Promises, Promises.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion
Gravestone St. Domitilla catacomb in Rome depicting two fish anchored to the anchor of hope. Courtesy of https://earlychurchhistory.org/

“Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.” Hebrews 6:17-19

In Hebrews 6, we read some of the author’s most reassuring words. These words of hope and comfort come in the middle of a discussion of the eternal and unchanging nature of God’s promises. Here, we see the author demonstrate how faithful God is to keep His promises by using Abraham’s example. We are reminded of how God kept His promise to bless Abraham with many descendants. This stands as a reminder to us that God will also keep His promises to us.

What are the promises that God is going to keep to us? They are His promises to redeem us from sin, to offer us forgiveness, to make us His people. They include Christ’s promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to be with us each and every day until the end of time, and to return for us to take us to be with Him in heaven. These are the promises that will be kept to us. The author reminds us that these promises give us hope and that they anchor our souls.

The imagery of an anchor is especially important in this passage. Think about what an anchor is used for–they used to keep a boat from being blown off course or blown into danger during a storm. When the seas rage and the storms overwhelm the boat, the anchor holds the boat steady. This is what Christ does for us; He holds us steady during life’s trials and troubles. He is with us in the midst of the storms. Our anchor is securely fastened to His throne of mercy, and He secured it there when He blazed a trail through the heaven. Regardless of what we might encounter in this life, our anchor will hold firmly.

It is important to point out that Christ did not promise us smooth sailing, nor did He promises is a comfortable life. Christ did not promise us health, wealth, or prosperity. Christ did not promise us happiness. Many people started believing these things along the way, but these are not promises that Christ ever made. These are lies that were fabricated by false teachers.

The promises that Christ made are more important and more incredible than comfortable living, health, wealth, prosperity, and happiness. He promised to be with us and to hold us amid life’s storms. He called upon us to be willing to give up our health, wealth, and prosperity for His sake, and in return, He promised to sustain us and provide for us each and every day. Christ has promised to bring us peace and comfort during the times when we have no happiness, when we are surrounded by pain and sorrow, and when our tears are drowning us. He has promised to give us a joy that endures even the darkest days. Christ promised to anchor us throughout everything we endure, and this promise will never be broken.

The Cost of Unbelief.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”
‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭3:12‬ ‭

In Hebrews 3:1-6, we read how the author of Hebrews argued for Jesus’ superiority to Moses. Beginning in verse 7, however, we see a shift in the author’s focus. The author takes a detour from discussing Israel’s greatest leader, Moses, and instead discusses Israel’s greatest failure. This shift is intentional. The author uses the cautionary tale of Israel’s sin in the wilderness to highlight the importance of holding fast to our belief in Christ.

Once again, we see the author of Hebrews dig deeply into the Old Testament to present scripture to support the importance of belief. In verses 7-11, the author quotes from Psalm 95. This particular psalm is a re-telling of the story of Israel’s rebellion and refusal to enter the Promised Land. We find this story first presented in Numbers 14. To understand the message of Psalm 95, we must understand the events of Numbers 14. So let’s take a moment to discuss those events.

In Numbers 14, we find the Israelites and Moses on the border of the Promised Land. They had come through the Exodus. They spent a year at Sinai. Now, they are on the threshold of entering into the land that God reserved for them. Moses sent twelve spies into the land to check it out, and the spies returned to Moses after forty days. Ten of the spies did not think that Israel could take the land. They did not believe that God would keep His promise to give them the land, even though He had already repeatedly told Israel that He would. These ten evil spies convinced the rest of Israel not to go into the Promised Land, and Israel rebelled against God and Moses. Israel rebelled and fell into unbelief, and they fell away from God. The results of this rebellion were disastrous for Israel. They would not be allowed to go into the Promised Land. They would have to wander in the desert for 40 years until the rebellious generation died. This is the story we see re-told in Psalm 95, and this is the story that the author of Hebrews uses to drive home the importance of belief.

The author introduces the quote from Psalm 95 in an interesting way, saying that the psalm’s words are the words of the Holy Spirit. The author of Hebrews says that the Holy Spirit is currently speaking these words today through the Scriptures. When we read the Bible, we hear God’s Spirit speaking to us. What is it that the Spirit is saying to us in Psalm 95? It is an urgent plea to learn from the tragic mistake of Israel’s rebellion and to not fall into the same trap. The Spirit tells us to listen to God’s voice today and not to harden our hearts as Israel did. 

In verse 12, the author adds another plea, one that calls upon us not to beware of having evil hearts. The word used there for “evil” can mean “bad” or “wicked,” but it can also mean “full of toil, labor, or annoyance.” We learn from this that the first step in falling into unbelief and rebelling against God is having a heart that is full of ingratitude. To combat developing such evil hearts, the author calls upon believers to encourage and exhort one another every day. The Greek word the author uses is parakaleo, which means “to encourage or admonish.” We are to encourage and, if need be, admonish our brothers and sisters every day so that they might not develop evil hearts. We are to keep each other focused upon God and not upon the toil and strife of this world.

The author presents the story of Israel’s rebellion against God to highlight to us the importance of holding on to our belief in Christ. Israel broke their covenant agreement with God and forfeited their right to enter the Promised Land as the result of that rebellion. If their rebellion against God and Moses was so severe, how much more would the punishment be for those who rebel against the one who is greater than Moses–Christ? If they lost their right to enter the Promised Land, what might we lose if we fall away into unbelief? 

We must learn from this cautionary tale, and we must hold tightly to the belief that we have placed in Christ. We cannot be distracted by the toil of this world, nor can we become ungrateful. We must focus on the spiritual health of our hearts, and we must be committed to encouraging our brothers and sisters to do the same thing. Though we are in the wilderness today, the Promised Land is just before us. We must be wholly devoted to following Christ so that we might enter into that special place that He has prepared for us.

Artwork: “Wanderer in the storm,” by Julius von Leypold, 1835

The Lord is Near!

Christianity, Philippians, Religion

Philippians 4 is, without a doubt, one of Paul’s most famous pieces of writing. Any Christian worth their salt knows Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” by heart. Chapter 4 is also where we find Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Though these verses are sure to be included in any list of Paul’s “greatest hits,” they are not the only pearls of wisdom that can be found in this chapter. 

 Among the more overlooked verses of Philippians 4, we find verses 5 and 6, “Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near!  Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” In these two verses, Paul gives some of the most significant theological and practical advice for Christian living. We can break his advice into three parts:

 1-Treat everyone gently.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us.

 3- Don’t stop praying.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these.

  1-Treat everyone gently. The word that Paul uses in verse 5 can be translated as “fairness,” “mildness,” or “gentleness.“ When he calls upon the Philippians to let everyone “see their gentleness,” he is calling on them to treat people gently and mildly. Followers of Christ are not to show unfair treatment to others, nor are we to treat anyone in a harsh or unkind manner. We are called, as Paul reminded us, to show meekness, mildness, and gentleness. These characteristics should come naturally to believers because they are the same traits Christ demonstrated to those whom he encountered. As we seek to be more Christlike, we should strive to show more gentleness and fairness to everyone we meet.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us. Are there any more comforting words written in all of Scripture? Let’s take a moment and review everything Paul has told us about Christ in this epistle. In Philippians 2, Paul writes of Christ’s humility. He said that Christ’s entire life was a demonstration in humble living. In chapter 3, Paul wrote of Christ’s sovereignty over all everything in heaven and earth. Here in chapter 4, however, Paul quickly reminds us that Christ is not distant from us; He is not far removed from us. Paul tells us that the opposite is true that Christ is close to us! Though He has ascended back up to the Father, Christ is very much still near to us. He is still Immanuel, “God with us.” He is near to us, and He is seeing us through every situation, every trial, every tribulation that we face. When we realize that Christ is with us, we recognize that we have nothing to fear. There is no fear in sickness, no fear in plague, no fear in death. Since Christ is with us, and since He is giving us the strength to endure every trial, we have nothing to fear at all.

 3- Don’t stop praying. Paul called upon the Philippians to continuously take their prayers, petitions, and requests to God with thanksgiving. In every situation, we are to be committed to prayer. God knows all of our needs, and He will meet them. He also wants us to demonstrate that we trust in His provision for our lives through prayer. Praying to God to meet our needs is a demonstration of humility on our part. It shows that we are no longer trying to control things ourselves and that we are trusting in God alone to meet our needs. 

 Paul’s words in chapter 4 are as practical as they are reassuring and beautiful. In the days ahead, take time to reflect upon them. Find your hope and comfort in the fact that Christ is near to us. Whatever might be going on in your life, you are not alone. The Lord Himself is with you. Though things might be tough and painful, He is with you, and He is in control. He is with you just as He was with Noah during the flood. He is with you just as He was with Joseph in prison. He is with you just as He was with Israel in the wilderness. He is with you just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the fish. He is with you just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

He is with you just as He was with Daniel in the lion’s den. He is with you just as He was with Paul in prison. He promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So trust His promise, and do not be afraid.

Artwork, “The Lord is Near,” from “Devotions Sketchbook,” by Aaron Zenz, 2013. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/161988917824843128/

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Christian Living, Christianity, Philippians, Religion, Worship

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you.” Philippians 3:1

“…but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.” Philippians 3:20-21

In the opening of Philippians 3, we see Paul again call upon the believers of Philippi to rejoice. Paul’s repetition is intentional, and he states this. He is not merely saying the same thing again and again out of laziness; in fact, he tells the Philippians that it was for their benefit, for their safety, that he repeats this call to rejoice. 

Following this call to rejoice in verse 1, Paul gives a stark warning to the Philippian believers. He calls on them to watch out for false teachers who are promoting a false gospel of works. These false teachers were telling believers that salvation was only obtained through circumcision and through keeping the Old Testament Law, not through belief in Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace. Paul does not mince any words when he aims at these imposter teachers: he calls them “dogs” and “those who mutilate the flesh.” Both of these put-downs are intentional; Paul used them for a reason.  “Dogs” was a common slur used by the Israelites to refer to Gentiles; it was a way for the Israelites to look down upon those who were not like them. Likewise, the phrase “mutilators of the flesh” was used in the Old Testament to refer to the evil prophets of the false gods that the people of Israel so often pursued instead of God. By using these specific phrases, Paul is showing the Philippian believers that these false teachers are not of them. These false teachers are evil and that their teachings should be avoided.

Paul wants the Philippians to avoid these false teachers because their doctrines will rob the Philippian believers of the joy of their salvation. Instead of rejoicing in God’s grace and mercy, these false teachers would have the believers think that salvation could be earned. They taught that salvation was only obtainable if people kept the Law in a manner that was “good enough.” Paul quickly tells the Philippians in verses 4-6 that personal credentials and works mean nothing when it comes to salvation. He offers his resume as proof. Paul lists his credentials and tells us that he was born a Hebrew, from the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the Pharisees, and one who did all he could to persecute those who believed in Christ. Paul tells us that if salvation were based on works and keeping the Law, he would be blameless. He was the most Hebrew of all the Hebrews; he was a man who did everything right. But, as Paul points out, works are meaningless; he even goes on to say that all his works and credentials are as worthless as manure!  What was of real value and importance was knowing Christ and seeking after Him.

It was important for Paul to explain to refute this false teaching. He explained to the Philippians that their salvation was based entirely upon God’s grace and mercy. Christ’s death atoned for the sins of the world, and when a sinner professes faith in Christ, their sins are forgiven and removed from them. The sinner is then “justified,” meaning that, in God’s eyes, they are acquited of any wrongdoing. Christ’s righteousness is then imputed, or given, to the believer, and this enables the believer to pursue a lifestyle of godly living. 

This pursuit of living for God, of living a Christian lifestyle, is called “sanctification,” and Paul refers to it as being “mature” or “perfected.” As a believer grows in faith and grows closer to Christ, they become more capable of living according to His commands. Paul told the Philippians that sanctification was his goal and desire. He hadn’t achieved it yet, but he was striving continually toward it. He said to the believers that the first step in sanctification was “forgetting that which is behind” (verse 13), meaning forgetting and letting go of the past. It does the believer no good to dwell on past sins and failures, for dwelling on the past prohibits the believers from moving forward in their pursuit of Christ. As simple as this advice may be, it is often the hardest part of our Christian journey. Instead of dwelling on the past, the Christian must continually reach for Christ and rely upon Him to enable them to live as He demands.

Chapter 3 concludes with Paul reminding the Philippian believers not to succumb to the false teachings of the false teachers. Instead, the believers are to remember that their citizenship is not of this world, but is of Heaven. As such, they should not look to themselves or to people from the world to save them; they should look to a savior from Heaven to deliver them from the trials of this world. That savior is Christ, and Paul reminds the Philippians that Christ is coming once again. When He comes again, Christ will use His power to transform the believers. He will transform their fallen, sick, and sinful bodies into glorious bodies like that of His own. With this assurance, and with their salvation and the hope of eternal life secure, how could the Philippians–or any believers–not rejoice?

Paul’s advice to the Philippians in chapter 3 can be summarized as “keep calm and carry on.” He encouraged the Philippian believers to not be distracted by false teachers, but to remain resolute in their pursuit of Christ and sanctification. This advice applies to us today. Not only do we have to beware of false teachings, but we also have to contend with any number of distractions and fears that might prevent us from continuing in our pursuit of Christ. It is so easy, at times, to become overwhelmed at what is going on in the world and to lose sight of that our goal of sanctification. In those difficult times, we must remain resolute; we must keep calm and carry on. We must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven and that we serve the risen Savior who reigns over Heaven and earth. We must remember that Christ has defeated death, that He bore our sins and shame to Calvary, and that we carry them no more. We must remember that Christ has given us the hope of life eternal with Him, and because of this, there is nothing to fear in death. Even in the darkest times, we have reason to rejoice and be glad. We can face any trial, any tribulation, any situation, any circumstance with hope and with confidence. Regardless of what we are faced with, we can keep calm and carry on.

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

“All the people were eager to hear the book of the law.” Nehemiah 8:3

“‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the law.” Nehemiah 8:9

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of what happens to the people of Judah when they return from the seventy years of captivity in Babylon. This focus puts them entirely out of place in the order of non-Hebrew Bibles, for Ezra and Nehemiah come before the books of the prophets that describe the coming of the exile to Babylon. When reading Ezra and Nehemiah, you see how the story of the exile ends, with the first meager waves of returning arriving back in their homeland. These books tell you the story of a people who had grown up in as exiles, captive in a foreign land, returning home to the ancestral land that they had never known.

The Book of Nehemiah focuses specifically on the story of the book’s namesake, Nehemiah, as he helps lead the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. When arriving back in Jerusalem, the returnees found the once-great city still lay in ruins. Nothing had been rebuilt since the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had razed the city. The walls–the symbols of the city’s security–were crumbling and useless, and the Temple–the symbol of God’s presence with His people–was but a heap of rubble. Jerusalem was still in disarray, both physically and spiritually. To make matters worse, many of the returning Hebrews were being exploited–by Persian officials and by Hebrews who were complicit with supporting their new Persian overlords. Nehemiah endeavored to bring legal order and justice back to Jerusalem, and he vowed to begin this–and a long list of other reforms–by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s quest to bring law and order back to Jerusalem was paralleled by his associate, Ezra the Scribe, who sought to bring religious and spiritual order back to the city.

Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the city’s walls has hindered and opposed by his adversaries. Still, he persisted, and he and his followers successfully rebuilt the walls. The completion of the walls coalesced with a sense of revival and renewal for the returned exiles. This highlighted by the celebration that took place when the walls were completed. In chapter 8, we find a celebration of dedication for the walls. At this celebration, the people of Jerusalem asked Ezra to come and read the Torah, the Book of the Law, to them. We are told that all the returnees are assembled there to hear it–men, women, and children who are old enough to understand. We are also told that all the people are eager to listen to the reading. Ezra is on a high platform, built just for this purpose so that all the people might hear him and see him. Throughout this service of worship and dedication, we find four essential characteristics that denote true, sincere worship:

We see the people are eager to worship

Everyone who was able to attend this service was there. It was of the utmost importance that the corporate body of believers was assembled for this moment. This was a family affair–both in the sense of the family of God being together and also in that entire families worshipped together.

The eagerness of the people is highlighted in verse 1, where it says the people requested Ezra read the Book of the Law at this ceremony. The people understood the significance of the moment. They had returned to their ancestral home–the home that their forefathers had forfeited by forsaking the Law. As such, the returnees wanted to recommit themselves to the Law so that they might not repeat the same sins as their fathers.

We see the people are reverent in worship.

When Ezra takes the platform to read, the congregation stands to hear him. They stand out of reverence for God and the importance of the words that Ezra will be reading to them. We are told that Ezra was reading the Book of the Law from dawn until noon, and the whole time, the people were there standing and listening. When Ezra completed reading the Book, the people cried out, “Amen! Amen!” and bowed their faces down to the ground and worshipped the Lord. Again, this sign of prostration is a sign of respect for God. The people realize the majesty of God and their unworthiness to approach Him, and so they bow their heads in somber reverence. 

Ezra also had the foresight to appoint several of the Levites–those who would be working in the Temple–to be out among the crowd, teaching the people as Ezra was reading the Law. Keep in mind that the returnees had grown up in exile in a society that was alien to their native culture. The returnees grew up in Babylon, speaking the language of that land, and their native tongue, Hebrew, was lost. Only those who grew up hearing Hebrew and were taught Hebrew could understand it. These Levites grew up being taught Hebrew, in the off chance that they would be able to go home and return to their positions in the Temple, and their study of the Law. So the Levites in the crowd translated the Law to the people so they could learn and gain insight about what they were hearing. The people were hearing words that they could understand so that they could learn and benefit from it.

We see the people were moved by their worship.

The significance of this ceremony, of this moment, was overwhelming to the people. They were once again in the Promised Land, in the holy city, hearing the words of God read to them in their ancestral language. They had returned home. The long and horrific ordeal of exile had ended, and they were the first ones to come home. It was a moment that moved the assembly to tears. They were weeping because their nightmare had ended, they were weeping because God had been faithful to them and returned them home, they were weeping because they were hearing the Law that their forefathers had forsaken thus bringing the horror of God’s judgment and exile.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites reminded the people numerous times not to weep, not to mourn, for this was a special day. This was a holy day–it was a day of rededication and renewal–and the people should rejoice and celebrate. The past was the past, mourning over it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, the people must rejoice in this day. The people must celebrate this day, rejoice in their return, and commit each and every subsequent day to follow the Lord. This day was not a day for mourning the sins of their fathers; it was a day for celebrating the faithfulness of God.

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

As the people learn more about the Law, they discover that they are already guilty of breaking the Law. We are told this assembly gathered on the first day of the seventh month, and in their reading of the Law, the people find that time is appointed for the celebration of the Festival of Booths. During this festival, the Hebrews were to live in tents for a week to commemorate the forty-years their ancestors wandered in the desert before coming into the Promised Land. So, the people went out and gathered the required items for the celebration, and they observed the Festival of Booths. 

The writer of Nehemiah tells us that this was the first time the festival had been observed since the days of Joshua–and this is a startling revelation. Over nine hundred years had spanned since the death of Joshua and the day in which the returning Hebrews observed the festival. The very generation who entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua–the very generation who vowed to keep all the laws and commandments of God–was guilty of not observing this festival. As soon as they entered the Promised Land, they began to become complacent and neglected to teach the next generation how to honor God and keep His commandments, and within a generation or two, the observance was lost. This might seem like a minor offense, but is a sin nonetheless. The Hebrew word for sin is khata (חָטָא), which simply means to miss the mark. God gives us the standard by which to live, and when we miss the mark–when we khata–it is sin. One miss–one sin–quickly leads to another, and pretty soon, the original target is lost altogether. Such was the case with the Israelites; they missed the mark by neglecting to observe one festival, and subsequent generations strayed farther and farther from the mark. The people of Nehemiah’s day realize this, and they vow not to repeat the same mistakes, not to miss the mark. They committed themselves that day to striving for the target God set and to live for God.

When we read Nehemiah 8, we must reflect very objectively on our own worship. Can we find the same four characteristics in our worship, week in and week out? Are we eager to worship? Do we look forward to going to the Lord’s house each and every Lord’s Day, or is our Sunday morning more routine and mechanical? Are we eager to worship, or are we dragging ourselves to our pew, and merely riding worship out? 

Are we reverent in our worship? Do we realize that we are in the presence of the almighty God, the King of the Universe? Is our view of God such that we understand our insignificance and our unworthiness to approach Him? Do we give Him respect and reverence, or do we come to worship thinking that God should be grateful to us for giving Him one hour of our time? Do we approach worship as the holy time that it is, or do we treat it as though it were yet another social function? Are we more concerned about being seen, shaking hands, and slapping backs than we are about being in the presence of the God who made us and who died for us?

Are we moved by our worship? Does our time in the presence of the Holy God move us to tears? Do we realize how illogical it is that He should want to commune with us? Do we comprehend how faithful He has been to us, despite all of our infidelities against Him? Does His love overwhelm us? Does it bring us joy to know that God has given us salvation, even at the cost of His Son? Or are we cold and rigid and unfeeling? Are we more concerned about getting out of church exactly at noon? Do we even care to feel the Spirit’s presence with us? Do we want to be moved by God, or are we satisfied just to slink into a pew and slink out when the service is over?

Does our worship confront our sin? Are we being told when we missed the mark? Are we forced to feel the Spirit’s conviction? Or is our worship just a pep rally to pump us up for the week ahead? Are we told of the target that God has set for us, are we forced to examine if we are on target or not? When we sin, are we told we must repent and ask forgiveness, or are we told that we are “good people” and given sappy stories to make us feel better about ourselves?

If our worship does not do for us what it did for the people in Nehemiah 8, then it is not worship. God does not want cold, dead, rigid, ritualism. God wants our sincere, genuine, heartfelt worship, both in spirit and in truth. We must examine how we might be missing the mark in our approach to worship. God sent His Son to die for us so that we might be forgiven for all of our many sins. He died so that we might once again be in communion with God. If that doesn’t motivate us to offer Him sincere worship in return, we are missing the mark. Christ died to end our nightmare of spiritual exile, to return us home to God, and we must approach worship with that in mind. How could we offer Him anything less than our most sincere worship? How could we not be moved by that? How could we not desire to be reminded when we miss the mark so that we can get back on target?

Approach worship with eagerness. Give God your most sincere worship, and let Him move in you.

Artwork: “Ezra Reads the Law,” Marc Chagall, 1960

I Will Trust You.

Christianity, Psalms

“My heart is in anguish within me;

    the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

    and horror overwhelms me.

And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

    I would fly away and be at rest;

yes, I would wander far away;

    I would lodge in the wilderness;

I would hurry to find a shelter

    from the raging wind and tempest.’

…But I will trust in you.”  Psalm 55:4-8, 23.

Psalm 55 represents one of David’s most heart-wrenching poems. Though there is no way to date when David penned this particular psalm, it was written in response to a terrible betrayal by someone close to him. The psalm reflects the emotions–grief, anger, pain– that David experienced as a result of this treacherous betrayal. There is no shortage of theories regarding the betrayal David is referring to in this psalm; some believe it was written during the time David was fleeing from Saul.  Others think it was written about the rebellion of David’s son, Absolam. There are even many who believe it was written about the horrific rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon. Whatever the situation was, David was deeply impacted and found no solace apart from God.

Throughout the text of Psalm 55, David bounces from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. He begins his prayer to God with an earnest petition for God to hear his pleas for help and deliverance. David goes on to ask for God to smite his enemies for their treachery and their sin. The fact that a friend committed this wrong–someone whom David trusted–is particularly difficult for him to reconcile, and it made the wounds of this betrayal all the more painful to bear.

The honesty with which David expresses himself makes this psalm all the more understandable and relatable. The pain that engulfed him, the anguish that overwhelmed him, caused him to experience one of the most human reactions to difficulty: the desire to run away. David longed to be able to remove himself from the sorrow and heartache of this betrayal. He wished that he could be a bird and fly far away to the isolation of the wilderness and forget all the grief he had experienced. He was amid a stormy trial longing for an escape, for a shelter where he could hide, for a safe place to which he could flee.

David, however, could not run away from this problem. Though he wanted to, and though it would have hurt less, he could not flee. He had to endure.

David comes to this realization at the end of Psalm 55. He remembers that God will not only repay the wicked for their injustice but that He will also sustain David through this trial. God is equally committed to preserving the righteous through their ordeals as He is to measuring out His judgment upon the wicked. The assurance of God’s control of the world–including the fates of both the wicked and the righteous–gave David hope. It also reminded him of a fundamental truth: that God’s sovereignty makes Him trustworthy. 

Regardless of the situation, God is still all-powerful and in control and, because of this, He can be trusted. He can be trusted to sustain us, He can be trusted to deliver us, He can be trusted never to abandon us. He alone is worthy of this trust. Friends, family, loved ones may hurt us, may break our trust, may–as in David’s case–betray us. But God never will. In those times, when we are overwhelmed to the point of wanting to run away, we must turn to Him. When we are looking for any way to flee our pain and heartache, we must remember that He can be trusted to sustain us and to see us through the trial. He will be there for us because He knows the pain of betrayal firsthand. God felt the wounds of betrayal in the Garden of Eden when humanity disobeyed Him and chose to pursue the knowledge of good and evil instead of pursuing a life with Him. God felt the pain of betrayal in the Promised Land when Israel scorned Him time and time again with their spiritual adultery with false gods. God felt the agony of betrayal again in another garden when Judas Iscariot approached Him with armed men and kissed Him on His incarnate cheek. Yes, God knows betrayal firsthand, and because of that, He can be trusted not to betray us.

There are situations in life that make us wish that we could run away. These situations are painful, often to the point of being more than we can bear. As in David’s case, these situations may be caused by people we trusted, which adds a deeper layer of hurt for us to wrestle with. There is One, however, that we can always trust; there is One who will never betray us, even though we are guilty of having betrayed Him. God is worthy of our trust, and while the world may turn its back on us, we can trust Him to sustain us and never forsake us.

Do not be overwhelmed by your circumstances. Do not grow weary and bitter because of your wounds. Trust in God, for He is in control. Trust in God, for He will see you through.

Artwork: “Colorful King David” Marc Chagall, 1956.

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

“Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” 1 Peter 4:8-9

In 1 Peter 4, Peter transitions into a discussion of what is one of the believers’ highest obligations–to love for one another. He states that the believers must continue to do this, to continue to love one another and continue to live in a Christ-like manner, for the end of all things–the end of days, the end of time–is approaching. Now, Peter is not telling the believers that the end is near to incite fear or panic, but rather to state a simple fact: that they are living in the last days.

We must understand that the last days began with Christ’s resurrection; from that moment, the clock has been ticking down to the end. We even see that Peter makes mention of this in his famous sermon at Pentecost. There Peter quoted from the prophet Joel and said the following about the arrival of the Holy Spirit that had just occurred:

And it will be in the last days, says God,

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

and they will prophesy,” (Acts 2:17-18).

Peter understood that the arrival of the Holy Spirit meant one thing: that the last days had finally arrived. As such, believers must be all the more diligent about the work that they have before them; the believers must be disciplined, self-controlled, on watch, sober-minded, clear-headed, and committed to prayer. Given the unique nature of the times, Peter was emploring the believers to finish strong, to see the job through unto the end. Peter also wanted the believers to remember that, above everything else, more important than finishing the job well, is the duty to continue loving one another.

In the Greek, Peter calls upon the believers to keep their love ektenes (ἐκτενής), or “stretched out,” because love covers a multitude of sins. The idea here is that the believers keep stretching their love for one other out,  and to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. We see Paul reflect a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 13 when he wrote 

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends,” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

There are several words in Greek for love, and Peter uses in his letter the most familiar word– agape (ἀγάπη). Agape can mean unconditional love, a love that will love you regardless of being loved in return, a non-stoping love, the sort of love that God demonstrates to the world, a sacrificial love. Agape can also be used to mean a deeply devoted, brotherly love. 

Here, Peter is telling the believers to have a non-stoping, unconditional, non-grudge-holding love for their brothers and sisters; that they are to love one another no matter what.

This lesson on love and forgiveness is one that Peter himself received a crash course in, and his words here show us how far this Galilean fisherman grew in his understanding of love and forgiveness. It was this same Peter who asked Christ how many times a brother must be forgiven, who asked if forgiving a brother just seven times would suffice. It was this same Peter who denied Christ three times and cursed His name after Jesus’ arrest. It was this same Peter who sat upon the beach with the resurrected Christ–the very Christ whom he had cursed just three days before–and it was this same Peter who Christ asked three times if Peter loved Him. It was this same Peter who responded three times that he did love Christ, and it was this same Peter whom–out of love– Jesus forgave for his denials, his cursing, and the rest of his sins.

Here, in this letter, we see this same Peter–a man who has grown dramatically in the Spirit–who encouraged his fellow believers to resolve to love one another.

We hear in Peter’s exhortation echoes of Christ’s words at the Passover meal when Christ said to the disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35). Peter wanted the believers to understand that the love they demonstrate for one another is the most persuasive witness to the world of their commitment to Christ; that love is the hallmark of the believer. The love that Christ commands means believers must look out for each other. Believers must take care of each other. This love requires believers to carry one another’s burdens, and it requires them to use the gifts and talents they all have to serve one another. In everything they do, the believers are to demonstrate their love for God and their love for each other. In doing this, the believers will bring glory and honor to God and Christ

In many ways, what Peter calls on us to do here in chapter 4 might be more challenging than any of the other exhortations he gives in this letter. This call to love is difficult because it forces us to take a look in the mirror. We have to check our resolve; we have to ask if we are really as determined and committed to living like Christ as we ought to be? Are we as committed to loving one another as we are supposed to be? When we start asking ourselves these questions, they open a whole litany of other questions that we must answer. The truth is that we might not like the answers we get when we really start being serious about being followers of Christ and asking ourselves if we are truly living out our faith, or if we are merely going through the motions. This examination is something we must do; it is crucial–it is imperative–that we understand the importance of resolving ourselves to loving one another. Loving one another is a foundational aspect of being a follower of Christ. It is a fundamental practice, and if we cannot do it properly, we will not ever grow in our faith; we will always be hindered, we will be hobbled.

We must ask ourselves if we are resolved to love our fellow believers, our brothers and sisters, unconditionally? Is the love we exhibit to our brothers and sisters eager to forgive and patient and kind and sincere? Or do we keep a record of wrongs and hurts and grudges? Do we only love when it is convenient for us to do so? When it is easy for us to do so? Do we only love when we get something in return? Do we love all our fellow believers or just those who are like us?

We must understand that there may come a time when our church–the people, the community, the family of believers–might be all that we have in this world. With this in mind, we must demonstrate a love for each other that shows our brothers and sisters that we will be there for them through thick and thin, for better or worse, ’til death do us part. 

We must also remember that for a Christian to not love their brothers and sisters is hypocrisy: it shows no thankfulness for the grace and mercy and love of God. It shows a disregard for the commands of Christ, who called upon us to love as we have been loved. For a Christian not to love is a waste. We have the hope of the world, secure and eternal, that can never be taken away from us regardless of what situation in which we find ourselves. This hope was given to us out of God’s unconditional love. We have been given hope and received a love that the world does not have. Out of love, Christ suffered and died so that we can have freedom from slavery to sin and death–how then could we not love? We must remember that we are to resolve ourselves to live like Christ and to love one another.

Resolve yourself to live like Christ. Resolve yourself to love like Christ. Love your brothers and sisters, and keep stretching that love and showing forgiveness, for this is how the world knows we are His disciples.

Artwork: “Love One Another III,” Ivan Guaderrama, 2015. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/love-one-another-iil-ivan-guaderrama.html

An Apology for Hope.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15.

Peter’s first epistle is focused on encouraging believers to remain steadfast in their commitment to following Christ, despite the persecution they were enduring. Throughout the five chapters that comprise this letter, Peter reminds the believers that they do not belong to this world, that they are exiles and wanderers who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. As such, they must continue to seek to live as God called upon them to live. Peter repeatedly exhorts the believers to live differently from the world around them, and his letter is peppered with calls for the believers to be a holy people, a holy nation, living stones, living temples, and a holy priesthood. 

While calling upon the persecuted believers to be different from the world around them, Peter also gives practical applications of holy living to the believers for them to model in their lives. Peter provided insight and advice to Christian slaves, and also for Christian wives and husbands. Peter called upon all the believers to be good neighbors and respectful citizens. The believers were to demonstrate different characteristics than the world; they were to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). The followers of Christ were to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Believers were also to be the “bigger people” in situations in which they were wronged,  just as Peter wrote, “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing,” (1 Peter 3:9). It was of the utmost importance to Peter that the believers understood that they must be different; that they must live holy lives.

In chapter 3, Peter reveals the reason why believers must live differently. He reminds them that their very lives are living witnesses of God to the world. Due to this,  believers must always be ready to explain why–even in the midst of trials and persecutions–they have hope. Peter call on the believers to be ready to give an apologia (ἀπολογία), or an apology for their faith and their hope. This type of apology does not refer to showing remorse for doing wrong or asking for forgiveness; instead, this apology relates to a verbal argument defending or explaining one’s faith. Peter wanted these persecuted believers to understand that their holy lives would lead to people asking questions. These would be questions about how the believers could continue to be hopeful and serve Christ, even during their trials and persecutions. When these questions arose, the believers must be ready to explain precisely that–why they had hope and what that hope was rooted in.

If ever there was anything the world needs today, it is exactly what Peter here calls upon us as followers of Christ to do. We need people who are willing to be the bigger person. We need people who are not bent on returning evil for evil, people who bless others–even if those others are bent on harming or destroying them. We need people whose lives reflect the hope we have in Christ.

The world around us can be a frightening place; it often seems as though things here are getting worse and worse. Everything in the world around us is continually being questioned.  There are only wars and rumors of war; we are bombarded with news of heartache, and grief, and coming despair and destruction. It would seem as though there is no hope in the world.

But we, as believers, we have hope, and we know the source of our hope. While the world around us may be crying that the sky is falling and going into a panic–we carry on. We are not frightened by anything alarming; we have no fear and are not troubled.

Because of Christ, we have confidence in the future, not because the world will get better, but because–even if this world falls apart–we have a future with Him. This is why it is so vitally important that we live differently from the world. This is why we must lead lives that reflect our calm assurance of hope in Christ. For in this dark and seemingly hopeless world, we believers are the only sources of hope that the lost might see. We are the small, twinkling stars in a dark and moonless night; we are the nightlight put into this world by God to show others around us that things aren’t as dark and scary as they may seem. We were put here to reflect the hope that we have in Christ.

The fact that we are still here proves that there is still much work to be done. We do this, we reflect our hope in Christ, by doing just what Peter has encouraged us to do:

  • We do it by seeking always to do good to others.
  • We do it by modeling Godly marriages to the world.
  • We do it by being sympathetic and compassionate, and humble in all our relationships.
  • We do it by loving our fellow believers and helping them through their trials and ordeals.
  • We do it by demonstrating respect and gentleness in all our endeavors.
  • We do it by trusting in God and not being scared of what the future holds.
  • We reflect our hope in Christ by seeking to be like Him.

Through this–by living lives that are so radically different from all those around us–by reflecting our hope to them, we can draw them to that hope. When they ask us how we can possibly have hope, despite all the trials that are going on in our lives; 

  • How can we have hope now that our spouse has left us? 
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve received that terrible diagnosis from the doctor?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve suddenly and tragically lost a loved one?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve lost absolutely everything?

When asked these questions by the lost, we can look at them–at those souls who are so lost and disillusioned and desperately searching for something in which to hope–and we can tell them that our hope is not fixed upon anything in this world. We can say to them that our hope comes from the God who came to earth, who took our punishment and died for our sins, who then rose again out of the grave and ascended back into Heaven. We can tell them that our hope comes from the God who is alive today and sits upon His throne in Heaven; that our hope comes from the God who is above all the powers of this world. We can tell them that our hope is rooted in this God, who came and died and rose again and reigns on high today, and that He has promised that He will bring us to be with Him once again. We can tell them that, despite what happens to us, despite what goes on in the world around us, we have this promise from Him–we have hope.

The world is watching. Lead a life that reflects the hope you have in Christ. Let your life be a witness for Him and a living apology for all to see.

Artwork: “Blindfolded Hope Sitting on a Globe,”  George Frederic Watts, 1886.

Spiritual Milk.

Christianity, Religion

“You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation,” -1 Peter 1:22-23, 2:1-2 New English Translation (NET)

Peter pulls no punches in his letter to the dispersed believers in Asia Minor. Though they were experiencing persecution due to their faith in Christ, Peter encouraged these believers to remain focused on living differently from the world. He urged them to continue living as Christ had called them to live. Throughout this letter, Peter reminds the believers of what Christ suffered in order to bring salvation to them, and as such, they should be ready to suffer for Him when called to do so.

The believers are reminded by Peter that this call to holy living is a required demonstration of their faith. The followers of Christ are commanded to love one another and to show this love, for they have been born anew and given new, pure hearts. This calls to mind the prophetic promises of the Old Testament in which God promised to replace His people’s hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. The giving of a new heart is itself a sign of the Christian’s rebirth; Peter reminds these believers that this rebirth is not from any ordinary seed. This new birth is from the imperishable seed of God’s eternal and enduring word.

A few verses later, Peter gives very straightforward advice about how the believer is to demonstrate both their new heart and holy living. Peter implores the believers to get rid of all “evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” There is to be no room in the believer’s new, pure heart for these worldly traits, regardless of who the recipients of these feelings may be. The believer is not to harbor such feelings for non-believers, and especially not for fellow believers.

The believers are to instead “yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk,” which will aid in their growth as followers of Christ. This call to pursue “spiritual milk” is interesting on a few levels. First, the word that is translated in English as “spiritual” is the Greek work logikos (λογικός), as in “logical.” This word, logikos, is related to a significant Greek word, the word logos (λόγος). Logos is the Greek word for “word.” Despite its seemingly ordinary translation, logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament.  

So, how does this relate to Peter’s call to pursue spiritual milk? Peter made reference to the word (logos) of God in 1:23 when he reminded the believers of their new birth of the imperishable seed of the enduring word of God. He then used a similar and related word, logikos, and uses a little bit of word-play to encourage the believers to yearn for the word of God. It is almost as if he is saying, “yearn for the word of God milk.” This idea fits into the context of the statement: just as a newborn child yearns for milk to grow, the newborn believer is to yearn for the word of God so that they may grow in their faith.

There is, however, a more profound message here. We must remember that the word logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament. Logos is used as a code word for Christ, and it is often used to refer to Christ being the means through which God communicated to humanity. In the same way that humans use words to communicate with each other, God used Jesus to communicate with humanity and to tell the world how it could have a renewed relationship with the Father. Jesus is the literal word of God, and this is best illustrated in the opening verses of John’s gospel account. In John 1:1-4, we read the following, and we know that John is referring to Christ everywhere we used the word “Word”: 

 In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. He (the logos) was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (the logos), and without him (the logos) was not any thing made that was made. In him (the logos) was life, and the life was the light of men.

With this in mind, let’s look again at Peter’s call to pursue logikos milk. Considering the connection to logos and Jesus, we see that when Peter is telling us to hunger for and be nourished by the word of God, he doesn’t only mean the written word–the Scriptures. He also means for us to hunger and yearn for the real logos itself– to hunger and yearn for Christ. It is then, when we yearn for Christ, and seek to be nourished by Him, and by the Scriptures, we can put away all the fleshly desires and habits of this world. When these desires and habits are put away, we can live just as He called us to live– as His holy people.

Hunger and thirst for Christ; seek the nourishment and growth that only He can give. Pursue Christ above all else, and let Him work in you to remove all the evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander that infests each of us. Let Him give strength to your new, pure heart. Then use that new heart to exhibit His love to all you encounter.

Artwork: “Milk Bottles,” by Ollie Tuck, https://www.saatchiart.com/print/Painting-Milk-Bottles/1088026/4264596/view