The King’s sins: Deuteronomy 17

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“Are a king’s sins different than mine?”

Moses was a prophet. He was supernaturally gifted by God to look into Israel’s future and see the dangers that threatened them. Prosperity was one such danger, but the greed of kings was another. Though Israel would not have a king for another 400 years, Moses saw clearly how future rulers, especially Solomon, would be undone:

“Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” Deuteronomy 17:16-17

Horses, wives, and gold. What makes these three so dangerous? Lust lies at the root of them all, whether lust for power, pride, possessions, or pleasure. They hearken back to the garden of Eden, where Satan used these same temptations on Eve:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; Genesis 3:5-6

The fruit was good tasting (pleasure). It was good to look at, creating a desire to have it (possession). It promised to give one wisdom similar to God (pride). Solomon fell to the same temptations, multiplying wives for pleasure (and perhaps pride), gold for the greed of possession (and perhaps power), and horses for the pride of power. The apostle John rang these same three bells of temptation near the end of the Bible, driving home the point that began with Eve:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 1 John 2:16

The lust of the flesh speaks to pleasure, the lust of the eyes to possession, and boastful pride speaks for itself. So we and kings are not so different. The same temptations or lusts lead to the same sins. You might think, “but look how much greater the degree of the king’s sins.” Even there we are more alike than different, for the degree of our sin depends more on whom we sin against than what sin we commit. Whether king or pauper, the degree of our sin is infinite because we sin against the infinitely holy God.

In short, a man must be set free from the sin he is , which makes him do the sin he does. — George MacDonald

Repentance of the evil act, and not of the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel, but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing; they would remove the eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh. — Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off the relish for spiritual things then it is sin for you, however, innocent it may be in itself. — Suzanna Wesley

The Problem of Prosperity: Deuteronomy 8-9

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“Why is wealth a danger?”

Moses looks back in Deuteronomy, reviewing everything the LORD has done to bring the people to the edge of the Promised Land. Then he looks forward to warn them about the dangers they will face in their new home. One of the biggest dangers is prosperity.

Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Deuteronomy 8:11-14

Moses describes a progression, a downhill slide, that begins with prosperity and ends with abandoning God. I found the following graphic written in the margin of my Bible, and I would credit it if I could.

Prosperity —> Pride –> Preoccupation –> Presumption –> Paganism

There’s nothing wrong with prosperity. God wanted to bless his people.  The point of their journey was to bring them to a better place than they had  known before, a land full of good things. The danger was that they would grow full of pride once they settled and enjoyed the bounty of the land. Difficulties tend to humble us and cause us to cry out for help. Good times make us become self-sufficient. We can even forget God because we are so preoccupied with maintaining our wealth or enjoying the leisure that comes with it. The next step is the error of presumption.

When the LORD your God drives them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD brought me in to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ Instead, the LORD will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness. Deuteronomy 9:4

The people would presume that God had driven out the Canaanites because of the righteousness of the Israelites. In reality it was the wickedness of the Canaanites that made a place for God’s people. The Israelites weren’t victorious because of their own strength but because of God’s strength. Their presumption would lead them further away from God until they reached the point of abandoning him altogether in favor of pagan idols.

Moses spoke prophetically. All that he cautioned came to pass. The progression from prosperity to paganism isn’t a theory; it was proven in the life of Israel. Since we can be forewarned by their mistake, let’s look at the progression and come up with an antidote. Our prosperity may need to be limited by living on less and giving away the excess. We can sidestep pride by remaining dependent on God, humbling ourselves, and adopting the old practice of mortifying the flesh (through self-denial, for example). Instead of preoccupying ourselves with worldly pursuits, we should simplify our lives so that we have time to devote to Bible study and serving God. Finally, rather than presuming our own goodness, we need to follow the example of Paul:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

Whenever we see the word “Beware” in the Bible, we may be sure that there is something to beware of. The point here to note is, that our times of prosperity are times of danger. I remember that Mr. Whitefield once asked the prayers of the congregation “for a young gentleman in very dangerous circumstances,” for he had just come into a fortune of ₤5,000. Then is the time when prayer is needed even more than in seasons of depression and of loss. – Charles Spurgeon

When he entrusted you with a little, did he not entrust you with it that you might lay out all that little in doing good? And when he entrusted you with more, did he not entrust you with that additional money that you might do so much the more good, as you had more ability? Had you any more right to waste a pound, a shilling, or a penny, than you had before? You have, therefore, no more right to gratify the desire of the flesh, or the desire of the eyes, now than when you was a beggar. O no! do not make so poor a return to your beneficent Lord! Rather, the more he entrusts you with, be so much the more careful to employ every mite as he hath appointed. – John Wesley

Image by Mark Herpel on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Grace in a pair of shoes: Deuteronomy 29

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“Can God bless me even after I disobey?”

If you struggle with an image of God as an unforgiving master, then I’ve got a word for you: shoes. Every time you see a pair of shoes, I want you to think of the grace of God. My reason for recommending this reminder goes back to the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. Because of their faithlessness and disobedience, an entire generation lost their privilege to enter the Promised Land, yet God did not leave them destitute. Instead he blessed them with miraculous grace.

Yet the LORD says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.” Deuteronomy 29:5

God didn’t limit the blessing of the shoes and clothing to the children of the disobedient parents. He blessed the whole tribe of Israelites. It’s an excellent example of what theologians call common grace.

Common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation. – Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

Grudem goes on to say that common grace is different from saving grace in its result (it does not provide salvation), in its recipients (it is given to all people regardless of their relationship to God – or lack of it), and in its source (it does not flow from Christ’s blood poured out on the cross). Common grace is often described by Reformed Theology as having three main points.

God’s Goodness. “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9). “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God’s goodness allows sinners to live rather than go directly to Hell. It provides the environment that supports us all. It creates the bodies that sustain our life.

God’s Restraint of sin. God shows us grace by restraining sin – not completely and not in every case – but he puts a limit on sin among saved and unsaved alike. The present restraint will be shown most clearly when God removes the restraint in the last days, allowing the man of lawlessness to bring the world into tribulation. The beneficial effects of believers on the lost world is one way in which God currently restrains the destructive power of sin. The goodness of non-believers is another example of God’s grace. As Jeremiah said, “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.” Common grace restrains that wickedness.

God’s provision of civil government. Perhaps this is only an extension of the restraint of sin, but it is a particularly important extension. Without civil government there would be anarchy. Most governments are secular rather than religious, and depend on saved and unsaved persons. God’s provision of common grace allows for the working of governments which maintain peace. New Testament teaching confirms that God establishes governments in order to promote peace and order.

Some commentators deny the existence of common grace, instead preaching that God’s grace is only for the elect. To them I would say, look at all those shoes! God kept a generation of rebels in footwear even though they were unfit for his kingdom. It encourages me to know that even when someone fails God, he doesn’t fail them. He continues to show them grace as long as they have breath.

Image by Sherwood on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Stumbling vs. falling away: Matthew 18

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“Does Jesus really want me to cut off my hand or foot?”

The following verses have always bothered me. Even taking the use of hyperbole into account, it perplexed me why Jesus would want anyone to take such drastic measures to deal with sin.

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. Matthew 18:8-9

For added emphasis, Jesus gave this same message in the sermon on the mount. So why would he make so much of the need to do whatever it took to stop this sinning? We look at that word, stumble, and think, “I stumble. I’ve probably stumbled several times just today. Doesn’t everyone stumble?”

Recently I was reading Steve Gallagher’s book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, and he pointed out that the better translation of the word for stumble would be fall away. It’s the same word Jesus used to describe how the disciples would leave him when he was arrested, when he said, “You will all fall away, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ ”  In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t talking about a little sin, a stumble, but a continuous pattern of sin that demonstrated an unregenerate heart. Such a person had fallen away from God and was in danger of eternal condemnation.

There are two conclusions I draw from this new understanding of Jesus’ warning. First, he’s not talking about the occasional unintended sins. We don’t need to cut off our hand for those. Second, there are people whose repetitive sins trap them (the original word for falling away described the stick holding up an animal trap). For those people their sin is a life and death matter. Their continual sinning signals a separation from God that dooms them. They must do whatever it takes to repent, abandon their life of sin, and turn to God for salvation.

Image by Neil Hester on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

The Crisis of Belief: Numbers 13-14

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Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes–all the time! It must be that way, for God’s glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.
― Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing the Spirit: The Power of Pentecost Every Day

“What should I do when I doubt God?”

Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God powerfully pinpoints the spiritual struggles that accompany our walk with God. One of the key decision points in Blackaby’s framework is called the Crisis of Belief, a moment when we understand what God wants us to do and decide whether or not we will do it. There are steps that lead up to that moment, including accepting God’s invitation to work with him, and observing where God is at a work, but the Crisis of Belief is pivotal. It’s a go or no-go, in or out, fish or cut bait moment.

A crisis is a dangerous unsettled time. Unsettled because choices must be made. The status quo is no longer an option. The choices are not obvious or easy. Dangerous because bad outcomes are possible or likely. But as speech makers like to say, the dangers are accompanied by opportunities.

When the twelve spies returned from Canaan to report to Moses, their recommendations prompted a Crisis of Belief of national proportions. Blackaby points to Moses’ decision at the burning bush as a typical crisis, but the one which occurred when the spies returned was like that one multiplied a million times.

Then Caleb quieted the people in the presence of Moses and said, “We must go up and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!” But the men who had gone up with him responded, “We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are!” Numbers 13:30-31

Only Caleb and Joshua (and presumably Moses) faced the crisis and chose to believe God. Everyone else among the Israelites failed the test. The Israelites looked at their own weaknesses. Caleb and Joshua focused on God’s strength. The Israelites looked at what they could do. Caleb and Joshua saw what God would do. The adult Israelites who did not believe died in the wilderness. Caleb and Joshua believed and entered the Promised Land.

Blackaby wrote about several characteristics of the crisis:

  • It will involve a task that is beyond your own ability, a “God-sized” task
  • It requires faith in God
  • It will require action
  • It will require an adjustment to your plans as you follow God’s plan

Crises are risky times because of the dangers that accompany them. Like the Israelites, we tend to magnify worldly dangers and downplay the hazards of disobeying God. Instead we need to act like Caleb and Joshua, who magnified the reward God offered them and downplayed the worldly threat.

God doesn’t want people to do what they think is best: he wants them to do what he knows is best, and no amount of reasoning and intellectualizing will discover that. God himself must reveal it.
― Henry T. Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership

So, my Brothers and Sisters, let us strip our discouragements and murmuring of all their disguises and see them in their true character and they will appear in their own naked deformity as discrediting God. It is true the difficulty before us may appear great, but it cannot be great to the Lord who has promised to make us more than conquerors. It is true the circumstances may appear unusually perplexing, but they cannot perplex Him who has promised to guide us with His counsel! And since we are well aware of this, it is clear that the true reason why we are so dismayed is not to be found in the difficulties and the circumstances, but in our misgivings of God. – Charles Spurgeon

Image from pixabay.

What’s inside the wall? Nehemiah 5

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“I want God to be a wall of protection around me.”

Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to build a wall. It had been 140 years since the Babylonians tore it down, ninety years since the Jewish exiles began returning, and seventy years since the temple had been rebuilt. Yet the city of Jerusalem was still empty, unprotected, and at the mercy of surrounding hostile nations. The sad state of his homeland moved him to tears. Inspired by God, and with the king’s blessing, Nehemiah headed to Jerusalem. Natural leader that he was, and despite many threats from the hostile neighbors, he and the other Jews quickly built the wall to half its height.

Then real trouble arose – not from outside the city but from within. The people cried out to Nehemiah that their own countrymen were taking advantage of the current food shortage to charge them exorbitant interest, to take over their fields and homes through mortgages they could not repay, and to enslave their children to satisfy their debts. The injustice threatened to end the wall-building project. It made Nehemiah angry, but wisely he waited until his anger had cooled and until he considered what should be done. Then he went to the men who were responsible for the injustice.

So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Nehemiah 5:9-11

The men listened to his rebuke and pledged to make restoration for the damage they had done. The work on the wall resumed and was soon completed. God blessed the work and soon Jerusalem was once again the chief city of the Jews.

The people labored on a stone wall of protection, but the real wall that surrounded them was God. He saw what they did not see: the wall which they were raising, which they wanted God to bless, was enclosing a stew of sin and injustice. God would not have allowed it to proceed if they had not confessed the sin and eliminated the injustice. God would not allow himself, the true wall, to surround and protect such an unholy assembly.

You and I don’t build stone walls for protection today, but we do raise up other walls: armies, police, security systems. We also cry out in prayer for God to protect us and be that hedge around us. But what are we asking God to protect? What’s inside the wall? As I look around I see much that God would refuse to protect, not only outside the church but inside it as well. Abuses of marriage, adultery and other sexual sins, pornography, child abuse, neglect of Bible study, robbing God of our offerings. It’s time for the church to confess its sins and agree to stop these unholy practices. Today, be Nehemiah and react with passion against the injustices in your own life. Then God will once again build up the wall of protection we long for and bless our cities.

Image by Tim Lucas on Flickr, CC by 2.0

The Kingdom of Heaven: Revelation 20-22

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Today’s reading: Revelation 20-22.

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. ― N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

“Where will my journey of faith take me?”

N. T. Wright’s words describe heaven’s invasion of earth. In one sense it began with Jesus’ ministry on earth. It intensified as the church spread and grew. It will be fully realized, the invasion will be complete, when earth is remade and redeemed and the New Jerusalem comes down out of the new heaven. Until then there is still much that must happen according to the Revelation.

The Kingdom of heaven on earth

They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. Revelation 20:4-6
  • The thousand year reign of Christ. Following Jesus’ return to earth, he will rule on earth for a millennium. His reign will fulfill the Old Testament promises which God made about the throne of David and the restoration of the Promised Land. Jerusalem will be the capitol of the world, and Jesus will ensure its peace.
  • The resurrection of the saved. Those who were martyred for their faith will come to life and rule with Christ during the millennium. Those believers who had already been caught up to be with Jesus will also govern with him. The earth will be populated by those who survived the Great Tribulation, including believing Jews. Life will continue. Children will be born, but they will no longer die prematurely. Men and women will grow old, but their lives will be full and blessed. The millennium will be a living demonstration of the glory of God in a material world that is fully obedient to him.

The Kingdom of heaven rejected

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. Revelation 20:11-12
  • The imprisonment, release, and final punishment of Satan. Satan will be imprisoned in the Abyss during the thousand years, but at the end of that time he will be released. His influence will cause many to rebel against God once more, but God will destroy them and throw Satan into the lake of fire. This final conflict illustrates that even in the most perfect of circumstances, with Jesus ruling the earth, men are still capable of rejecting God’s grace in order to pursue their own selfish desires.
  • The great white throne judgment and the second death. Following the final conflict and the destruction of Satan, the unsaved dead are resurrected and come before the judgment seat of God. The records of their deeds are examined, and then the book of life is examined. Since they are not listed in the book of life, and because their deeds confirm their rejection of God, they are thrown into the lake of fire along with Satan (the second death). The redeemed, who have already been resurrected, are not mentioned here, but every believer will have his deeds judged in order to determine what rewards he receives in heaven.

The Kingdom of heaven in heaven

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Revelation 21:2-5
  • New heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem. As God redeemed men from sin, so he will redeem the earth from its subjection to sin. Heaven and earth are remade, perfect and eternal. The center of life in the redeemed earth, literally heaven on earth, is the New Jerusalem. John describes an enormous, 1400 mile wide city, a giant jewel, but will the New Jerusalem be an actual building? The angel calls the city “the bride, the wife of the lamb,” a term usually reserved for the body of believers. The New Testament says that believers are being built up into a living temple with Jesus as its foundation. It may be that the body of believers are the New Jerusalem more so than any city could be.
  • The river of life and the tree of life. The Old Testament ended with a curse, but the Revelation says there will be no curse any more. The river of life flows out of the city. The tree of life, not seen since the garden of Eden, grows along its banks and heals the nations. The redeemed live with Jesus face to face, and reign with him eternally.
  • Jesus is coming soon. Two thousand years after Jesus’ return to heaven, this declaration can seem confusing. Is Jesus coming soon? Yes, in every way. Each mortal person will face death soon enough, and then we come face to face with eternity. In God’s time, a thousand years is as a day, and by that reckoning it has only been two days since Jesus returned to heaven. From heaven’s perspective, all of time is but a dot, and eternity stretches out like an infinite arrow. Jesus promised he would come back soon, and by now we should be certain of his promises. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

“I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon.” ― John Newton’s last words

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?  ― John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

We may speak about a place where there are no tears, no death, no fear, no night; but those are just the benefits of heaven. The beauty of heaven is seeing God.― Max Lucado, Experiencing the Heart of Jesus Workbook: Knowing His Heart, Feeling His Love

There is, in the text, a cry for the coming of the Lord. If you read the verse in connection with that which goes before it, you will be persuaded that the cry of the Spirit and the bride is addressed to the Lord Jesus concerning His Second Advent. As the echo of the Savior’s previous words, “Behold, I come quickly,” the Spirit and the bride say, Come. This cry is continually going up from the Spirit and from the Church of God and the more gracious the season, the more intense the prayer…We are looking for the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” is the desire of every instructed saint…But there is a second ministry of the Church which is the cry for the coming of sinners to Christ. In this respect, “the Spirit and the bride say, Come.” It is a very sad calamity when any Church ceases from its mission work. It is clearly out of fellowship with the Spirit of God and has ceased to work with Him. The cry of, “Come,” should never cease at any time or in any place. It should be addressed to all men as we have opportunity. The world should ring with, “Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus! Come and welcome, Sinner, come!” For this purpose the Spirit of God dwells among men and for this purpose there is a Church left on earth! – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Neil R on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0