Resting From Running

This week I can’t stop thinking about those who have pushed their way through the first stage of the pandemic. Working in a new environment, with insufficient tools or supplies, new methods of communication, and dire, life-threatening needs is exhausting. About eight years ago, I was in danger of burning out in my work. I felt overwhelmed by my responsibilities, insecure in my position, and discouraged about one project that wasn’t going as planned; I was also physically weary. I knew I was on the verge of “burn out” because my solution to my fatigue was doing more, not less, thinking that the work would never be complete unless I did it myself. Have you been there? Are you there now? Weary from your work, whether it’s at home on a computer and phone, with the children, at a hospital, or an office? “Consider the drivers, IT experts, teachers, nurses, pastors, and counselors who work harder than ever before: you need to rest, especially if you are the type—like many pastors—who acts as if rest were for other people. No doubt, the people who depend on you are glad you toiled ceaselessly through the opening phase of the pandemic. Churches and their leaders had never faced this challenge before…After weeks of unstinting toil, it’s time to re-establish healthy, God-given patterns, including a day of rest.” (1)

In 2012, after I cried out to the Lord, he intervened. I worked at the home office in Florida for ten months, in a very satisfying job with limited hours, having my medical needs met, with time to travel in the U.S. and plenty of time alone with Jesus. He strengthened me for another five years on the field. Like others who have rested, I continued to bear fruit patiently with joy and thanksgiving, strengthened by His power. “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:9-12) “Remember, the Christian calendar is like no other…We start each week with rest and worship. Reclining in the finished work of Christ is the starting point for each week. It’s an idea we need to recapture today.” (2)

Paul and Timothy prayed for their brothers and sisters to “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” “[They] did not pray that they might have a ‘knowledge’ of this will of God, for some knowledge of it they had already…and therefore what he asks for is, that they might be ‘filled’ with the knowledge…a larger measure of it, and such a fulness of it as they were capable of…that they might have a ‘spiritual understanding’ of the mysteries of grace…by ‘the prudence of the Holy Ghost’ who searches the deep things of God, and reveals them to the saints, and improves and increases their spiritual and experimental knowledge.” (3) It’s hard to yield to deep, biblical convictions when we are rushing to fix a problem. Perhaps what you need now is the endurance and patience that results from the spiritual wisdom, understanding, and power that the Lord will provide in rest. Have you been one of the essential workers? You are among the people I am especially thankful for and the ones for whom I have the most concern. Obviously, you want to bear fruit. According to Colossians, though, you will produce more fruit more patiently with joy and thanksgiving, through greater knowledge of God, strengthened by His power.

The example of Christians who will successfully navigate through the crisis will be models for living “in a way that pleases God” (Colossians 1:10a). Paul explains what he means by living in a way that pleases God—“bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (v. 10b) Our increasing knowledge of God informs our work, commitments, and, therefore, our schedules. “Saints are trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord; good works are the fruit, which, under the influence of divine grace, they bring forth…being ingrafted into Christ the true vine, and deriving life, sap, and nourishment from him, they are filled with the fruits of righteousness by him, which they bring forth and bear, to the glory of his heavenly Father; and being such, they are pleasant plants to him, as fruit-bearing trees are to the owner of them…” (4) When we consider the profound nature of biblical fruit-bearing we tend to reduce it to the bare minimum. Otherwise, we must stop in our tracks and cry out to God, which is precisely what we should be doing. “A yes is not simply a yes. Saying yes to time with the guys means saying no to that one-on-one time he and his little girl have been enjoying after dance class. It means saying no to some of his son’s games. In many cases, when important things fall off our plate, we don’t even notice. Sadly, those are often the people we love most! Saying yes to heading into the office an hour earlier every morning to get more work done can become a no to that exercise routine you have been trying to develop. Yes to taking a night class to further your education could be a no to a full night of sleep. None of these yeses are bad, but all have consequences.” (5) Is one consequence of your work an inability or hindrance to grow in your knowledge of God; is it time to stop and rest? Have you prayed for a way to get alone for spiritual refreshment if you’re a parent who has been at home with your children? The hardest part is stopping your busyness, and you may need help from others.

Which of us doesn’t want to be “strengthened with power, according to God’s might? (v. 11) The resurrection power of Christ is ours through the Holy Spirit through Christ’s great sacrifice. And yet, because of our human nature, we settle for our inferior human power. “Power belongs to God, is a perfection of his nature, and has been, and is gloriously displayed in many things; as in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the upholding of all things in their being; in the redemption and salvation of sinners; in their faith and conversion; in supporting the saints under various trials and exercises; and in the safe keeping them through faith unto salvation: from this glorious power of God saints may hope to be supplied with all might, or a sufficient supply of strength for every service, and for every difficulty.” (6) “The purpose…of this God-given power is to provide the divine strength needed for the believer to attain Christian virtues, to persevere in the faith, to resist temptation and deceitful teachers, and so to know the joy of the Lord [‘for all endurance and patience with joy’].” (7) Whether we like the idea or not, we need to endure through the entire pandemic, not just for a few months. We can bear fruit patiently with joy and thanksgiving, through our knowledge of God, strengthened by His power.

What will happen if you stop to rest, right now? Most of us know from experience that resting results in “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:12) When we take a break, catch our breath, and remember what Christ has done for us, “justifying [us] by the righteousness of his Son, and so making [us] heirs according to the hope of eternal life, and forgiving all [our] trespasses for Christ’s sake; cleansing [us] from all in his blood, so that being the undefiled in the way, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, [we] are fit for the undefiled inheritance; regenerating [us] by his Spirit, and implanting principles of light and life, grace and holiness, in [us]…we] have abundant reason to give thanks to the Father.” (8) You who have been redeemed by Christ, are kept by his Spirit and have endured through the first stage of the pandemic, is it not time to rest before confronting the second? Has your patience worn thin because of physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual exhaustion? Won’t you retreat with God to be filled with all spiritual wisdom, understanding, and power? Do you trust the Lord to work in you to bear fruit with joy again? “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)

(1) Dan Doriani, “Now’s the Time For Rest,” May 25, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/nows-time-rest

(2) Doriani, Ibid.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Colossians 1:9, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/colossians-1.html

(4) Gill, Ibid.

(5) Harney, Kevin G., “No Is a Beautiful Word,” Chapter 2, Zondervan, 2019, Kindle Edition.

(6) Gill, Ibid (Colossians 1:11).

(7) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Colossians 1:11, Crossway, 2008.

(8) Gill, Ibid (Colossians 1:12)

May 29, 2020

Patience Leads to the Best End

Do you have a social “re-entry plan?”  Do you have criteria you are using to determine when to eat at a restaurant, go on a trip, or join your congregation at church for Sunday worship? The upside of planning is its objectivity if we make our plans based on facts and data. In an article in the NY Times, Brad Stulberg compared enduring the coronavirus event to running a marathon versus a sprint. But “…unlike marathon runners and other endurance athletes, we did not sign up to participate in this prolonged and grueling event. Yet there is still much we can learn from long-distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes about how to move through these extended periods of discomfort…The first rule of running a long-distance race is to acknowledge that the race will in fact be long—and hard. If you envision a race that is over quickly and without pain, you are setting yourself up for unnecessary frustration…’If expectations are unrealistically high, they could be the basis of disappointment and low satisfaction.’” (1) Maybe you’re a pastor or minister who has had to adapt to an absent or reduced congregation to preach to—that can’t be easy. Or, you may be one of the many individuals or family grieving for someone who unexpectantly died from COVID-19 and also has to plan all the details involved in sudden death. When are you planning to return to church worship? Your office? Or visit your family? Do you have the patience you will need to carry out your plans?

I haven’t decided when I’ll return to worship at our church or attend in-person meetings; time with my church family is my most significant want right now. I had no pandemic plan, and was entirely reactive, as most of us were. But shouldn’t it be easier to be patient when we know we’re moving under God’s sovereign plan, like a pandemic? I thought I would be socially distancing at home for about a month, which has stretched to at least three or four. So I’ve had to make a plan and ask the Lord for patience. It’s always best to trust God with hopeful and eager patience for the right end of things. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will stand firm with patience, knowing that our hope in God will be vindicated, no matter what others think. We agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” (7:8)

Ecclesiastes 7:8 is my go-to verse when I am in a tough situation beyond my control, because God is good, all the time. John Gill writes, “…patience is a fruit of the Spirit of God; and is of great use in the Christian’s life, and especially in bearing afflictions, and tends to make men more humble, meek, and quiet…” (2) Godly patience is not just surviving a crisis or enduring, looking for it to end. Unfortunately, however, that’s what I usually do as I begin to consider this verse. Then wisdom kicks in; God uses our trials to strengthen and improve our character if we will only be patient to yield, to be more humble, meek, and quiet. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) What’s “better” than applying the tests of our faith to our sanctification? “It is folly to cry out upon the badness of our times, when we have more reason to cry out for the badness of our own hearts; and even in these times we enjoy many mercies.” (3)

Trusting God with hopeful patience and humility for the right end of things as he tests our faith is not easy or natural for us. We groan and impatiently pray for the end right now. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:23-24a) “…the groaning of Christians is…expectant grief, that is, grief that looks forward to a time when all that is causing pain will be removed and salvation will be consummated. Christian groaning is a joyful grief that gives birth to a sure hope and patient endurance…In the passage of Romans 8 [:22-27], we find a word that is repeated three times and yet is found nowhere else in this letter…It is the Greek word…translated “groan…” the usage we understand best is our own groaning, since we groan in our bodily weakness and fleshly sins. But groaning is not the only thing Paul says we do. He also says that ‘we hope’ and ‘we wait,’ adding in the latter case that we do it both ‘eagerly’ and ‘patiently.’” (4) We who long for and place our hope in the resurrection of our bodies at Christ’s second coming must groan and pray for others to share in Christ’s riches. I long and sometimes groan for my family members and neighbors, community employers, employees, and volunteers to have “…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:4-5) With patience, we can plan to use our prolonged distancing for extended prayer for ourselves, our Christian family, and unbelievers. What is your plan, as you “wait” for the end of the matter?

Matthew Henry warns us about our tendency to look to the past for our best life. “It is folly to cry up the goodness of former times; as if former ages had not the like things to complain of that we have: this arises from discontent, and aptness to quarrel with God himself.” (5) And Paul, continuing in Romans 8, encourages us in our Christian hope for what God is going to do in the future. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24b-25) “The word hope has two senses: (1) an attitude of hopefulness, and (2) the content of that for which we hope…The specific content is the return of Jesus Christ together with…the resurrection of the body, the adoption of God’s children, and the gathering of God’s harvest. These things are all promised to us by God. Hence, the Christian hopes in confidence, a confidence grounded not in the strength of one’s emotional outlook but on the sure Word of God, who cannot lie. If God says that these things are coming, it is reasonable and safe for us to hope confidently in them.” (6)

Our hope is in Christ now and in his return for the new heavens and new earth, our eternal home with him. But waiting is not something we tend to do in a broad sense. This waiting is not looking for Grubhub to deliver food or the night when your favorite TV series starts a new season. “‘We wait eagerly…patiently.’ It is important to take the two adverbs together, because biblical ‘patience’ is not passivity. This is an active, though patient waiting. It expresses itself in vigorous service for Christ even while we wait for his appearing.” (7) “We with patience wait for it; as that which is certain and real, as something valuable, which will be satisfying, and be received with the utmost joy, [with] a valuable esteem and affection for it… [and] sit loose by the things of this world, and are ready to part with the one, and grasp the other…under afflictions from the hand of God, under the reproaches and persecutions of men, under desertions and want of answers in prayer, under the temptations of Satan, and in the expectation of the heavenly glory.” (8) We have lessons from marathon runners, but we have much better truths, too. So we trust God with hopeful and eager patience for the right end of things. But we put the Spirit’s gift, our heavenly patience to work for the sake of his glory. “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation. And though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.” (Job 8:5-7)

(1) Stulberg, Brad, “What We Can Learn From Endurance Athletes About Getting Through This Pandemic,” New York Times, 5/21/20 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/well/mind/coronavirus-athletes-marathons-triathlons-sports-cycling.html

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ecclesiastes 7:8, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ecclesiastes-7.html

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Ecclesiastes 7:7-10,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/ecclesiastes-7.html

(4) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 8:22-25, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(5) Henry, Ibid.

(6) Boice, Ibid.

(7) Boice, Ibid.

(8) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Romans 8:25, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/romans-8.html

May 22, 2020

Patience to Bear Fruit

I have an easy life, with few risks, in a middle-class American community, with adequate funds to live well in my retirement, and excellent medical care. However, I previously lived in the inner city of Baltimore and then in sub-Sahara Africa, where poverty is the norm. Although God has always provided abundantly for me, living in impoverished communities taught me that no one is immune from the effects of disease, poverty, and intense need. I attended funerals in Africa, grieving with those who had lost people, provided jobs when I could, helped those I could help—all of which affected my life. So I understand the importance of a recent statement from the United Nations. “The COVID-19 outbreak affects all segments of the population and is particularly detrimental to members of those social groups in the most vulnerable situations, continues to affect populations, including people living in poverty situations, older persons, persons with disabilities, youth, and indigenous peoples…If not properly addressed through policy the social crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic may also increase inequality, exclusion, discrimination and global unemployment in the medium and long term.” (1) When my friends and I think of waiting for a haircut, for a store to open, or information about school, camp or graduation plans, I remember the big needs of people who are waiting to go back to work, for a much-needed stimulus check, or results of their COVID-19 test. Patience to wait for a haircut cannot be compared to the perseverance that is required for sustaining life, but sometimes we have both superficial and deep soul needs. Fortunately for us, we have the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, both far more powerful than the CDC or any medication. Christians need and have God-given patience. “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15) The Holy Spirit gives us the desire and power to bear fruit in all circumstances with patience.

Living in Kenya, I knew what it is to wait for the rains to supply drinking, bathing, and garden water. I moved there in 2000 when the country was entering a three-year season of a severe drought. I purchased dirty river water from a truck for storage in a large tank; the sediment settled enough for me to filter it for use in laundry and bathing, and I filtered it further to be potable. But I had it easy; others spent entire days walking to the river for a few gallons of water to boil. Bucket baths were standard for us all. Today, in addition to this, some don’t know how they’re going to buy food, pay their rent or mortgage, see a doctor, pay for a bus trip, or buy gas for the car, and must persevere. Luke wrote about perseverance in the face of persecution, which may have led to similar trials of unemployment and sickness. But persecution for one’s beliefs adds the element of social harassment to personal deprivation. These trials are the reason we need patience in this life, and the reason the Spirit gives it to us. Patience is the fourth fruit that we are considering from Galatians 5:22-23; it is the opposite of “strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [and] envy…” (Galatians 5:20-21) The Holy Spirit gives us patience to be persevering, fruit-bearing Christians. So, as we greet each day, our tolerance increases as we endure, to bear fruit for the Lord. We need it for spiritual difficulties as well as life-threatening troubles, rather than only for superficial desires (like haircuts and restaurant or movie experiences). I am not attempting to compare one set of difficulties to the other as if to diminish our challenges, but to point out that our impatience for shallow wishes is often indicative of our spiritual impatience and discontent.

“Perseverance may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion. It is because God never forsakes His work that believers continue to stand to the very end.” (2) Matthew’s and Mark’s gospel do not include Luke’s attention to “bearing fruit with patience” in Jesus’s teaching on the parable of the sower. However, they mention the high degree of the fruitfulness of the ones made righteous by Christ—they bear “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:20) Either we are good soil, or we’re not; either we’ve been redeemed or not. Either we want to bear fruit for God’s kingdom or want to live for ourselves. Personally, the longer the pandemic goes on, the greater my temptation to give up the struggle between these desires, to just wait for it to be over and to resume my ministry responsibilities. I must ask myself if I have a deeper spiritual issue. Am I, in some way, not fighting the spiritual battle necessary to bear all the fruit I can, and am just waiting for the inevitable time of departure from the world through death (or the return of Christ)? James rebukes me. “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11) In his lecture on “The Patience of Job,” Dr. Derek Thomas makes the point that while Job seems to lose patience with God, wanting to argue with him, he never becomes an atheist. Even in his darkest moments, he takes his complaints to the Lord. His steadfastness is “broader than patience, like stick-to-it-ness,” staying the course of his faith. Job “expresses his firm belief that God is sovereign, in control of everything by his providence which he has orderedNothing happens outside of his decree, not his finances, health, or family. And Job’s steadfastness results in his understanding about God in the end, despite not knowing anything about Satan and spiritual warfare,” as we do from Revelation and New Testament epistles. (3) Dr. Thomas proposes that a vital lesson from Job’s steadfastness, and the reason for James’s citing it, is to not just survive in a trial of his magnitude but also flourish. The Holy Spirit gives us the fruit of patience to be persevering, fruit-bearing Christians.

Commenting on Luke 8:15, John Gill writes, “[The Christian] abides by [God’s Word], stands fast in it, and is valiant for it: and this he does in and with ‘an honest and good heart’; which no man naturally has; nor can any man make his heart so: this is the work of God, and is owing to his efficacious grace. This is an heart of flesh, a new and right heart, and spirit; an heart to fear God, to love him, and to trust in him; in which Christ dwells by faith; in which the Spirit of God has his temple; and in which every grace is implanted…so he holds fast the word he hears, understands and receives, with all faithfulness and honesty: the fruit bore, and brought forth by such an hearer, is the true fruit of grace and righteousness, and is all from Christ, under the influences of the Spirit…and is brought forth, as Luke says, ‘with patience’: constantly, and continually, in all seasons, in old age, and even unto death; and is at last brought ‘to perfection’, holds, and remains unto the end.” (4)

 

For what significant spiritual distress are you in need of godly perseverance? How might your superficial desires reflect your need for biblical patience and fruit? What fruit might you bear for the Lord, through steadfastness, as the pandemic continues? “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (Hebrews 10:36) Dr. Thomas cites a hymn to remind us of Job’s steadfast trust in God, that we might do the same as we continue to learn to bear fruit with patience. “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm…Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take. The clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.” (5)

(1) United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Everyone Included: Social Impact of COVID-19,” https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/everyone-included-covid-19.html

(2) Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, page 546, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993.

(3) Thomas, Derek, “The Patience of Job,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/the-book-of-job/the-patience-of-job/

(4) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Luke 8:15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/luke-8.html

(5) Cowper, William, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way,”

May 15, 2020

The Fruit of Peace For Those Who Love God’s Law

Do you drive? People with cars have a worldview that is dramatically different from those without cars. With a working vehicle, you might go anywhere at any time, as long as you have gas and insurance, which most people do. When your car breaks down, you are brought to a screeching halt and feel that you’ve lost your freedom. But, those without cars are dependent upon others, public transportation, or their own feet, who travel on subways, trains, busses, taxies, or planes, and safely moving around is all-consuming. Our church session opened physical worship in our building last Sunday but asked all of us over 65 years of age to stay home. As you can imagine, there were various responses to this from “Okay, good to know what to do, to “Why shouldn’t I go, since I’m healthy?” Some of us embrace commands or directives from a source that we trust, and others just don’t like to be told what to do. However, as we mature spiritually with Christ, we can seem these as times when God “hems us in” for his purposes and glory, according to Psalm 139:5. When we obey God out of duty or lack of control, we don’t love him or his ways. A child who obeys to avoid punishment is doing so out of fear, not love. But when Christians love God, we love everything about him and from him, including his rules, restrictions, and laws; we obey with peace, knowing that he has planned for our best life.

In Michael Horton’s “Introducing Covenant Theology,” I can’t let go of one sentence in his summary on the covenant of law versus the covenant of grace. “While the Scriptures uphold the moral law as the abiding way of life for God’s redeemed people, it can never be a way to life.” (1) Note that Horton is speaking of “God’s redeemed people,” that is, believers. Christians uphold the moral law as a way ‘of’ life, according to the Mosaic covenant (vs. a way ‘to’ life, through the gospel). Think about the implications of this: believers obey, follow, and even love God’s moral law, as a gift from God. I rejoice in the Lord’s sovereign control over my freedom, to keep me safe at home as much as possible right now, because I love his rulership, appointment of my governmental leaders, and work through my church elders. How did I arrive at this peaceful state and view? Through Scripture’s power to transform my mind and perspective on life (Romans 12:2; Titus 3:5). And, as Michael Horton expounds, this renewal in the Spirit is for all who are in Christ, through the Abrahamic covenant of grace—even Old Testament saints who knew the preincarnate Savior, such as the psalmists. With the author of Psalm 119, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil…I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules. Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” (vs. 162-165) Shall we not lovingly embrace God’s commands through Christ for personal peace? Let’s examine how the author of Psalm 119 thinks of God’s Law in these few verses.

He writes, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.” (v. 162) The psalmist of 119 goes on and on about his delight, peace, help, and glory in God’s Word, for 176 verses! His praise and joy is for God’s commands and statutes in the Old Testament, but not because of the covenant of the Law, or Mosaic covenant. Both the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenants were in effect. (2) It is our  relationship of mercy and personal redemption with God that supplies us with the love for all things godly. Jesus taught about the one who treasures the gospel, the most intimate covenant gift from God. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) “These parables [in Chapter 13] describe the kind of people who have already been made alive in Christ…Do you want to know the character of one who has been made alive by God? He says with David, ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked’ (Ps. 84:10). He says of God’s laws, ‘They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold’ (Ps. 19:10). He declares, ‘Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path’ (Ps. 119:127–28)…Such a person has already had a change of values. He has recognized the poverty of all that comes from man and has seen the true splendor of the gospel.” (3) When we love Christ, we affectionately and expectantly embrace God’s commands.

This morning I confessed to the Lord (and now to you) that I don’t pray enough, because I don’t think to stop whatever I am doing to be quietly with the Lord. I met a neighbor when I stepped out of my apartment, whose husband is in hospice, and for whom I forgot to pray today. So after we had an extended, God-centered, convicting conversation, I returned to my apartment, went outside to the patio, without computer or phone, and prayed for a few minutes for them and others who are struggling. The psalmist wrote, “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules (vs. 162-163).” I despise my falsehood and loathe my hypocrisy; I serve the Lord but don’t follow his command to “pray unceasingly” according to 1 Timothy 5:17. “The psalmist knew that if he was serious about his discipleship, he would have to immerse himself in the Bible; and he knew that if he did immerse himself in the Bible, he would have to obey it. We sometimes think of obedience as something we just have to grit our teeth and do, but the psalmist thought of it as a joyous, natural response to what he learned about God when he studied his Word.” (4)

Lately, the Lord keeps drawing me to think of and pray for Yemen, a nation that is facing a crisis in the collapse of the health care system and potential famine. Eighty percent of Yemenites depend on food aid, according to the Aljazeera report. (5) I have no peace about going to Yemen to help, but calmness, knowing that God has placed me in America at this time to pray for the nation’s people to have food, health care, COVID-19 tests, and especially the grace of God in Jesus Christ through eternal salvation “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (v. 165). “Personal peace comes from personal obedience…The verse does not promise peace to those who perfectly keep God’s Law, for who can keep it? It promises peace to those who ‘love’ God’s Law, which means, I suppose, those who love it because they have found God to be merciful by reading it…The obedient are secure. Where else can we find security in this life? Our only true security is in God. Surely there is no security for any of us in this life except in loving and living by the unshakable and eternal Word of God.” (6) 

What are your views and practical applications of God’s laws, commands, and statutes? What value do you place on your personal holiness, given to you by God and sustained by his Holy Spirit (not by your strength, determination, or efforts)? “While the Scriptures uphold the moral law as the abiding way of life for God’s redeemed people, it can never be a way to life. As Paul warns, we do not receive justification and forgiveness by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, and then go on to sanctification as a matter of personal achievement. Not some of the blessings, but all of them are comprehended ‘in Christ.’ This spells the end of both legalism and antinomianism: none of the blessings are the result of our own achievement, and at the same time, those who inherit the blessing of justification are equally beneficiaries of regeneration and sanctification.” (7) Shall we not embrace David’s perspective? “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalms 19:7-11)

(1) Horton, Michael, “Introducing Covenant Theology,” Chapter 4, Baker Academic, eBook edition, 2020.

(2) I recommend Horton’s book (cited above) for a thorough, in-depth, theological study of the covenants, their establishment and operation throughout history.

(3) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 13:44-58, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(4) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 119:153-168, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(5) Two recent articles on Yemen’s crisis: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/announces-225m-emergency-food-aid-yemen-200506205148851.html

and https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52493609

(6) Boice, Ibid.

(7) Horton, Ibid.

May 8, 2020

The Peace of Death for Believers

What are you praying and waiting for when the pandemic ends? Protection from the virus as business reopens, for professional sporting events to resume, attending a movie, or going out to eat with your friends? Are you praying to be able to worship with your church family in the sanctuary? Or maybe you just want an end of daily death counts. If you have not been thinking about death these days, you’re probably in the minority. Since January, as of this writing, we have had over 65,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and over 238,000 worldwide. As more people die daily, we wonder if God hears our prayers for the pandemic to end. But don’t you think God’s intention, at the very least, is to have us number the days of our lives for wisdom, according to Psalm 90:12? We pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because we want more heavenly peace, joy, love, goodness and holiness here. But, the peace that we seek cannot be found in this world, as everything here is a shadow of God’s heavenly perfection. We Christians know, though, that we won’t have real peace until God takes us out of this world through the portal we fear called “death.” We all like to say that we’re not afraid of death, just dying. However, the longer I live, witness friends dying, and consider death from a biblical perspective, the less frightening it becomes, even if it means pain, confusion, or loss of control. One way to view  death is as God’s gift to the righteous, an entrance into God’s perfect peace, and the end of all that binds us to worldly trials. If you, however, have lost a believing loved one at any time, you know the pain of losing that person’s holy love and joy. Children who have lost their Christian parents, and are missing them right now grieve over their absence. This is another view of the death of believers; the world is less heavenly when a holy person dies. (1) Isaiah had an insight into both aspects of the passing of the “righteous man,” which we will consider today. “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.” (Isaiah 57:1-2) God transports us into his peacefulness through death, but the world misunderstands. So, we witness for Christ through the gospel, as long as we are here until we receive our reward of perfect rest in death, contributing to the righteousness of God on earth.

I’ve been studying one chapter of Ezekiel during the pandemic, and yesterday landed in chapter 36. In his prophecy against Israel’s mountains God first rebukes Israel for their unfaithful idolatry and harm to his holy name and reputation. But then God proclaims that his discipline of Israel through the exile further damages his reputation, so he brings his people back to the land. The ESV Study Bible notes have this helpful commentary: “The fundamental reason given for God’s acting on Israel’s behalf is not grace and mercy (though it is gracious and merciful) but to uphold the sanctity and greatness of God’s reputation: “for the sake of my holy name.” (2) Michael Horton’s covenantal theology teaching helps us to understand why God still requires Israel’s compliance with the Law. “Israel being saved from Egyptian captivity and brought into the Promised Land is a matter of grace, pure covenant grant. So also is the status of every Israelite as a justified person in God’s sight: all by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Abrahamic covenant. However, once in the land, it is up to Israel as a nation to determine whether it will remain in God’s land or be evicted from it. The unilateral and utterly promissory character of the Abrahamic covenant yields to the conditional arrangement at Sinai even while the former is never—can never be—revoked by the oath-taking God.” (3) We are saved by the grace of God, through Christ. From that time, the Spirit gives us the desire and power to uphold the Law of God, for the sake of God’s holy name and reputation.

The death of Christians means that there is a little less of Christ’s righteousness in the world. That’s why Paul prayed, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:21-24) The fact that the world here doesn’t acknowledge this truth doesn’t make it untrue. Our motivation to share the gospel may simply be to replace ourselves for more peace about leaving our unbelieving loved ones behind. Matthew Henry says about Isaiah 57, “The careless world slights these providences, and disregarding them: ‘No man lays it to heart, none considers it.’ There are very few that lament [the death of a good man] as a public loss, very few that take notice of it as a public warning. The death of good men is a thing to be laid to heart and considered more than common deaths. Serious inquiries ought to be made, wherefore God contends with us, what good lessons are to be learned by such providences, what we may do to help to make up the breach, and to fill up the room of those that are removed.” (4)

Henry continues, reflecting on Isaiah 57:2, “For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. They go to be easy out of the reach of that evil. The righteous man, who while he lived walked in his uprightness, when he dies enters into peace and rests in his bed…Death is gain, and rest, and bliss, to those only who walked in their uprightness, and who, when they die, can appeal to God concerning it…Their souls then enter into peace, into the world of peace, where peace is in perfection and where there is no trouble…Their bodies rest in their beds. Note, the grave is a bed of rest to all the Lord’s people there they rest from all their labors.” (5) Revelation 14:13 “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”

I have been remembering believers I loved who have died and do not have to suffer emotionally or spiritually during the pandemic. Instead, that they are resting and not here anxiously worrying about the unbelievers who are perishing without redemption gives me a little peace while I pray for those unbelievers. I am anxious that they will indeed come to faith in Christ, by God’s grace. John Gill writes, “…there are evil times coming, great calamities, and sore judgments upon men; and therefore these righteous ones are gathered out of the world and are gathered home, and safely housed in heaven that they may escape the evil coming upon a wicked generation…this may be applied to the martyrs of Jesus in times of Popish persecution; or to the removal of good men by an ordinary death before those times came.” (6) God is transporting believers into his peace through their death, and the world is misunderstanding this. But we witness for Christ’s sake about God’s sovereignty and salvation by grace because of the peace we have waiting for our reward of peace and rest in death. Do you remember that you have this supernatural peace at a time when the world is shaking? Instead of waiting for public gatherings, will we wait on Christ and embrace his desire to purify us as his holy people? Let’s not waste our waiting time, our suffering. “What is Heaven, but the rest and quiet of a man’s spirit; that is the special thing that makes the life of heaven, there is rest and joy, and satisfaction in God. In heaven there is singing praises to God; a contented [peaceful] heart is always praising and blessing God.” (7)

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:25-32) I’ll let you make your own application. For me, I have asked the Lord not to let me die until I witness a revival in Christ.

(1) “God can view us as righteous in Christ because of imputation. Imputation means “to credit or count something toward an account,” and it is alluded to in today’s passage. As Romans 4:5 tells us, when we put our faith in Christ, we are counted as righteous. That is, the perfect righteousness earned by Jesus is imputed to us. In turn, our sins are imputed to Jesus who made satisfaction for them by bearing the wrath of God against His people on the cross.” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/great-exchange/

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Ezekiel 36, Crossway, 2008.

(3) Horton, Michael, “Introducing Covenant Theology,” Chapter 3, Baker Academic, eBook edition, 2020

(4) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 57, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/isaiah-57.html

(5) Henry, Ibid.

(6) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 57:1-2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-57.html

(7) Burroughs, Jeremiah, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” Kindle Version, com Services LLC, 2010. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003UV8OD6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

April 30, 2020

The Fruit of Peace and Christian Liberty

Every day we make a thousand decisions about what we’re going to eat and drink, read, do, dress, work on, watch on TV, which people we will talk to, and when we will go to bed. However, these days we are making one big decision in common—when will I join others in public gatherings, following social distancing rules? Perhaps those of us who are suddenly “old” will take this question more seriously. I’ve have been wanting to rescue a dog, is this the time to start looking for one? My church is opening for worship with many restrictions on May 3. Should I go or follow the service online? We make our decisions based on medical facts, experts’ opinions, our consciousness, doing what is right, and conforming to Scripture and God’s wisdom. By God’s providence, I am moving on from joy to peace this week as I continue in the theme of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. I spent all of last year writing about godly peace, but there is still much to consider. As usual, the Holy  leads us to apply God’s Word in all our circumstances. Here is a passage that will help in our decision making: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:16-19) Our Trinitarian God is served by peaceful, joyful, edifying gospel-centered relationships. We will be stronger together by doing what encourages rather than discourages each other’s faith, at all times and in all circumstances.

Christian writers are helping us with our fears of disease and death, anxiety about our liberties, and biblical faith, for which I am grateful. God desires that we exercise our faith together. Do we only think about what will benefit ourselves and ease our tensions? Or, do we build each other up because we know that what we do affects others in a literal and profound way? God gives us a model of unity in the trinity; our passage speaks of the kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit, God, and Christ. All work together for the good of His will and providence. All approve of each other, strengthen, and perfectly agree. While we cannot match the superior excellence of God’s unity in His three persons, we can seek to do that which is peaceful, righteous, joyful, and approved by him, following his example. Because God knows us so well, he offers particular advice in Romans 14:16, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” “This is the way John Calvin expresses them in his commentary: Love is violated if our brother is made to grieve for so slight a reason, for it is contrary to love to cause anyone distress…it is clear that the demands of love should override one’s personal freedom in peripheral matters… ‘Love does no harm to its neighbor,’ Paul said (Rom. 13:10). But if this is so and if we do love…To insist on our own way at this point would be selfish at best and most likely be wicked…How can you refuse to give up a merely questionable practice?” (1) Tomorrow we will be faced with an unusually clear choice, but not one that is unique; to make decisions based either on what will benefit ourselves or what will help others. By God’s grace, we often find that God calls us to do both simultaneously. But today we must decide if we are going to forgo simple, little errands or tasks, such as going to the grocery store. Every government in the world has done what it rarely does—administer societal restrictions for every citizen. Our issues of entitlement are rearing their sinister heads, and many fear that their “rights” are being violated. I found Kyle Borg’s article about Christian civil disobedience very helpful. “Admittedly, there’s also regulations and ordinances that inconvenience my life. But…the unconstitutionality of a law is not the same thing as an unbiblical law. In asking questions about civil disobedience we cannot conflate these two. Civil disobedience is not ‘We must obey the constitution rather than men,’ it is ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ As Christians we can submit to laws that are unconstitutional but we cannot submit to laws that are unbiblical. This requires that we be absolutely biblically persuaded of our duty.” (2)

Brothers and sisters, we are always better together by doing what encourages each other through our peaceful, edifying gospel-centered thinking and conduct. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) It is not that the spiritual world is opposed to the natural world, but men are more important than the “stuff” of earth—food and drink. Our relationships with each other and God are primary. Perhaps that’s why it’s good to see so many advertisements on TV during the pandemic focusing on people instead of material things to purchase (by the same companies). But, if God’s creation here isn’t his kingdom, how are we to relate to it? Perhaps we should turn to the wisdom books of the Old Testament, using them as God intends (and not superficially, which we tend to do). “The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate…’What does it mean to love life and the world if it’s passing away, and if I’m meant to enjoy God and live for Christ first and foremost? Let me say that the two things go hand in hand absolutely beautifully, and for this reason: in the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship'” (3). So the question for us in the pandemic is, “What or who do we worship?” Getting up late, staying in our casual attire, binging on Netflix or Prime, having food delivered—or spending more time with God, reaching out to others, and thinking about how we can be useful to Him? Of course, we can do some of both, but the proportion will reflect our character.

If the habits of our lives have changed, but we are serving God, does it matter that we are not operating in old routines? If our family life has morphed into something different, but we are spending more quality time together and enjoying each other in a new way, is that not good? If we are bearing the spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23, isn’t that glorious? “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” (v. 18) God is served by our edifying relationships, putting to work the righteousness, peace and joy of the Spirit. God’s kingdom is not served by independence, but by dependence on him and interdependence with each other. Even the sentimental advertisements on TV these days reflect this fact. But God doesn’t want us to merely help and love each other to make the world a more comfortable, better place to live. He desires that we reflect Christ’s glory, grace, and righteousness, to build up his kingdom—to put the gospel to work. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (v. 19). Earlier, in Romans 14:13-15, Paul writes, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” “The strong are urged to weigh the importance of exercising their freedom against two considerations: (a) the use of their freedom may bring division and disrepute on the church, (b) God’s kingdom (and therefore our freedom) is not a matter of food and drink, but of the blessings of grace (5:1-2). Since freedom does not consist in these things, it cannot be lost by our refraining from them.” (4) So I will use only online dog searches for now, and decide whether attending church in person when it reopens partly based on whether going or not going will cause my retirement-community neighbors or friends to be fearful or discouraged. You and I should be guided by our biblically centered consciousness.

Are you being careful about being swayed by media to blame the pandemic on someone without considering if they may be innocent or poor and without resources? Are you a joyful peacemaker with your Christian brothers and sisters? Do you offer your friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances gospel-centered encouragement to build them up? How do the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ, who died that we might Live, influence your time during the pandemic? Are you willing to grieve with those who are grieving, give up small conveniences for the glory of God? “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I [Paul] try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1)

(1) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 14:13-16, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(2) Borg, Kyle, “Some Thoughts on Christian Civil Disobedience, “April 18, 2020https://gentlereformation.com/2020/04/18/some-thoughts-on-christian-civil-disobedience/?fbclid=IwAR1Wb6eoee0knwljrU8koHEq3iI7-_td9HMIIQIJou9A6T_6ZblNkxaxVpw)

(3) Jamieson, Bobby, “Life is Not Meaningless in Ecclesiastes,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/living-life-backward-ecclesiastes/

(4) The Reformation Study Bible, Romans 14:16-19, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.

April 23, 2020

Oh Joy, He is Risen!

Yesterday was Maundy Thursday, celebrated by some as the dark night of Jesus’s arrest. We call today Good Friday because the best thing Jesus did for us in his incarnation was dying a sinner’s death, taking our punishment on himself. On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate his resurrection, albeit differently this year, while distancing ourselves. On earth, Jesus, the only God-Man wept with those who wept, grieved with the mourning, fed multitudes, and healed many. However, his work in heaven is not the same as his work on earth. In his article, “Does Jesus Weep For Us in Heaven?” Kevin DeYoung clarifies this truth:

Most evangelical Christians have a grasp on the humiliation of Christ–especially, and rightly, during Holy Week. But we often have an underdeveloped appreciation for the exaltation of Christ. The two states must go together: exaltation is made possible by prior humiliation, and the purpose of humiliation is to give way to exaltation. In the state of exaltation, we reflect upon Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session. If Jesus has been resurrected, he has been raised incorruptible, with a glorified body that is no longer subject to pain and suffering and the privations of the flesh…Not everything true of Christ before glory is true of the glorified Christ now. Are we in danger of finding himself asleep? Or hungry? Or exhausted at the end of a long day? Just as an imperishable body, victory over death, and universal dominion did not belong to Christ in the state of humiliation, so the life of suffering, weeping, and death do not belong to Christ in the state of exaltation. (1)

Easter is a time of rejoicing in our Risen Savior. God is owed no less worship, praise, and thanksgiving because of particular circumstances, like pandemics. Isaiah reminds us that God hasn’t and won’t forget or abandon his people. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you…those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.'” (Isaiah 49:13-15, 23c) God’s covenant with believers is comforting, compassionate, intimate, and joyful. We rejoice without shame in our hope in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, conquering death and sin.

In the Isaiah passage, “Human despair is more than offset by divine grace. The joy of v. 13 contrasts with the gloom of the Jewish exiles… All nature is called to sing for joy because God has comforted and had compassion on the afflicted.” (2) “Creation, which has witnessed the Lord’s acts of judgment, will now burst into praise, so great is the Lord’s salvation of His people.” (3) “Let there be universal joy, for God will have mercy upon the afflicted, because of his compassion; upon his afflicted, because of his covenant. We have no more reason to question his promise and grace, than we have to question his providence and justice. Be assured that God has a tender affection for his church and people; he would not have them to be discouraged.” (3) Because God’s covenant with believers is reliable, we are comforted by his compassionate and joyful in our hope. Israel had reason to rejoice during the exile, unable to worship in the temple, under God’s discipline for sin. How much more do we have reason to rejoice in Christ? He has accomplished all the work of salvation through his perfect obedience in life, his substitutionary atonement in his sacrificial death, and resurrection in glory, proving his victory over sin before ascending to heaven where He now reigns. Since this is a fact that can never change or be undone, we who have been given to Jesus rejoice, unashamed of our hope and gladness in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately though, some of God’s people are afraid that he has abandoned them, like some Israelites in Isaiah’s time. “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.'” (49: 14) In his commentary, John Gill remarks that the Israelites in Babylonian captivity may have felt abandoned because of the length of their captivity. Do Israel’s comments find their source in self-pity and ignorance of God’s covenant of steadfast love? But aren’t they the ones who had forsaken him over decades, while the Lord waited for them to put away their idolatry and worldly values? What sense does it make, what right do unbelievers have to say that God has abandoned them when they have turned away from their childhood mercies and truth? Prodigals have not been abandoned, but use many excuses to justify their apostate behavior. (5) But those who rest in Christ know that God’s covenant with believers is eternal. So we can view this pandemic of the coronavirus to be short in the context of eternity. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

We do not deny that death is real and that life here is not always a blessing. We do not deny that by the time this is posted, almost 100,000 people will have died from the coronavirus. So how do we reconcile the troubles of this world with biblical admonitions to be blessed and rejoice? Sometimes we become like prodigals in our thinking. In his book, “Our Good Crisis—Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes,” Jonathan Dodson writes, “Before we can leap into the Beatitudes’ promise[s], we have to evaluate our functional beatitudes—how we really think and live…For instance, in the secular context, mourning is an unwelcome but unavoidable part of life. How do we handle that sadness? When faced with disappointment, heartache, or suffering, we often opt for escape—take a trip, go to a movie, train for a marathon, or binge Netflix. But when we choose to escape, we don’t cease to believe. We simply believe as though God has nothing to offer us, and in his place, our chosen escape does. We mourn in an age of distraction.” (6) We miss what God might do in us by neglecting fellowship with him. What we might receive from God spiritually is far better than anything the world has to offer. If by God’s providence, I become infected with the coronavirus, and because of my genetic condition, quickly succumb to grave illness, I will rejoice in my Savior’s love for me and my love for him, knowing that I will live forever in His light. This is a unique kind of joy, different than surviving the illness (as I survived severe pneumonia at the age of nine) or being a better person moralistically as a result of enduring a trial. True Christian joy is rooted in our souls, shines through our pain, and overflows into the lives of others. This is Easter resurrection joy.

Isaiah continues, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (49:15) Do infants experience joy? I would think that they do, especially when nursing or being held close to their parent’s breast. Christ cannot forget us; it is contrary to his nature to do anything resembling neglect for those whom he has adopted as his own. Therefore we need never be ashamed of our faith or dependence upon him, as an infant is unashamed of her needs for constant care and love. Instead of shame, God’s people will rejoice with creation “…those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23c) “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.'” (Romans 10:11) I James Boice’s sermon on this passage he teaches about four elements of biblical shame: disappointment, confusion, exposure, and disgrace. Unfortunately, we have seen all of these characteristics at work in the global population during the coronavirus pandemic. But those who believe in Christ this Easter have no cause for shame in our joy. “How can anyone be disappointed with Jesus? How can anyone be confounded or disgraced by his or her hope in the Lord? But aren’t Christians sinners, too? Yes, they are. But they are sinners whose sin has been forgiven and whose nakedness has been covered by the righteousness of Christ. Shame? Yes. But shame recognized, confessed, and dealt with permanently in God’s own way…the atonement is also real. Restitution has been made by Jesus. ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).'” (7)

On Easter Sunday, even alone in our homes, we will rejoice in God’s compassion, unashamed of our hope in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, conquering death and sin. “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave Him glory so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21)

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

(1) Is Jesus Weeping for Us in Heaven?By Kevin DeYoung, The Gospel Coalition, April 7, 2020 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/is-jesus-weeping-for-us-in-heaven/

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 49:14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) The Reformation Study Bible, Isaiah 49:14, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.

(4) Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Isaiah 49:1317, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/isaiah/49.html

(5) I recommend “Prodigals and Those Who Love Them,” by Ruth Bell Graham for parents of a prodigal or prodigals themselves, who were taught of Christ and are now searching for the truth that is buried deep within them.

(6) Dodson, Jonathan K.. Our Good Crisis, InterVarsity Press, 2020, Kindle Edition.

(7) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 10:11, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

April 10, 2020

God’s Joy is Ours

What have you been focused on during your Coronavirus experience? God has designed our minds to be active, alert, and interested in significant issues. Christians are called to think about our lives in the light of God’s truth. Our conduct reflects our thinking, which, in turn, reflects our theology. If we simply conform our thoughts to worldly thinking, we are not renewing our minds by the wisdom and Word of God, which we so desperately need right now. There are countless ways to think about the state of our world, but many are not biblical. Being entirely focused on our circumstances and provisions as if they determine our peacefulness goes against the biblical admonition to be content in all situations. (See Job 20:20; Philippians 4:11; Hebrews 13:5.) Refusing to obey our government leaders also violates our biblical commands. (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-15.) Thinking that God is not involved in this disease event denies His sovereignty or attentiveness to our issues or problems. (Psalm 97:1-7; Romans 3:9-19) Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at historic views about our current events online and found a number of articles referring to the history of pandemics. I learned that many people are looking to the past for wisdom, which is good; we gain wisdom from history by avoiding past mistakes. One article states, “Pandemics have afflicted civilizations throughout human history, with the earliest known outbreak occurring in 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War. Many of these pandemics have had significant impacts on human society, from killing large percentages of the global population to causing humans to ponder larger questions about life.” (1) Inquisitiveness led me to follow the link for “larger questions about life.” In Isaac Chotiner’s article in the New York Times he writes, “I had done some preliminary reading and thought this was an issue that raises really deep philosophical, religious, and moral issues. And I think epidemics have shaped history in part because they’ve led human beings inevitably to think about those big questions. The outbreak of the plague, for example, raised the whole question of man’s relationship to God. How could it be that an event of this kind could occur with a wise, all-knowing and omniscient divinity? Who would allow children to be tortured, in anguish, in vast numbers?” (2) Now maybe you think these are good questions, but I do not. They are the questions of those who sit in judgment on God. Wise, all-knowing, and omniscient are not synonymous with soft, easy, and comfortable, which is what the questioner wants from God—not justice, righteousness, or rulership.

So then how should we think about God at this time? God is obviously doing something remarkable today; He is the transcendent God who creates and rejoices in new life from death, for his people’s sake. (3) Our Savior is more attentive to our spiritual, eternal life with him than to our physical wellbeing. At the very least, during this time of great upheaval, we can rejoice in God’s desire to continue making many new creations in Christ. Our grief and laments should not negate our joy in him. And so, I will not deviate from my plans to expound on God’s joy, which is the source of ours. I am drawn to the prophets, who boldly served God at a time when his people were in exile, and unable to join together at the temple for worship, sacrifices, and service. At the end of Isaiah, the prophet encouraged Israel with these words: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:17-19)

The Lord stated that he would create a new world with unconditional regard for the activity of men. These verses compel me to worship God as Creator of the physical universe, and the One who creates new life in sinners, without regard to our inclination to repent. He who draws us to Christ by his irresistible love and gives us faith in the only Redeemer will also create a new earth, without our help or approval. “This prophecy began to have its accomplishment in the first times of the Gospel, when through the preaching of it there was a new face of things appeared in Judea, and in the Gentile world, so that the whole looked like a new world; and this was all the effect of creating power, of the mighty, powerful, and efficacious grace of God attending the word, to the conversion of many souls; a new church state was formed, consisting of persons gathered out of the world, the old national church of the Jews being dissolved, and Gospel churches everywhere set up…a new way of worship observed, at least in a more spiritual and evangelic manner; a new covenant exhibited, or the covenant of grace held forth in a new form of administration, the former waxen old and vanished away; and the new and living way to the Father, through Christ, made manifest.” (4)

I am encouraged by Gill’s perspective on our new Life in Christ to embrace Isaiah 65:18 during a pandemic. “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” Gill comments, “This may refer either to persons converted, both at the beginning of the Gospel, and in the latter day, whether Jews or Gentiles; who are the Lord’s creation, or new creatures, being made new men; having new hearts and spirits given them, or created within them; new principles of life, light, grace, and holiness, wrought in them, which are the produce of almighty and creating power; and all such instances are matter of joy, as to the angels in heaven, so to the saints on earth, and especially to the ministers of the Gospel; because of the grace bestowed on men, the glory brought to God, and their own ministry blessed and succeeded, and so their hands and hearts [were] strengthened.” (5) Since we know that God is rejoicing in his kingdom’s increase, we may also rejoice even during times of great worldly distress. We celebrate Christ’s body at work, sharing the gospel, remembering each other in prayer, and helping with many practical needs of our neighbors. We rejoice over what the Lord has already done, what he is doing today, and what he will do at the return of Christ. Our hope is not limited by time or circumstances because God’s attributes and work is limitless. He has not stopped loving his people, nor does he want anyone to suffer unnecessarily. “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:3-6) How much more can God do to prove his love for us? He will come again!

“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19) This does not describe an end of a pandemic, but at Christ’s return in glory, when he will give us the new heavens and a new earth. When the pandemic ends we will return to our “normal” stresses. But when Christ comes, visible to all, there will be no more distress of any kind. Instead of checking news reports or websites for the latest statistics of cases and deaths (or recoveries), we will all look to the skies and see Jesus descending in all his glory with his angels (1 Thessalonians 4:16). “…the description goes far beyond anything that the world has ever seen, inviting the believing reader to yearn for more and to play his or her role as the story unfolds to its glorious end.” (6) What is your role in the current crisis? How will you express and demonstrate your joy in Christ to your family members, neighbors, church family, friends, and strangers? How do your prayers reflect your hope in a depressed, sick world that longs for joy? Will we be without regrets when “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:10-13)

(1) https://www.businessinsider.com/pandemics-that-changed-the-course-of-human-history-coronavirus-flu-aids-plague

(2) https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-pandemics-change-history

(3) On God’s transcendence now, I highly recommend the article found at https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2020/03/the-mod-attending-to-the-present-means-attention-to-the-transcendent/

(4) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 65:17, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-65.html

(5) Gill, Ibid 65:18.

(6) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 65:19, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

April 2, 2020

Celebrating Love in These Days

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Writing about love and joy at a time when tens of thousands of people have died from Covid-19 is a challenge. We grieve with the sick, families of victims, and future victims of this silent killer. We worry that we’ll be next, or falsely think that we won’t, we can’t—but we could catch it. We’re encouraged by the clinical trial taking place in Seattle, WA, through the kindness and love of selfless individuals who have volunteered to find a vaccination. (1) But we wonder, what happens if I get sick? Christians should have a different answer to this question than non-Christians, since we have an eternal home of glory awaiting us, in the new heavens and new earth, untainted with sin, disease, pain, and suffering of any kind. And even before that, we have a perfect stop-over place in heaven where our spirits will rest with the Lord. Last Sunday, Pastor Taha preached to us from Luke 17 about the cleansing of the ten lepers. (2) He reminded us of God’s grace to his people and their appropriate response to him in a situation that was dire. For many people, either personal or global healing from the virus will mean returning to “normal life” (whatever that is) like the nine lepers who went off to the temple to give thanks to the priest. But for believers in Jesus Christ, we will hopefully return to Christ, our heavenly High Priest, to give thanks and worship him as the Samaritan did in Luke 17:15-18. God’s grace should change us even during these strange times.

In the history of Christ’s church, there have been great times of opposition and persecution. This is not one of them. There have been oppressive events when thousands of believers died at the stake, but this is not then. All people on earth are affected by the disease, and our faith will not save us from it; only God will decide that we are among the survivors or leave this world. Our prayers are essential, but they will not save us. Only Christ saves. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Knowing that our God has a good plan for us, even when we are physically, emotionally, and mentally weak, we have cause to celebrate his love.  When we would otherwise be consumed with fear, we rejoice in his truths. See in Scripture how Joseph, David, Job, Paul, and most notably, our Lord Jesus Christ viewed crises of great magnitude. The Holy Spirit gives me the ability to be content, hopeful, loving, and even joyful. We have been studying the Fruit of the Spirit, starting with love; now, we will begin to consider how God’s love leads to joy in the Spirit. Godly love is patient, kind, humble, gentle, content, peaceful, selfless, hopeful, enduring, joyful, and eternal. We are called to celebrate and demonstrate God’s love from joyful hearts, even in this challenging season.

One of the great blessings of Christianity is the desire to serve Christ in all circumstances. Rather than be content to shelter and be safe, we want to be useful to God. This is God’s love working in us, not something to boast about as if the desire originates with us. So we admire and pray for medical staff in hospitals first responders, assisted living staff, and even grocery employees, who are serving at the risk of their own and their family’s health, rather than envy them their devotion or boast about our own safety at home. And the people I have encountered during this time have demonstrated the characteristics of love in 1 Cor. 13:4: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” I should not boast that I am well and protected from Covid-19 but be kind, patient, and polite about my lost package of toilet tissue or one-week wait time for a curbside pickup of my groceries. I will not be envious of people who seem to know how to conduct zoom meetings so effortlessly and professionally. This godly love also “…does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” (v. 5-6) Yesterday I posted something with an incorrect link and was so grateful when someone else deleted it. I can see now why John Gill reminds us that the wrongdoing that we should be primarily concerned about is our own. Confession and repentance is needed now more than ever, as we spend more time alone, with family, children, those with special needs, or roommates. And, I am now convinced that the pressure to conform is somehow stronger than ever, perhaps because we’re spending so much time on social media. Whose post is better, which article is the best, who has found the most appropriate Scripture? Christians don’t live for the approval of others. This love “…seeketh not his own things: even those which are “lawful”, as the Arabic version renders it; but seeks the things of God, and what will make most for his honour and glory; and the things of Christ, and what relate to the spread of his Gospel, and the enlargement of his kingdom; and also the things of other men, the temporal and spiritual welfare of the saints…” (3) Might I suggest more quiet times of prayer over and above looking for the best post on social media?

Our relationship with God drives our relationships with others. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (V. 7) “The terms believes and hopes are sandwiched between bears and endures and, like them, probably refer to relationships between people rather than to faith and hope in God. Love believes the best of others and hopes the best for them.” (4) “[Love] hopes the best of all men, of all professors of religion, even of wicked men, that they may be better and brought to repentance, and of fallen professors, who declare their repentance, and make their acknowledgments; he hopes well of them, that they are sincere, and all is right and will appear so: endures all things; that are disagreeable to the flesh; all afflictions, tribulations, temptations, persecutions, and death itself, for the elect’s sake, for the sake of the Gospel, and especially for the sake of Christ Jesus.” (5) We celebrate God’s sustaining love, especially in times of great distress.

Godly love is also enduring and eternal. “Love never ends.” (v. 8a) “It is a grace, lasting as eternity. The present state is a state of childhood, the future that of manhood. Such is the difference between earth and heaven. What narrow views, what confused notions of things, have children when compared with grown men!” (6) Do you view your ability to love now as that of a child, dependent upon your elders? Are we ready to follow their model and learn how to grow in grace? Will we use this precious, singular time in history to love others relationally the way God loves us or withdraw in safety as if we are not already secure and protected? Have we retreated into social media instead of having meaningful, one-to-one conversations with those who are either living alone, serving as caregivers full time, sick, or afraid? “Love never ends.” “The head of a child may have thoughts and plans of growth, but they will all be in vain unless the members all do their part in securing that growth. Christ Jesus has committed to His church the growth and increase of His body. As He is the Head and lives for the growth and welfare of the body, Christ asks and expects every member of His body, even the weakest, to do the same – to build up the body in love.” (7) “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

(1) NIH News Release: “A Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating an investigational vaccine designed to protect against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has begun at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle…The open-label trial will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 55 years over approximately 6 weeks. The first participant received the investigational vaccine [on March 16, 2020]…” https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-clinical-trial-investigational-vaccine-covid-19-begins

(2) Taha, Allen, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Boerne, Texas, https://vimeo.com/399253308

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 Corinthians 13:5, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1corinthians-13.html

(4) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, 1 Corinthians 13:7, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(5) Gill, Ibid (1 Corinthians 13:7)

(6) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Corinthians 13:8,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1corinthians-13.html

(7) Murray, Andrew, “Working for God,” pp. 72-73, Aneko Press, Kindle Edition.