Monday, July 28, 2008

Stand up and be counted

Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads (Rev. 14:1).

Written on their foreheads! For all the world to see! Plainly and publically aligned with Christ.

This reminds me of the movie that I have been most captivated by recently— Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce’s crusade to abolish the slave trade in England. There is a defining moment when Wilberforce, as a young man, stood on a table in the middle of a lounge and sang John Newton’s newly penned song “Amazing Grace” to an astonished group of fellow Members of Parliament.

Shortly thereafter, he began to struggle with the tension between the desire to passionately serve God and the call of a brilliant career in public service. According to the movie (I have yet to read a biography and check out the historicity of this), several key individuals—including his former pastor, John Newton—point out that there seemed to be a need for him to do both. And so began his progress against the overwhelming tide of opinion and the entrenched social and economic system. His hard-working fact-finding and truth-disseminating group of associates were referred to as a “band of mendicant preachers.” He trod the dangerous line of being considered a seditious rebel. It was not the most enjoyable journey, but he was unhindered by compromise, and he had the satisfaction of being true to God, to the downtrodden, and to himself.

His story is not only inspiring but instructional. We, too, as Christians want to run unhindered with Christ. But there are many questions. Some of mine have been: If one is an avowed Christian, does that mean that one’s involvement in the world must be according to the narrowly defined agenda of a predominant group of Christians? Does that mean that one has to go around studiously dropping God’s name whenever one is before a microphone? No, I have come to realize, one does not need to look for opportunities to make one’s stand and convictions known—one just needs to not shy away from speaking when those opportunities arise—and they will, by God’s perfect design. When one’s allegiance to Christ becomes known, many of the public will immediately think “Oh, you’re one of them—those preachy, belligerent Christians.” So what? God is well able to do his work with or without a “good reputation.” And, in the end, his glory will be seen far and wide.

But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him (Heb. 10:38).

A habit of “shrinking back” is a terrible prison. It must also be a sin, judging from the above verse. If it is a sin, it is something from which Jesus is able to deliver us. I want to be a fully “righteous one” who lives “by faith.” How about you?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What kind of triumph?

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia.But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God (2 Cor. 2:12-17).

I have heard the first part of verse 14 ("But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ") quoted many times by Christians when faced with adversity such as sickness, financial reversals, and relational challenges. They use it to bolster their faith that, with God’s help, they will overcome these hardships. And turning to God for healing, provision, and solutions to all problems is the natural attitude of one who knows the Father’s love and care.. . . casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

However, verse 14, when read in the context above (verses 12-17), does not seem to refer to triumphing over personal afflictions and calamities. I say that after making careful observations of this passage:

· Verses 12-13 are about Paul’s visit to Troas to preach the gospel, which was cut short because Titus was not there.
· Verses 14b-16a are about the aroma of Christ—how it is spread (through us) and what effects it has.
· Verse 16b asks who is equal to such a task. (I presume he is talking about the task of mightily affecting people with the knowledge of Christ.)
· Verse 17 speaks of the spirit and motivation in which Paul ministers the gospel.

Sandwiched into this context, Paul’s familiar exclamation “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ” would have a different interpretation than I have previously heard. It apparently means “Thank God that even when ministry opportunities are fraught with complications and perplexities, we can be sure that the gospel will eventually triumph. The gospel will have a powerful effect because our personal knowledge of him causes people to experience the fragrance of his person. And this supernatural result will continue to happen as long as our hearts stay in Christ and we speak what God sends us to speak—and do not settle for preaching for a living.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

Undivided Attention

When people think about Jesus, they tend to see little relationship between him and us. He is God; I am human. He was perfect; I am, well . . . not. But he did not come to increase the distance between God and man, but to bridge that gap. One of his favorite ways of making godliness understandable and accessible was by telling parables. This past June, I saw a parable, if you will, of something that Jesus said about himself:

Jesus gave them this answer:
"I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5:19-20a).

Inwardly, Jesus kept his eyes turned toward the Father, and immediately did what he saw the Father doing. Doesn’t that sound super-spiritual? But, really, I discovered, it’s very natural. Here’s my parable of what such undivided attention is like:

My daughter-in-law, Heidi, owns a small motorcycle and looks for opportunities to ride it. On the first day of my recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky, to see my son’s family, we all caravanned out to the country to Heidi’s parents’ new home. Mark led the way in the van with Connor and me as passengers. Heidi followed on the motorcycle with Nikki behind her. The plan was to avoid as much city traffic as possible.

Just as we were leaving the city, Mark said, “I need to pull over.” So he signaled and carefully edged onto the shoulder.

Heidi pulled up alongside him and said, “What?”

Mark answered, “Which way do you want to go?”

“What do you mean?” asked Heidi.

“I read your lips. You said, ‘I don’t want to go this way.’ ”

I was as astonished as Heidi. That was some kind of concerned, watchful care! Was Mark watching the road? It's hard to say, but there's no doubt that his eyes were riveted to the rear view mirror. Talk about undivided attention!

That’s how simple it is to keep our eyes on the Father. By so doing, we can detect his every wish, and immediately “pull over” to get complete instructions. When we do, we will be amazed at the results.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Living in Two Worlds

Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God (2 Cor. 2:17).

“Peddling the word of God for profit” reminds me of the moneychangers in the Temple.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers' " (Matt. 21:12-13).

Now making doves and other animals available for worshippers to sacrifice was not wrong. But creating hubbub in the Temple itself and gouging the pilgrims with inflated prices, was completely unacceptable. How could such a thing happen? The vendors did not see themselves as servants of God, aiding the people in keeping the holy festival; they were completely caught up in the opportunity to make money.

The moneychangers and vendors were in the Temple, but not “in God.” Paul, in the passage from 2 Corinthians, avoided the profit motive in his ministry, because he was “in Christ” and “before God.” (There’s that phrase “before God” again—like the many times in Revelation.)

A person can be in Christ and before God inwardly while involved in any situation outwardly. My father preaches a sermon about Nehemiah, based on the following narrative:

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart."

I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?"

The king said to me, "What is it you want?"

Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it" (Neh. 2:1-5).

Nehemiah was standing before King Artaxerxes, but at the same time he was standing before the KING. And this stance made all the difference in the outcome of this conversation.

We do our best living in this world, when our hearts are united with Christ and we stay positioned before God.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Where Are You Standing?

“I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth." These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth (Rev. 11:3-4).

I have been intrigued by how many times in the book of Revelation it is said that an individual or a group of beings stand before the Throne. Then I noticed this passage about the two witnesses who are identified as the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy about the olive trees and lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth. They are not in heaven (like the other characters who are portrayed as standing before the Throne of God), they are on earth. But it is implied that in some sense, they are standing before the Lord of the earth.

I went to Zechariah’s prophecy about the olive trees and the lampstands:

Then the angel who talked with me returned and wakened me, as a man is wakened from his sleep. He asked me, "What do you see?"

I answered, "I see a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at the top and seven lights on it, with seven channels to the lights. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left."

I asked the angel who talked with me, "What are these, my lord?"

He answered, "Do you not know what these are?"

"No, my lord," I replied.

So he said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD Almighty.

. . . Then I asked the angel, "What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?"
Again I asked him, "What are these two olive branches beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?"

He replied, "Do you not know what these are?" "

No, my lord," I said.

So he said, "These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth" (Zech. 4:1-6; 11-14).

It appears to me that the two olive trees are the Holy Spirit, whose oil fuels the lamp. This supernatural fuel is greater than any “might or power” of man, and will enable the Israelites under Zerubbabel to finish rebuilding the Temple, against great opposition and discouragement.

Each of the olive trees has a branch, through which the oil of Holy Spirit power flows to the lamp. These branches apparently are the two witnesses who are described in Revelation. They, too, have supernatural equipping for the task of prophesying in the face of great danger and hostility.

How does one receive supernatural equipping to do the works set before him by God? By being intimately attached to the Lord, as a branch is connected to a tree. By being connected to the right tree—the Holy Spirit. How does one stay connected to the Holy Spirit? By standing before the Lord of the earth; that is, positioning one’s heart to keep him in plain view, by maintaining loving attention to his Word and his purposes, and by keeping one’s ears open for his direction.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Faith--for What?

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!"

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"

"Yes, Lord," they replied.

Then he touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith will it be done to you"; and their sight was restored (Matt. 9:27-30).

“According to your faith will it be done to you." I believe that there is more to this statement than meets the eye. The blind men in this narrative believed that Jesus could heal them—and he did. Conversely, the residents of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, did not believe in him, and no great miracles happened there.

One could say that belief or faith sets the stage for the Lord to help us, and that unbelief keeps us from receiving from him what we need. However, I believe that it is more accurate to say that both the blind men and the residents of Nazareth were believers—the blind men believed Jesus was a prophet who had miracle-working power, and Jesus’ hometown acquaintances believed that he was just a man like them so he couldn’t be a miracle worker.

I suggest that we all believe something, all of the time. And what we believe—what we really have faith in—greatly impacts our relationship with God and the outcome of our prayers. If you were to ask God for help, but remained anxious and uncertain, could it mean that you have greater faith in the problem than you do in God? In such a situation, things will probably just get worse: “According to your faith [that things will continue to be bad]will it be done to you.”

Is that not why the Scriptures urge us to do the kind of thinking that creates a climate for faith in God? For example:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night . . . (Josh. 1:8).

But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psa. 1:2).

"According to your faith will it be done to you." What Jesus specifically was saying here was that the blind men would receive from Jesus all that they believed he could do for them. I'm not going to claim that Jesus also meant that anything I believe is what I will receive. I am not going to claim that this verse proves that if I am anxious, that means that I have faith that things will turn out badly, and that is what "will be done to [me]." But at the very least, anxiety does prevent us from having faith in God. And without genuine faith that he can help, we are not likely to receive his help.

In the vicinity of Nogales, Arizona, where my family lived when I was in high school, was a butte-like peak referred to as "Monkey Mountain." The front of it was a sheer vertical wall, but one could make one's way up the back, which was not so steep. It was a favorite activity of our family to make this climb. After parking the car, we hiked some distance around to the back, picking our way through rocky depressions--possibly dry arroyos, or stream beds. Amazingly, when down in the lowest part of these depressions, the view of the mountain was completely cut off. If one spent much time down there, one might even forget there was a mountain just a hundred yards away.

Problems always loom large. When we are sunk down in the middle of a problem, the problem is all that we can see. God is much greater than the problem, but our view of him seems cut off. If we pray in that gloomy frame of mind, is that praying in faith? At such times, we have to purposely remind ourselves that God and his power, his love, and his solutions are still there--right over that pile of rocks. Since it will be done to us according to our faith, let’s make a point of setting our expectation on God. Let's not let ourselves become trapped by faith in the wrong thing!