Saturday, January 31, 2009

Knowing him

Today’s thoughts are a follow-up to the previous blog (“THOSE WHO STAY FILLED”). How did the five wise virgins manage to have a constant supply of oil? First of all, what did the “oil” in the parable represent? Zechariah 4:1-9 gives a clear hint. In a vision, he saw seven lamps which were kept burning by a constant supply of oil piped in from two olive trees. The angel’s explanation of this vision was that it was “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” that the temple would be rebuilt. So the oil that supplied the lamps was the Spirit.

How can a Christian have a personal supply of the oil of the Holy Spirit instead of having to depend on others to re-supply them? Actually, it’s not really a matter of not having the oil “on board.” The Holy Spirit indwells every believer. But, somehow, there are believers who are more greatly motivated by the Spirit than others. One way to understand this is by considering the example of buying a new product. Once you buy it, it is always available to you. However, this product does not begin doing you any good until you 1) study it—read the directions, try the controls, etc.—and 2) use it to perform some tasks for you. Every time you use it, you become better acquainted with the product’s capabilities and how best to operate it. Eventually, it will have changed your lifestyle to such a degree that you wonder what you ever did without it. . . . On the other hand, it might sit on your shelf and not benefit you in the least.

This analogy falls down in the respect that we don’t “use” the Holy Spirit. We are his followers, making ourselves available to serve him and partner with him. However, in other respects, the above analogy is helpful because it points out that being indwelt by the Holy Spirit has minimal consequences in an individual’s life, unless that person takes it upon himself to learn all about him and to begin—in a daily, personal way—to apply his Word to his life and live in deliberate reliance on Him. As this believer interacts with the Lord in everyday living, his understand of how the Lord operates grows by leaps and bounds. Not only that, his kinship with the Lord deepens tremendously. The oil does not lie dormant in his heart, it flames up continually.

A trademark of such a person is that her faith doesn’t have to be bolstered by someone else. While others are up one day and down the next, she has a fresh supply each day of the joy of the Lord. She has insights into the Word of God that sometimes run counter to what “everyone else in the church” says about it. She is confident in the knowledge of the Lord’s will for her.

How is that different from other believers? Here are some contrasts:

Keepers of the flame have such a rich personal history of God’s provision and grace that they are not dismayed by misfortune—they expect God to come through, as before, in his perfect way.
Passive carriers of the oil are rocked by misfortune. When someone reminds them of God’s promises to help in time of need, they say, “I hope so,” in a tone that says that they don’t really.

Keepers of the flame read in the Word that liars will be thrown in the lake of fire, and react with the “fear of the Lord.” They begin to avoid little deceptions and evasions and whitewashing of the truth. They become confident and fearless witnesses of the Truth.
Passive carriers of the oil read in the Word that liars will be thrown in the lake of fire, and say, “The Lord must not really mean this. After all, all of my Christian friends do it, and I’m sure we are all going to heaven--we have already accepted him as our Savior.” They become weak, compromised Christians.

Keepers of the flame keep their hearts open to the Lord’s leading and enabling in every aspect of their lives. They recognize opportunities to bring Life into everyday situations, and they perform even mundane tasks with divine inspiration and ability.
Passive carriers of the oil are not aware of the Lord very often. They operate on the level of their own agenda, wisdom, and ability most of the time.

Keepers of the flame believe and depend on the Lord and his Word. They love to be in the presence of other believers and learn much from the preaching and testimonies of others. However, they are like the Bereans;* they do not accept anyone’s word as truth until they find out that it is supported by the Word and by the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Passive carriers of the oil depend heavily on the teachings of their church and the (sometimes unspoken) beliefs of their Christian friends. They are mostly unaware that some of these are not Scriptural. They assume their friends know what the Bible says and that, therefore, it is safe to just follow their friends.

Keepers of the flame study every part of the Bible, meditating on the meaning of each passage and asking the Lord to show them how it applies to their own life.
Passive carriers of the oil review the promises of God and other parts of the Bible that are popular in their church, but do not think too deeply about the rest. If they read something that seems to contradict what their church teaches, they tell themselves that there must be an explanation for this. Surely their church’s beliefs are not wrong.

Keepers of the flame are enchanted by the Lord and fellowship with him regularly.
Passive carriers of the oil enjoy the worship and programs of their church—and sometimes sense the Lord’s presence too (usually during a good worship service).

The list could go on and on. The common thread through all of these contrasts is this:

Keepers of the flame interact eagerly, deliberately, and regularly with the Lord in fellowship and by considering his Word. They exemplify these two Scriptures:

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken (Psa. 16:8 NIV).

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you (Psa 119:11 NIV).

Passive carriers of the oil trust, depend on, and follow many things more than they do the Lord and his Word. They think they are just not very spiritual. They doubt their ability to understand the Word themselves or to hear, and know and relate to God any better.

Their pessimistic beliefs about their ability to follow God joyfully and fruitfully . . . are simply not true. Here’s what true:

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. . . . Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up (James 4:8, 10 NKJV).

Here's my paraphrase for these verses: "make a point of getting to know God better for yourself. He will not hide from you. Purposely clear away the sins and confused thinking that keep you at a distance from him. Be like a child before him, in trust and dependence, and he will make you an amazingly strong and fruitful believer." You will be like the five wise virgins who had a personal—not second-hand—supply of the oil of the Holy Spirit—because you have come to truly KNOW HIM.

And then, besides knowing him better, there’s another side to the wise virgins’ secret. For this, tune in to the next blog where we take a look at the last three verses of this parable.
*Acts 17:11

Friday, January 23, 2009

THOSE WHO STAY FILLED: How do they do it?

"At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

"At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'

"Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'

" 'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'

"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. . . .” (Matt. 25:1-10).

Have you wondered why some Christians are so alive in Christ, while others seem lukewarm, at best? I certainly have. I was struck by one of my parents’ fellow missionaries whose face radiated the joy of the Lord—in the middle of a routine day. I remember also an evangelist who preached at family camp whose words and demeanor took me right into the presence of God. At that same family camp was a teenage girl who spoke about the Lord regularly in the most natural way, and who was always in the same mood—a positive, glad, caring, peaceful one. I wondered greatly how they could be that way, because I certainly longed to be that way myself. It also was the description that I saw in the Word for what a Christian was supposed to be like.

Growing up in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I inherited a common perception that those who were “really saved” and “sanctified (Spirit-filled)” would just naturally remain “on fire” for the Lord the rest of their lives. This belief did not give much direction or hope to a person who knew she was not, and was not satisfied with being a lukewarm and fairly ineffective Christian.

This is why I am so interested in the parable of the ten virgins. The wise virgins were able to keep their lamps filled and radiant, while the lamps of the unwise virgins were about to go out. The good news in this parable is that there appears to be a practical reason for the success of the wise virgins, a concrete notion of how to be among those perpetually-burning followers of his.

As I meditated on the words of the parable (including the next three verses, which will be the basis for my next blog) to discover the wise virgins’ secret, here’s what I saw: that they did not have a hand-me-down religion; these young women went straight to the source for themselves. The unwise virgins appear to have passively received a supply of oil from someone, thoughtlessly expecting it to last forever. This can be compared to a Christian who goes to church and leaves uplifted and comforted, but who has no understanding of how to remain close to the Lord the rest of the week.

The wise Christian also goes to church and leaves uplifted and comforted. However, unlike the unwise Christian, this one is aware of the nature of the oil which filled his lamp while he was at church. She knows that it was nothing other than the gracious presence of the Lord himself and the life-giving quality of his Word that caused her spirit to come alive. Such a Christian has a revelation of how precious and desirable this oil is. She is not content to receive a dab of it (so to speak) to perk up her already-determined lifestyle. She is not content with the inferior quality of life that results from burning the fuel of her own limited wisdom, goodness, and ability. She desires the lifestyle motivated and enabled by divine oil. Therefore, this wise Christian personally seeks out her own supply of it and carries it with her everywhere. She does not buy into the common belief that the only way to receive new inspiration is from the oil that is in her pastor and other, “more spiritual” Christians.

Moses and Joshua are two examples of this truth. They witnessed the same miracles as the rest of the Israelite nation. They received the same teaching from the Lord. But there was a basic difference between them and the nation at large. The difference in their attitudes showed up plainly when the people arrived at Mt. Sinai where the Lord had promised to meet with them.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him (Ex. 19:16-19). . . .

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die" (Ex. 20:18-19).

The people at large were content with hand-me-down religion! They didn’t want to know God; they just wanted a few of his benefits—as many as Moses could get for them.

On the contrary, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai several times, staying alone with God for 40 days at a time. Well, perhaps not entirely alone:

The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction."

Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. He said to the elders, "Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them" (Ex. 24:12-14).

So Joshua went with him, at least one time, up the mountain to meet with God.

After leaving Mt. Sinai, Moses pitched a tent outside the camp where anyone could go to meet with God.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the "tent of meeting." Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent (Ex. 33:7-11).

Apparently, Moses and Joshua were the principal ones who frequented this tent of meeting. The rest of the nation had great respect for the fact that God spoke to Moses there, but their worship of God was from a distance. Anyone who knows the stories of the years in the wilderness knows how small was the faith, stability, and godliness of the vast majority of the people who were content with this from-a-distance, second-hand religion.

On the other hand, Moses and Joshua were stalwart men of faith and courage. Men who heard from God. Men whose personal lives prospered and who bore fruit that fed an entire nation. It was surely because they welcomed personal rendezvous with God and staked their lives on his Word.

Incidentally, neither of them were just “born that way.” Moses’ relationship with God was hugely boosted by the encounter at the burning bush. But he had to muster up all of his courage—over and over again—to obey God’s orders. As he did that, his relationship with God deepened, and hunger to know God even more intimately overtook him. Joshua did not start out with a burning bush experience. He tagged along with someone who knew how to relate to God personally until the hunger to know God ignited in him as well.

How can I stay filled with the life of God? Not by being passive. Not by staying at a distance from God. Not by letting someone else pray for me or tell me what the Bible says. No, it’s by esteeming the Lord and his Word— and going after them myself.

Does this mean becoming a reclusive mystic? Is it only possible for Bible scholars? Heavens, no! Were Peter and John reclusive? Were they scholars? No. Were the Holy Spirit and the Word mighty in them? Yes! It can be so for us too. Bear with me for further insight—in the next blog—into having a constant supply of oil.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Change . . . It's a good thing!

During a brief meeting with the elders of the young church of Ephesus, knowing that he faced imprisonment in Jerusalem and would never see these young believers again, Paul spoke these encouraging words:

"Now I'm turning you over to God, our marvelous God whose gracious Word can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.” (Acts 20:32 MSG).

Or as expressed in the Amplified Bible:
“And now [brethren], I commit you to God [I deposit you in His charge, entrusting you to His protection and care]. And I commend you to the Word of His grace [to the commands and counsels and promises of His unmerited favor]. It is able to build you up and to give you [your rightful] inheritance among all God's set-apart ones (those consecrated, purified, and transformed of soul)” (Acts 20:32 AMP).

It is well known that the “Word of His grace” is there to help us cope with the challenges that come our way—to comfort us in times of distress, to guide us in times of perplexity, to encourage us in times of apparent failure, and to build our faith in the face of “impossibility.” What is not considered quite so often is—as the Apostle Paul said above—that the Word was given for the purpose of changing . . . us. To make radical—and lasting—changes in our thinking, our personality, our emotional being, and our lifestyle. To become what the Word says, not just know it. To become what God wants us to be, not just act that way once in a while.

The second part of Paul’s statement—about the “inheritance” we can receive in the fellowship of “holy friends”—seemed to me, at first, to be saying that the Church is a place in which we can receive great care and blessing. It puzzled me to notice that Paul seemed to be saying that it was the Word that made it possible for us to receive this inheritance. “So what, exactly, is he saying," I thought. "How do we receive this blessed inheritance? From the Word? Or from the saints?"

I finally saw that it is this transforming Word which makes it possible to receive the fullness of the benefits of

a) being a Christian and
b) belonging to the Church

That is because the Word, little by little, takes us from being “baby Christians” to being Christians who are “consecrated, purified, and transformed of soul.” As we become more and more like this, we will naturally live in more joy, peace, wisdom, self-control, and faith—instead of struggling under discontentment, anxiety, uncertainty, impulsiveness, and fear.

We will also have a mature, blessed, and profitable relationship with other Christians. We will see them in a favorable light—as God does. We will appreciate the kindness and support they show us, and be able to understand and forgive their lapses. We will gratefully depend on their prayers, counsel, help, and example, but not depend on them so much as to become disillusioned when they fail us.

In a time of wholesale exit from the church, could the key to profiting from Church membership be to allow the Word to change us?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Going all-out

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:1-4).

God’s giving is like that of the poverty-stricken widow. He could just give to us, out of his wealth, blessings like the sun and the rain. Instead he gifts us in ways that cost him something. He lavishes on us his personal attention. He grants us access to him as a friend—even though we can be annoying, immature, self-centered people. He gave up his rights and the luxuries of heaven to enter our world and give us a personal demonstration of what to be and how to do. Then he gave up his life to save our lives, even though it was our fault that we had lost them.

Are we reluctant to accept Jesus’ implication that we should give so sacrificially to God as this widow? Here’s the cure: realizing that God, for no reason other than that he loves and delights in us, goes all-out in his giving to us.