Building Real Christmas Peace

It’s party time. It’s the time of the year when neighbors, companies, churches, and friends gather to “celebrate the season.” Yesterday a friend remarked that her company has Christmas parties at the same time they are closing out the last quarter’s work for the year. I remember that feeling—when I was trying to finish grading papers for student-teachers before the end of the year. One theme I hear, from both working and retired adults, is the desire for peace. But the peace that comes as a result of finishing a task, for work or parties, is not the peace of Christ. We are designed by God to be relational creatures, so our greatest peace is in our relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, church members, fellow volunteers, and community residents. Who we are with others is either the most satisfying or the most disappointing aspect of life. Having people who support, encourage, and strengthen our devotion to Christ is more important than we may realize. All of God’s work in Scripture involves groups of people. All the leaders in the Old Testament—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, were significant because of their work on behalf of God for Israel. The apostles, disciples, women, and followers of Jesus Christ grew the kingdom of God through their work together. So why do we think that substantial Christian spiritual growth happens as individuals? Thomas Brooks writes, “…self is a great hindrance to divine things; therefore the prophets and apostles were usually carried out of themselves, when they had the clearest, choicest, highest, and most glorious visions. Self-seeking so blinds the soul, that it cannot see a beauty in Christ, nor an excellency in holiness; it distempers the palate, that a man cannot taste sweetness in the word of God, nor in the ways of God, nor in the society of the people of God…There is nothing that speaks a man to be more empty and void of God, Christ, and grace, than self-seeking…There is not a greater hindrance to all the duties of piety than self-seeking. Oh! This is that which keeps many a soul from looking after God and the precious things of eternity…Self-seeking is that which puts many a man upon neglecting and slighting the things of his peace.” (1) I can personally testify that it is both easy and dangerous to be self-seeking in our spiritual growth.

What Scripture led me to the idea or corporate peace? It is not a gospel passage that focuses on Christ rather than me, which we would expect. Like Philippians 2:1-4, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” What a great passage to counteract the Christmas madness! But it is an Old Testament passage that brought me to consider our corporate dedication to Christ—2 Chronicles 14:2-7. “And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him. He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had no war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace. And he said to Judah, ‘Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the Lord our God. We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side.’ So they built and prospered.” King Asa’s knowledge of the Lord, his obedience, and conformity to God’s will was a good restart for Israel. Perhaps this Christmas, we might apply Asa’s conduct to ourselves by renewing our devotion to the Lord and using our peace to strengthen our corporate commitment to Christ.

Asa took down the idols and altars and pillars honoring them; commanded Israel to seek and obey God; and removed all the high places out of Judah’s cities. As a result of the peace God provided, Asa built up fortified cities for future wars and commanded Israel to prepare by building cities, saying twice that they should do so because they sought God and he gave them peace. Judah prospered. In summary, Asa broke, cut down, and removed idols before building up Judah’s defenses. “Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord.” It is God’s desire that we tear down idols, not just in our own minds and hearts, but corporately, to have peace with God as a body. How did Asa and Israel, and the writer of 2 Chronicles know that God was the reason for their peace? Is he not the first cause of all events and circumstances? Whatever instruments the Lord used, he brought Israel peace. The Ten Commandments, forbidding idolatry was a good gift from Yahweh to his people. The King started with great devotion to God by leading Israel to worship him alone through his example and rule. “Interpreters agree that the Mosaic laws, rightly understood, still give Christians wisdom about the kind of conduct that pleases or displeases God.” (2) “Asa aimed at pleasing God and studied to approve himself to him. Happy are those that walk by this rule, not to do that which is right in their own eyes, or in the eye of the world, but which is so in God’s sight. We find by experience that it is good to seek the Lord; it gives us rest; while we pursue the world, we meet with nothing but vexation.” (3)

Asa started his work of spiritual renovation, led Israel to participate, and then continued the practice. It was not enough for him to begin; the work needed to continue. Unfortunately, his efforts later waned, and Ethiopia invaded Judah. Taking the liberty of making another spiritual application, we have here an encouragement to keep up our communal spiritual invigoration and a warning that if we stop, we will be overtaken by the world and its influences, as Israel was. The work of Christ is that which is accomplished together by having hearts united to build the kingdom. It’s mystery is accomplished by the work of God’s Spirit, built on our faithful conformity to the Lord’s Word and will. Paul refers to and describes this mystery in his epistles as “…hearts…encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He desires this heart-unity for the Colossians as a body, including himself. “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” (Colossians 2:2-5) (See also Ephesians 3:1-9; Colossians 1:26-27; 4:3.) We do not honor God with our independence but with our humble, biblical interdependence. And when we obtain shared peace, we, like Asa, can build up our defenses again the enemies of the world, Satan, and even our ungodly desires and temptations.

Today, at a secular meeting, a friend told me that she knows how much I love Jesus, as she does. I was delighted by her initiation of a spiritual conversation in our happy, chatty group when most conversations were about family and travel plans over the holidays. She encouraged me so much, and I hope to pass on the encouragement to you. God has given many of us peace, so we have no excuse to neglect building up our defenses against Christ’s enemies. Let’s agree to tear down the idols that challenge Jesus—materialism, sentimentality, Santa, food—whatever threatens our gospel peace—together. “Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).” (Exodus 34:12-14) Lord, help us who belong to Christ to boldly honor you together this Christmas.

(1) Brooks, Thomas. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (p. 106). Kindle Edition.

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Exodus 20, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 2 Chronicles 14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/2chronicles-14.html

December 13, 2019

Peaceful Comfort

As usual, on Wednesday, before posting my devotion, I started to write my draft. I had been studying the passage since Saturday, asking the Lord to use it in my sanctification, before attempting to craft anything useful for you. Since the passage pictures God as a mother caring for her child, Israel, my mind wandered, and I found myself reading blog posts by one of my favorite authors for World Magazine, Andree Seu Peterson. One blog post is about her list-making, a trait that she shares with her mother. I can relate. My mother was organized, if nothing else. She writes, “My mother was not warm (as I learned only as an adult from comparing notes with friends), but she made lists! Which put me in good standing for adulthood. If I had to choose only one… trait(s) in a person raising me, I would be hard-pressed to forfeit the trait of organization for a little extra warmth. I turned out alright. … Didn’t I?” (1) But at the end of her post, she says, “I like the short list Evan Roberts went around Wales exhorting Welshmen to in the 1904 Revival: ‘Confess all known sin; get rid of everything doubtful; obey the Spirit immediately; proclaim Christ publicly.’ Hard to improve on a list like that.” (2) The is the mothering Spirit that we have, we who have Christ. I hope I am like Peterson, with a view toward the list of gospel blessings more than any list of Christmas to-dos or presents to buy. After all, spiritual peace does not come from purchases, getting things done, or sending a card. Maybe meditating on Isaiah 66:12-13 will help us all to have a little more peace. “For thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

God’s love for Israel is motherly, comforting, peaceful, and glorious. The Lord invited his children then and us now to draw near to him for comfort when the world tries to pull us away from him. Like us who wait for Christ’s return, Israel was promised a glorious future peace. “For thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream…” (12a) Not only will Israel find peace at the end of their exile, but God’s glory and blessings will flow out from his people. John Gill brings this application to the verse: “As the river Euphrates or as the Nile, which overflowed Egypt, and made it fruitful; or as any flowing river, large and spreading, continuing to flow, and brings blessings with it where it comes; and so denotes the abundance of this peace, the perpetuity of it, and its blessed effects…Christ the peacemaker came and made peace by his blood, and went and preached peace to Jews and Gentiles, and many enjoyed spiritual peace in believing, flowing from his blood and righteousness…since the Gentiles had formerly lived luxuriously, and had enjoyed a vast abundance of everything desirable, he affirms that all riches, and everything that belongs to a happy life, shall be possessed by believers, as the rivers run into the sea….By ‘constant flowing’ he denotes continuance…God is an inexhaustible fountain, his peace differs widely from the peace of the world, which quickly passes away and is dried up.” (2)

As a baby sucks on the breasts of his mother, so we can enjoy the comfort of rest, peace, and security in our Lord. Because God is sovereignly providential, we may have this comfort not only in our homes but out in our hectic, materialistic, narcissistic, success-driven world. Remembering that the prophets spoke for their “today,” their future, and ours, we find comfort their words from the Lord. “You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isaiah 60:16) “The powerful people of this world will no longer trample on God’s people but will care for them. This poetic imagery pictures the people of God as infants and pictures other nations—even leaders of nations—as caring for them…God will move his people from their cynical unbelief…to a wondering acknowledgment of him.” (3) Is this not the peace we have in Christ? Every Christmas we celebrate the birth of our Savior just as we celebrate his death in communion, to remember his atoning, reconciling sacrifice—the reason for his incarnation. In chapter 66 Isaiah declares, “…and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.” (v. 12b) “When he takes pleasure in us as infants, and not as men of mature age, we ought to acknowledge our condition, that we may be satisfied with such consolations. And indeed it is a token of remarkable condescension that he thus bears with our weakness. The Lord wishes to be to us in the room of a mother, that, instead of the annoyances, reproaches, distresses, and anxieties, which we have endured, he may treat us gently, and, as it were, fondle us in his bosom.” (4) We don’t need more stuff, more food, or more parties; what we need is the comfort of Christ’s peace and security—less world, more God.

“The final section of Isaiah consists of oracles and teaching addressed to those who lived in Judah shortly after the exile, towards the end of the sixth century B.C…to those who lived in a period of instability and hardship, and who were aware that many of God’s promises remained as yet unfulfilled, this note was vital. The book thus ends by offering both exhortation and inspiration: a discouraging today is to be lived in the light of a glorious tomorrow…[Isaiah 66] verses 7–16 revert to an earlier theme, the future well-being of Jerusalem, depicted in terms of a mother and her offspring.” (5) In Isaiah 66:13, comfort is mentioned three times: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” “It is wonderful that the Prophet…dwells on [comfort] so largely. But, because he can neither express the greatness and warmth of the love which God bears toward us, nor satisfy himself with speaking about it, for that reason he mentions and repeats it frequently.” (6) Perhaps this is the reason we enjoy singing lovely Christmas songs and hymns, to try to grasp the idea of the great comfort we have in Christ. Maybe this is why we have such a strong tendency toward sentimentality this season, longing for forgotten traditions. Our souls yearn for the deep comfort that we only find in God. But like Israel, we are afflicted people by our sins and temptations. We drive ourselves into exile rather than deny the flesh of its desires. Like Israel, we need to be reminded continually of the acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness we have in God.

Do you have God’s peace to extend to others like an overflowing stream? If not, how can you obtain Christ’s glorious peace, and then when can you share it with others? For what might you need comfort, that you generally try to avoid? Will you turn to the Lord for your comfort instead of looking for the solution in the world or from people who are also looking for comfort? Do you have a peaceful, comforting home or a stressful, challenging one? How can your home become a place of peace and rest, your Jerusalem, where God dwells? “I, I am he who comforts you…” (Isaiah 51:12a)

(1) Peterson, Andree Sue, “On Making Lists,” World Magazine, https://world.wng.org/2019/09/on_making_lists

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 66:12, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-66.html

(3) “English Standard Version Study Bible Notes,” Isaiah 60:16, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(4) Calvin, John, “Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 66:12, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/isaiah-66.html

(5) “Zondervan Bible Commentary,” F. F. Bruce General Editor, Isaiah 60-66 Summary, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition

(6) Calvin, John, “Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 66:13, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/isaiah-66.html

December 5, 2019

Peace Trumps Sentimentality

For someone who doesn’t put much stock in sentimentality, I’m feeling pretty schmaltzy. I enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving afternoon with friends who are either retired missionaries or military. We spent much of our time over dinner asking each other questions and reminiscing about our pasts. I’m at home with my lighted artificial Christmas tree ready for decorating, but I’m waiting for one special little girl to help me. I did not have any particular Thanksgiving rituals and no Christmas whatsoever in my childhood. Today I saw the new Mr. Roger’s film “It’s a Beautiful Day,” but I had never seen his show as a child. So, unlike most of those watching, I wasn’t thinking back about my past during the film. But I did use some of Rogers’s articles in a teacher training program in Africa. I grew to appreciate his positive philosophy toward disciplining children. Rogers’s Christian faith may seem to be the foundation of his philosophy, but there is a crucial difference between his psychological perspective and biblical Christianity. Jesus is not sentimental; he is future-oriented—something Rogers sought to deemphasize in favor of the present.

The redeemed of God will be surrounded and crowned with joy and peace when sorrow and sighing flee away in the glorious future. “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12) These passages from the prophet Isaiah point to the truths that provide peace when our world crashes on us like mad waves in a turbulent sea. Christ has ransomed us—out of bondage with joy & peace. All of creation rejoices over Christ freeing believers in this life. Believers are surrounded and by joy and gladness, not only in the future but now, in this life.

The peace that the world tries to create or engender over Christmas is fake. Peace based on human goodness, possessions, or the emotional comfort of traditions only slightly approximates that which Christ offers. Even the picture in Isaiah, of the exiles coming out of Babylonian captivity with songs on their lips, falls short of the unimaginable joy that Christ’s transformed children experience through him. “The deliverance from the Babylonish kingdom was a type; when men “go out” of a state of bondage to sin, Satan, and the law; out of a state of darkness and ignorance; out of the pit of nature’s misery and distress; out of themselves and their own righteousness; out of their own sinful ways, and from among the men of the world…they go out freely, being led by the Spirit of God; who takes them by the hand as it were, and leads them in ways before unknown to them…all which is attended with “joy and peace”…finding themselves released from bondage, in a state of light and comfort, out of the horrible pit, and on a rock; brought to Christ, and clothed with his righteousness…” (1)

The singing of the ransomed in Isaiah 35:10 is coupled with a crown of everlasting joy. What a remarkable picture, since those who wear crowns, such as kings and princes, are unlikely to be singing. We would expect them to have heads held high, looking majestic and set apart from the masses. But here we have a family of God crowned with joy and singing as they come out of captivity. This picture of regenerated believers is precious, not just for our first days with Christ, but for all eternity. Our bodies age and refuse to maintain their elasticity. Our minds become filled with more and more worldly messages and influences. Our emotions suffer from losses, hurts, and disappointments. But our souls continue to sing; we have only to turn up the volume so that it becomes the strongest and loudest music in our lives. I usually have classical music playing while I study and write. But sometimes I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want the music playing when I am struggling with something when I feel distresses or under conviction, which is when I need that beautiful music the most. So I have learned to leave it on at those times and let it remind me of joy I have in my redemption. But there is no more beautiful music than that of gospel forgiveness, that moves us beyond mere quietness to biblical shalom—wellbeing of mind, soul, and heart.

Isaiah 35:10 goes on to say that “they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” We do not work ourselves into gospel joy but receive (obtain) it from God as a gift. When I spent taught young children and teachers of children I used beautifully wrapped empty boxes sometimes and plain brown paper bags other times, as an illustration of faith God gives us to believe in Christ. The happiness of the children in this symbolic game continues to remind me of the fact that the gladness that overcomes sorrow and sighing can only be found in Christ. Watching “It’s a Beautiful Day” two days after a funeral, with friends who have recently lost loved ones, was a delight for me. To share in something with them, knowing that our hearts are knit together in Christ—not because of the movie but because we wanted to be together, to strengthen our joy in Christ during a tough week. God’s loving election overcomes our grief and despair. Our peace is not by forgetting our beloved, who are with the Lord. We are joyful because we know that they are in the presence of the Lord, as are we. We will all be singing joyfully together in the new world he creates. This is the shalom I want over Christmas.

“In the resurrection [they] shall return from their dusty beds, and shall appear before God in Zion above; and ‘with songs’ to Father, Son, and Spirit, for what each have done for them, in election, redemption, and conversion; and for persevering grace…they shall then enter into joy, which will never end; there will be nothing to interrupt it to all eternity…there will be no more sin and unbelief, or any other corruption of nature; no more darkness and desertion; no more of any of Satan’s temptations; no more distresses, inward or outward; and so no more sighing within, nor sorrowing without; all tears will be wiped away.” (2) “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 7:17; 21:4)

When we are brought out of our dungeons of sin, all creation rejoices in the grace of Christ that will redeem it one day. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12) If the mountains, hills, and trees are singing and clapping, how much more should our souls rejoice in gospel shalom? Not that we need to move through the holidays with a smile plastered on our faces or sing when we feel like crying. But deep in our beings, do we not have the peace of Christ soothing our sorrows? It’s not unusual for me to have to stop singing a hymn at church when I become overwhelmed with joy at the love of Christ evident in words. Is this not joy? I hope to encourage you to peacefully celebrate your present redemption and the future redemption of the world this Christmas. “Our joyful hopes and prospects of eternal life should swallow up all the sorrows and all the joys of this present time…Let us try ourselves by…questions, rather than spend time on things that may be curious and amusing, but are unprofitable.” (3) So here are some questions to consider: What is the loudest voice or music in your life—news, commercials, YouTube videos, movies? How can you turn up the volume of gospel joy? How do you experience and express the peace and joy of being ransomed from a life of sin? Do you view God’s creation and the innumerable ways that it is useful and good, as alive and joyful, or as dead and merely products to be manipulated? How might your view of it change if you think of creation rejoicing, especially in Christ’s future redemption? How might having everlasting joy help you to cope and appreciate your challenges now?

“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:10-12a)

(1) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 35:10, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-35.html

(2) Ibid

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 35:10, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/isaiah-35.html 

November 30, 2019

Thanks for Peaceful Mercy & Justice

No matter how much we dislike the quarrelsomeness of the American impeachment process, we can appreciate the fact that U.S. law allows for the investigation of possible infractions by those in high, powerful positions. Unfortunately, the process brings out the worst in some people, just as everything does. But, it also brings out the best in some. The benefit of a seasoned democracy that allows for freedom of speech is significant. I am particularly sensitive to the privilege of free speech, having lived in five countries with young democracies. While I cringe at some of the questions and comments made during the current hearings, I trust God to bring about the best result—not just for the president, but for every person involved or listening to the hearings. The Lord uses every aspect of life to strengthen our faith by its application, helping us to rely on him, the God of justice. “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses’; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift’…the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:15-16, 18) God’s timely mercy for believers strengthens, blesses, and brings us back to him for the blessing of shalom in Christ.

Our passage begins with an encouraging, uplifting proclamation of God’s desire to rescue his people from their wrong ways. “Isaiah warns his people—and Assyria—against the folly of self-trust, promising God’s abundant blessings to those who trust him (Ch. 28)…God will both punish and save Jerusalem, though Jerusalemites in their hypocrisy try to control him through false worship (Ch. 29)…When his people are faithless, God remains faithful. (Ch. 30)” (1) We who have the indwelling Spirit know that he uses Old Testament warnings to alert us to our waywardness. We who have studied God’s Word and experienced its power to transform our minds respect Scripture’s authority and application to our lives. Here is a warning for us about our self-trust. Here is a principle—our Lord both disciplines and prospers us. Here is a promise—God will remain faithful despite our faithlessness. Here is shalom for believers. No “ifs” attached, but no immediacy ascribed to God’s timing either. The salvation God provides in Jesus Christ is outside of our control and in his time. It’s hard to wait when we long for family members and friends to be redeemed. We want everyone to have the quietness, peace, and strength of the Spirit in Christ. God has plans that are unknown to us. As we wait, he wants us to put our complete confidence in him. If we wander, like Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved,” and his peace reinforces our faith; “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

When the prophets communicated God’s word to Israel, the people, “were unwilling, and…said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses…We will ride upon swift steeds.’” You and I like to think that we’ll be strengthened by information, notifications, apps, achievements, physical endurance, or mental prowess. But we’re weakened, not fortified by our dependence upon our “horses.” Like Israel, God will use our idols to bring us to our knees. The more we depend upon others’ opinions, the less we will trust our own. As we submit with more frequency to the influences of the loud few, less often will we hear the quiet voice of the Spirit. As our anticipation for achievements increases, our peacefulness decreases, and so does our ability to wait on the Lord. It’s as if we have created our own “human gospel” that says, “Let me go and labor to find rest and reward. I can do it on my own without being weak or vulnerable.” That is not a gospel but the way of an atheist who has no confidence in God. Christ says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Our strength is through submission to God, fleeing to him, not away from him.

Let us be careful of so many platitudes with little awareness of our independence. I may think I am submissive, but what do I find? The unthinking, unplanned pursuit of my own desires, regardless of their consequences? Personal opinions roughly asserted, without hesitation or regard for their hurtfulness? Procrastination of difficult conversations or invitations because I’m tired, weary, or just plain afraid? Are these not reflective of an attitude of independence, as if God is not at work, as if he can’t be trusted? Do I really want to position myself to fight my own battles or do the work of sanctification without the Spirit? The Israelites were consigning themselves to military action by refusing God’s mercy. Instead of staying put, quietly resting in God’s timing, they impatiently pursued a fight. Isn’t that what seems to be happening in our world today—people looking for a fight? Some battles are necessary, those for justice, equality, and respect. But we do great harm to ourselves when we rise up against the consequences of our sin. God’s people were in exile due to their rebelliousness, and Isaiah finds warns them about continuing in it. “The Jews were the only professing people God had in the world, yet many were rebellious. They had the light, but they loved darkness rather. The prophets checked them in their sinful pursuits, so that they could not proceed without fear [but]…They did not like to hear of his holy commandments and his hatred of sin; they desired that they might no more be reminded of these things. But as they despised the word of God, their sins undermined their safety.” (2)

Our impatience with our world is not the problem; it’s our impatience with God that threatens our peace. The world moves in its own time, out of sync with the Lord. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a society so obsessed with syncing would be so out of step with God? Isaiah 30:18 reminds us that God has a particular time for his acts of compassion and grace. “…the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” “The Lord waits for the fittest and most proper time to show mercy; when things are brought to the worst, to the greatest extremity, and when his people are brought to a sense of their danger, and of their sins, and to repentance for them, and to see their need of his help and salvation, and to implore it, and to depend upon him for it; then, in the mount of difficulty, and hereby the mercy is the sweeter to them, and his grace is the more magnified towards them.” (3) Christ’s graciousness toward us when he redeems us continues in our life with him; his timing is particular and specific for our spiritual requirements—not necessarily for our physical, emotional, or intellectual desires. Our quiet and trustful dependence upon the Lord increases our thanks, which then strengthens and blesses us. As we return to him and wait on his help, we will have greater shalom. Are you experiencing Christ’s shalom as we approach Thanksgiving? Or is your gospel weak and worldly? Is your trust in God shaky? When are you most likely to assert your independence from God? For what mercy and blessing are you waiting? Are you willing to continue waiting, trusting that Jesus will give you what is needed at just the right time? Will you engage in thankfulness for God’s justice as you lean into him? “Kiss the Son…Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalms 2:12)

(1) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Introductory remarks on Isaiah 28, 29, 30, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(2) Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Isaiah 30:16, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/isaiah/30.html

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 30:18, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-30.html

November 22, 2019

 

God Has Ordained and Sown Our Peace

“O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for you have indeed done for us all our works.” (Isaiah 26:12) We don’t use the word ‘ordain’ in our everyday language unless we are referring to someone given authority in a religious context. There are many formal words that we don’t use today, as our society has become more casual “jargonized.” But I love words, so when I landed on this passage that contains historical language, I wanted to understand God’s intention. The basic definition I can find for ‘ordain’ other than a religious reference as in a legal, historical context. “In the constitution of the United States, the preamble declares that the people ‘do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.’ The 3rd article of the same constitution declares, that ‘the judicial power shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish.’” (1) In the thesaurus the synonyms for ‘ordain’ consist mainly of ‘establish,’ ‘decree,’ ‘command,’ and ‘approve.’ In the constitution, the writers ordained the laws set forth, but felt it necessary to extend ‘ordain’ with “establish.” I may have the ability to decreeing something to be done without establishing it as a real practice. By contrast, judges and lawyers are in a unique position to create or alter laws that govern our behavior. I appreciate the power given to our constitution and judges a little more today than yesterday. But I appreciate even more God’s sovereign power to decree and establish his statutes, as he does peace for believers.

Christ’s works are the basis for our peace. With this view in mind, we can enjoy the peace that we have through Christ’s works, not having to establish it ourselves, done in us and for us. So then, why does Isaiah 26:12 refer to God doing “our works?” The Bible in Basic English states, “Lord, you will give us peace: for all our works are the outcome of your purpose.” I rarely consult and don’t usually use the BBE translation, but here I think we have a simple explanation: our peace and works are the fruit of God’s purposes. Since the Lord always accomplishes that which he resolves to do, our peace is guaranteed. If we are in Christ, live through and for Christ, and have our hope for eternity resting on him, we have the peace we need to get through this life. In spite of high school shootings, presidential impeachments, family traumas, and health crises, we have peace. “The work of grace upon the heart is peculiarly the work which God works in his people…this is God’s work, and not man’s; and it is an internal one, something wrought in the heart, and which, being begun, will be performed…it includes other [works], and from whence all good works done by good men spring…and the fruit of this is peace.” (2) Have you considered how much more peace you have now than you had years ago, as a new Christian? It takes time to learn how to leave old ways behind, especially how to stop reacting to life’s challenges as if our hope is in this life and this world. The more we recognize the success of our sanctification, the more peace we have; the Lord doesn’t leave us as immature Christians. He calls us to maturity for the sake of our witness and fruit for the kingdom.

The Old Testament picture of Israel in the wilderness is one of stubborn independence, dissatisfaction with their circumstances, and rejection of God’s supreme commands, which he ordained for their peace. Even after many years in the Promised Land, where they had considerable external peace, God’s people were thankless and rebellious. They refused to give up their worthless idols. So the Lord exiled them to hostile territories where their spiritual peace was dependent upon putting their hope in God alone, who had abandoned them to their worldly values and priorities. He never gave up on his people. “But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 8:11) The Lord doesn’t expect us to make peace by worldly methods of submitting to abusive authorities, fighting as those who must conquer our adversaries, or aggressively trying to destroy our critics. We no longer live as we used to, before we knew Christ, trusting in our own power, ideas, goals, and worldly trends. God’s people are called to obey him for the promised blessings of his covenant because we have peace by his works, which are now our works through Christ. We are forgiven, accepted, approved, and blessed.

James Boice’s background commentary on Zechariah 8 helps us to relate that period of history to our lives today. “The temple was now halfway to completion. Seeing this, a delegation from the outlying town of Bethel had come to Jerusalem to ask the priests and prophets whether it was proper for them to continue a fast marking the destruction of the temple that they and their fathers had been observing since the fall of Jerusalem seventy years before. Unfortunately, the people of Bethel had failed to see that in God’s sight the matter was far more important than simply whether or not a traditional fast should be celebrated. This fast (and the others like it) had been perverted into what was by this time merely an empty and superstitious formalism, just as had happened earlier in Israel’s history and has happened since in many religious communions. The reply of God was to move the people away from mere formalism toward seeking God.” (3) How often do we reduce God’s grace and Christ’s sacrificial work to religious rules or Sunday worship? We waste the peace that Christ has decreed and established for us by our lack of appreciation, worldly perspectives, and minimizing God’s influence in our day-to-day lives.

Thankfully, God didn’t leave Israel as they were, and our faithful Lord doesn’t leave us in our immature floundering. He reminds, teaches, convicts, and confronts us with his own faithfulness. “For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.” (Zechariah 8:12) Agricultural fruit, produce, and the dew represent all the blessings of a life that is productive. The peace that God sows is always productive unless we squander it. Unfortunately, we often do negate God’s grace and mercy with our fears, anger, hurts, doubts, self-pity, and wrong desires. Christ decrees, sows, cultivates, harvests, and gives peace to us. So, let’s ask ourselves: Do we doubt the effectiveness of Christ’s work on our behalf? Is he not perfectly faithful and supreme? What disturbs our peace? Does your past haunt you? If God has forgiven you, maybe the issue is that you have not forgiven others. What fruit do you demonstrate as evidence that God has sown his peace in your heart? Will you ask God to help you cultivate even more peace and more fruit for the benefit of those whom you influence and love? God has brought us out of our modern-day Egypt. “I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (Haggai 2:4-5)

(1) Bouvier, John, “A Law Dictionary,” https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/ordain

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 26:12, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah -26.html

(3) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Zechariah 8, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

November 15, 2019

Peace for Warriors

I am dedicating this devotion to military veterans among you, some of whom have experienced trials and traumas that have left deep physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual scars. I pray that your wounds will be badges of honor, your memories few, and your peace abundant by the grace of Jesus Christ. I thank you for your service, and I thank God for his strength in you to fight for nations, neighbors, and strangers. I am sure that every soldier, first responder, firefighter, police officer, and emergency personnel has a different personal experience of volunteering, being enlisted, or drafted. What you have in common, though, is God’s providential, sovereign design for your life. What we all have in common as believers in Jesus Christ, is the peace that the Holy Spirit provides when God installs him in our beings through his regeneration of our hearts. Let’s celebrate Christ’s gifts of redemption, propitiation, justification, faith, repentance, and sanctification. The only basis for our holiness is what God puts in us; the only reason we trust God is that he has rescued us from ourselves. He is the ultimate first-responder! We cannot credit ourselves with our faith without subtracting from God’s glory. We have soul-peace because of Christ’s work for us, in us, and with us. Keeping that in mind, we come to our passage: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4)

This devotion is my forty-third one this year on biblical peace. I hope you are as encouraged as I am that God’s Word feeds us, week after week, and year after year. The strength of Scripture, the power of the Spirit who applies God’s Word, and the strength of the body to help each other appreciate and learn together is remarkable. God keeps our minds stayed on him through our church worship, Bible studies, doctrinally sound hymns and songs, devotions, Christian literature, communion, biblical fellowship, service, and prayer. Yet, as I read and reread Isaiah 26:3, I asked, what is the cause of our peace, focus on God, and trust in him? Which comes first? From our English translation, it sounds like we have perfect peace because we keep our focus on God and trust him. But we are not able to either create or increase this ideal peace by our strength, determination, or works. The 1599 Geneva Bible puts it this way: By an assured purpose wilt thou preserve perfect peace, because they trusted in thee,” adding this footnote: “Thou hast decreed so, and thy purpose cannot be changed.” (1) God elects believers to have his peace in Christ. As we grow in our Christian maturity, our desire for God’s glory and kingdom increases, giving us the impetus to do what will lead to more glory for him. Our peace increases with our maturity because of the good habits we develop, the blessings of God’s grace and mercy, and our biblical worldview, in God’s good providence, to keep our minds more often on him. God begins the work in us, he keeps us going, and he gives us peace because of growing trust. If we take credit for our faith or peace, pridefully glorying in ourselves, we will lose both, because our minds are no longer on God.

We all know what it’s like to be thinking of something unrelated to our friend’s description of their recent vacation, or their interaction with someone we don’t know. Our thoughts separate us from our him emotionally and mentally for the time when we aren’t paying attention. How much more are we separated from God’s peace when our minds are set on obtaining worldly comforts? We think about sleeping late on the weekend, having dinner out so we don’t have to cook tonight, or what to do after church during the sermon, focusing on those things that will satisfy somehow. We think about the things or people in our lives that will eventually outweigh our old hurts. There are many ways we “unfix” our minds on God, even good things that we overdo them or make them priorities when we need to be with the Prince of Peace. I keep coming back to verse 3’s statement that (we have peace and) our minds are fixed on God because we trust in him. Reversing the order, when we don’t trust God, our thoughts are not on him. Misdirecting my focus is not just a result of a bad habit or being innocently distracted; it is also an indication that I have some distrust or doubt about God. What was it the father of the demon-possessed child said? “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) How dangerous is it when a soldier on an active battlefield doesn’t believe he has the skill for combat or a firefighter doubts that he will survive the flame? How much more precarious is it for us when we think we are trusting in God but are actually trusting in something or someone else for our peace? No wonder we don’t want to pray, worship, study the Bible, or talk with other Christians at those times. Our peace is deceptive and temporal. Our minds, which follow our hearts, are set against God, rather than on him. But “The source of [God’s] peace is the righteous, sovereign, saving God…who ‘will swallow up death forever’ and ‘will wipe away’ every tear (Isiah 25:8; Rev. 21:4)” (2)

While the description of peace sounds “perfect” (ESV), John Gill says, “The word ‘perfect’ is not in the Hebrew text, it is there “peace, peace”; which is doubled to denote the certainty of it, the enjoyment of it, and the constancy and continuance of it; and as expressive of all sorts of peace, which God grants unto his people, and keeps for them, and them in; as peace with God and peace with men, peace outward and peace inward, peace here and peace hereafter; and particularly it denotes the abundance of peace that believers will have in the kingdom of Christ in the latter day.” (3) The Jewish Bible’s translation of “Yeshayah” 26:3 is, “Thou wilt keep him in shalom shalom…” (4) We can apply a common Bible teaching here, that the repetition of a word in Scripture gives that word or following idea a stronger meaning. “Since the ancients did not have our ways of emphasizing something in print, either by capitalizing or printing in boldface or color, they achieved their emphasis by repetition.” (5) So what kind of peace results from our faith and trust in God? God’s shalom doubled—wellbeing doubled, contentment doubled, satisfaction doubled. Alexander Maclaren calls it, “the steadfast peacefulness of trust. It is the steadfast mind, steadfast because it trusts, which God keeps in the deepest peace that is expressed by the reduplication of the word…this faithful, steadfast heart and mind, kept by God, is filled with deepest peace…the depth, the completeness of the tranquility which flows into the heart.” (6)

Do I want to know what my friend is saying? All I have to do is turn my attention to him. Do we want the profound peace of God? We only have to turn our minds to him with trust. After all, He is “an everlasting rock” (26:4). For what hope or relationship are you doubting God’s purpose? What is shaking your trust in his plans, purposes, or circumstance for you? From what do you need to turn your attention, to ask the Lord for greater confidence and faith? What boundaries do we need to set to be less distracted when we could be fixed on Christ? Do our conversations, choices, and conduct reflect peace, worry, or past problems? Have you struggled with letting go of difficulties and traumas of your past? Will you trust Christ and seek his help to put painful memories in the past, to enjoy his shalom? “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

(1) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+26%3A3&version=GNV

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 26:3, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 26:3, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-26.html

(4) Orthodox Jewish Bible, 2011, Artists for Israel International, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+26%3A3&version=OJB

(5) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(6) Maclaren, Alexander, The Biblical Illustrator, Electronic Database, 2011,com, https://biblehub.com/sermons/auth/maclaren/the_inhabitant_of_the_rock.htm

November 7, 2019

Peace Through Gospel Victory, or Happy Reformation Day!

I spent thirty hours watching seven baseball games over ten days and was glad to have to see such highly skilled rule-abiding athletes competing in a good way (except for one coach who lost it over a referee call). My team didn’t win but I am happy for the Washington Nationals, who deserved to be the 2019 MLB World Series champs. Being the slow game that baseball is, I had time to think about competitiveness. I guess it’s an aspect of our sin nature since there is absolutely nothing competitive about the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to submit entirely—to him and each other—in love. We don’t have to compete because we know that Christ has already been victorious over sin and will one day be exalted without opposition. Healthy or not, all competition will cease when Christ returns. “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10-12) Christ’s exaltation is ensured. God, who sovereignly reigns now in heaven, promises future peace. In baseball or any other professional sports game, the rules govern the behavior of the players. Many people today are governed in their conduct by legal, ethical, civil, or moral laws, much like a game. But God doesn’t play games; Christ’s kingdom is not governed by rules but by his holy perfection. Jesus Christ was exalted after his great work of reconciliation between believers and God. His gospel victory will be complete in the world to come, not by yielding to another, but by his mighty sword, conquering enemies in the great war pictured in Revelation.

Today is Reformation Day—a day to celebrate the victory of God in the rectification of the protestant church through Martin Luther. “But what is the significance of Reformation Day, and how should we consider the events it commemorates?…Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses to the church door on October 31, 1517, provoked a debate that culminated finally in what we now call the Protestant Reformation…Initially protesting the pope’s attempt to sell salvation, Luther’s study of Scripture soon led him to oppose the church of Rome on issues including the primacy of the Bible over church tradition and the means by which we are found righteous in the sight of God…Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and good works result from our faith, they are not added to it as the grounds for our right standing in the Lord’s eyes…Martin Luther’s rediscovery of this truth led to a whole host of other church and societal reforms and much of what we take for granted in the West would have likely been impossible had he never graced the scene. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German put the Word of God in the hands of the people, and today Scripture is available in the vernacular language of many countries, enabling lay people to study it with profit. He reformed the Latin mass by putting the liturgy in the common tongue so that non-scholars could hear and understand the preached word of God and worship the Lord with clarity. Luther lifted the unbiblical ban on marriage for the clergy and by his own teaching and example radically transformed the institution itself. He recaptured the biblical view of the priesthood of all believers, showing all people that their work had purpose and dignity because in it they can serve their Creator. Today, Luther’s legacy lives on in the creeds and confessions of Protestant bodies worldwide.” (1)

Christian peace has never resulted from acquiescence to the world’s pressures and never will. We are not peaceful because we do not fight against the opposition, but because we wrestle it with God’s blessing and strength, by his methods. Martin Luther’s favorite psalm was 46, upon which he based his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” “It is said of Luther that there were times during the dark and dangerous periods of the Reformation when he was terribly discouraged and depressed. But at such times he would turn to his friend and coworker Philipp Melanchthon and say, ‘Come, Philipp, let’s sing the forty-sixth Psalm…We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends his church and his word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh and sin.’” (2)

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present[b] help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” by Martin Luther

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;

The New Testament gospels and epistles teach us that the war over Jesus’s identity was resolved—he is the King of Kings, the resurrected, ascended God, Savior of the world. He fought his enemies who wanted him silenced by his loud cries on the cross—especially “It is finished.” He fought his disciples, who loved him but didn’t understand and tried to convince him to avoid the cross. He fought Satan, who sent him to the cross because of our sins, by his death and resurrection. And he fought well-intentioned doubters when he ascended into heaven but leaving us with his Spirit to continue the battle here on earth. Christ’s exaltation was ensured by victorious works of peace in this world. Our peace is secured by his victory and should motivate us to fight with spiritual weapons for the expansion of his kingdom.

What does it mean to “be still” and know that he is God in this context? “These words… are rather a continuation of the church’s address to the fearful among them, as before to behold the works of the Lord…not that they should be like sticks and stones, stupid, indolent, and unconcerned at the commotions that were in the earth, and be unaffected with the judgments of God, and be wholly silent and inactive; but that they should not be fearful, nor fretful and impatient, or restless and tumultuous; but be quiet and easy, resigned to the will of God, and live in an assured expectation of the appearance of divine Providence in their layout. And ‘know’; own and acknowledge that he is God, a sovereign Being that does whatsoever he pleases; that he is unchangeable in his nature, purposes, promises, and covenant; that he is omnipotent, able to help them and deliver them at the last extremity; that he is omniscient, knows their persons, cases, and troubles, and how and where to hide them till the storm is over…” (3)

Thousands of years ago, the nation of Israel fled to the Red Sea, where they were caught between this vast body of water and the Egyptian army. The people cried out in fright, thinking they were about to die. “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’” (Exodus 14:13-14) God’s invites us to participate in his battles and victories through prayer, service, ministry, and patience. Christ is not only our mighty fortress but also our strength and Champion. Does he have you before an enormous, seemingly impossible task to show you his power in the gospel battle? Are you willing to be used by him in the fight to expand Christ’s kingdom, to add more of the elect to the family of God? Are we yielding to him or fighting against him? That coach who looked like he was going to punch out the referee—well, he calmed down as soon as his team made several home runs immediately following the melee. Victory does that—it calms us down and gives us relief. “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5)

(1) “What Is Reformation Day All About?”, Robert Rothwell, 2018, Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/teacher/robert-rothwell/

(2) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 46, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 46:10, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalms-46.html

October 31, 2019