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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."

The Four Stages of Learning

Saturday, October 16, 2021

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

(Mt. 28:19-20)

Learning is an essential part of both our conversion and continued spiritual growth. The first Christians were marked by their devotion to “the apostle’s teaching…” (Acts 2:42). Before being converted, we must first “learn Christ” and “hear about him” (Eph. 4:20). Then we must continue to be “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). The result of this continued education is a practical change in one’s life, a renewal that begins in the “spirit” of one’s “mind,” where the old ways of thinking and behaving are “put off” in place of the new way that Jesus modeled (Eph. 4:22-24). In this process of growth we are learning the skill of following Christ.

In psychology, there is a model known as the four stages of learning or the four stages of competence. It is based on the premise that before learning can really begin, people need to be made aware of their incompetence. Notice the spiritual parallels:

Unconscious incompetence — The first stage of learning is called unconscious incompetence. In this stage, we are not even aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists. Those of us who came to Christ with little to no knowledge of Scripture were unconsciously incompetent. We didn’t know how to live right due to our ignorance. What psychology does not account for—and where this parallel falls short—is that this ignorance is not innocent (Eph. 4:17-19). Our problem was not intellectual but moral. God gave us all a moral conscience that we violated and trained to sin so that we “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

Conscious incompetence — In conscious incompetence, we are made aware our incompetence and understand the importance of acquiring the new skill. In our case, the “incompetence” is our moral failure and the “new skill” is living like Christ. Through the faithful proclamation of the gospel we are made aware that there is a gap between our present life and the one we are called to in Christ. The crowd’s response on Pentecost to Peter’s preaching illustrates the moment they become conscious of their moral failure: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”” (Acts 2:37) Convicted of their sin, they were now free to learn.

Conscious competence — In conscious competence, we know how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought and hard work. All Christians are in this stage of learning; trying to bridge the gap between discerning “what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10, 17) and actually carrying it out faithfully. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2) Through practice (“testing”), our minds are being “trained” to do God’s will (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This spiritual growth requires conscious thought and hard work (2 Pet. 1:3-11).

Unconscious competence — Finally, in this stage, we have enough experience being a Christian that we start behaving like Jesus unconsciously. In other words, doing the right thing for the right reason becomes “second nature” to us. While sin can corrupt the mind, grace can transform our mind and train us to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.” (Titus 2:12-14) This is what we are all striving for and, by the grace of God, will achieve in the end. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6) In that day, God will complete his work of sanctifying our lives and we will live on forever with him as people who perfectly reflect his image.

The Virtues of Hatred & Intolerance

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Perhaps the two greatest evils in modern society are hatred and intolerance. We are taught that all hatred is categorically wrong and intolerance is not to be tolerated. While hatred and intolerance can be evil, there are virtues to them as well. As is often the case, those who live only according to the wisdom of this world overcorrect and oversimplify. But as Christians, we understand that while we are called to love, patience, and tolerance (Eph. 4:1-3), there are some things we ought to hate and be intolerant of.

For example, Jesus praised the church in Ephesus for their intolerance of wicked behavior and teaching (Rev. 2:2, 6) while he rebuked the church at Thyatira for tolerating it (Rev. 2:20). Paul called out the Corinthians for tolerating a kind of immorality which even the pagan Roman culture denounced! (1 Cor. 5:1-2)

There are many positive examples of hatred in the Bible as well. We should hate bribery (Ex. 18:21), what is wicked (Psa. 26:5), evil (Psa. 97:10), worthless (Psa. 101:3-4), false (Psa. 119:104, 163) and unjust (Amos 5:15). Wisdom gives a list of seven things we should hate including pride, lying, violence, and division (Prov. 6:16-19). Solomon says there is “a time to love, and a time to hate” (Ecc. 3:8).

Clearly, there are virtues to hatred and intolerance. But to get it right, our hatred and intolerance must be directed at things which are truly evil. One way we can learn to hate evil is to love what is good. Consider Paul’s words: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Rom. 12:9) Our love for what is good will naturally cause us to hate and be intolerant of what is evil. Love is not blind acceptance nor does it “rejoice at wrongdoing.” Rather love is discerning and “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). We may simultaneously love someone and disagree with them, disapprove of their beliefs and behavior, even to hate their convictions.

A.W. Tozer wrote about this fifty years ago in Man: The Dwelling Place of God: “A new Decalogue has been adopted by the neo-Christians of our day, the first word of which reads ‘Thou shalt not disagree;’ and a new set of Beatitudes too, which begins ‘Blessed are they that tolerate everything, for they shall not be made accountable for anything.’ It is now the accepted thing to talk over religious differences in public with the understanding that no one will try to convert another or point out errors in his belief… Imagine Moses agreeing to take part in a panel discussion with Israel over the golden calf; or Elijah engaging in a gentlemanly dialogue with the prophets of Baal. Or try to picture our Lord Jesus Christ seeking a meeting of minds with the Pharisees to iron out differences.”

Richard J. Mouw,in his book Uncommon Decency wrote: “Christian civility does not commit us to a relativistic perspective. Being civil doesn’t mean that we cannot criticize what goes on around us. Civility doesn’t require us to approve of what other people believe and do. It is one thing to insist that other people have the right to express their basic convictions; it is another thing to say that they are right in doing so. Civility requires us to live by the first of these principles. But it does not commit us to the second formula. To say that all beliefs and values deserve to be treated as if they were on a par is to endorse relativism—a perspective that is incompatible with Christian faith and practice. Christian civility does not mean refusing to make judgments about what is good and true. For one thing, it really isn’t possible to be completely nonjudgmental. Even telling someone else that she is being judgmental is a rather judgmental thing to do!”

A healthy hatred of what is evil and a proper love for what is good is not always intuitive. These are things we must be taught. Thankfully, God, by his Spirit, spoke to us in his word. May God give us a growing, discerning love so that we can “approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Phil. 1:9-11)

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