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God's Awesome Tenderness

Saturday, August 07, 2021

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 10:17-19

The word “awesome” is abused in our modern vernacular. I know I’ve been guilty of using it to describe rather trivial things. But in the Bible, “awesome” most often describes the works God has done, the places God has been, and the character of God himself. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word yaré means something so big, terrifying, and powerful, it causes astonishment and awe in us. The same word translated “awesome” in Deuteronomy 10:17 is translated “terrifying” later in verse 21.

Whenever God ‘made an appearance’ among his people, they  were consistently awestruck. Israel was scared to death at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when God gave the Law through Moses. Ezekiel saw God riding on a lightning storm/cosmic chariot across the plains of Babylon and responded by falling down as if he were dead. Isaiah met with God in the heavenly throne room and declared his own ruin in the face of the King’s holiness. An astonished Daniel saw the “Ancient of Days” giving the dominion of the universe to one “like a son of man.” When John turned to see the voice of many waters he came face to face with our resurrected and glorious Lord. John responded just like Ezekiel, “I fell at his feet as though dead.”

These “theophanies” (intense visual manifestations of God’s glory to humanity) broke all categories of human experience. They were so awesome, that when the biblical writers tried to convey their encounters with God, they resorted to the words “like,” “as,” “had the appearance of” or “the likeness of” because what they saw was so unique it was far beyond the limits of their vocabulary.

Among the many attributes of God which make him “awesome,” is his tenderness toward the lowly. In fact, his condescending grace is rooted in his transcendent greatness. God is awesome because his love reaches across the infinite gap between us and him. We see these ideas in Deuteronomy 10, particularly in verses 17-19.

God is transcendent, the “God of gods and Lord of lords.” On the basis of this greatness, God is “not partial” and “takes no bribe.” God is self-sufficient and needs nothing outside of himself. God does not take bribes not only because he is just (Deut. 16:19; Prov. 17:23) but also because he has no motive to take a bribe. He who already owns everything cannot be bribed with anything.

He shows no “partiality” for the same reason. He does not try to curry anyone’s favor through special treatment because he has no need to. God is above all that. He doesn’t need to create a debt with anyone through favoritism because all created beings are intrinsically and eternally in his debt already. If he wants to get something done, he will do it. He doesn’t need coercive strategies.

On the basis of his transcendent self-sufficiency, Moses says, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Since God can’t be bribed by the rich and has no deficiency to be remedied through favoritism, he cares for those who can’t afford bribes and have nothing to attract his partiality — orphans, widows, and refugees.

The application for us is to love like God loves. We are beneficiaries of God’s kindness. If we will recognize our widow-like, orphan-like, refugee-like spiritual condition of helplessness (Mt. 5:3), and rely on God’s love and power, we will have the power to love as he loves. This is why James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas. 1:27)

A Brief History of Language

Saturday, July 31, 2021

“…each one was hearing them speak in his own language…”

Acts 2:6

Shared language unifies. Different languages divide. Paul wrote, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” (1 Cor. 14:10-11) People who share a common language tend to stick together. We even use the expression, “You are speaking my language” to show our understanding and agreement with what is said. But when we can’t communicate with one another we find it frustrating and division results.

This all began with the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Noah and his descendants were told to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a conceited effort to make “a name” for themselves, the people disobeyed God’s mandate and settled in the land of Shinar to build a city and “a tower with its top in the heavens.” Of course, any effort undertaken in pride which opposes God’s will is doomed to fail. God saw the potential of this unified city (Gen. 11:6) and interceded by confusing their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Gen. 11:7). This had the effect of dispersing the population and frustrating their construction project. The place was called “Babel,” which sounds like the Hebrew word for “confusion,” and it still keeps that connotation today in English (cf. Acts 17:18).

In ancient Babylonian texts, the name “bab-ili” meant “the gate of god.” At the top of the Babylonian ziggurat, which was probably the kind of tower the people were building in Genesis 11, was a small temple which was meant to be a kind of “gate” into heaven. The hubris of the tower of Babel was the beginning of a pattern.

Babel eventually became the world power known as “Babylon.” Following the pattern set forth in Genesis 11, the Babylonian empire became drunk on their own power and was ruined (Dan. 4:30-33; Isa. 13:17-22). In the prophets and the book of Revelation, Babylon came to represent all those who exalt themselves and oppose God (Rev. 17:1-6). Just as in Genesis 11, the “Babylons” of the world are doomed to fall (Rev. 17:14; 18:1-3; cf. Isa. 21:9; Jer. 51:8). God’s people are told to “come out” of that symbolic city of wickedness and pride and enter instead into Jerusalem to find peace, mercy and true safety with God (Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 21:2-4).

What does this have to do with language? God once used language as a tool to divide and scatter people (Gen. 11). But in Acts 2, he used language to unite and gather them! On the day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles, filled with God’s Spirit and on God’s holy mountain (Isa. 2:2-4), preached the gospel in different languages to gather his scattered people into one nation again (Acts 2:1-11). The gospel is the only message that can unite diverse people and make peace where there was once hostility (Eph. 2:11-22) because it addresses the universal problem of sin (Rom. 3:23).

John was once shown a vision of this diverse, unified body of people all shouting in harmony their gratitude and praise for what God has accomplished through Jesus (Rev. 7:9-10):

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

In Christ, we all “speak the same language,” the language of the gospel. In Christ, there is unity, understanding and peace because we have left “Babylon” and entered the “New Jerusalem.”

The Growth of the Early Church

Saturday, July 24, 2021

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42

After Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to the apostles, he told them to go to Jerusalem and wait to be baptized by the Holy Spirit who would lead them in the expansion of God’s kingdom. When they received the Spirit, thousands of people were converted and the church began to grow. Throughout the book of Acts, Luke describes the growth of the church in several summary statements. The first one is a great example. In Acts 2:38-47, Luke introduces four specific practices of the early church:

  1. The apostles’ teaching — attention to God’s word and works
  2. The fellowship — shared participation and resources
  3. The breaking of bread — also known as the Lord’s Supper
  4. The prayers — a regular pattern of worship

These four acts of devotion (Acts 2:42) are repeated and expanded in the following verses:

  1. Wonders and signs were done through the apostles (43)
  2. The church shared their resources (44-45)
  3. They continued to break bread (46)
  4. And praise God together (47)

Then Luke writes, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) The section begins with a description of people responding to the gospel with repentance and baptism, and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38-41) The next section shows the things the church did that follow a forgiven, Spirit-filled life. (Acts 2:42-47) Luke intentionally frames these patterns of devotion with summary statements about the growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).

Noticing this sequence helps us understand God’s design for the growth of the church. Repentance, baptism, and the forgiveness of sins come first in the text because they come first in the life of every Christian. When we change our minds about God (repentance), we turn away from our sins and toward Jesus. We surrender ourselves to him in faith by being baptized. This is the turning point of our lives where we receive the forgiveness of sins and are put into a right relationship with God (Father, Son, and Spirit, Mt. 28:19).

Once in God’s family, we begin to live a radically different life. This new life is spent in the regular patterns of devotion outlined in Acts 2:42 — learning, sharing, feasting, worshiping. All four of these acts of devotion contribute to both the individual growth of Christians and the collective growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).

These repeated statements of growth remind us of God’s intention for humans in the beginning. When God created humans in his image, he generously provided for all their needs and taught them to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:27-31) This command is repeated to Noah after the floodwaters cleansed the earth. He was also blessed and told to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 9:1-7) Later on, Abram and Sarai, who were too old to have children, were blessed by God who promised he would “greatly multiply” their descendants bringing blessing to the world. (Gen. 12:2; 15:5; 17:2; 26:4, etc.)

The beginning of God’s church is like a new creation. God’s newly formed people are blessed and multiply, bearing fruit for him filling the earth with God’s glory. Through Jesus, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to “bless all nations.” (Acts 3:25-26) Now, through the church, God’s blessing of life continues to multiply as we devote ourselves to these four activities: we devote ourselves to learning about God and his work; we devote ourselves to sharing life as one family; we devote ourselves to remembering Christ’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper; and we devote ourselves to praising God together.

Knowledge

Saturday, July 17, 2021

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”

Hosea 4:6

The book of Proverbs invites those who fear the LORD to gain wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7) because it is always better to be smart than dumb (Ecc. 2:13). The ignorant suffer while the wise “will dwell secure and be at ease” (Prov. 1:29-33). But those who pursue knowledge and have not the wisdom to wield it also suffer. Notice three simple things about knowledge from the Scriptures.

A lack of knowledge is destructive

There is a clear correlation between ignorance and ungodliness. The unbelieving Gentiles “walk… in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding… because of the ignorance that is in them.” This is not due to an intellectual deficiency on their part but rather “due to their hardness of heart.” Ignorance leads to poor moral choices and destructive behavior (Eph. 4:17-19).

Despite having the Law, Israel also suffered from ignorance. They were destroyed for their “lack of knowledge” and “discernment” (Isa. 1:3; 5:13; 27:11). There was “no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos. 4:1) because God's word wasn’t being taught. The priests were responsible for teaching the Law (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:10-11) so God addressed them: “because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hos. 4:6). The Law was not to be presented as a list of factoids about God or merely a checklist on our behavior. The goal of instruction was for Israel to “know the LORD” (Hos. 2:8, 20; 5:3-4; 11:3-4; 6:1-3, 6) and what it meant to practically follow him. Jesus echoed this in his prayer: “this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3; cf. 1:18). True knowledge which results in eternal life is knowing God both intelligently and relationally.

A lack of love is also destructive

As crucial as knowledge is, knowledge by itself is no good. There were some in Ephesus who were “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Knowledge can make us arrogant people (1 Cor. 8:1) if not wielded with love (1 Cor. 13:2). The Corinthians were tearing each other down with their “knowledge” because it was not expressed with any concern for their brethren (1 Cor. 8:1-13; Rom. 14:15). If we lack love we use knowledge as a destructive weapon instead of a healing instrument.

Love shaped in knowledge is the way

John commonly associated light with both truth and love. "Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 Jn. 2:10-11)

Therefore, the parallel increase of love with knowledge is the way of Christ. Paul prayed “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment…” (Phil. 1:9-11). The Scriptures always hold love and truth together in balance because we tend to emphasize one over the other. Pursuing love at the expense of truth or truth at expense of love results in a failure to express either one sincerely (Eph. 4:15; 3 Jn. 1). Therefore, love must be strengthened with knowledge of the truth and knowledge must be tempered with love for one another.

Only when our “hearts” are “knit together in love” will we “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.” (Col. 2:2-3) We must “put off the old self with its practices and… put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3:10)

Love Simple and Profound

Saturday, July 10, 2021

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”

John 11:5

The love of Jesus can be known and, yet, it surpasses knowledge. His love is limitless in its dimensions and requires Spirit-wrought strength to comprehend in its fullness (Eph. 3:14-19). The story of Lazarus’ resurrection illustrates this simple, profound, and often challenging love of Jesus.

In the story, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was ill. Upon receiving the news, Jesus declared, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn. 11:1-4). These words prime us for another miracle. Jesus had done amazing things before to demonstrate his identity, or reveal his “glory” (Jn. 2:11).

We expect Jesus to leave immediately for Bethany to heal Lazarus, but instead, “when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (Jn. 11:6). Even more strange, Jesus seemed to speak in riddles to his disciples. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to wake him” (Jn. 11:11). But if he were asleep, wouldn’t he be able to wake up on his own? Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn. 11:12-15). How could he be glad that his friend died? If he was glad, why, when he arrived at the tomb, did he openly weep for him (Jn. 11:33-35)? He then told them to remove the stone from the tomb even though, by that point, Lazarus had been dead for four days, long enough for the body to begin to decay (Jn. 11:38-39). Both sisters gave voice to their grief and confusion by repeating the same statement, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). The mourners also raised the question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (Jn. 11:37)

Though Jesus’ words at the beginning of the story prepare us for something big (Jn. 11:4), the people suffering at the funeral in Bethany were confused. They didn’t see how it could turn out “for the glory of God.” In their minds, death was the end. Even the power of Jesus, they thought, was limited. If Jesus had really loved them, wouldn’t he have rushed over to spare them this grief? And yet, John insists at the very beginning, Jesus did love them (Jn. 11:5). Jesus’ love can be seen at three different points in the story.

The love of Jesus waits — Look back at Jn. 11:5-6. Jesus loved them, “So (or “therefore”) he stayed two days longer…” Somehow, it was because Jesus loved them that he waited until Lazarus died. Jesus’ waiting while we suffer is somehow compatible with his love.

The love of Jesus weeps — “Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”” (Jn. 11:35-36) Even though he knew how the story would end, he shared in their grief because he loved them.

The love of Jesus raises the dead — Finally, Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn. 11:43) This too is love. Jesus doesn’t just wait and he doesn’t just weep with us. He acts to reveal God’s glory. One day, all who hear his voice will rise from the dead!

Do you believe this? — “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). Jesus asked Martha this while her brother’s body lie in the tomb, knowing that if Jesus had been there, he could have prevented his death. What about us? When we suffer in this life knowing that Jesus could have prevented it, do we still trust in him? Jesus loves us. He shows his love for us by weeping and waiting with us. One day, his waiting will be over. God’s glory will be revealed. His love will be triumphant. He will right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and raise the dead. Do you believe it?

Adapted from The Confusing and Perfect Love of Jesus, by Joe Rigney @ desiringGod.org

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