Is not his word like fire?

“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” — Jeremiah 23:29

From the heavenly fire that consumed Sodom to the lake of fire in Revelation, fire serves as a powerful symbol in Scripture. I suppose most people, on associating fire and God, think of hell. Let’s not neglect other meanings.

Christians read, or ought to read, God’s word every day and think about it regularly even without an open Bible nearby. If God’s word is like fire, the Christian certainly does not experience it as hellfire. So what kind of fire is it like?

In Hebrews 12:29, we read that God is a consuming fire–this in the context of removing what can be shaken, with only what cannot be shaken remaining. It appears that God consumes what he removes in the shaking: the temporary, the broken beyond repair, the trivial, etc.

Similarly, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 3.12) that our works will be tested by fire. Whatever we build on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, or stubble will burn up, revealing whatever we build with gold, silver, or gemstones, if anything. The fire will both test and reveal our works. It is not hellfire, for even the person with nothing of value remaining is still saved.

Malachi 3:2 introduces another fire metaphor, the refiner’s fire. The process of extracting metal from ore to this day entails putting fire under a cauldron of ore until it melts. At that point the slag, all that is not pure metal, can be removed and discarded.

All of these fire images entail the removal and destruction of something worthless so that something worthy will remain. How do people experience the fire of God? It feels more like abandonment or punishment.

People wonder where is God in the midst of all of this pain? He’s the one that’s causing it. He cares much less about our comfort at any given time than about what his perfect craftsmanship can make of us. We are  his workmanship, his masterpiece. Whether he uses fire or a hammer and chisel, as in the other half of our verse from Jeremiah, it can really hurt while he’s working on us.

At times like that, it really helps to recall that our trials will not destroy us (unless we completely lose faith), that whatever role Satan plays does not matter much, and that God will turn down the heat when he’s finished with a process.

Is the fire a judgment on our sins? Maybe. But here is yet another illustration that judgment is never more than a means to an end. It is a tool he uses to demonstrate his grace.

A squandered opportunity to walk by faith

Perhaps not many modern Christians have read the second chapter of Judges. If you have, you may wonder what it has to do with today. Actually, upon closer inspection, it has plenty to do with today. The  consequences of missing the lesson will be tragic for our society if the church today misses the point.

God came from Gilgal (the place of the memorial to God’s greatness) to Bokim (the place of loss and weeping) to speak with them. Think of it! He had to follow them because they were no longer following him!

He told them that he would never break his covenant with them, but they had already broken it. As the serpent tested Adam, so the Canaanites tested Israel, and with the same result. While Joshua still lived, according to the first chapter, tribe after tribe had decided to collect tribute from them instead of driving them off the land.

So God announced that he would no longer drive the Canaanites out. That illustrates the statement I have often heard, that without God, I can’t; without me, God won’t. The grace of his covenant is free in the sense we can’t buy it or earn it, but costly in the sense that it requires us to be active partners in fulfilling its promises.

How did the people respond to this news? They did not repent and renew their commitment to the covenant. Instead, they wept some, offered a sacrifice, and then went on about their business.

God ordered them to drive out the Canaanites because he did not want Israel to fall into the Canaanites’ sin. The generation that left Egypt died in the wilderness for unbelief; the generation that entered did not teach their children the ways of the Lord or testify to what he had done. Therefore the next generation served the Baals.

Baal worship included harlotry and child sacrifice. It has a painful similarity to the level of sexual licentiousness in our own society. A diet soft drink once adopted the slogan “sinfully delicious.” How could society accept that idea unless it had already elevated sin to something desirable and begun to view good with suspicion?

Within my memory, people were ashamed of getting caught having a one-night stand. Now it seems almost unnatural not to. The promiscuous now face less likelihood of social ostracism than virginity. Harlotry does not refer only to sex for pay or even sleeping around. It also includes using the idea of sex to sell cars or beer or a web domain registration service.

Abortion is only the most obvious parallel to Canaanite child sacrifice. Children who don’t get aborted become targets advertising for junk food and other harmful projects. Society subjects them to TV shows and games that desensitize them to violence and other sins.

Statistically, the church does not differ from the rest of society in its practice and toleration for these trends. Perhaps that explains why it has not been able to mount a credible challenge to pervasive sin. Christian organizations that make their voices heard in standing against socially accepted wickedness find themselves demonized in the media.

Israel compromised with the Canaanites, so God stopped helping their armies. Has God similarly withdrawn his support from the American church? I have no answer.

Where’s the grace here? God allowed the Canaanites to rise up and oppress Israel, but whenever Israel cried out to him, he rescued them. The pattern of sin, oppression, and an undeserved rescue continued for hundreds of years until finally the armies of Assyria and Babylon wiped out the Canaanites. Then Israel returned to the land from captivity and never fell into idolatry again.

So, I don’t know if God has abandoned the church in the same way, but I do know that he will eventually rid the world of sin. Everyone will wonder what they found attractive about it. Life will be so much better without it.

Judas

“What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. — Matthew 26:15

What was Judas thinking? He had followed Jesus as one of the twelve chosen apostles for three years. He had received teaching not trusted to outsiders. He had not only seen miracles but performed them under Jesus’ tutelage.

He had been present when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. From that time on, he must have known that whenever he looked at Jesus, he saw the face of God.

John’s gospel points out that Judas kept the money  for the group. It was certainly John’s view that the money corrupted Judas and that he helped himself to it (John 12:6).

Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John judged rightly. But Judas betrayed his master to cover embezzlement? Probably no one finds that explanation entirely satisfactory.

Some modern commentators suggest that Judas never quite figured out what kind of kingdom Jesus intended to introduce. According to this view, he thought the Christ should rid the Jewish Promised Land of Roman influence and establish a permanent earthly kingdom.

Impatient that Jesus either did not understand his role or that he was moving to slowly, they say Judas tried to force his hand by going to the priests. Does that satisfactorily explain why Judas betrayed his master?

Perhaps God never intended to explain it to us. Perhaps instead, he intended Judas as an object lesson of the depths to which sin can drive even those closest to Jesus.

If we take our attention from Jesus and place it on our own thoughts and motives, Satan can make almost anything seem right. Perhaps when we look at Judas, God only intends for us to shudder and return to looking to Jesus.

Life without God: a fool’s errand

The fool says in his heart, there is no God. The only difference between now and David’s time is that today, we’ve got plenty of people who are darn fool enough to say it out loud.

Nowadays, we use the word “fool” to mean someone who is stupid, thoughtless, unwise, or easily deceived and imposed on. In the Bible, it also means someone who is wicked or impious. It refers not so much to a person’s mental equipment as to his outlook on life.

Whatever a fool may say outwardly, or whatever he may attempt to appear in terms of religious observance, in his heart he does not acknowledge God at all. There might as well be no God as far as the fool is concerned.

I see the word for “fool” used here is “nabal.” David encountered a man named Nabal once, although I doubt if his mother gave him that name or that anyone called him that to his face. He was so ungrateful and so boorish in his refusal to help David that only his wife’s quick thinking prevented David from killing him and all of his servants.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can read about other fools. They offered all the right sacrifices and outwardly followed all the right rituals in order to appear respectable to their neighbors and associates.

They kept the Sabbath but resented it. They could not buy or sell. They could not work at all and feared the weekly loss of a chance to earn their living. So they spent the Sabbath planning their next opportunity to make money and new, more subtle ways of swindling others. They hardly ever gave any thought to God.

It would be nice if this psalm would let us nod and agree that there are a lot of fools in the world. And just be comfortable in the fact that we, at least, do believe in God– sort of like the Pharisee that thanked God he was not like other men.

But the sad truth of the matter is that none of us are safe from foolishness. David says God looks down from heaven on the whole human race to see if anyone understands. It must have pained David, the man after God’s own heart, to write this, but God’s verdict is that all have become corrupt and no one does good—no, not one. Not even David. Not even me, not even anyone any of us have ever heard of but Jesus.

In the last verse, David caught only a glimmer of what God intended to do about all this pervasive foolishness. We get a clearer picture in the cross of Jesus, but in this time of Lenten preparation, we have to recognize that we don’t yet have sufficient revelation to preserve us from all foolishness. Thanks be to God that he has plans to finish what he has started.

Faith: the real thing

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” — Jude 3

Isn’t it amazing how many people hold the truth in utter contempt? Plenty of people try to make the case that the Holocaust never happened, even though survivors live to this day, the sites of concentration camps still stand, and many eyewitnesses have left both written and photographic accounts of what they experienced or saw.

It’s nothing new. Other examples have occurred throughout history. In New Testament times, while people who had personal memories of Jesus and his teachings still lived, false teachers dared to offer their version of his life and ministry as an alternative.

John named one of them, Diotrephes, in his third epistle. Jude wrote a more general warning. Paul had successfully contended against those who wanted to make following the ancient law a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Now, a generation later, teachers claimed that by grace, Jesus had eliminated any need to heed the law at all. As Jude wrote in the next verse, they preached grace as a license to sin and denied the lordship of Jesus.

Does that sound familiar? Plenty of modern writers and preachers proclaim that the law came with judgment, but that Jesus came with grace and forgiveness. They teach as if Jesus had done away with all moral requirements, as if people can express faith in Jesus and do whatever they want.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer properly named that attitude “cheap grace.” It is absolutely false that grace is absent from the Old Testament; prophets invariably proclaimed that after God punished sins he would restore his  people. It is also absolutely false that Jesus offered forgiveness without repentance. All of Scripture’s most vivid descriptions of hell come from his lips.

Grace is free in the sense we can’t earn it by being good enough. It is costly in the sense that we must be good and keep becoming better in response to it. Continuing in sin is not an  option.

In our time, as in Jude’s, false teaching attacks the truth as revealed in the preaching of the apostles and in Scripture. In our time, as in Jude’s, Christians must learn the truth, be able to discern between truth and falsehood, and contend for the faith.

After all, it was delivered once, for all. God will never issue a second, revised edition. What he has revealed belongs to all–even those who preach condemnation on themselves by denying it.

The power and limits of intercessory prayer

God showed Amos a swarm of locusts that he prepared to punish Israel. Amos, a citizen of the rival kingdom of Judah, begged him to be merciful. God relented. Then he showed Amos a consuming fire. Again Amos begged for mercy and God relented.

But then God showed Amos a wall, and next to the wall, a man with a plumb line. Amos could persuade him not to destroy the apostate kingdom with locusts or fire, but God would not allow his prophet to dissuade him from punishing the sins of his people.

King Jeroboam II had built a prosperous and militarily powerful kingdom, but he refused to heed Amos’ words. God would destroy Jeroboam’s dynasty, and then the kingdom itself, along with all of the idols the kings of Israel had erected and the sanctuaries that housed them.

A plumb line will always show a true vertical. A wall, no matter how massive and strong it looks, that has shifted from a true vertical is in danger of collapse. If there is no way to repair it, it is safer to demolish it than to let it collapse.

The northern kingdom shifted away from true vertical when its first king rebelled against Solomon’s son and set up idols so his people would not have to go to Jerusalem to worship. God raised up one dynasty after another, but none turned from that sin.

If the kingdom would not repent, God would not overrule its own free will to repair it. Instead, he demolished it. Amos could intercede on their behalf and get God to change his mind on the means, but could not halt the destruction God intended.

God still uses the same plumb line today: his word. Everything stands or falls in comparison to Jesus, the living word. God will uphold, repair, or demolish every person and every human institution according how it lines up with Jesus.

As always, grace follows judgment. God punishes sin severely, but only as a means to redemption.

Worshiping through the Apocalypse

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” — Revelation (a.k.a. Apocalypse) 1:3 (NASB)

Someone has said that the New Testament is so simple that you need someone to help you misunderstand it. We’ve all had plenty of help! As far as Revelation is concerned though, I doubt if many find it simple at all.

There seem to be two predominant kinds of Christians when it comes to that book. Many avoid it entirely; it is too overwhelmingly confusing. Others teach from it all the time, attempting to guide people through the spiritual implications of today’s news. Alas, they frequently contradict each other, and after the passage of time, much of their interpretation turns out to be wrong.

Fortunately, some people over the centuries have found another way to approach Revelation. It’s a great example of worship. Read it through, if you haven’t already. It’s the only book in the Bible with a special blessing just for reading it. Or read it again if you find the connection of Revelation and worship surprising.

Look at how people act toward God in the scenes that take place in heaven. Notice all the very familiar verses that have become the texts of hymns, sacred choral music, and praise choruses. Does it make you want to sing? Please do!

If I read Revelation correctly, while some really apocalyptic stuff happens on earth, the saints in heaven join all the angels in some pretty spectacular worship services.

I have gotten tired of trying to figure out whether to prefer premillennialism, postmillennialism, or amillennialism–and especially what’s supposed to happen pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation.

I guess I’m a panmillennialist: It will all pan out eventually. I just want to live in such a way that I’m among those worshiping in heaven, not the other bunch. As long as John wrote down so many hymn texts, we might as well sing them and worship God here. It will set our hearts in the right direction. It will be good practice for there.

Not exactly a fast: the substitution principal.

“. . . to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the spirit of fainting, so they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”–Isaiah 61:3 (NASB)

Twice in one recent day, I encountered the concept of fasting from bad attitudes. I see what the two people are getting at, but I don’t think “fasting” is quite appropriate. Fasting generally means not eating for a period of time. Jesus and Moses each fasted for forty days. Fasting doesn’t get more serious that that. On the 41st day, they resumed eating.

Fasting from a bad attitude smacks of what one of my college classmates went through. She decided to give up swearing for Lent! For forty days, she would start to make a characteristic comment, hold her hands over her mouth, and say something a little different. Monday after Easter, she was gleefully back in her element.

So I don’t want to fast from a bad attitude, and I don’t want to urge anyone else to engage in that kind of fast. That is, I don’t want to give a bad attitude up for Lent. I want to get rid of it. A bad attitude is a bad mental habit. No one can break a habit by deciding not to do something any more. The way to break a bad habit is establish another in its place. As we go through Lent, consider the following substitutions:

Instead of judging others, seek Christ’s love for them.

Instead of thinking of illness, think on Christ’s healing power.

Instead of speaking words that pollute, speak words that purify.

Instead of anger, develop patience.

Instead of discontent, seek out what to be grateful for.

Instead of bitterness, practice forgiveness.

Instead of discouragement, develop hope.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by problems, pray prayers that strengthen.

I could go on, but probably no one can keep all of that in mind at the same time. Ask God what he wants to work on with you–from this list or some other attitude.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos7:1-9&version=NIVtarget = “blank”Expect him to bring scriptures to mind; to bring articles, conversations, sermons, etc. to your attention that relate to your new habit; and to bring you to situations where you will have to deliberately choose not to respond in the old way in order to practice your new habit.

And then, after a hard struggle that may at times seem endless and pointless if you let it, amaze yourself and all of your associates with your new habit. You haven’t given up anything for Lent, but for life

A promise about prayer, with conditions for abiding

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” — John 15:7 (NASB)

I’m sure every Christian loves Jesus’ promises about prayer. So many of them seem, on the surface, to say that we can ask for anything and our heavenly daddy will do it. Of course, every Christian has the experience of praying and not having it done.

Jesus never made that promise glibly. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he made it in the context of comparing his church to a grapevine. He is the vine and we are branches. Branches of grapevines must undergo periodic severe pruning. Otherwise, they will will bear lots of leaves but not much fruit. The vinedresser cuts off whatever is not necessary, leaving the rest of the branch firmly attached to the vine.

And so the promise about prayer here comes with two conditions: that we abide in the vine and that Jesus’ word abides in us. According to Strong’s concordance, “abide” means to stay in a given place, state, relation, or expectancy. Assuming, for this post, that we abide in Jesus, what does it mean for his word to abide in us?

Jesus said elsewhere, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Measuring what comes out of our mouth against the written word of God tells us what abides in us. It’s not like we have to be quoting Scripture all the time, but the words of our mouth ought to be faithful, hopeful, and loving.

If we speak words of frustration, unbelief, quarreling, gossiping, etc., those words line up with the words of the devil, not the words of Jesus. They indicate an area where the word of God abides on the pages of our Bibles, but not in us. We can’t expect all of our petitions to be granted if we fail to meet Jesus’ conditions.

Dwelling in the secret place

“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” — Psalm 91:1 (NKJV)

The secret place of the Most High means nothing less than the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple, and the shadow of the Almighty is located between the wings of the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. What does it mean to dwell there?

In the natural, I have had several dwelling places, including dorm rooms, apartments, and houses. In every case, I have been able to visit other people’s dwellings, but my own dwelling is always different. I do not spend all of my time, or even most of it, in my dwelling, but I have special privileges there like I have nowhere else.

First of all, I have the key to my dwelling. I can go in and out any time I want. Not only that, I can relax there like nowhere else. If someone I’m visiting says, “make yourself at home,” that doesn’t mean I can help myself to whatever food I’m in the mood for, undress, spend the night, or any of the other things I can do at home. I can safely be more vulnerable at home than anywhere else.

Second, most of my stuff is there. Even when I lived in a tiny furnished apartment and didn’t own much but clothes, books, and stuff for the kitchen and bathroom, I kept it at the apartment.

So what does it mean to dwell in the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple? For one thing, it means dwelling in a family. For part of my life, I lived alone. No one will dwell in the secret place of the Most High alone. After all, God lives there, too.

Christians, one and all, are adopted sons of God and part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. (There is no male of female in the body of Christ. If any woman is queasy about being a son or if any man is uncomfortable being the bride, get over it!)

Additionally, it does not mean we spend our whole time in church, or in a personal quiet time, or anything else that’s “religious.” There’s no religion in the secret place. I’m not always at home here on earth, but I’m always married to my wife whether I’m home (or she is) or not. Love constrains me from being unfaithful.

Most importantly, if I dwell in the secret place, in my Father’s house, I must know he loves me and desire to please him. Absent my love for God, I can hardly expect or even desire the privileges of home. The key of the kingdom, and dwelling within it, is Peter’s confession of the lordship of Christ. Don’t think about house rules, by the way. The concept of rule keeping entirely negates the whole concept of grace.

To love God as I ought utterly requires that I love nothing else more. Jesus said to store up treasure in heaven, and that our heart is where our treasure is. In a materialistic society like ours, that means that we can’t love our stuff so much that it gets in the way of loving God.

My dad has had a lifelong hobby of woodworking, and for twenty years or so, he also blew glass. Glass objects and furniture he made are my most prized possessions. I love them more than anything comparable made by professionals. I do not love them more than I love him. How much more, then, must I love God, in whose house I want to dwell, more than any of the stuff I can accumulate or the money it takes to get it?