This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Tax That Changed the World

Taxes are evil! No one likes taxes. A rallying cry for the U.S. Revolution was "No taxation without representation." The elder President  Bush was famous for promising, "Read my lips. No new taxes." Some taxes, like sales tax and gas tax, are so built-in that it is possible to forget about them. Others, like income tax and property tax, are much more noticeable and significant. Is there any tax that is actually good and that can be viewed in any positive light?

"Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:1-6). It is commonly assumed (and implied by the Greek wording) that this census was linked to a taxation; the familiar rendering of the KJV reads, "That all the world should be taxed. ... And this taxing was first made. ... And all went to be taxed."

This particular tax mattered. In fact, it was pivotal in the history of the world - not merely because it was the first of its kind, but on a far grander level, because it set up the conditions necessary for the birth of the Messiah. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, God had foretold, "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity" (Micah 5:2). Mary, who was carrying the Child, and Joseph her fiancée lived in Nazareth, seventy miles away. The actual connection by road likely required over ninety miles of travel. At a walking pace of three miles per hour, the trip would have required five six-hour days.

Why would a young couple travel for a week under the travel conditions of that era to get to a place that had little connection to them, particularly at a time when the woman was very pregnant? They wouldn't, unless they were compelled. God needed them in Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophecy, so He compelled them by directing a powerful world leader to enact a tax that was both unwelcome in its reality and inconvenient in its implementation.

God knew when the time was right. In modern medicine, doctors can still only estimate the time of birth, but God knew Mary's due date precisely. God knew when the Messiah's forerunner, John the Baptist, would be born and would start his ministry. God knew when the world would be at relative peace, unified by language and transportation, making conditions advantageous for the spread of the gospel. God knew when the Jewish people would be looking expectantly for their Messiah, having already faced captivity and now being under oppressors again. God knew when the age of law would have clearly demonstrated its ineffectiveness, as the Jews had gone through periods of unbelief and empty ritual, always unable to keep the law's demands.

Ultimately, God knew precisely the time line that He Himself had laid out in Daniel 9, and He directed all these aspects of history - personal, Jewish, and world - to come together at the right time. "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4). God had a very definite and precise plan, and He brought that plan to fruition by whispering into the mind of Caesar Augustus that he ought to institute a world-wide census and that he should facilitate that census by causing people to have to travel to designated locations within certain time constraints.

Under the sovereign design of God, a tax changed the world forever by serving as the framework for the birth of the Savior. Joseph, Mary, and the others of their day probably didn't like the tax any more than people of today like the taxes required of them. Joseph and Mary found their compulsory trip uncomfortable and inconvenient, but God accomplished through that taxation and through that trip something beyond what the people of that time could understand.

The same sovereign God continues today to use uncomfortable and inconvenient things for His purposes. He continues to work through (and even initiate) the actions of governments and other leaders. When God has a plan to accomplish, nothing can stop Him. Furthermore, everyone and everything yields to His superintendence. God is in control!

"The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, 'Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand'" (Isaiah 14:24).

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Purity That Changed the World

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).

I have heard (and I assume it is true) that the Jewish people were very aware of this prophecy. I have also heard that this prophecy would have held special interest for young girls, as they anticipated the possibility that they might be the one. I don't know how common that fantasizing or imagining actually was, but there must have been some girls and some parents who wondered if their family could be involved in the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The prophecy was ultimately fulfilled through a young Nazarene lady named Mary. There was obviously a miraculous aspect to the conception of Christ, but there was also a requirement on the part of Mary. She had to be a virgin.

I did a small amount of research on recent statistics in the U.S. In 1991, 45.9% of high school students (grades 9-12) were still virgins. By 2013, that number had risen to 53.2%, still barely half. A study done in 2014 found that only 17% of women age twenty-two were virgins, and in 2017 it was reported that the average age when females lost that status was 17.2 years old. An undated report gave the following breakdown for loss of virginity in females: 26% by age fifteen, 40% by age sixteen, 49% by age seventeen, and 70% by age eighteen. While the various studies differed somewhat in their guidelines and even in their results, the consensus is that approximately half of girls are no longer virgins when they graduate from high school.

There is no way of knowing how common it was for young ladies in Mary's culture and historic setting to meet such a requirement. Perhaps a general idea could be gained through ancient histories. We would like to think that people were more moral back then, particularly within the Jewish system. People have always been sinners, however, and the sad reality is that ever since the Fall, young men and ladies have fallen short of that standard in great numbers.

Mary was almost certainly in the age range discussed above. She did not give in to pressure, even though she was engaged. She did not become part of the immorality around her and did not succumb to her fleshly desires. Mary made that decision and commitment because it was right; she didn't know she would be chosen to bear the Messiah. She was just a young lady trying to do right before God.

While she met the criteria of being a virgin, that was not the only reason she was chosen. Mary was a "favored one" in the eyes of God (Luke 1:28). She was humbly willing to do God's bidding. She responded, "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). These were not words to be spoken lightly. Her resulting pregnancy could have had significant consequences in regard to the rest of her life. She certainly did not know how Joseph would respond. She fully yielded, however, to what God asked of her.

Like He did with Mary, God calls all Christians to holiness and submission; believers would do well to follow her example in both areas. God instructs, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (I Peter 1:16). This concept permeates the Scriptures, as God asks His children to be set apart, purified, and pursuing godliness. The Bible gives specific requirements for certain people, such as pastors and church leaders. There is no doubt that God forgives sins, even sins that are considered particularly offensive; God is merciful. There are times, however, when certain opportunities for service could be forfeited, just as Mary would not have been able to carry the Messiah if she had not been a virgin.

When opportunities for service do come to those who are qualified to fill them, they must like Mary have a humble and submissive response. It is not up to individuals to determine precisely how God will use them. His plan might be far different from their preferences, and it may not even line up with what they think their talents are. What God asks may bring risks, and it might mean hardship, opposition, fear, and misunderstanding. The only appropriate response is "Yes, Lord."

While Mary provides a good example of being both qualified and willing for service, I want to focus also on God's role. When God promises something, He is able to do it. It doesn't matter how unusual or socially aberrant the conditions are. God makes sure there is a way to carry out His plans. If He says there will be a godly virgin available at the right time, there will be. If He says a chosen godly virgin will supernaturally bear a child, it will come to pass just as He has said.

Culture can't stop the plans of God. Individuals can't stop the plans of God. Governments can't stop the plans of God. Nothing can stop what God has determined. "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). On the other side of that same coin, it was absolutely imperative that Mary remain a virgin. Her purity became part of God's plan that changed the entire history of the world. It mattered immensely that she did what was right.

Christians today are also called to holiness, but holiness is possible only because the Holy One came to make the way for sinners to become His holy and redeemed children. When God sent the Savior, He changed everything!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Thanksgiving - Part 3

The previous two posts have examined aspects of God for which to be thankful. The first post (Psalm 115) considered God's infinite superiority to idols; He is the true God who sees and hears His children and responds in power toward them. The second post (Psalm 36) considered God's vast superiority to mankind; the abundant excellence of God's character shapes His dealings with man. While these two psalms present merely a partial picture and limited reasons for thanking God, they illustrate that God is definitely worthy of thanks.

When one does determine to thank God, what does that look like? How can mankind begin to adequately express his thankfulness to such a great God? When one considers how much God has done for him, a simple "Thank You" seems so trivial. There must be a fuller and more effective way to give thanks. The psalmist of Psalm 116 examines this very question. He specifically recalls God's answered prayer and His deliverance, shaped by God's wonderful character, and the grateful psalmist asks, "What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?" (v. 12).

First, the psalmist determines to offer prayer. "I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD" (v. 13). God has already answered prayers for this man. He remembers those answers and determines to continue praying to God. He will keep looking to God at all times, including future times of need. His dependence will be on God. It is actually a flattering response to be dependent on someone else, because dependence expresses confidence in the other's ability. It displays trust, acknowledgment, and admiration for the competence of the other person, in this case God, to properly and adequately respond to the needs.

Second, the psalmist determines to offer public service. "I shall pay my vows to the LORD, oh may it be in the presence of all His people" (v. 14, 18). His specific vows are not revealed, but this aspect is so important that he lists it twice. There are actions that the psalmist will do in the house of God. Perhaps those will be publicly spoken words. Perhaps they will be gifts rendered. Perhaps they will be acts of service. Whether in words, wealth, or works, this man is going to actively do something in a public setting that will express His thanks to God.

Third, the psalmist recognizes the value of an entire life of godliness. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones" (v. 15). When God receives one of His devoted saints in death, the event is special and precious to Him. What a wonderful gift then to give to God - a life dedicated to pursuing godliness. The psalmist understood that precious gift, and apparently determined to life in such a way that would bring God pleasure at the conclusion of his life. He wanted to give God that consistent godly life.

Fourth, the psalmist was devoted to a life of service to God. "O LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds" (v. 16). His service was not to be a one-time response. Rather, he was giving his life to serve God. He willingly placed himself under bondage and viewed himself as a slave who owed his entire life to God. All his days were devoted to the God he loved.

Fifth, the psalmist anticipated giving thanks. "To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the LORD" (v. 17). For some reason, he called his thanksgiving a sacrifice. Perhaps he viewed it as a deliberate offering, similar to the animal sacrifices. Perhaps he realized it would be a sweet and savory expression. Perhaps he recognized that sometimes giving thanks is not easy. Regardless, it is hard to imagine this man sitting silently through a Thanksgiving service. On the contrary, this was a man who would regularly open his mouth to give thanks to God.

Sixth, the psalmist valued praise to the Lord. "In the courts of the LORD's house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!" (v. 19). Particularly in the place of worship, he would praise God, and he called on others to join him in praise. Based on the other intended demonstrations, it is likely that this man praised God wherever he went.

God does not act on behalf of His children so that He can receive prayer, service, godliness, thanks, and praise. God acts as He does because of His character. He is good and loving and compassionate. He is faithful and just and righteous. He is aware of the needs of His children, and He is powerful to meet those needs. God's character determines His actions, but it is right and appropriate for His children to respond to the blessings of God with devotion. They ought to be so thankful that they will express that thanks both with short-term acts of praise, thanks, and worship, as well as with long-term dedication, service, and godliness. Such a great God who does so much is worthy of all that one can give.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Thanksgiving - Part 2

The previous blog (Psalm 115) examined the contrast between false gods and the true God. The true God is worthy of thanks because He is infinitely superior; in essence the false gods are dead, unresponsive, and unable to help, while God is living, involved, and powerful.

Psalm 36 is another great Thanksgiving psalm; it contrasts God with unregenerate man. While the false gods are merely powerless, man is actively wicked. The first four verses describe a man who hears transgression speak to him within his heart. He has no fear of God. He feels flattered when his acts of wickedness are uncovered, especially when people are offended by them. His words overflow with wickedness and deceit. He has stopped being wise and has stopped doing good. He lies awake at night planning more wickedness, and he deliberately places himself in evil paths.

What a terrible world to live in, surrounded by such depths of evil! If this depravity were all that man knew, this world and this life would be dark indeed. Thankfully, a righteous God exists and makes Himself known in phenomenal contrast to the wickedness of man. While man reaches the deepest abysses and darkest quagmires of ugliness and sin, God excels by contrast, as He reaches the highest levels of holiness and wonder.

"Your lovingkindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens" (v. 5). God's kindness and tender goodness are beyond the reach of any human. His love is greater than the world itself is even able to hold. There is no limit to the kind, tender love of God, and He is constantly pouring it out upon His children.

"Your faithfulness reaches to the skies" (v. 5). People cannot be relied on, but God is completely trustworthy. He is firm and steadfast, never changing. Again, there is no way to reach beyond the realms of God's faithfulness. In every area of life, in every promise of His Word, and in every aspect of His character, God is flawless. His record is spotless and irreproachable, because He continually acts as He has said He will act, and He constantly is who He claims to be.

"Your righteousness is like the mountains of God" (v. 6). God is completely just, righteous, and ethical. He never does wrong or makes the wrong decision. He can be completely trusted to do the right thing. Not only is God's righteousness far higher than man can attain, but it is also unshakeable and firm. Nothing can disturb, displace, or destroy His righteousness.

"Your judgments are like a great deep" (v. 6). The decisions, actions, and verdicts that God decrees are another important aspect of His being. God never makes an error in judgment, regardless of the thorniness of the dilemma. Man can be too shallow and too limited to understand a scenario, but God's judgments are profound. There is no plumbing the depths of them. There is no reaching the bottom, or the limit, of what He can handle.

"How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights" (vs. 7-8). God's character is very precious. What a wondrous privilege and blessing to have a God who is so loving, so nurturing, and so caring. He provides all that His children need, and there is no end to His resources. God's blessings are so abundant that man cannot even absorb them all.

In a wicked world filled with wicked men, in which even Christians can discern the wicked inclinations of their own hearts, God is holy and righteous. While man is shallow and limited, God's character knows no limitations. The aspects of His character are more lofty than man can scope and more profound than man can fathom.

I am thankful for a God whose lovingkindness is so elevated. I am thankful for a God whose faithfulness is so towering. I am thankful for a God whose righteousness is so indomitable. I am thankful for a God whose judgments are so profound. I am thankful for a God whose loving care is so limitless. I am glad that no one can come close to matching the magnificence of my God.

Certainly, it is right and appropriate to be thankful for the specific blessings of life, for material provision, and for practical displays of God's goodness. Let us not neglect, however, to be thankful for the incredible character of God that prompts His practical provision. He is a great God!

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3).