Purpose

A blog that 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 28, 2013

Nothing But Faith

         Feelings and Faith (Sonnet 23)
My feelings and emotions come and go
Like ocean waves, with no stability.
Distracting, blinding, leading to and fro,
Their end is doubt, despair, despondency.
But faith and truth will constantly abide,
Unchangeable and steady like a rock.
When made my focus, they’re a trusty guide,
Stability and hope on which to dock.
Emotion tells me truth’s not true at all,
But truth persists in spite of how I feel.
Repeatedly my feelings make me fall,
But truth-based faith provides an even keel.
Though feelings linger which my heart disdains,
My faith rests firm in truth that e’er remains.

I’m not much of a basketball fan, though I can follow a game if I want to. I don’t know all of the terminology, but I remember one phrase that, at least in my world, was popularized by a commercial several years ago. In a contest to win food from McDonalds, two NBA players kept making increasingly more difficult shots. The phrase I remember describing one of the shots is “nothin’ but net.”

The meaning is a bit different, but recently I’ve been considering the phrase “nothin’ but faith.” There are times when faith is the only thing that keeps us going. Circumstances may oppose us. Human reasoning may call us foolish. Friends may give contradictory advice. Our emotions may rebel against everything we know to be right. In fact, there may be nothing to support our continuing to follow God and His path for us – nothing, that is, except faith.

But isn’t that what faith is? It is the assurance and conviction that helps us maintain our course when reality consists only of “things hoped for” and “things not seen.” If we had to have evidence to support our faith before we were willing to believe or obey, then we would be operating on proof rather than on faith. Is it easy to live by faith when all other supports seem to abandon us? No, it is not easy, but it is possible because faith is enough to keep us firm even when all other aspects fall short.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Born to Die

Although my church did not sing this hymn during the Christmas season, I saw it as I flipped through the pages of our hymnal. “Born to Die” by Ron Hamilton expresses so aptly the core truth about Christmas.

Here is the chorus:
“Born to die upon Calv’ry,
Jesus suffered my sin to forgive;
Born to die upon Calv’ry,
He was wounded that I might live.”

We must never forget the truth about our Savior and His death for us. The communion service is a God-appointed time to bring Christ’s suffering to our remembrance. The Christmas celebration may be developed more by man, but it is still a wonderful opportunity for us to be reminded of the greatest expression of God’s love – that of sacrificing His Son in order to redeem us.

Merry Christmas!

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” II Corinthians 9:15 (NASB)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Book Review: Martyr of the Catacombs

Martyr of the Catacombs
-author unknown

This fictional story about the early Christians is set in the historical context of the mid-200s A.D. It was a time of intense persecution in which many Christians survived by living in the vast and intricate catacombs underneath the city of Rome. During these years Christians were sacrificed by hundreds at a time in the brutal “games” of the Coliseum.

The main character is Marcellus, a Roman soldier. He has recently been called to Rome where he receives a promotion and a commission. He is to be in charge of the task of going into the catacombs and destroying the Christians. He admits that he knows little about them. He has witnessed their courage and peace as they die in the Coliseum, and he wonders why they are such a threat that they must be destroyed.

As he takes steps in carrying out his orders, he learns several things. He learns that there is some difficulty involved just in finding an entrance to the catacombs. Venturing out without his uniform, he convinces someone to lead him into the catacombs, where he discovers that without a guide, a stranger would become hopelessly lost and die. He also realizes that an armed invasion of the catacombs would be ineffective, as the Christians would scatter and escape through the countless tunnels they knew so well.

Most importantly, Marcellus learns about what the Christians believe. He assures his guide that his visit is in order to learn about them, and that it will not lead to any danger against them. As he continues talking with the Christians and asking questions, he sees the truth of the gospel and becomes a Christian himself.

His change of heart puts him in immediate conflict with his superiors, and he quickly becomes one of the most wanted people in Rome. His new-found faith is the basis of courage and conviction that cause Marcellus to choose loyalty to God over loyalty to the army. Marcellus and his fellow believers willingly face the potential consequences of their faithfulness to God.
 
This short book helps the reader to better grasp the reality and intensity of the persecuted early church. It presents portraits of courage and directs the reader to consider the ramifications of genuine faith. While not pointedly personal in terms of application, the book ought to challenge a Christian to examine how much he is willing to allow his faith to impact his life as well as how committed he is to his faith.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Waves and Winds

 “Be Still, My Soul” is a precious hymn written by Katharina von Schlegel. While every stanza is great, I want to focus for a moment on the second stanza.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

We can have complete confidence in God even in the darkest of days and in the fiercest of storms. Why? There are many reasons, but one of them has to do with the unchangeable nature of God. Because He is always the same, His power never diminishes. He is just as able to control and work in the difficulties of today as He has been for every challenge in the world’s history. While we may not understand what God is doing or even be consciously aware that He is doing anything, God is always at work, accomplishing exactly what He intends to accomplish.

When we are intimidated, confused, or doubting within our life circumstances, we have multiplied instances of truth to remind us of God’s power and control. This stanza alludes to Jesus’ calming of the storm that terrified His disciples. We can look back at that incident and be encouraged at God’s work in the past. All Jesus had to do was speak, and the storm quieted itself before Him. He had power over external circumstances then, and He still has that same power today. Nature, people, powers – all must bow before the will of God.

I am reminded of Psalm 77, in which Asaph records a very difficult time in his life. He was without strength, without comfort, without sleep, without speech, without peace, and seemingly without the love and compassion of God. In this time when troubles seemed to overwhelm him, Asaph determined to focus his mind on God’s great acts from the past.

“I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds” (v. 11-12 NASB).

Interestingly, when Asaph sought a stabilizing anchor to keep him from hopelessness, he did not look at events in his personal past. Instead he talked of things like the exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. There are few stories in the Bible that are more dramatic in their illustration of God’s power and deliverance. Asaph realized that God was still the same for him as He had been for Moses.

God is still the same for us as he was for Moses and for Asaph and for the disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Bible is filled with accounts of God’s tremendous work in the world and especially on behalf of His people. With a God who can do all that our God has done, it should be possible for our souls to be still. When we focus on the God who controls the waves and the winds, we can say with Asaph,

“Your way, O God, is holy; what God is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples” (v. 13-14).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Read Only What Applies

One of the biggest books on my shelf is one my parents gave me several years ago: the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, with an impressive 1,448 pages. I have read parts of the book, but it isn’t one that I will ever sit down and read in its entirety. I have no reason to read the sections on pregnancy or men’s diseases, and with the blessing of God, there are many other sections that I trust I will never have the need to look at. I have used the book on occasion to look up issues that pertained to me or someone I care about, but the total number of pages I’ve read is pretty limited. This book is designed as a resource; the reader looks to it for answers to specific questions that are pertinent to his immediate situation. As far as any individual is concerned, the rest of the book is basically wasted paper.

Too often we read the Bible the same way. When we get into a difficult situation, we want to have an index to consult so that we can turn to the right verse or passage that is pertinent to our immediate situation. We read that section in our time of need, but unfortunately consider many other sections of the Bible to be unnecessary or inapplicable to our lives. In reality, the Bible isn’t that kind of book. All parts of the Bible are useful and applicable to all Christians. When we use the Bible selectively as a resource, we limit our overall Christian walk, and ironically, we also limit our capacity to properly respond in any momentary challenge.

A broad understanding of the Bible as a whole and a deep understanding of its various parts enable a Christian to live life with the power and wisdom of God. We must then invest the time required to study and understand the Word of God – and not just our favorite few verses.

This type of understanding cannot be achieved overnight. It requires, in fact, a life-long dedication. Our initial efforts involve simply reading the Bible in its entirety. Deeper understanding comes as we strive to comprehend the content of a particular book, perhaps by writing summary statements for each chapter. After this, there is really no limit to the depth of our study. As we spend time in a particular book, we begin to master its themes and major topics. We see how the various parts interact to teach a central truth. We understand how each book fits into the rest of the Bible and how it practically affects our daily lives.

Coming to know and understand a book of the Bible in this deeper fashion is rewarding, enlightening, and very encouraging. My experience with the books I have been able to study thus far this convinces me that such study is immensely profitable. I desire to pursue a meaningful understanding of each book of the Bible. One book at a time, I trust that God will help me in this pursuit. While I don’t know how many books I will eventually study, I do know that each successive study will be a blessing, since every book of the Bible applies to my life.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” II Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Trust His Understanding

   Trust His Understanding (Sonnet 27)
I cannot trust myself; I am too weak,
But I must trust in God with all my heart.
Completely helpless, He’s the one I seek.
I lean on Him to show me ev’ry part.
My God knows things that I can’t understand;
His thoughts are so much higher than my own.
I cannot lean on help from my own hand,
But humbly seek wise counsel at His throne.
In ev’ry path I must see my great need
And look to Him to be my trusty Guide.
Acknowledging His wisdom, not impede;
Remove myself and let my God decide.
Then He will wisely lead me through each gate,
And He’ll direct each path and make it straight.

In the previous post, I presented this question with which God has been challenging me: “Do you trust Me?” I find this to be a great question for troubling times, because simply remembering the question is enough to make me realize that the answer is “Yes.” There is no doubt that God is worthy of trust. The Bible reveals His dependable and unfailing character over and over again.

If the Bible itself is not enough, (and it is), God has shown me in the past that He is worthy of my trust. He has done that throughout my life, but perhaps never as powerfully as in recent years. At the end of 2009, I went through a major life upheaval, which led to an extended time that was daunting and at times seemed impossible. Unexpectedly and with little notice, I lost my job as a Christian school teacher. I also lost my housing and had to move back in with my parents several states away. This resulted in some loss of independence, and I rationed out my limited savings to meet expenses. I was unemployed for a year (with just a few temp jobs) and underemployed for most of the next year. I ended up being out of ministry for twenty months, and the search for a new school ministry was a series of hopes and disappointments.

When I consider what was most daunting about those many months, I think the most significant can be represented by these two questions: How could I endure the challenges inherent in that extended time? and, How could I know what to do next? In both dilemmas, God proved Himself worthy of my trust, and I am blessed to have visible memorials of His provision in both.

Regarding knowing what to do next, I have a thirty-page typed record of the process God used to bring me to my next place of ministry. It is filled with hundreds of things God did to guide me, many of them precisely timed and intricately woven. As far as making it through the challenges of my situation, I have three bookmark-sized calendars as proof of the time that passed. Each day I colored in another square, switching to a different color each month, and those multi-colored cards are a testament to God’s grace and trustworthiness. Those situations were too big for me, but they weren’t too big for God.

I didn’t understand what God was doing, but God understood perfectly. I can have complete trust in His understanding. Any time I start to doubt, all I have to do is look at these memorials of God’s past work. When I see them, I think, “If God could do what He did then, I have no reason to doubt Him now.” That’s what I love about this question, “Do you trust Me?” Just remembering it is enough to stabilize me and to silence the doubt. It pulls me back to “Oh, yeah, I do, don’t I?” Remembering doesn’t remove the questions and challenges, but it does remind me that, in essence, they are inconsequential. Instead of focusing on them (when I’m not going to be understand them anyway), I need to focus on the God who is in control of all of them and has proven Himself to be bigger than them.

After another job loss in 2012, I’m almost at that twenty-month mark again of being out of formal ministry. I don’t know how much longer that will last. I don’t know when God will make His next move or how He will use me next. I do know that I can trust Him. He has a plan for my life, and He will bring it about in His way and in His time for His glory. The thing that I love about trusting God’s understanding is that when I am confused and clueless, it would be senseless to trust my own understanding – but I don’t have to. I have someone who completely understands, and I can trust His superior wisdom.
 
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5-6 (NASB)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Do You Trust Me?

Have you ever been afforded a glimpse into your future? I’m not talking about visions or extra-Biblical revelations, but God has ways of directing, and sometimes He does so years in advance. It can happen through a sermon, a ministry presentation, personal Bible reading, prayer time, an increasing heart burden, recurring thoughts, life changes, or an accumulation of circumstances. When someone is alert to God and attentive to His voice, he can experience indications of how God is working and intends to work in one’s life.

To make the concept practical, a young man may know that God wants Him to be a pastor; he may move through a number of ministries and locations, however, before God puts him into the pastorate. A young couple may have an increasing burden for missions, but it may take an overseas job assignment to get them started on the path. A Christian may have an underlying assurance that God wants him to work with a particular group of people, such as the deaf, but until he faces deafness in his own child, he is not prepared for that ministry. A pastor may be challenged with a specific area of focus, perhaps family ministry or addiction counseling, but God might gradually prepare him for that ministry over a process of years and through a combination of experiences.

When God has given indications, whether initial or confirmed, that He is leading in a certain direction, what does one do with the waiting time? How does he continue to muddle through the realities and challenges of day-to-day life until God brings His plan to fruition? What does he do with his calling when there is no visible way of seeing it happen?

As I consider this question in my own life, I realize there are a number of natural (but wrong) responses that I repeatedly exhibit. I also see God challenging me with one supernatural (and correct) response. I think these responses can be illustrated with the life of Moses. To be clear, I don’t see any indication prior to the burning bush that Moses or his parents knew God would use him to deliver the children of Israel. His life, however, includes various circumstances in which these responses can be examined.

The first wrong response is “It’s impossible.” This doubtful response denies God’s ability to ever work out His plan. It concedes that the idea is nice, but there is no way for it to happen. Think of the impossibility of Moses’ delivering God’s people. He was not supposed to survive the birth process. The midwives failed to kill him, however, and the additional commands from Pharaoh did not result in Moses’ death. Against all odds, Moses survived undetected for three months; then when entrusted to the Nile, he had the unlikely “fortune” of being discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Was it impossible for Moses to become God’s leader? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The second wrong response is “Life doesn’t make sense.” This confused response strives for understanding that God has reserved for Himself. When the events of life seem to contradict the intended goal, this answer demands more information than God is giving. If Moses’ life were to make sense, we would see his position in the palace as his inroad for influence. (It worked for Esther and Nehemiah.) Instead we see an intervention by Moses that throws the entire situation into chaos and senselessness. While intervening for one of the Israelites, Moses killed an Egyptian and subsequently had to flee for his life. If he was to be the leader of the exodus, it makes no sense that he was removed entirely from the location where he needed to work as well as from his potential position of power. Was it confusing as to how these contradictions could ever be worked out? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The third wrong response is “There’s no progress.” This impatient response urges God to work more quickly than He has planned. The intense passion or heart desire is frustrated and tormented at not being able to achieve its goal sooner. If anyone faced years without progress, it was Moses. He spent forty years in the desert as a shepherd. There was no career-building in that desolate job. In his isolated environment, there was no means of establishing connections or even of keeping abreast of current conditions. Moses waited not for a month, a year, or five years, but for four long decades. Surely it seemed that his life would never accomplish anything worthwhile. Was there so much waiting that it would seem to prevent Moses’ rise to leadership? Yes, but God did it anyway.

The fourth wrong response is “But it’s so hard.” This overwhelmed response focuses on the difficulties of the current situation. It might believe that God’s plan will happen – if one can survive everything that comes first. As Moses obediently prepared to lead God’s people, he faced continual opposition. He had a conflict with his wife, and after his initial entreaty brought increased work for the Israelites, he faced protests from them. He went time after time to Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened to reject God’s plan in spite of escalating judgment. He experienced the discomfort of the plagues. He faced Pharaoh’s stubbornness, demands, and false promises. Was the pressure on Moses so great that no man could be sustained under it? Yes, but God did it anyway.

Finally, the correct response is based on a question from God: “Do you trust Me?” This faith-filled response acknowledges God’s ability to overcome all of the above protests. When my heart thinks those other responses and my mind wants to dwell on them, God asks, “Do you trust Me?” Moses learned to trust God. When the children of Israel were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, the people were desperate and distraught. There was no way out. But notice Moses’ confident words: “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13).

Why did he say that? We have no record that he was relaying a message received from God. Instead this seems to be his immediate response to the people’s cry. How did he know God would deliver? It was because God had proven Himself to Moses. Moses had come to understand who God was, and he responded appropriately with trust. By this time Moses knew the job that God had given him, and he knew that God would bring that plan about – when it seemed impossible, when it was confusing, when it was taking too much time, and when the process was too hard. If God said it, then God would do it. Moses could trust the infallible words and reliable guidance of his faithful God, and so can every other follower of God.

“Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He will do it.” Psalm 37:3-5 (NASB)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Failure or Success? - Part 2

The previous post presented perceived situations of failure: a job loss, a project that flops, singleness, childlessness, poor health, poverty, and so forth. We noted that these scenarios look like failure in our human evaluation, but that because God’s definitions are different, God might actually view those same circumstances as being successful. How can success be achieved in the midst of such negative situations? What is success in God’s eyes? What are the successful objectives that can be achieved in any set of circumstances?

True success is trusting God.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD.” Jeremiah 17:7 (all verses NASB)
“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Hebrews 11:6
God clearly states that if we want to be pleasing to Him and be successful in His eyes, we must have faith. We have to trust Him. Faith is what made the Old Testament martyrs successful in spite of seeming failure (Hebrews 11:39). During good times, trusting God is so easy that we don’t even give it conscious thought. It is harder to trust in times that seem like failure, but just as necessary. When nothing seems to be working, and everything seems to be falling apart, God wants us to have faith in Him. Success is saying, “Father, I don’t understand what is happening, but I depend on You to work out Your plan.”

True success is faithfully serving God.
“In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.” I Corinthians 3:2
“What does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” Ecclesiastes 12:13
We are to follow God day after day without turning aside when we don’t see the results we are looking for. Jeremiah faced opposition from everyone else, but he faithfully gave God’s message for decades, and God was pleased with him. God does not ask us to be in charge of the results. He does ask us to faithfully serve Him. If the progress is painfully slow, our efforts are continually ineffective, or the number of people to whom we minister is pitifully small, we are to remain true to God, obeying what He asks us to do. Solomon, a man who had every kind of worldly success that can be imagined, realized that following God was the only true success. Success says, “Father, I don’t see the results, but I will keep serving You anyway.”

True success is focusing on God’s Word.
 “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 1:2
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” Joshua 1:8
When life does not go as we expect or desire, we will be discouraged and defeated if we do not focus on stabilizing truth. With all of the additional challenges that come in trying times, we need the Bible to tell us how to respond. We also need the Bible to be the bedrock for our troubled souls. We must remember that there is a difference between God’s idea of success and our own, that there is a difference between God’s understanding and ours, and that there is a difference between God’s sovereign control and our pitiful attempts. We are going to be reminded of those truths only as we direct our hearts and minds often to the Word of God. When we remember God’s truth, our faith is strengthened and our obedience facilitated; the result is that God is pleased. A response of success states, “Father, I am dependent on Your Word to protect my thoughts and direct my actions.”

True success is honoring God.
“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
“So that the proof of your faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” I Peter 1:7
“To the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” Ephesians 1:12
True success comes when we realize that we are not the central character of our lives. Success is not about our plans, objectives, or achievements; it is about the work of God. If we experience what looks like earthly success, we must deflect the honor and glory to God. In our seeming failures, we can still give praise to God and exalt Him. We do that personally by submitting to God in appreciation of His good plan, though unknown to us. We give God honor publically when we give Him credit for everything, verbally express our trust in Him, and respond in a way that points others to Him. When God receives the honor that He properly deserves, we cannot call the situation a failure. Honoring God is achieved when we privately acknowledge and outwardly proclaim that God is amazing enough to accomplish good things in any situation. A heart that understands success declares, “Father, may You be lifted up through my life in both good times and bad.”

None of these responses is dependent on being healthy or keeping a job or having beautiful children. In fact, they are more noticeable and poignant when we perform them in less than ideal circumstances. When we follow the principles above, God is pleased, and we are successful, regardless of what circumstances look like.  When our lives look like failure, we must remember that God does not evaluate with the same criteria we do. When He accomplishes His purposes, any “disaster” can be a triumphant success.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Failure or Success? - Part 1

Life is unpredictable and sometimes disappointing. We all face times in life when something doesn’t turn out like we expected. Sometimes we even go through seasons of life in which it seems that nothing goes according to plan. When we face reversals, disappointments, changes, obstacles, and delays, we label them as failures.

Certainly these times are not easy, but we must be careful about identifying them as failures. We are limited to viewing life with human eyes and human understanding. We sometimes forget that God sees far more than we see and knows far more than we know. What may seem to be a catastrophic failure in human terms may be a great victory within God’s plan. True success, as determined by God, can exhibit great variety in its presentation to humans.

Sometimes success looks like success. This is what we long for as humans. We want to see our lives in Psalm 1:3: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” We desire to “be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). We see people, either Christians or not, whose lives seem to follow this pattern. Everything they involve themselves in seems to work out, and we question, “Why is their life so smooth while mine is a disaster?” In the Bible, Daniel could be an example of this kind of success. He faced challenges, but every time he came out on top. He rose to a high position and enjoyed great respect from earthly rulers, even pointing them toward God.

Sometimes success looks like failure for a long time until it finally resembles success. Moses had to flee his homeland and live for decades as a shepherd in the desert. When God finally moved him toward ministry, he faced opposition and repeated obstinacy from Pharaoh. Eventually, however, God reversed all of that and brought an incredible deliverance. Job suffered the loss of everything – possessions, family, health – and went through deep internal struggles before God finally restored and blessed him. Joseph faced hatred, slavery, false accusation, imprisonment, and abandonment before eventually rising to a position of leadership in Egypt. Jesus Himself was rejected by His own, falsely accused, beaten, and crucified before He was resurrected and achieved salvation. Each of these men went through long seasons of “failure” before success came.

Sometimes success will always look like failure to our human eyes. Throughout Jeremiah’s lengthy ministry, he consistently faced rejection and opposition from everyone, including his own family and those to whom he ministered. Paul and the other apostles carried the gospel around the world and were rewarded with deprivation, opposition, persecution, and martyrdom. Hebrews 11:35-38 speaks of God’s servants who were tortured as they tried to serve Him. They “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . . , wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” Humanly speaking, we would never define these situations as successful.

God does not share our human evaluation, nor does He use a human definition of success. From a human perspective, it is easy to view these men as failures. (If we were living their lives, we would see our lives as failures.) God does not view them that way. God was pleased with these men who served Him in spite of rejection, suffering, and even death. God’s testimony is that these were “men of whom the world was not worthy” who “gained approval through their faith” (Hebrews 11:38-39). In God’s eyes, these men were successful.

The whole issue of success or failure comes down to who makes the definition. Man bases failure or success on things like the following: a job loss or a promotion, a project falling apart or prospering, lonely singleness or a happy marriage, infertility or healthy children, a tiny church or a large one, a shortened life or a long one, poverty or riches, obscurity or reputation, sickness or health. For man, the first of each pair is deemed failure and the second success. God, on the other hand, can view any of those negative scenarios as success, while the positive ones may actually be failure. True success happens when God achieves the results that He desires and accomplishes the purposes that He has ordained. God’s list of objectives is often quite different from man’s list.

The bottom line is that much of the time we are unable to make a clear and accurate evaluation of whether or not something in our lives is truly a failure. That judgment must be left to God. What do we do, then, when we are confronted with feelings of failure? We must remember that there are only two possibilities. Either we have failed, or we haven’t. If we have failed (from God’s perspective), we call that sin. If we are aware of this type of failure, we need to confess our sin. God promises to forgive us, allowing us to start again with a clean slate. If we have not failed (sinned) in a situation that looks like failure, we call that sovereignty, meaning God had a plan that didn’t look like human success, but He was nevertheless working to accomplish His plan. We need to thank Him for what He has done and continue faithfully. Either way, we cannot dwell on the seeming failure, as there is nothing we can do to change the past. We can only strive by God’s grace to do right in the future, trusting God to bring about the results He desires.

“O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.” Psalm 131:2-3 (NASB)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thankful for Grace

As I read Psalm 36 recently, I was struck by the shocking depravity of the wicked. The first four verses describe them in terms that are a little hard to picture. “Transgression speaks to the ungodly within his heart.” He is so used to thinking about evil that his inner being is saturated with it; his heart is directed toward evil even when he’s not consciously focused on it. “There is no fear of God before his eyes.” He is so arrogant against God that he can commit atrocities in sacred places and against the most innocent or virtuous people without even batting an eye. “It flatters him in his own eyes concerning the discovery of his iniquity and the hatred of it.” When good people uncover his sin and protest it, he is actually proud that his wickedness was vile enough to have caught people’s attention. “The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit; he has ceased to be wise and to do good.” He has abandoned both common sense and common decency to the extent that all his words and deeds are wicked and destructive. “He plans wickedness upon his bed.” He actually stays awake at night thinking of and planning more ways to do more evil. “He sets himself on a path that is not good; he does not despise evil.” Instead of avoiding evil, he actually puts himself in a position to pursue it. It is no secret that there are wicked people in the world, but this passage exposes the depth of depravity they can reach.

After this appalling picture of the wicked, the next five verses present an extreme contrast. They describe the incredible magnificence of God, talking about Him in terms of the highest, the deepest, the most secure, the most abundant, and the most vibrant. “Your lovingkindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like a great deep. O LORD, You preserve man and beast. 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. For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” God is good, noble, loving, and faithful. He expresses those attributes by graciously reaching out to man and the rest of His creation. (Pretty amazing in light of man’s depravity.)

The final three verses give the conclusion, which shows the interaction between God and man. There is a prayer for God to continue His lovingkindness to the righteous and to protect them from the wicked. Because God does not change, He will continually extend His goodness to those who love Him. Because He is righteous, He will also bring judgment on the wicked, something that the final verse describes.

God does not respond the same way to the wicked as He does to His children. The wicked face certain judgment, while Christians enjoy the immeasurable depths of God’s lovingkindness. Why am I in the second group instead of the first? It is by God’s grace. I am reminded of the quotation attributed to English pastor John Bradford as he watched prisoners being led to the gallows: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I could be like the wicked described in the first four verses of Psalm 36. Instead I am someone who is able to experience the immense blessing of the God who is described in verses 5-9.

I didn’t earn that difference for myself, and I don’t deserve it based on who I am. It is God’s grace that designed the plan of salvation. God’s grace was extended when Jesus died on the cross to provide that salvation. God’s grace put me in a setting where I could hear of His salvation. His grace softened my heart to accept salvation. After salvation, God’s grace has kept me from wandering away and has drawn my heart closer to Him. God’s grace, just like the God described in this psalm, is amazing. When I look at the opening of Psalm 36 and realize what I could be and the judgment I could face, I am very thankful for the grace of God.

“But by the grace of God I am what I am.” I Corinthians 15:10 (NASB)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Fighting for Faith

Sometimes faith is a fight. Consider these Bible descriptions. (All quotations are from the NASB.)

“Your faith . . . even though tested by fire.” I Peter 1:7

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. . . . Resist in the evil day. . . . All the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Ephesians 6:12-13,16

“Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I Peter 5:8

“Behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.” Luke 22:31

There is indeed a very real spiritual battle. Our faith is tried like metals that are placed into a raging fire. God describes the attack by using battlefield terminology, as well as by comparing it to the stalking of a ferocious wild beast, the threshing out of wheat, and the demanding rigor of a marathon (Hebrews 12:1). None of these descriptions refer to something easy or trivial.

When our faith encounters these harsh and intense battles, victory can seem impossible. Answers and help can seem elusive. Our situation may seem hopeless. Our natural tendency when faced by such daunting situations is to want to give up. There seems little point in fighting when the enemy is so strong, the battle is so demanding, and the outcome looks so bleak. Since we are being beaten up anyway, why exert effort to try to stop it?

We cannot take such a defeatist attitude. It is true that the battle will be hard and it might be long. It may lead to setbacks, to injury, and to weariness. Nevertheless, we must fight the battle. We cannot allow Satan to win the victory without opposition. We cannot accept defeat when God offers victory. When faith is faltering, we must fight to maintain it.

The best way to fight for our faith is by focusing on the Scriptures. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Our faith is not blind. It is not a nebulous concept or an empty chant: “I believe. I believe.” No, we must believe in something. There must be a basis for our faith, and that basis is the truth of God revealed through the Bible. God’s words form the foundation and the pillars upon which our faith can rest. God makes promises, and “it is impossible for God to lie,” so we can take “refuge and have strong encouragement” (Hebrews 6:18) in the Word of God.

A focus on Scripture is effective for building our faith because of various things that the Scripture reveals to us. First, we are able to focus on the hope of heaven. Jesus Himself identified the certainty of heaven as a source of hope in troubling times (John 14:1-3). Hebrews 6:19 refers to the hope of heaven as “an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast.” When we know that heaven is coming, that our eternal status is secure, we also know that God will get us to that point. The one who is dependable for our eternity is also dependable for every moment until then. We may not be sure of the outcome in each individual circumstance, but we know the ultimate outcome.

Second, Scripture helps us to focus on our salvation. God has saved us and holds us securely in His hand. We have trusted God and put our faith in Him for our eternal security, which He has already won. We can also trust and put our faith in Him for the battles of daily life. God provides for us the armor needed to stand in the day of battle. This everyday armor described in Ephesians 6 is called the armor of God; not our own, it is God’s armor, and it is closely linked to our salvation.

When we need faith to stand firm in battle, we have our loins girded with truth; the ultimate truth of the Bible is about salvation. We have the breastplate of righteousness; because of Christ’s vicarious death to achieve our salvation, we are now dressed in His righteousness. We have our feet shod with the gospel of peace; the good news of salvation achieves peace for us. We have the shield of faith; our trust in God started with salvation, and that same faith continues to protect us. We have the helmet of salvation, and we have the sword of the spirit, the Word of God. Every bit of the armor is rooted in our salvation, which God has already won. The armor allows us to shout out, “My salvation protects me! God has already won the victory! Satan, you are defeated!”

Third, Scripture helps us to focus on our Savior. When we understand who our God really is, it ought to be very hard for us not to trust Him. One of the key purposes of the book of Hebrews is to exalt our Savior to such a high position that we find our faith in Him to be completely reasonable. We are able to endure in the difficult marathon that stretches before us by “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). We trade our despair for faith when we “hope in God” (Psalm 43:5). When we remember God’s character and goodness, we win the victory over despair and have faith to “wait for the LORD [and to] be strong and let [our] heart take courage” (Psalm 27:14). When our faith is weak, we must remember the incredible God in whom we place our faith.

The bottom line is that life is a battle. It is hard, and our faith does face difficult assaults. In those battles, we cannot give up. “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has great reward” (Hebrews 10:35). We must stand and fight. “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. . . . Stand firm against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11). This is possible when we keep our focus in the right place – on Scripture, which speaks of heaven, of our salvation, and of our Savior. We can be encouraged that we have the armor of God to help us and that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (II Corinthians 10:4).

Is maintaining faith a fight? Then we must stand firm and fight. We need to get into the Word to strengthen our faith. We can never be satisfied to let our faith falter and quake.
 
"Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation." Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NASB)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Most Rocks Are Deaf

“To You, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not be deaf to me.” Psalm 28:1a (NASB)

As I read this verse recently, I was struck by the irony of the metaphor. David refers to God as his rock, but he calls out to this rock and expects it to hear him. That’s a little odd. Rocks can’t hear, and they can’t demonstrate their reception of a message by making any response. Nevertheless, that is exactly what David asks of God.

There can be people in our lives that seem to be as deaf as rocks. When we share our burdens and needs with them, they offer no response, as if they do not hear a word we say. The problem is not with their physical ears; it is with their hearts that are calloused or unsympathetic.

God is never that kind of rock. He is never unsympathetic to the cries of His children. He shows that He hears when He responds to our prayers. That is precisely what happened to David in Psalm 28. After talking about the wicked that opposed him, David reported in verse 6 that God had heard the voice of his supplications.

Most rocks are deaf, but David’s Rock and our Rock has very sensitive hearing. The odd picture David creates is actually very beautiful because God displays the best of these combined aspects. He is a sensitive God who hears, cares, and responds. He is never deaf to the cries of His loved ones.

God is also a rock and has the characteristics of a rock. In the Psalms two words are used to describe God as a rock, and their roots and translations include the following: cliff, rock, boulder, refuge, sharp, lofty, craggy, fortress, and stronghold. In 28:7-8, David uses the terms strength and saving defense. What a reassurance to know that the God who compassionately hears us is able to respond with the strength of a rock - and this powerful and protecting Rock hears our cries for help!

“Blessed be the LORD, because He has heard the voice of my supplication.” Psalm 28:6 (NASB)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Must Tell Jesus

I love this hymn by Elisha A. Hoffman; I would like to focus on the third verse and chorus.

Tempted and tried, I need a great Savior,
One who can help my burdens to bear;
I must tell Jesus, I must tell Jesus;
He all my cares and sorrows will share.

I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.

There are many reasons why I need a Savior. This stanza focuses on trials and temptations. Life is filled with trials that stretch me beyond what seems bearable, and with temptations to which my weak humanity wants to yield. I need someone to help me bear those kinds of burdens, and, as the hymn states, Jesus is available to help with each of those cares and sorrows.

Depending on the circumstances of life, some people understand more than others how difficult it is to bear anything alone. “Alone” is a tough position to be in when the trials and temptations of life descend. Thankfully, the unfailing presence of Jesus means that no Christian is ever truly alone. Of all the possible help available, Jesus is the only one who fits the description of “great Savior.”

Anything short of a great Savior is insufficient. With the extent of my need, I cannot help myself. There is no other person that can adequately help me. Even a weak or mediocre savior would leave me short and needy. No, I need a great Savior.

How great is Jesus? Hebrews 1:2-3 presents His divine excellence as the creator, owner, and sustainer of the world, someone who is exactly like God in His magnificence (because He is God). The remainder of chapter one proves His superiority over the angels. Chapter two opens by expressing how outstanding Jesus is compared to the Old Testament messengers who gave God’s Word. In 2:5-8, we see God exalting man to a level of control and authority, but then there is clarification. Man was promoted to that level undeservedly and holds the position incompletely. Jesus is worthy of that authority and exercises it completely.

This wonderful and amazing Jesus is our Savior (2:10). He is the one who redeems us and provides salvation. Then the verse says something interesting; God chose “to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.” Wasn’t Jesus already perfect? How could He possibly be made any better? How could anything be lacking in Him? Verses 14-18 explain. It’s not that there was anything lacking in Him as God. No one could help but to be amazed at His perfection. Somehow, this radiantly divine and superior Savior, who was already perfect, found a way to be even more perfect. He added another layer or dimension to His perfection.

He did this by taking flesh and blood and by becoming a man. Verse 17 says that “He had to be made like His brethren in all things.” He had to live in a human body and know what that was like. He was able to experience the weakness, limitations, and struggles of the flesh. He faced those challenges perfectly (4:15 “yet without sin”), but because He faced them, He understands them. Because of His understanding, we are told that He sympathizes with our weaknesses and is ready to give us mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

Jesus was tempted, too. He successfully met every temptation, so He knows how to help us. He understands the struggle of the temptation, so He is ready to help us compassionately. This is what makes Jesus such a great Savior! His experience as a human made Him more perfect than perfect, as He added to His divine nature the ability to understand the weak humans to whom He would minister.

I had occasionally heard people talk about Jesus as being not just my Savior from sin (through salvation), but as my Savior every day. Until I studied these chapters of Hebrews, I wasn’t sure what those people meant. I realized that my friends understood something that I did not yet understand. I’m sure that I still haven’t fully grasped the concept, but Hebrews 2 provided some illumination. It is through Jesus’ role as my Savior, through His suffering and death, that He is prepared to be my Savior every day. His experience on earth is what helped to make Him who He is, someone who understands my weakness and compassionately comes to my aid in the trials and temptations of everyday life. There is no doubt that I need a great Savior, and praise God, I have one!

“For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” Hebrews 2:18 (NASB)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Didn't Jesus Know?

The story of “doubting Thomas” is very familiar. Thomas was absent when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he responded by doubting the others’ report. His words were “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Usually discussion of this story focuses on Thomas. Why did he doubt? Why was his faith so weak? Why didn’t he believe ten trustworthy people?

There is another very important character in the story, and that is Jesus. Jesus understood that not being present would make faith more difficult for Thomas (or anyone), as Thomas lacked the visual proof that the other disciples experienced. So why did Jesus make His first visit when Thomas was not there? Didn’t Jesus know that Thomas was away? Of course He knew. He knows everything.

Why then did He choose to appear at that time? It was a deliberate choice. Jesus knew where each disciple was at all times. He knew when they were all together. He could have come at any time. With all of these factors, it seems completely logical to our human minds that Jesus would have come when all of the disciples were present. Since Jesus made this choice, there must have been a reason for it.  Following are some ideas for what that reason may have been.

First, to emphasize the need for belief. Jesus wanted Thomas to believe, just as He wanted all of the disciples to believe. When He appeared a week later, He challenged Thomas with the need for belief, with or without visual support.

Second, to illustrate the human propensity to doubt. Doubting is such a common human response, and it springs easily from human hearts. Thomas was one of the chosen apostles and had the unified eyewitness report of the other ten apostles. If, having those advantages, Thomas doubted, then doubt is not such a strange thing.

Third, to illustrate His compassionate response to human weakness. Jesus was really pretty gentle with Thomas. Instead of berating him, Jesus responded by providing what was needed to build Thomas’s faith. It is easy to hear the love in Jesus’ voice as He reaches out to Thomas.

Fourth, to show His personal interaction with His children. Jesus could have given His message to the group once with the hope that they all got it. Because He knew, however, that one out of the eleven was still in doubt, He ministered personally to that one. As the others stood by, Jesus took the time to speak individually to Thomas and to show that He had personal knowledge of Thomas’s specific struggles.

Fifth, to show the possibility for victory and growth. Even with doubt as strong as Thomas’s was, his doubt was not hopeless. When presented with the truth, he turned to Jesus with a strong response of faith. He did not remain in his struggling state.

Sixth, to show there is a purpose in things that don’t seem right. This irregular timing of Jesus’ visit to His disciples was used in Thomas’s life to bring personal growth. Proper honor was given to Jesus, and the other disciples were able to observe this important interaction. Beyond that, his story was recorded to help and instruct Christians in all of the centuries since. There were reasons for Jesus to appear in Thomas’s absence.

There are also reasons for what God does in our lives. Everything God does (or doesn’t do) has a purpose. God uses even things that seem like lost opportunities or advantages we have missed out on. We never really lack (that is, to our detriment) anything that God intends for us to have or experience. Neither do we ever have or receive anything that God does not allow. He knows what is best for us, and He gives and withholds accordingly.

We do not always know what God knows in terms of purposes; in fact, in many situations we will never learn all of His purposes. Sometimes we question, "Didn't God know?" Yes, He knew. In spite of our knowledge or lack thereof, God knows what He is doing, and He does have purposes. Like in the story of Thomas, those purposes may be for us individually, for others looking on, for people who will hear about our story, or simply to bring proper honor to God. An evangelist recently shared a quotation from a book by an unknown author. This is a paraphrase, but the concept was this: If we could see things as God sees them, we would want Him to do things as He is doing them.

“The LORD is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds.” Psalm 145:17 (NASB)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Old Testament Context: Part 3

After both Israel and Judah were conquered and their people taken into captivity, it may have seemed that the Jewish history had ended. It could easily seem that God’s redemptive plan had been defeated and that there was no hope for God and man to be reconciled. Contrary to appearances, however, God’s plan continued. The books written during this post-kingdom period of history reveal that no plan of God can be conquered. When success seems impossible, God is not hindered in the least.

DANIEL: Daniel’s story follows the people of Judah, and it actually begins prior to the end of the kingdom. Daniel was one of many Jews who were taken to Babylon in a preliminary exile during the reign of Jehoiakim. Daniel served in captivity under King Nebuchadnezzar and his son King Belshazzar. Babylon was then conquered by the Medes and Persians; Daniel continued to serve under their kings, Cyrus and Darius. The second half of the book records some of Daniel’s visions, many of which deal with the end times. As an old man who had lived most of his life in captivity, Daniel realized that the seventy years of captivity prophesied for his people were nearing their end.

EZEKIEL: Ezekiel’s story begins with about five to six years remaining for Zedekiah, Judah’s final king. The book, however, was written in captivity as Ezekiel was taken in an earlier deportment. God revealed to Ezekiel the impending destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel was to preach repentance to the exiles from Israel. He also gave prophecies of judgment against other nations and promises of God’s restoration of His people.

LAMENTATIONS: As the title indicates, Lamentations is a sad book. It was written by Jeremiah at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. Jeremiah described the horrible conditions in the city, and he recognized the judgment as deserved from God as a result of the wickedness of the people. In the midst of the sorrow, Jeremiah remembered God’s goodness and asked for restoration.

EZRA: In his final days, Daniel anticipated the exiles’ return to Jerusalem. The beginning of the process is described in Ezra. Cyrus, the king of Persia, announced that refugees from Judah would be allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. A total of about 50,000 people made the trip. Joshua and Zerubbabel were leaders in the efforts. There was some opposition and delay through the reigns of several of Persia’s kings, but the temple work was eventually completed. (Esther’s story takes place during the approximately 80 years of suspended work.) Ezra then went to Jerusalem with a second group and addressed the spiritual needs of the people.

HAGGAI: Haggai ministered in the years described in the earlier part of the book of Ezra. God’s people were reluctant to proceed with rebuilding the temple, and Haggai’s message from God was that it was time for them to get to work on it. God reinforced His choices of Joshua and Zerubbabel as leaders.

ZECHARIAH: Zechariah ministered at the same time as Haggai and with much the same purpose. He worked with those who were rebuilding the temple, and he spoke of both the immediate restoration of glory to Jerusalem as well as the ultimate restoration when God defeats all of His foes.

ESTHER: Esther was an exile from the nation of Judah, apparently born in captivity. By the time her story took place, she was a young lady, and the nation in charge had shifted from Babylon to Media and Persia. While Daniel served under Darius and Cyrus, Esther lived during the reign of the following king, Ahasuerus (Xerxes). Though it would seem unlikely, she became the queen, with her nationality as a Jewess not being known to the king. Haman, a pompous leader within the kingdom, came up with a plan to annihilate the Jews. God used Esther to intervene, and the Jews were spared from destruction.

NEHEMIAH: Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, the next king after Ahasuerus. By this time, the temple had been rebuilt, but the city of Jerusalem was still in great distress and with no walls surrounding it. Seeing Nehemiah’s burden for Jerusalem, the king allowed him to return to rebuild the city. Nehemiah faced much opposition, but the walls were rebuilt. The closing chapters of Nehemiah record the great spiritual revival that followed.

MALACHI: With the temple rebuilt and Jerusalem restored, the Jews re-established their system of sacrifices and worship. The effect of the spiritual revival quickly waned, however, and the worship became empty and ritualistic. There was no heart devotion behind their service, and Malachi’s message was to try to get the people to realize that they were not as devoted to God as they claimed to be.

Even though Jerusalem was restored and many Jews had returned to their homeland, the picture portrayed at the end of the Old Testament is somewhat bleak. The nation was surviving, but it was certainly not prospering either politically or spiritually. In those somewhat dark days, the prophets consistently mixed in a message of hope. They proclaimed that the Messiah was coming and that the Redeemer would rescue God’s people. The close of Malachi is followed by over 400 years with no new Scripture given. When God’s story resumes, however, in the New Testament, we see God’s wonderful plan being fulfilled. The Savior comes, and He accomplishes all that is necessary for God and man to be reconciled.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: Evidence Not Seen

Evidence Not Seen
by Darlene Deibler Rose

Darlene wrote her story at least in part for her two sons. She “wished them to know, if ever difficult circumstances came into their lives, that their mother’s God is still alive and very well, and His arm has never lost its ancient power!” The book begins with the courtship, marriage, and preparation for missionary service of Darlene and her husband Russell.

As young missionaries in 1938, Russell and Darlene joined a team of missionaries working in New Guinea. Russell became the leader of a pioneering work into the interior, where he established contact with a recently discovered tribe. Later Darlene joined him there, and together they ministered to the Kapaukus. They had permission to live in this remote area only because of the government outpost established there. When World War II began to affect New Guinea, the police were reassigned to more important posts, and the Dieblers were required to leave the area.

As the war advanced, the team of missionaries had to leave the city and seek protection in a nearby refuge. They were not bothered for a few months, but then had to deal with increasingly abusive soldiers. The men were taken away to a prison camp, and Darlene never saw her husband again. The women were left for many more months before being transported to a more closely-guarded location; after several more months, they were transported to a prison camp, where they remained until the end of the war.

The majority of the book describes the time in the prison camp. Several words seem appropriate to describe the story. First, it is awful. No one who has read about Japanese or German prison camps will be surprised by the atrocities described, but that doesn’t make them any easier to read about. The treatment was unquestionably inhumane, and, at times, downright depraved. For this reason, I would not recommend the book for young readers.

The second word that comes to mind is that the story is honest. In all that Darlene faced, her faith in God endured. There were, however, times of struggle and times when she wavered. I don’t think any sensitive reader would condemn Darlene for her struggles; those very human struggles seem inevitable, especially within her context. Darlene could have omitted those moments of weakness and failure, but she doesn’t. She shows us an example of a Christian who is growing in her trust and submission.

The third word is challenging. As I read the story, I cannot imagine living through such an experience. I cannot see myself responding in such a godly fashion or facing the trials with such peace and acceptance. In fact, I often struggle in the much less difficult trials of my own life. Darlene’s story directs the reader to ponder more godly responses and shares some of the ways that she was able to make those responses. Most notable was her previous preparation through study and memorization of the Word of God.

Finally, the story is uplifting. It is uplifting in the sense that it exalts God as the wonderful Father and Guide that He is. Darlene’s story clearly reflects God’s intervention in her life. He controlled circumstances and timing. He gave physical sustaining and deliverance, often through the most unexpected ways. He answered prayers that most people would consider to be impossible. He upheld Darlene and her fellow missionaries in a way that can be explained only by God’s grace. His grace was so abundant that, after a long recovery, Darlene was able to return to New Guinea and minister again.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Old Testament Context: Part 2

The second segment of the Old Testament is that of the Jewish kingdom. This section continues the record of how God kept His redemptive plan alive; it adds the new aspect that Christ is from the line of David and shows how God protects and blesses David’s line. This section is also significant in showing with eye-opening clarity man’s repeated failures and God’s persistent forgiveness and mercy. Beginning around 1100 B.C., this segment concludes in 586 B.C., a period of just over 500 years. The books covered in this time frame include history, prophecy, and poetry. The history is found in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

I SAMUEL: Samuel was born in the closing years of the judges. As a prophet who provides a transition between the judges and the kings, he is included in the record of the kingdom. Saul is anointed as king in chapter 10. Because of Saul’s disobedience, God chooses David as the next king rather than continuing Saul’s line. Conflict exists early on between Saul and David; David spends many years on the run and in hiding. The book ends when Saul dies in battle with the Philistines.
I CHRONICLES: The first nine chapters are essentially genealogy, beginning with Adam. Several lists of people are given, including descendants of the sons of Jacob. Chapter 10 begins the historical narrative by relating the death of Saul. The book is about David’s reign, ending as David sets Solomon as the next king and arranges for the building of the temple. Other than the historically older genealogical record at the beginning of the book, this book is concurrent with II Samuel.
II SAMUEL: This book begins with the mourning for Saul, after which David was anointed king, and the book is about David’s kingship. David’s reign was filled with fighting other nations as well as internal rebellions; through his reign, he was able to achieve a degree of peace for the nation. The book ends as David approaches death.
I KINGS: During his last days, David establishes Solomon as the next king. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom is divided; Judah (and Benjamin) follow Solomon’s son Rehoboam, while the other ten tribes (Israel) follow Jeroboam. I Kings records stories from both kingdoms. Eight of Judah’s twenty kings were godly, but none of Israel’s nineteen followed God. The prophet Elijah ministers during this time. I Kings ends with the death of Jehoshaphat in Judah (the 4th king of Judah under the divided kingdom).
II KINGS: The outstanding transition from I Kings is the role of prophet shifting from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha’s stories make up a significant part of the book. The story follows Israel through its captivity to Assyria and then Judah through its captivity to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
II CHRONICLES: The book begins with the reign of Solomon and the temple construction. It then follows the kingdom of Judah until its destruction and captivity to Babylon. The final verses occur after 70 years of captivity when Cyrus announces that he will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and that the Jews may return for that project. This book parallels both I and II Kings.

A list may be helpful for keeping the characters straight and for seeing the relationship between the history and prophecy books. Each line begins with the king of Judah (underlined). The notation (g) designates a godly king. After the colon are the kings of Israel who lived at the same time, followed in parenthesis by prophets who ministered in the same time frame.
Rehoboam: Jeroboam                         
Abijah: Jeroboam
Asa (g): Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab
Jehoshaphat (g): Ahab, Ahaziah, J(eh)oram; (Elijah)
Jehoram: Je(ho)ram; (Elijah, Elisha)        
Ahaziah: Je(ho)ram; (Elisha)
Queen Athaliah: Jehu; (Elisha)
J(eh)oash (g): Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash; (Elisha)
Amaziah (g): Jehoash, Jeroboam; (Elisha)
Azariah/Uzziah (g): Jeroboam, Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah; (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah)
Jotham (g): Pekah; (Hosea, Isaiah, Micah)
Ahaz: Pekah, Hoshea; (Hosea, Isaiah, Micah)
Hezekiah (g): Hoshea (captivity to Assyria - 721 B.C.); (Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum)
Manasseh
Amon
Josiah (g): (Zephaniah, Jeremiah)
J(eh)oahaz: (Jeremiah)
Eliakim/Jehoiakim: (Jeremiah, Habbakuk?)
Jehoiachin: (Jeremiah)
Mattaniah/Zedekiah (captivity to Babylon – 587 B.C.): (Jeremiah)

For some of the prophets, the time frame is very clear, while for others there is some question. The ministries of the following prophets occurred in less than 300 years, which were the ending years of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. While most of the prophets ministered specifically to the Jews, some of them addressed foreign nations as well.
 
JOEL: Written to Judah probably in the early 800s, Joel calls the people to repentance during a time of plagues of insects. With this attention-getting hardship, God wants the people to return to Him. Ultimately, He will bring peace and restoration to their land when He reigns forever.
JONAH: Jonah ministered to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria. He reluctantly brought God’s message of impending judgment; the people repented, and this heathen city was spared by God (for now – see Nahum).
AMOS: Amos ministered while Uzziah was king of Judah. While he begins by prophesying judgment on many nations (heathen as well as Judah), his main message is to Israel (under Jeroboam). He tells of Israel’s rejected opportunities to turn to God, of coming judgment, and of the eventual Messianic rule.
HOSEA: Hosea ministered at the same time as Amos, but his ministry extended later. Spoken to Israel (under their final kings), Hosea’s message compares their unfaithfulness to God as harlotry. He also speaks of God’s faithful love to them in spite of their actions and of His eventual restoration.
ISAIAH: Isaiah was another contemporary of Amos and Hosea. He ministered to Judah during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. His prophecies of coming judgment are mixed with great messages of hope and redemption.
MICAH: Contemporary with Hosea and Isaiah, Micah ministered during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He prophesied to both Judah and Israel (under Pekah and Hoshea). He preaches against their wickedness and predicts the coming judgment, while also giving significant attention to the coming Messiah and restoration.
NAHUM: Nahum is perhaps the most positive of the prophets. His prophecy about the destruction coming to Ninevah (Assyria) focuses on the power and goodness of God. Those who oppress His people will be overthrown. The book is possibly written during the reign of Hezekiah in Judah, at which time Israel may have already been carried away to Assyria.
ZEPHANIAH: Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah in Judah. He speaks of the imminent judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, which is now only about 50 years away. The book also addresses judgment on the heathen nations and God’s eventual restoration of Judah.
JEREMIAH: Jeremiah had a long ministry, beginning under King Josiah, continuing through the end of Judah, and extending into captivity. He preaches to Judah about coming judgment; during and after the great revival that occurred under Josiah, Jeremiah faced much opposition as people rejected the possibility of judgment.
HABAKKUK: Dealing with Judah, this book addresses oppression by Chaldea, probably in the final years of Judah’s kingdom. The prophet questions how God can use such a wicked nation to do His work, and God answers that He will also judge Chaldea. Because of God’s magnificence, He is to be trusted even in trying times.
OBADIAH: This is a prophecy against Edom (descendants of Esau). While the date of writing is uncertain, the message seems to have to do with the captivity of Israel and/or Judah, so may have been written in the surrounding years. Edom is warned not to gloat over Israel’s destruction, as Edom’s day of judgment is coming also.

For the most part, the poetry books don’t have historic significance, but they were largely written around 1000 B.C. during the time frame of I Kings, mostly by David and Solomon.

PSALMS: About half of the psalms are attributed to David, with another significant quantity ascribed to his contemporaries. There are psalms from as early as Moses and as late as Judah’s captivity. While commonly thought of as praise to God, the psalms also include history, prophecy, and instruction.
PROVERBS: Solomon was the primary author. He opens the book with an explanation that the proverbs are statements of wisdom intended to help the reader know how to live. Written under divine inspiration by the history’s wisest man, the proverbs are definitely good guidelines for living. The unpredictability of mankind and the providential intervention of God confine the majority of proverbs to being wise guidelines and divinely-founded principles. God, however, is never unpredictable, so any proverbs about Him are guarantees.
ECCLESIASTES: Also by Solomon, this book is written from the experience of a man who had everything he wanted. He found all other pursuits to be vain, with following God as the only thing that matters.
SONG OF SOLOMON: Written by Solomon, this story of the king and his love is an allegory for the love and intimacy between Christ and the church.