they would not listen to the voice of their father, so (in consequence) God decided to put them to death.” Rather, it says that the reason they would not listen to their father was because (“for”) God decided to put them to death. The deafness of Hophni and Phinehas to their father’s warning was the result of God’s judgment. How can this be? Is this not unjust?

Before we harm ourselves in attempting to be God’s prosecutors, we must recognize two things: first, all of God’s judgments are perfectly just; second, we are not more merciful than God.

The declaration of v.25b cannot be divorced from the preceding record of Hophni’s and Phinehas’ wicked behavior (1 Sam. 2:12-17). They had no regard for God (v.12). Clearly, God was punishing them for their persistent rebellion. But part of God’s punishment was their rejection of their father’s words of warning.

Therefore, the text teaches us that a person can remain so firm in his rebellion against God that God will actually confirm him in it. Paul speaks about those whose “consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:2; see also 2 Thess. 2:11-12). So entrenched in rebellion, such people will remain unmoved by any pleas for repentance or warnings of judgment. Like Pharaoh before them, Hophni and Phinehas had hardened their own hearts through their consistent rebellion. Once they reached the point of no return, God simply finished the job.

Paul teaches us the same truth about the pagan nations in Romans 1:18-32. Because they “suppress the truth,” “God gave them over” (three times, vv. 24, 26, 28) to the way of life they so eagerly desired. The point is not just that these reprehensible attitudes and behaviors are the evidence of humanity’s wickedness. They are also the evidence of God’s wrath. One of the ways in which God’s wrath is revealed is in abandoning people to their own stubborn craving to live apart from him. Note that the phrase “the wrath of God is revealed” is in the present tense. That is, God’s wrath is not just something reserved for the future but is currently at work when people insist on being ruled by their passions instead of their God.

How ought Christians to respond to this teaching of ‘judicial hardening’? We must never accuse God of lacking in mercy nor are we to treat this teaching with mere intellectual curiosity, trying to discern at what precise point it becomes “impossible… to restore” someone who persists in sin (Heb. 6:4-6). Rather, we should respond in the way the Hebrew writer admonishes us to:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13)

A Shared History of Pain

Saturday, September 24, 2022

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

(1 Peter 1:6-7)

Have you ever noticed that the heroes and villains of our favorite stories both share a similar backstory? Usually, both the hero and the villain have suffered some traumatic experience early in life that shaped their character.

Writers indicate this history of pain in clever—and some not so clever—ways. Heroes may be orphaned, if not literally then metaphorically. Villains often display their mysterious past trauma through a scar, a limp, or a speech impediment. I’m sure we can all think of a few abandoned heroes and disfigured villains. Whether the pain be physical, emotional, or psychological, you can almost count on it playing a major part in the development of the story.

Heroes and villains share a history of pain. The difference between the hero and the villain is in their response to that pain. The villain says, “The world hurt me and now I’m going to hurt it back.” The hero says, “The world hurt me and now I’m going to make sure others don’t suffer like I did.” One returns evil for evil, insult for insult, while the other attempts to break the cycle of hurt through some act of heroism, however that is defined.

In the best stories we see principles of redemption, mercy, justice, healing, kindness, sacrificial love, loyalty, and, of course, a happy ending. What makes these principles attractive to readers and moviegoers alike is that they are reflective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our culture is not aware of this and may even assert that the goodness of these qualities is self-evident, but Christians know that this is nothing less than the very goodness of God at work in the human conscience.

The Bible affirms that pain is the result of human rebellion against our Creator (Gen. 3:16-17). Suffering is indicative of a creation out of joint with the One who made it. Therefore, the experience of pain is universal. Sometimes we inflict pain on others or ourselves as villains. Other times, we suffer pain as innocent victims living in a broken world. But our response to pain determines whether we become God’s wounded healers or the devil’s wounded destroyers.

In Jesus, God has come down from heaven to share in the human experience of pain. He suffered innocently, faithfully, and peacefully. He was tempted to respond to suffering with retaliation but refused. He gave his perfect life as a sacrifice to stop the cycle of human suffering, taking into himself the sins of the world as he died on the cross. His resurrection demonstrated his victory over sin and death and the start of his healing reign which will culminate in the end of pain when he makes all things new (Rev. 21:4-5).

We all suffer but the Christian’s pain is not pointless. It is taken up in the hands of our merciful God and used to teach and transform us. Through the fires of suffering, our faith is tested and purified as we turn to the one who suffered with us and for us: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:21-24; see also 4:13; Rom. 5:3-5)

Our pain shapes us. But will it make us a villain or a hero?

Love to the End

Saturday, September 17, 2022

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

(John 13:1)

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he had been indicating to his followers that his “hour” had not yet come (Jn. 2:47:68308:20). This climactic, divinely appointed “hour” was, of course, the hour of his death, the “hour” to which God’s redemptive efforts had been pointing since Genesis 3. This was the hour of the Son’s glorification (12:23), the hour for him to be “lifted up” to “draw all men” to himself (12:32), the hour of the clearest revelation of God to humanity.

Jesus would “depart out of this world” to return to the Father. John’s use of the word “world” refers to the mass of lost humanity (1:10), the very “world” the Father loved so much that he would ransom it with the life of his only Son (3:16-17; Mk. 10:45). God’s love for the world is manifest in his aim to draw the lost out of it and unto himself. 

Those who are drawn out of the world become something new and distinct from the world. The world has its “own” and Jesus has his “own” (15:19). Those who belong to the world are those who hate and reject Jesus (15:18-25). Those who belong to Jesus are his disciples, the people of God, who would eventually be called his church. He prayed for our protection, unity, and future glory (17:9-26). For though he left the world and went to the Father, we who believe in Him must remain until the “hour” of our departure comes (2 Tim. 4:6). 

Jesus had loved his own all along but in John 13, in these final moments of his life, John says, “He loved them to the end.” 

There are a few different ways to understand John’s wording here. The ESV, NASB, RSV and NKJV all render John 13:1, “he loved them to the end.” If “to the end” [eis telos] is to be understood temporally, we might say, “He continued to love them to the very end of his life.” But “to the end” could also mean “utterly” or “to the uttermost,” hence the NIV’s paraphrase, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” His love, which was shown to them all along, would be perfected once he accomplished his Father’s will.

Either way, Jesus’ love for his own is such that it extends beyond the very limits of our imagination. In John 13, he exhibits his ultimate, self-sacrificing love by washing the feet of his disciples, which was really done in anticipation of his greatest act of love, his sacrificial death on the cross. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)

Jesus loves us to the very end and to the uttermost. In the cross, we see the full extent of love and it cannot be calculated. God gives us the full measure of that fathomless love in his Son. We can never experience a more soul-satisfying love than what we have in Christ. 

Grounded firmly in the rich soil of this love we could seek to explore its every dimension for 10,000 years and not exhaust it in the least. God’s love can be known but its infinite nature is such that it soutstrips our human imagination. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)

Even though we can’t fully appreciate the depth of God’s love now we joyfully and gratefully try. May God help us to know his love and love him and others like Jesus, to the end and to the uttermost.

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