Peace Driven

Imagine you are driving and about to enter a highway on an entrance ramp, where the maximum speed is 65 mph. This particular ramp ends quickly, dumping you into the right-hand lane on the road, with little time to yield to oncoming traffic. We know that some people don’t think to move out of that lane. Do you speed up, so you’re driving almost 65 mph when you’re on the highway or keep your speed down, in case there are people in your lane as you enter? According to traffic code, neither party has the right of way, so coming on at traffic speed is the safest way to work together when merging. However, there will be times when one car will have to make a rapid adjustment for the sake of both drivers and other traffic around them. Christians who are filled with the Spirit of God should engage with others with a foot on the gas of shalom, ready to merge. Unfortunately, we usually act like drivers on a highway to our destination, oblivious or uninterested in those trying to join with us. Or, if we’re the ones initiating a relationship, we may think we are entitled, expecting others to move out of our way. Some of us may even be reluctant to find a way to relate to others because we are less worthy rather than work together for true shalom.

In the book of Hebrews, the writer shares great doctrinal truths relating to the superiority of Jesus Christ. In Chapter 12 he applies the doctrines of our faith. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” (Hebrews 12:12-15a) Therefore—knowing that Jesus Christ and the gospel fulfills and is superior to Old Testament revelations—therefore, lift your hands, strengthen your knees, and walk in a straight line with a straight body, having been healed by Christ, and continuing to heal by sanctification. Throughout the book, the author has encouraged his audience to persevere because Christ has given them His Spirit, enabling them to stand up to their temptations and trials. In verses 12 and 13, he urges them to be stout and active in their Christian warfare, rather than be limp and vulnerable—to be the driver who knows how to drive and does it. In verse 15, he shares his heart for all people to obtain God’s grace through their witness and active, biblical lifestyles. But it’s verse 14 that has captured my attention today. They and we are to: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” We are to put the peace pedal to the floor with our hands on the wheel of Christ’s holiness so we can all see God one day and see his work in our lives now. Believers will only have healthy relationships by assertively attending to them, struggling for the peace that we want from others. My goal here is for us to challenge ourselves in our sanctification, to gain greater peace and holiness, as witnesses for Christ. Paul uses similar language in Romans 14:19: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” The peace we desire for ourselves is that which others also want. Meaningful connections with our community of faith are essential for our mutual progress in sanctification and perseverance in the faith.

Peace is joined to holiness in the passage because this isn’t just the lack of conflict we’re considering but gospel peace. “In this verse holiness refers to purity of life. It is provided by God…and guided by His discipline…but we must strive for it.” (1) “Holiness here does not design any particular branch of holiness, as chastity of the body and mind, but the whole of holiness, inward and outward…even perfect holiness, for though holiness is not perfect in this life, yet it will be in heaven.” (2) Unlike the Jews, who focused on ceremonial holiness and outward superiority, our holiness rests in our vulnerability and confessional attitude toward God. Jesus’s relationships and responses to persecution are our models of holy living. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:23 “He…continued entrusting both himself and those who mistreated him entirely to God, knowing that God is just and will make all things right in the end. Likewise believers, knowing that God judges justly, are able to forgive others and to entrust all judgment and vengeance to God. Every wrong deed in the universe will be either covered by the blood of Christ or repaid justly by God at the final judgment.” (3) Jesus’s self-defense included Scripture, biblical reasoning, honorable references to his Father, silence, submission to civil authorities, unearned love, restraint, continued vulnerability, prayer, and forgiveness. He “committed himself to him that judgeth righteously; he commended his Spirit, or soul, to God his Father, and committed his cause to him, to vindicate it in what way he should think fit, who he knew was the Judge of all the earth…which is an example, and an instruction to the saints to do so likewise…to leave their cause with their God, who will, in his own time, avenge the wrongs and injuries done them.” (4) Jesus did not wait for others to make peace with him, though he had the right to do so. He entered into diverse relationships as the source and keeper of true shalom.

The promise of seeing God when we strive for peace and holiness is glorious. We will see him face to face one day, but even today, we will see him in our mutually blessed friendships and Christian fellowship. As we become more like Christ in our sanctification, we will see him in our words, worship, prayers, deeds, and desires“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) Who is the pure in heart? Although we know our lives and behavior aren’t pure, we do know that Jesus has purified our hearts through his imputation of righteousness and the cleansing of his sacrificial blood. The purity of our hearts shows up in our increasing patience, humility, mercy, and love for others. It is also demonstrated in our boldness to enter into gospel-centered, God-glorifying relationships. Being superficial, polite, and accommodating may be helpful, but it’s not enough if we are to be shalom-driven. Striving for peace begins with prayer for people with whom we have conflicts, or with whom we aren’t engaging deeply. Are you praying for your difficult relationships, unreasonable responses to issues, or annoyance over inconsequential matters? How does our personal sanctification and increasing holiness show itself? In what areas do you need to work for more holiness and purity of heart? Do we see Christ in our relationships, work, home life, service, and church ministry? Where can we apply the gospel more boldly and graciously? I want to merge with others for true shalom, how about you? “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)

(1) The Reformation Study Bible, Hebrews 12:14, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 12:14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-12.html

(3) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, 1 Peter 2:23, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(4) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 Peter 2:23, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1-peter.html

October 11, 2019

Turning Away From the Evil in Ourselves

Lately, in my Bible studies on Hebrews, it is has been very easy for participants to point outward as we come upon the author’s serious warnings. When we think of evil, don’t we usually look at something happening in our society, politics, or communities, talking about “them?” I’ve been doing that in my openings, as an exhortation to be counter-cultural. Often we, like Job, also wonder why God isn’t exacting his justice on “them” or “it.” Last week our devotion was based on Job’s challenge in his suffering. Job remained sincere and trusted God, even as he cried out for justice. Little did Job know that God was going to mercifully help him turn away from his arrogant superiority, rather than give him justice. “And the Lord said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’” (40:1-2) But Job turned in repentance when the Lord confronted him. The evil we need to confront is not “out there.” It is in us, just as it was in Job. The world has been evil since the fall of Adam and Eve; it’s nothing new. But we who are in Christ can stand up to it externally, turning away from evil to reverent fear of God. However, we must confront our pride. But we can’t find peace, even with Christ beside us and the Spirit indwelling us when we aren’t confessing our sinful pride.

“The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” (Proverbs 8:13) “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14) The Bible is absolutely clear that pride (superiority) in our hearts and minds is directly opposed to the humble character of Jesus Christ. It is also the cause of perverted speech and evil behavior. Before we can turn away from the evil in ourselves, we must identify it. Having identified the evil that resides in our sin nature, we are to turn away from it and pursue peace. Confessing personal pride, cutting off sinful attitudes, thoughts, and desires, and rejecting self-righteousness leads to more internal peace and loving behavior toward others. Disengaging with evil is essential to love Jesus Christ. “Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” (Proverbs 8:13b) “One of the main purposes of the fear of the Lord in Proverbs is to align a person’s heart with what the Lord loves. Describing what wisdom hates (and therefore what the Lord hates) calls a person to examine his or her heart, to guard it from such things, to walk in accord with what the Lord loves, and to seek wisdom for all relationships and interactions.” (1) In the New Testament, we have many reminders of Jesus’s humble character and behavior, which we share and are to imitate, with his help. “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:21-22) John Gill writes, “Pride and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate; which appears in men in thinking too highly of themselves, in speaking too well of themselves, in despising others, in setting up and trusting to their own righteousness for salvation, in crying up the purity and power of human nature; this is very contrary to the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus, and must be hateful to him.” (2)

Scripture, the inerrant Word of God, calls on us to be peacemakers for the Lord’s glory and in his strength. In Psalm 34, David writes about his experience at a vulnerable time. He was in great fear of losing his life at the hands of the Philistines, whose champion he destroyed, so he imitated a madman. The hoax succeeded when Achish wanted nothing to do with him and ordered him to depart from his presence. Apparently, David expected to fail, because his praise for God in Psalm 34 is abundant! After blessing, praising, boasting, magnifying, exalting, and thanking God, he says, “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14) Perhaps David was a peacemaker in that he did not enter into battle with the Philistines after Goliath was defeated. The ESV Study Bible notes offer this commentary: “This was a narrow escape, and David does not take credit for it; nor does he deny the importance of the faithful using their wits in desperate situations.” (3) Truly, David is never arrogant about his successes and is an example of humility whom we should imitate (but perhaps not his deceptions). Of course, we have a greater Champion, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our perfect role model for pursuing holy peace by turning away from evil and doing good. He has consecrated us—set us apart from the world—for good, as an example to others. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good…Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1 Peter 2:1-3; 3:8) God’s peace is achieved by hating evil and rejecting the arrogance within ourselves.

 We reject pride when we recognize it in our task-oriented attitudes; confess it in our disrespectful thoughts; see it in our condescension and criticism of others; or hear it in our impatient, unemphatic words and the haughty tones of our voices. By admitting and repenting of our vain, self-centered, subjective, unbiblical ways, we have a greater capacity and freedom to love God’s holy peace. But some of us have buried our pride deep in our hearts requiring earnest digging and exploration to uncover it. For example, I am three years into my retirement and just now discovering the depth of my false belief that my ministry is the basis for my acceptance with God. I know with every fiber of my mind that this is not true. I am a sinner who deserves none of God’s grace and am astounded at his generous love toward me in Christ. Arrogance is inherent in my sin nature and will only die when I take my last breath, as it will be for all of us. So we’d better keep confessing and repenting, trusting in God to turn away from the evil in us. “Pride…is an ascribing that to a man’s self which does not belong to him, whether in things natural, civil, or spiritual; when men attribute their justification and salvation to their own works, it is arrogancy, and must be hateful to Christ; who [took] so much pains and expense to bring in everlasting righteousness, and work out salvation for men: it is the height of arrogancy in a man to conceit he a power to regenerate, renew, and convert himself…this must be hateful to Christ, by whose Spirit and grace this only is done.” (4)

Towards what or whom are you arrogant? Do you consider yourself pridefully superior to or impatient with others? Do you sometimes think you have earned your salvation or keep it by your works? What is something good, humble, respectful, and loving that you can do in your relationships, leading to more or better peace? How do you pursue peace where there is conflict or tension? “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10a)

(1) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Proverbs 8:13, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Proverbs 8:13, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/proverbs-8.html

(3) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Psalm 34:14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(4) Gill, Ibid.

October 4, 2019

Agree With God For Peace

Have you noticed that our world seems to be fascinated with conspiracy theories? We read about big pharma plots, political schemes to oust leaders, Hollywood machinations to get us to watch sequels, and media conspiracies, for “fake” news. Conspiracies have at their foundation a lack of belief in God’s providence since they seek to explain events or situations as humanly contrived, to implicate people for a perceived difficulty. Even Wikipedia agrees that a conspiracy involves “…an unconscious affirmation that man is responsible for his own destiny.” (1) We Christians, however, trust God for our circumstances, while taking responsibility for the effect of our sinfulness or the sins of others. The Bible has numerous accounts of conspiracies in the Old Testament Israel’s enemies opposing them at every turn and the Jews conspiracy against Christ in the New Testament is the ultimate conspiracy. But few schemes involve God’s people scheming against each other, although there are few where his people gang up to bully someone. Aaron and Miriam conspired against Moses, and Joseph’s brothers carried out a plot against him. Here is another—Job’s friends’ together accused Job of causing his suffering by his refusal to confess his sins. He was suffering in the most horrendous conditions, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. His children were dead, and his wife seems to have deserted him emotionally and spiritually (Job 1:9). Job lost all of his people and property and was afflicted physically, with sores from his feet to his head (2:7). Good intentions or not, even Job’s friends were against him when he desperately needed their compassion and trust.

What happened to Job and his family was a mystery to him and everyone else at that time. In spite of this, after the first wave of Satanic attacks, “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (Job 1:20-22) Then God permitted the devil to strike Job personally, but he said, “‘ Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (2:10) Later, Job’s friends conspired together with a theory about Job’s suffering, as if he could control it suffering by confessing some sin, but wouldn’t. Were they in agreement with God’s plan for Job? No. However, do they offer sound advice for Job and us? Yes! For example, take this incongruous advice from Eliphaz: “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth, and lay up his words in your heart.” (Job 22:21-22) Great advice for us all, including Job. Unfortunately, Eliphaz thinks his presumptive analysis of Job’s situation is right and that it should compel Job to confess some hidden sin.

But Eliphaz is the one out of sync with God, while Job was in such “agreement” with God that the Lord trusted him to successfully glorify Him when attacked by Satan. Treasuring and agreeing with God’s Word supplies us with heart sanctification, goodness, and peace. Some Christians, unfortunately, conspire against God or God’s people in churches and fellowships. But many of us decide to disagree with the Lord independently, plotting only with ourselves. “Acquaintance with God begins at conversion, when he is made known and it is carried on by prayer…and by attendance on his worship and ordinances, in…fellowship with him: this is sometimes interrupted and dropped for a while, through temptation or sin;…when prayer before him is restrained;…and when saints forsake the assembling of themselves together, or neglect public worship, or grow indifferent to it.” (2) We also disagree with God by choosing to doubt Scripture intellectually and spiritually, with our minds and hearts. Agreeing with God includes receiving his instruction, rebukes, correction, conviction, and accountability by applying his Word personally. I can study the Bible every day without ever considering how a specific passage, verse, or even a phrase might relate to me. When I do this (and I do not doubt that I do it), I neglect my heart transformation and renewal of my mind (Romans 12:2). If I don’t “agree with God,” or desire to “receive instruction,” I most probably won’t “lay up his words” for any future help. Job himself will agree, receive, and lay up God’s words at the end when the Lord calls even him to a higher degree of worship and faith. But until then, Job has no peace. Until we also agree with, receive from, and lay up his words, God’s voice will lie dormant in us, and we will forfeit our peace with him. Without peace with God, it is impossible to have lasting peace with others.

 Job’s wife is an example of one who did not agree with God and is fed up with Job’s submission to Him. “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (2:9) I wonder if she mistook Job’s faith for personal ethics. Did she think that Job would endure and persevere these overwhelming tragedies by his strength of character or determination to survive? Do we believe we can navigate our trials and crises solely with resolve? Are we going to have peace by merely surviving until the danger is past? If Job had the strength, could he have taught his friends about the sovereign, goodness of God even when they did not understand His purposes? Could he teach them, with words as well as his actions about sincerely questioning God’s tests of faith without giving up on Him? It is so hard to love others with our loving confrontation when we are hurting. As Jesus was reviled and hung dying on the cross, he asked his Father to forgive the people who participated in his execution, giving us an example to follow (Luke 23:34). “…only Job’s living Redeemer could [make peace with him], and he has done it;…inward peace of mind, which comes from God, and through an acquaintance with him, and from Christ, his blood, righteousness, and sacrifice, by whom the acquaintance with God is opened and maintained…and also eternal peace hereafter, when acquaintance with God will be no more dropped, nor interrupted, but continue forever [are his].” (3) Job may not have uttered the words, Lord forgive my friends their false accusations, but he did try to confront their allegations. “Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! Why do you, like God, pursue me? Why are you not satisfied with my flesh?…For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.'” (Job 19:21-27)

 When you read the Bible, do you ask God to help you love what you read, to agree with him? What passages or instructions have you quickly scanned or skipped lately because you are bothered by them? Will you revisit them, praying for help from God? The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t promise us a life of ease, convenience, or comfort, but does promise us that Christ has good plans for us. What prevents you from enjoying the peace and goodness of Christ in full submission to him? What will you do about it? “This would be my comfort; I would even exult in pain unsparing, for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.” (Job 6:10)

(1) Wikipedia, “conspiracy,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Job 22:21, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/job-22.html

(3) Ibid.

September 27, 2019

Moving Away From Quarreling

Today I heard my first Ted Talk. Where have I been? A surgeon spoke on “4 questions to ask your doctor.” The questions include: “Is this really necessary? What are the risks? What will happen if I do nothing? What are the other options?” (1) As usual, the link between my recent new knowledge of Ted Talks and our Scripture is obscure and personal. But I think it might be convicting to apply these questions to the Bible’s instruction for us to be peacemakers, which, we have seen this year, is plentiful. We know that Christians have the most reason and power to be the bet peacemakers; if not us, then who? What is the risk of not making peace? Are there other options? What will happen if we do nothing? These are redundant questions for those of us who follow Christ, but I hope we’ll be able to think and act more biblically as a result of meditation on an episode in the Old Testament. Bear with me as I review the events of Genesis 26.

During a famine in Canaan, when Isaac was probably a middle-aged family man and needed to find food, he “…went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.’” (Genesis 26:1-3) Isaac obeyed God but repeated the sin of Abraham, lying to Abimelech about his wife, saying she was his sister. “When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. So Abimelech called Isaac and said, ‘Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, “She is my sister”?’” (vs. 8-9) Isaac was self-protective, not acting as a peacemaker toward Abimelech. In spite of this, God was gracious and blessed him with great crops and herds (vs. 12-14). But that created envy among the Philistines. Abimelech wise suggested that Isaac move away, which he did (v. 16). “So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, ‘The water is ours.’ So he called the name of the well Esek [contention], because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah [enmity] (vs. 20-21). Finally, Isaac moved again, and the squabbling stopped. He named the new place Rehoboth [broad place] and found peace. “From there he went up to Beersheba. And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, ‘I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.’ So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well” (vs. 23-25).

I can only imagine Isaac’s surprise when Abimelech came to him at Beersheba seeking a treaty with him (26:26-33). He thought Abimelech was finished with him, that he “hated him.” But Isaac’s peacemaking, moving (at least) three times in Gerar to avoid conflict over wells had won his and God’s respect with Abimelech. His is an excellent example of intentionally distancing himself from bickering for a peaceful, biblical approach to conflict. What would have happened if Isaac hadn’t moved? But he distanced himself and his people from squabbling to the place where he belonged, and God met him there. We remember  the times Jesus withdrew from large crowds and the angry Jewish leaders because he was not interested in fighting with them. “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘…He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.’” (Matthew 12:15-21) Rarely did Jesus accomplish his gospel purpose of mercy through rightful, indignant anger, as he displayed during the temple cleansing. Instead, he intentionally left the threatening crowds knowing he would submit to their torture. Did the people think of what he had preached in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:9-11)

Like Isaac, Jesus moved away from quarrels to a place of quietness and prayer, making room for to do God’s work. James Boice notes the progress of God’s dealings with Isaac. “The first thing we are told is that God blessed him to such an extent that the crops he planted reaped a hundredfold. This would be a good harvest in any land, but it was particularly good in the barren border country between the Promised Land and Egypt…Out of God’s will and yet blessed by God? Yes. Strange as it may seem, God does at times work in this fashion. But the blessing is not without problems, and in this case, the problems came because of Isaac’s great wealth.” (2) Our blessings will sometimes create issues with others that might become a crisis, or at the least a hindrance in a relationship, depending on how we handle it. Isaac could have insisted on his right to stay where he was, feeling entitled. Dr. Christer Mjåset, when confronted by a woman who did not want his surgical solution, could have automatically said it was necessary because he’s a surgeon. But like Isaac, he was humble enough to admit that although he loves doing surgery, it wouldn’t have been the best for his patient who asked, “Is this really necessary?” Isaac humbly moved on until he found a place where there was no jealous conflict and was rewarded threefold, with peace with the Philistines, God’s personal attention, and a treaty with Abimelech. Imagine what he would have lost if he had stayed put and done no peacemaking. “Now that he was where he should be, God appeared to him again for the second, and apparently the last, time, saying, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham” (v. 24). Isaac built an altar and worshipped the Lord.

The next time you are confronted with conflict or squabbling, will you ask yourself, What will happen if I do nothing, what are my options, and what is necessary to be a peacemaker? What issue or conflict seems to draw you in and tempt you to quarrel? Will you take a break, for God to work and make peace? Do you follow God in obedience, application of biblical truths, prayer, and action for peace in your relationships, work, service, or family? What might you change to find God’s peace more readily? Is not Christ’s personal attention and peaceful relationships a worthy goal? “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:8-10)

(1) 4 Questions You Should Always Ask your doctor by Dr. Christer Mjåset, Ted Talks Daily Podcast or at https://www.ted.com/talks/christer_mjaset_4_questions_you_should_always_ask_your_doctor

(2) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Genesis 26, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

September 20, 2019

Excellence and Peace

I did a lot of things last week, but I didn’t write a devotion. There were lots of meetings, Bible studies, a webinar, and even a big party that required my attention. It wasn’t just the time it takes to organize my notes and write. Frankly, I didn’t feel inspired or qualified to write something that would meet the criteria of the passage I want to consider. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9) It’s doubtful that my devotion will resemble these characteristics; Paul’s admonition reminds me of the Law, that drives us to Christ in our weakness. However, the webinar reminded us of the necessity of mentoring others by our godly words, behavior, and consistent lifestyle. So we can’t escape our calling to practice that which is honorable, commendable and worthy of praise. Knowing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a pure pursuit, and he, being God is the most excellent One helps tremendously. Besides, there are virtuous and commendable practices that result in peace in this life alongside the gospel, for God-centered shalom. One life, two realities—our eternal hope and our earthly peace—not to be separate but lived in unity. Only a biblical worldview will enable us to do live a life of excellence, as described by Paul.

There are many things and people in this world that meet five of the six criteria of Paul’s statement, that are true, pure, honorable, just, lovely, and commendable. Great art, excellent music or writing, of any genre, and theater may meet these criteria. However, truth is relative when it comes to the Arts since most of them are subjective. In fact, I love good fantasies (science-fiction), which are never entirely true, although they may be based on historical events and science. Material purity is found in precious metals, chemicals, and other things, such as clothing that is one-hundred percent cotton or the breed of an animal as pedigree. It’s harder to think of human purity, but perhaps sexual virginity and confession best represent it. We could spend days discussing which things meet Paul’s criteria, but that is not what the apostle instructs us to do. He is concerned with our thoughts relating to God. So we can begin with this: we who are in Christ have are pure positionally. “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” (Songs of Solomon 4:7) (2) “Being justified by the righteousness of Christ, washed in his blood, and sanctified by his Spirit; this is said to show her completeness in Christ, as to justification; not that the saints have no sin in them; nor any committed by them; nor that their sins are not sins; nor that they have no spots in them, with respect to sanctification, which is imperfect; but with respect to their justification, as having the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, and covered with that spotless robe, they are considered as having no spot in them; God sees no sin in them, so… they stand unblamable and unreproveable in his sight.” (1) It is good to think about this truth, as it is lovely, excellent, and worthy of praise. Does this not supply peace to our otherwise fretful minds?

James Boice has this to say, “[the] words [of Philippians 4:8-9] do not occur in the great lists of Christian virtues, lists that include love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. On the whole, they are taken from Greek ethics and from the writings of the Greek philosophers. In using them Paul is actually sanctifying, as it were, the generally accepted virtues of pagan morality. He is saying that although the pursuit of the best things by Christians will necessarily mean the pursuit of fellowship with God, the will of God, all means to advance the claims of the gospel, and other spiritual things also, it will not mean the exclusion of the best values the world has to offer…Consequently, Christians can love all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, wherever they find it. They can rejoice in the best of art and good literature. They can thrill to great music. They can thrive on beautiful architecture…They should do it. You should do it. Christians can thank God for giving us the ability even in our fallen state to create such things of beauty…When we pursue the highest things in life, both spiritually and secularly, then the God of peace will be with us. And we shall have the confidence that he will bless and guide us as we seek to please him.” (3) In other words, as we desire the best possible quality of life through our best practices we become more conformed to God’s character, and therefore, more peaceful. I believe that I tried to have the best quality of life possible (in my choices of activities) last week, and I had peace in spite of missing my writing deadline. That peace has driven me to want to post my devotion late, rather than missing the opportunity completely, so we can together  consider the excellence of God’s Word in Philippians 4:8-9.

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things,…” writes Paul. What we have learned, received, heard, and seen in godly people is important, but we are not to worship them or put our saving trust in them. This is definitely not the best practice of coaching or disciplining others. There is a wrong way, a better way, or the most excellent way to practice anything in life. Discernment is crucial if we are to have the best thoughts. I relearned this a couple of months ago when I saw a movie without checking reviews first. Now I am reading reviews for movies, books, TV programs, new devices, and virus software. We live in an age when reviews are easily accessible and innumerable, so we have no excuse for not reading them, and to compare them with the criteria in Philippians 4:8. God and his peace show up when we practice the best things to have the best thoughts and the best witness. Excellent and commendable practices result in greater peace, which will, in turn, help us to speak more graciously about the gospel, which is uniquely praiseworthy.

What earthly things do you enjoy that can be said to be all these: true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely? Which you can incorporate in your life? Do you have a mentor or someone to guide and counsel you, whom you can imitate? What is your greatest challenge in practicing virtue, excellence, and the gospel? How does this affect your peacefulness?? Have you considered discipling someone, knowing that you aren’t perfect but directing them to Christ for his perfection? “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3)

(1) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Song of Solomon 4:7, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/songofsolomon-4.html

(2) And consider Ephesians 5:25-27 “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

(3) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Philippians 4:8-9, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

September 17, 2019

Peaceful Selflessness

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the problem of selfishness this week, as a result of studying Romans 15:1-4. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself…” (vs. 1-2) The Bible uses the word mostly in the context of selfish gain or ambition (Psalm 119:36; Philippians 1:17; 2:3; James 3:14, 16) or in the neglect of helping others. Today, we have many words related to selfishness, probably because it is so widespread, including self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-involved, conceited, prideful, self-important, opinionated, inner-directed…need I go on? The medical community has even appropriated the idea. “Selfish DNA is a term for sequences of DNA that have two distinct properties: the DNA sequence spreads by forming additional copies of itself within the genome; and it makes no specific contribution to the reproductive success of its host organism. (It may or may not have significant negative effects.)…it is not always easy to distinguish between some instances of selfish DNA and some types of viruses.” (1) And with us, it is often also difficult to distinguish our innocent, self-directed care from that which is dangerous and sinfully infectious. There are times when we have to care for ourselves as a priority; otherwise, we might be no good to others. I have known people who allowed themselves to become sick, burned out, or emotionally dysfunctional to the detriment of others. Jesus ate, slept, prayed, denied requests, and planned his ministry to be effective. However, Christ also lived selflessly in that all he did was for the sake of God’s kingdom and not for his own sake. We have an opportunity to live healthily without living selfishly, through the power, work, example, and instruction of Jesus Christ. “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:3-4)                  

In the first eleven chapters of Romans, we have a complete biblical explanation of the gospel according to God’s sovereignty. In the next five chapters, Paul teaches us how we should apply these great truths by “…total dedication to God (12:1–2); Marks of the Christian community (12:3-13:14); and A call for mutual acceptance between the strong and the weak (14:1-15:13).” (2) Chapter 14 addresses the problem of judgmentalness toward those who treat traditional holidays and food differently, building to Romans 15:1, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Now, before we jump to any assumption that we are the strong ones, let’s remember this: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) As our pastor said last night, “humility from God is the way out [of the problem of pride].” (3) “…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12) The question here shouldn’t be who is better or stronger, but how can we live so that we don’t live to please ourselves? This verse teaches us that one way is to be patient with those we perceive as “weaker” or those who actually are spiritually weaker. So let’s get back to step 1—the idea of living not to please ourselves, resisting this temptation to justify or entitle ourselves. By the grace of Christ, we have peace that supersedes dutiful, legalistic obedience. His blood is how we are freed, not our works. We are not to abuse our Christian liberty but live for the good of God’s kingdom, as Jesus did. His peace is our peace and motivation for service.

Christ saves us from selfishness to strengthen each other. “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:2) Here is yet another call to be counter-cultural. While our societies and nations, communities and individuals are excelling in tearing each other down, we are called to encourage and spiritually build each other up for our mutual good. We know the problems that develop when we beat each other down by unforgiveness, self-serving ideas and plans, legalism, superiority, impatience, lack of empathy and mercy, a critical or domineering spirit, holding grudges, arguing over inconsequential matters, resentment, jealousy, and slander. The biggest challenge on the mission field, in our ministries, and churches is our relationships as ministers of the gospel. We should be willing to serve each other sacrificially, yield to each other with understanding and sincerity, not insisting on our rights. We ought to be willing to confess and repent our pride and sinful attitudes, generously trusting and forgiving each other joyfully, prayerfully, lovingly and humbly. (4) “We get our eyes off the blueprint and get bogged down in the rubble. It helps to remember that what God is building is a temple. We do not…fully realize the part we are playing as we seek to build these other people up by focusing on the important matters, laying aside petty differences…[since] God is working, and the temple [of Christ] is rising.” (5)

“Jesus did not please himself but rather set out to please God for the benefit of others, and it concludes from that truth that we should follow Christ’s example [with his regenerative power]…What would happen to us if Jesus had pleased himself instead of coming to earth as a man and dying for our sins? Where would we be today if Christ had put his own interests first? Once Jesus asked this question of his disciples. As recounted in John 6, the Lord had explained the doctrine of election, pointing out that he alone is the true bread from heaven to whom all must come for life and that no man can come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). Later in the chapter we are told that many of his disciples objected, saying, ‘This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?’ (v. 60). Jesus, knowing that his disciples were confused, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!’ (vv. 61–62). In other words, ‘What would happen if I pleased myself and went back to heaven now, instead of dying for your sins?’ If there was ever an example of one who was willing to bear even the worst of abuses in order to please God the Father, it was Jesus Christ. …But it’s important to remember that in these verses  [in Romans 15] Paul is not talking about Christians standing against the insults and abuses of the world, drawing on the character and power of Jesus to do so…Nor is he writing about spiritual warfare. He is talking about a far lesser matter, Christians merely getting along with other Christians, the strong bearing with the limited understandings of the weak and the weak bearing with the beliefs of the strong, whom they believe to be in error. He is simply talking about getting along with one another.” (6)

In what circumstance(s) do you tend to seek self-satisfaction and pleasure? Has this tendency changed lately? What “soul-peace” do you trade for pleasure? How can you use your time, energy, and money to encourage others rather than please yourself? How might this result in more peace for you? Or more peace for others? How does Christ’s intervention, example, and instructions help you to resist selfishness? “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

(1) Wikipedia https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selfish_DNA

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Introduction to Romans, Outline, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) Taha, Allen, in a talk on “Pride,” Congregational Meeting, September 4, 2019, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Boerne, TX.

(4)  James Boice’s Expository Bible Commentary on Romans 15:1-4 reminded me of some of these sins. He lists others.

(5) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 15:1-4,Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(6) Boice, Ibid.

September 5, 2019

Christ, Our Defense

I am not good at small talk. So I’ve been working on that, and apparently, the Lord is helping me. Recently in a conversation, I mentioned a current event and was told, “I don’t care about that!” Now I wasn’t about to get into a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of an issue but just mentioned the item because it has an impact on many people. My friend’s response was a wake-up call about my reactions to others’ concerns about issues that I’m not particularly interested in or personally involved with. A few days later, an acquaintance started describing a problem that was rectified with his phone. Rather than brush him off, as I might have previously, I set down my food and listened to him finish his story. But what will I do if you come to me today to talk about something that is not a concern for me? Will I attend patiently, appreciating your concern, or will I exert my “right” to be uninterested in what seems “trivial?” Everything that happens in this world affects someone somewhere. Being a gospel peacemaker isn’t only about avoiding cultural pressures; sometimes, we must engage without defensiveness with those who are affected by current events (besides the weather). “Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” (Proverbs 3:30)

Before I left for Africa in 2000, I read Mabel Williamson’s Book, “Have We No Rights.” (1) Williamson writes about entitlements most of us take for granted. The book’s chapter headings list them: “The Right to a Normal Standard of Living, The Right to Ordinary Safeguards of Good Health; The Right to Regulate My Private Affairs As I Wish; The Right to Privacy; The Right to My Own Time; The Right to a Normal Romance, if Any; The Right to Live with the People of My Choice; The Right to Feel Superior; and The Right to Run Things.” (2) Hitting any sore spots yet? The last chapter is titled “He Had No Rights.” She reminds us that Jesus Christ gave up all his legitimate rights for our redemption. It is his goodness and protection that extinguishes our need to defend ourselves. Unfortunately, the world we live in is frequently unfair. Laws that are meant to protect some cause problems for others, because our sinfulness corrupts our ability to protect everyone. So there are valid times to fight injustice. But when there is no danger, no threat, and nothing to be gained by debate, we should take refuge in Christ, our peace. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

“We should realize that some things contribute to peace just as other things cause conflict and that, if we are Christians, we need to be on the side of the One rather than the other. Here is some practical realism from the Book of Proverbs…These verses tell us many things we can do to promote or encourage peace even if the other person does not want it.

‘Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs’ (10:12).

‘A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult’ (12:16).

‘Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright’ (14:9).

‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (15:1).

‘He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends’ (17:9).

‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out’ (17:14).

‘An angry man stirs up dissension’ (29:22).” (3)

In Christ, we have abundant goodness and a sure refuge from danger. The army stands down when no enemies are on the horizon. The battleship soldiers eat and rest when no ships are posing a threat. A mother relaxes when her children are playing safely in the yard. The politician who fought, debated, and pushed to the finish line celebrates and then takes time to rest. “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!” (Psalm 31:19) Our safety and rest with Christ isn’t temporary, but continual and permanent; we may be in mortal danger, but our security is never threatened. In Christ, we are hidden from evil schemes and words. “In the cover of your presence you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.” (Psalm 39:20) The One who gave up his rights protects us from the need to defend our perceived entitlements. John Gill writes, “…these the Lord preserves in times of trouble and danger, and when his indignation is out against others…the presence of God is their protection, he himself is a wall of fire round about them, his favour compasses them as a shield, and they are kept as in a garrison by his power… ‘from the pride of man’, which otherwise would at once oppress, bear them down, and destroy them…thou shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues…not that the saints are kept free from the reproaches of men, from the lash of their tongues, but from being harmed by them; and sometimes, through the strivings and contentions of men with one another, they privately escape and are preserved…” (4)

A Palestinian Harvard student has been denied a visa to return to school because of friends’ Facebook posts that appear on his page. Innocent people are being shot down for no good reason. Racial and national discrimination continues in every part of the world. Of course, we should be defending the causes of the innocent. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9) But the gospel protection we have in the omnipotent providence of God in Christ extinguishes our need to defend ourselves against petty troubles. Our security in him should lead us to shamelessly and counterculturally confess Christ, rather than concern ourselves with worthless idols of control, superiority, convenience, independence, and comfort (to name a few).

 When issues or conflicts arise, do you find yourself defending your point of view? Will you instead try to apply the gospel? Does the fear of rejection or failure motivate you to protect yourself? How can you rest in Christ’s love and protection to a greater extent? How can we confess Christ when others are debating or arguing about the problems in the world, with other people, the economy, or politics? We have a sure future with the King who has procured our safety, which we have no right to because of our sin. Now we have nothing to defend, except Christ. “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:40)

(1) Williamson, Mabel, “Have We No Rights?”, Moody Press, Chicago,1957 (available online for free at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/24528/24528-h/24528-h.htm)

(2) Williamson, Ibid.

(3) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Proverbs 3:30, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(4) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 39:20, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-6.html

August 30, 2019