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Your Plans & God's Plans

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.

Proverbs 16:3

While the Bible speaks of the meat and the milk of the word (Heb. 5:11-14), the proverbs are like the hard candy of the word. Biting right into them or swallowing them too quickly risks injury. You have to savor them, meditate on them, take them in slowly one at a time.

This proverb surprised me. I expect it to say, “Commit your plans to the Lord and your work will be established.” This is certainly true. When we submit our plans and thinking to the Lord’s revealed will, the things we do will bear fruit (“will be established”). But the verse flips this idea. If we commit what we do (our “works”) to the Lord then our “plans will be established.” That is, if we want our plans to succeed then it requires committing everything we do to the Lord.

The word translated “commit” means literally “to roll” as in rolling all one’s weight on a support. This same figure is found in Psalm 22:8; 37:5; and 55:22 to describe one who completely trusts the Lord and unreservedly commits everything to him. Such a person who relies on God to bear him up and humbly commits his work to him will be blessed with the ability to make wise plans.

What is the practical value of this verse? Making plans is generally a good idea. God gives us freewill to make those plans.“The plans of the heart belong to man” (Prov. 16:1a). When we are careful and diligent in our planning instead of impulsive, things tend to work out better: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Prov. 21:5). There is usually a very clear cause and effect relationship between our plans (or lack thereof) and the outcome.

However, life is not always so simple. “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” (Prov. 16:1) Again, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (Prov. 16:9). There is a contrast here between the plans we make in our own heart and God’s control of the outcome.

We are free to make plans and our choices will impact our life for better or worse (Prov. 21:5). But God also has plans that may override ours (Prov. 16:1, 9). On the one hand, our choices matter and we are responsible for them. On the other, what actually happens as a result of our plans, whether our “answer” (Prov. 16:1) or our “steps” (Prov. 16:9), are in God’s hands (Psa. 31:15).

We must hold the truths of human freewill and divine sovereignty together. This protects us from falling into the fatalistic thinking of the stoics who believed in a merciless system of blind fate. Instead of struggling against it, they simply accepted things with a spirit of resignation; “que sera sera” (whatever will be will be). It also protects us from falling into the hedonistic tendencies of the epicureans who believed the gods had totally given up on them and that they were on their own to determine their destiny; “carpe diem” (seize the day), “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

Instead, Scripture teaches that we will be held accountable for our choices therefore we have every incentive to live wisely. But because God is in control we can rest in knowing that he will accomplish his good purposes in the end. Even human evil cannot frustrate God’s plans (Prov. 16:4-5; cf. Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23).

It is proper to make plans but how do we become people who make wise plans, the right kind of plans, plans that “will be established”? Only by committing our “work to the Lord.” When we totally commit our work to him, that is, the minutiae of day-to-day living, the plans we make will then align with his. In all things, let us seek God’s will (Mt. 26:39) and God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31).

All Nations Praise Him!

Saturday, October 22, 2022

1 Praise the LORD, all nations!

Extol him, all tribes!

2 For great is his steadfast love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

  Praise the LORD!

Psalm 117

While this psalm is short in length the reach of its message is vast. The scope of its invitation to “praise the LORD” encompasses “all nations” and “all tribes.” This universal scope was too big for many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries to grasp. During his arrest in Jerusalem he was allowed to address those who accused him of defiling the temple by bringing Greeks into it (something he never did). His kinsmen listened to him right up until he explained that Jesus sent him away to the Gentiles. Then they cried out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (Acts 22:22)

But Paul was simply carrying out God’s will. The great mystery, hidden for ages, “has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:5-6) The origin of God’s plan stretches further back than even his promise to “bless all the families of the earth” through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The creation of one diverse, multi-ethnic family “was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11) Therefore, the diversity of God’s subjects (Psa. 117:1) was something decided “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

We see Psalm 117 in the multitude of Revelation 7:9-10, a crowd so large “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!””

Israel was called by God for the sake of the world (Gen. 12:2-3; Ex. 19:5-6; 1 Kgs. 8:41-43). The Psalms anticipated the time when the nations would turn from their idols and join with Israel in worshiping the one true God (Psa. 96). Christ has come and, through his sacrifice, created one new humanity from the two (Eph. 2:11-22). We hear the unity of this praise in the “us” of Psalm 117:2. This is why Paul quotes this verse to clinch his argument for Jewish and Gentile unity in Christ (Rom. 15:11). The time for praise is now!

But what unites the world in this harmony of praise?

God’s steadfast love is great — The cause for this universal praise is that God’s “steadfast love toward us” is “great” (2a), in the sense that it is powerful. The same word was used of the stronger side in a battle (“prevailed”, Ex. 17:11) or of the flood waters which “prevailed and increased greatly on the earth” (Gen. 7:18-20). In Christ, God’s covenant love deluges us, his grace is “lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7-8), and prevails mightily over all our sins.

God’s faithfulness endures forever — While God’s love is mighty, his faithfulness is eternal (2b), in the sense that it is continuous and never failing. God’s promises are as fresh and intact now as they ever were. And they will always be! Generations come and go, nations rise and fall, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). Peter helps us to see that that faithful “word” mentioned in Isaiah 40 is, in fact, “the good news that was preached to you,” the living and abiding word by which we were born again to love one another (1 Pet. 1:22-25).

Through the gospel, God is summoning all nations to praise him for his unconquerable love and his eternal faithfulness. The shortest psalm turns out to have the longest reach!

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)

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