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Are You Listening?

Saturday, May 29, 2021

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Deuteronomy 6:5-6

One of the most prominent commands in Scripture is to listen to God. Jews refer to the prayer above as the “Shema,” which means ‘listen’ in Hebrew, the very first word of the prayer. Jesus quoted this as the single greatest commandment in the Bible (Mt. 22:37).

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, God told him to “stand in the gate of the LORD’s house” so that Judah could “hear (shema) the word of the LORD.” (Jer. 7:2) Many call this Jeremiah’s ‘temple sermon.’ Poised in the most conspicuous and spiritually symbolic location, Jeremiah proceeded to courageously preach God’s message.

There was only one problem. God was commanding the people to do the very thing they consistently refused to do, that is, to “listen.” Sure, they heard the words but they had not listened to them in the way God wanted. To listen, biblically speaking, means more than the physical act of letting sound waves in our ears (Prov. 20:12). To “listen” means to pay attention (Gen. 29:33), to respond (Psa. 27:7; Ex. 19:5), even to obey (Isa. 6:9-10; 43:8; Psa. 115:6; Zech. 7:11). This is what God was calling Judah to do: to listen and respond with obedience. And God expects the same today (Jas. 1:22).

In one section, Jeremiah indicts his contemporaries for refusing to listen to God. Notice the themes of Jeremiah 7:21-28.

First, the prophet attacks their sacrifices. God told them, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh.” (7:21) The Jews still observed the sacrificial system according to the distinctions specified in the Law but God said, with the way they were living, it really didn’t matter anymore. They could mix meat sacrifices up and cook it for barbecue. It made no difference to God because their sacrifices were already profaned by their profane life.

Second, the prophet appeals to history. God said, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (7:22) Before God had commanded and required these important sacrifices he commanded them to simply listen to him: “Obey (shema) my voice” (7:23). Sadly, from the very beginning, Israel had refused to listen to God’s voice (7:24-26).

The prophet concludes his sermon by outlining Judah’s persistent refusal to listen (7:27-28). The verb ‘shema’ is repeated five times in verses 21-28. Israel was deaf to God’s voice. No generation listened to the prophets (v.25) but Jeremiah’s generation was worse than them all (v.26). They refused to listen or answer when spoken to (v.27). They were thus defined by their deafness (v.28): “This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth.” But why would God command Jeremiah to preach to people who refused to listen? The prophet was forbidden to even pray for them! (7:16-20) There are at least two reasons:

  1. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals the condition of their hearts. By hearing but not responding to God’s word, they proved that their condemnation is just (cf. Mt. 13:10-17; Jn. 12:48).
  2. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals that God never acts in judgment without warning.The Lord always gives fair warning before acting in judgment in the hope that some will listen, repent and live (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9). As we read biblical texts like Jeremiah 7, it is as if God is asking us the question, “They didn’t listen, but will you?”

Christ Emptied Himself

Saturday, May 22, 2021

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, 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

Paul’s phrase “emptied himself” has caused much controversy and confusion for people of faith. It can mean “to pour out” so as to make empty or void or to render useless (Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17) or it can be used metaphorically to “give up status or privilege.” Some have interpreted this verse to mean that Christ relinquished his divinity when he became human but this would contradict Paul’s writings elsewhere and is not even consistent with his portrait of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.

To gain a better understanding of the phrase we must allow context to determine its usage. In Philippians chapter 2, Paul calls upon the Christians to unite in love and humility (1-4) which is exemplified by Christ’s humble service (5-11). He draws on Old Testament texts like Adam’s rebellion (Gen. 1-3) and Isaiah’s poems of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 40-55). This poetic explanation of Jesus’ humility, self-giving love, and submission to the Father is meant to inspire the Philippians to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

The command for unity (1-2) — “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Paul is not doubting that any of these are so. Rather he uses the condition (“if”) to provoke the Philippians to unity and love. He is saying, ‘Because all these graces are a reality in Christ’ “complete my joy” by being unified in love. Remember, Paul was writing from jail (1:12-13). Although he maintained his joy through his trials, to hear that the Philippians were behaving like Christ would “complete” his joy or bring it to perfection (3 Jn. 4).

Being “of the same mind” and “of the same love” does not imply a boring uniformity, like a hive of bees or a group of robots. Rather, the Philippians were to retain their individual identities and diversity of gifts and employ them in a cooperative spirit for the glory of God and the good of others (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 15:2).

The command for humility (3-4) — “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Rather than looking to advance their own agenda through self-centeredness and self-promotion (like Paul’s opponents, 1:17; 2:21) they were to be humble. “Conceit” is looking after oneself exclusively while humility does not merely apply the same level of concern for self to others but counts others as even “more important” than oneself. It must be said that humility is not thinking less of oneself but rather thinking more of others, raising their esteem in one’s own mind. But who possibly live in such a way?

The perfect example of humility (5-11) — “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

To motivate this radical way of life, Paul traces the Messiah’s journey from heaven to earth and back again. Jesus set the pattern for spiritual maturity: the Christian life is the opposite of a selfish power grab, it is the selfless surrender of power for the love of others. All Christians should possess this way of thinking (“have this mind”).

Before his incarnation, Jesus pre-existed in a state of glory and “equality with God” (Jn. 1:1; 17:5, 24). He shared the “form” of God, his exact nature (Heb. 1:3) and became the visible expression of his glory (Col. 1:15). Amazingly, Jesus did not think that possessing this equality should lead him to hold onto it at all costs. Instead of holding onto it he let it go all for the benefit of others (Rom. 15:3). This is love and humility par excellence.

Unlike Adam who tried to seize equality with God, a thing he had no right to do (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:5), Christ, who rightly possessed equality with God, gave it up to become human. He “emptied himself,” that is, he relinquished the status and privileges of heaven but not his divine nature. This dual nature of Jesus as both divine and human is one of the great mysteries of our faith. Instead of trying to explain it, Paul assumes its truth and argues from it.

From there, Paul shows the great depths of humility to which Christ willingly and lovingly lowered himself. Not only did God become “human” but he took on the “form” (cf. v.6) of a “servant.” Not only was he a servant but was perfectly “obedient” and his humble obedience led him to “the point of death.” This was not just any death but the worst kind of death, “even death on a cross.”

Paul takes us from the divine majesty and perfection of heaven to the ultimate form of degradation and humiliation. But Christ’s humiliation serves as the grounds for his exaltation. For his demonstration of perfect love and obedience (“Therefore”), God raised him from the dead and entrusted him with the highest name and authority (Mt. 28:18; Acts 2:33; Rev. 19:16). Not only this, but Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23 to show that the one true God of Israel (YHWH) consists of God the Father and the Lord Jesus. In the day of judgment, all of creation will universally recognize his Lordship.

Paul gives this robust Christology so that we would be like Jesus and serve others in humility. If we strive for love, unity and humility we will be exalted with Christ (Rev. 3:21; 22:4).

"It is the Gift of God"

Saturday, May 15, 2021

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

Perhaps no other text in Scripture summarizes so succinctly and beautifully the doctrine of salvation as the text above. God accomplishes our salvation “by grace… through faith.” Paul goes onto say, “it is the gift of God,” so that all human boasting is excluded.

But what is “the gift of God”? The belief of many is that “the gift” refers to our “faith.” God either gives faith to us so that we can be saved or he withholds it. This reading would imply that we are completely passive in the process of salvation.

The argument goes something like this: In a state of spiritual death (2:1-3), we are utterly incapable of making any free and rational choice to obey the gospel. So we must be made alive (2:5-7), which God chooses to do on his own initiative and according to his own wisdom. Only then can we can accept God’s grace and be saved. Therefore, according to this view, “faith” must be a gift given to us by God.

Due to the subtle mixture of truth and error within this view, it is difficult to untangle. While it is true that the act of salvation is God’s alone and we are utterly dead and lost without him, it is also true that God has endowed us with freewill to respond to him rationally. If we examine the grammar of this passage, we will see that “faith,” by itself, is not what Paul refers to as “the gift of God.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

In the Greek language, like modern German, every noun has a gender that is either masculine, feminine or neuter. The gender of the noun “faith” (pistes) is feminine. The gender of the pronoun “this” is neuter. Therefore, the antecedent for “this” is not the word “faith”. “Faith” cannot be the “gift of God” because Paul’s own grammar won’t allow it. For “this” to refer to “faith” would require the corresponding pronoun to be feminine. For the same reason, “this” cannot refer to “grace” either, because “grace” is also feminine.

If this is the case, what are the pronouns referring to? What is “the gift of God”? When the pronoun is neuter it is referring back to a general thought or phrase. So, “this” is referring to the entire preceding clause, namely, salvation by grace through faith.

Therefore, the “gift of God” which Paul refers to with the neuter pronouns “this” and “it,” is not just “faith” or “grace” but the whole process by which God chooses to save us — “by grace… through faith.” We might put it like this for the sake of clarity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this [being saved by grace through faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

God has chosen to save all those who have faith in Christ (Jn. 3:16). This is the gift of God, the wonderful way in which he saves us. He extends his grace to all humanity “bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11) because he “desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). Yet, God has designed it in such a way that only those who have faith in the good news of Jesus can be saved (Rom. 1:16).

Though the act of salvation is entirely God’s work (only God can give life to the dead), he gives us the dignity of choice in the matter (Gen. 2:16; Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15). That way, as CS Lewis put it, “no soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” This self-choice is what makes love a possibility, and for this God has destined his children (1 Cor. 13:13). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15), the gift of salvation “by grace… through faith.”

The Honor of Motherhood

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Older women… are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.

Titus 2:3-5

Because God created us in his image and because he designed marriage and the family to be the building blocks of ordered civilization, each role within the family unit is sacred. Motherhood is no less or more honorable than fatherhood (Ex. 20:12). Parenting, like marriage (1 Pet. 3:7), is an equal partnership with distinct roles.

The words “sacred” and “honorable” may not be the first adjectives that come to a mother’s mind when dirty dishes are stacked in the sink, piles of laundry are strewn about and messy children with sticky fingers are screaming in the background and drawing on the walls. But we must remember that for a thing to be true does not depend on our perception. Perception is not always reality. Truth is reality and the enemy often blinds us to it. What we must train ourselves, by God’s grace, to do is to see the truth, to perceive the reality. Only the light of Jesus can cure this blindness (2 Cor. 4:3-6) and the truth of his gospel reveals the reality of motherhood.

Sadly, some women see themselves as victims of their chromosomes. They are unable see the beautiful image of God reflected uniquely in themselves. In seeking to find equality with men, a thing which the Bible affirms on page 1, they attempt to obliterate what makes them distinct. Instead of finding freedom, they find only bondage. But the truth is liberating (Jn. 8:32) and it tells us about the reality of motherhood in places like Titus 2:3-5.

The privilege of motherhood — The older, more experienced Christian women are to “train” the younger to live out the practical implications of the gospel in their lives. Their unique duty clearly centers around the home. If this offends our modern sensibilities it only proves how far out of touch we are with our Maker. We could hardly overestimate the value of a loving mother’s influence. It is a mother’s task and privilege to oversee the forging of their child’s personality, the shaping of their heart, the building of their character.

The priorities of motherhood — The phrase “working at home” does not suggest mothers are forbidden to work outside the home (Prov. 31:13, 16-18). But it does teach that her first priority is her family and managing her household. Notice that “love” is something that must be taught. Although there is such a thing as natural affection, we who are younger often need instruction and guidance on what love does and says. If this motherly love is missing in a family, nothing can ever fill that gap. No degree, career or amount of extra income can replace parental love. Being in a position of leadership, purity, self-control and kindness are also vital for mothers. Every area of her life must be informed by these things.

The potential of motherhood — When a mother sees the reality of her exalted status, sees herself as God sees her in Christ, a whole new world opens up to her. Underneath the monotony there is a holy vocation. She understands th immense potential for good that the faithful exercise of God’s will can have, and the disastrous consequences if she should shirk her duty (the very “word of God may… be reviled”). If she should succeed to exhibit love, self-control, purity, respect and kindness (and by God’s grace and power she can), she has the power to shape the future.

Naomi, Ruth, Hannah, Mary the mother of Jesus, Lois and Eunice. They were perhaps overlooked in their day but they receive the highest honors in God’s sight. They are great in God’s kingdom. They are mighty soldiers in God’s army. They are feared by Satan and frustrate all the powers of darkness below. God makes Christian mothers great when they come under his loving, wise rule and serve their families with that same love and wisdom.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters

Saturday, May 01, 2021

“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2

In the above verses, the Preacher tells us to take every opportunity to do good to our neighbor (Gal. 6:10) because the time may come when we will be the ones standing in need. The ancient farmer would sometimes cast his seed onto flooded areas hoping that once the waters receded the seed would take root and his crop would spring up. The farmer’s wisdom is seen in his taking a seemingly hopeless situation and turning it into a potentially profitable one. The application of this wisdom is plain.

We are not to be discouraged from doing good just because the situation looks bad on the surface (Gal. 6:9). We are to continue sowing the seed of the kingdom (Lk. 8:4-15) because the waters of difficulty will eventually recede. It may take some time for the seed to produce a crop but it will come (1 Cor. 15:58). “Those who sow in tears, will reap with shouts of joy!” (Psa. 126:5)

In the next few verses, the Preacher says, “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap... In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Ecc. 11:4, 6)

In these verses, we learn that we shouldn’t wait for ideal conditions to get to work. If the farmer were to wait for perfect weather to sow his seed he would never reap a crop. Likewise, we will never complete the Lord’s work if we wait for ideal conditions. We must make the best use of today for tomorrow is unpredictable (Jas. 4:13-17). Jesus once said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn. 9:4). Or in Paul’s words, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Are you waiting for the perfect conditions to begin God’s work?

  • Have you been meaning to tell the good news to your neighbor, friend or co-worker but you’ve been waiting for the right time?
  • Have you been meaning to send that encouraging message to your struggling brother but haven’t found the right moment?
  • Have you been meaning to further develop your devotion to God but tell yourself you have to sort out some other things first?
  • Have you been meaning to further your relationships with other Christians but are waiting for a more convenient time?

We can't expect to reap a crop of righteousness in the future if we fail to sow the seed of the kingdom in the present (Gal. 6:9-10). Follow the wisdom of the farmer and cast your bread upon the waters. Even if conditions don’t look favorable now, much fruit may come later, but only if we sow with trust and patience (Jas. 5:7-8).

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