December 29, 2010

Hey Jude

Hey Jude, don't be afraid,
Take a bad blog and make it better!
Remember your letter, writ from your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.
Na ... na-na ... na-na-na-na!
Na-na-na-na, hey Jude!

OK, so I'm no Paul McCartney; and certainly no John Lennon! But in the coming days I am, like those two guys, going to be writing a little bit about Jude. That is, Jude the author of the second-to-last book of the Bible. In spite of my initial playfulness, Jude's letter is quite a serious and also wonderful piece of work. So I'm going to be writing on it verse-by-verse (and sometimes phrase-by-phrase) for the first umpteen weeks of 2011. I think I'm going to find it rich. Hope you do, too. Stay tuned.

December 27, 2010

An Old New Year's Tradition

No, I’m not planning on writing an article about champagne, Auld Lang Syne, or New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Believe it or not, there are a few New Year’s traditions that are even older than Dick Clark! Specifically, I’m thinking of one that comes from the Bible.

I know, I know … the people of biblical times were working on a different calendar than we are – different months, different dates, and so on. In fact, they celebrated the New Year in the spring, rather than in the dead of winter (which makes far more sense, to me by the way!). But, nevertheless, the ancient Hebrews, like ourselves, had a day on which they recognized the beginning of a brand new year. And God gave them a tradition which, although our dates are different, we would do well to make a New Year’s custom of our own.

Did you ever notice that, when God brought His people out of their slavery in Egypt, He re-worked their calendar? That’s what we’re told in Exodus 12.2: “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.” In other words: ‘What I am about to do for you is so significant that I’m going to completely change the way you think about days and months and years. You are going to begin to date your calendars, not first of all by the heavenly bodies, as by the time when the Heavenly King came down to deliver you from your slavery.’ That is the point in Exodus 12.2. God changed the calendar so that the New Year fell right around the anniversary of the Exodus. And, thus, the New Year became, for the Jewish people, a constant reminder of how God had saved them from their enslavement.

And, fittingly, their most high and holy holiday – Passover – was to be celebrated in that very first month of the year! This was the day on which an unblemished lamb was sacrificed in each Jewish home in order to remind them of how God had rescued them that night in Egypt, by the blood of an unblemished lamb. That night, back in Egypt, when the angel of death was passing through the land of Egypt, taking the life of each firstborn male, the blood of a lamb on a family’s doorpost caused the angel to ‘pass over’ that home and spare the child. The lamb died so that the child might live! And, I say fittingly, God placed the commemoration of that night right in the beginning of the New Year!

So then (and here’s the point) – if the Hebrews were to ring in the New Year by commemorating God’s deliverance by the blood of the lamb, wouldn’t we also do well to ring in our New Year by remembering “precious blood” (1 Peter 1.19), “as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ”?

In effect – by shifting the calendar around to commemorate the Exodus; and by placing the most important religious festival in the Bible (a picture of the gospel!) in the first month of the year … what God seems to have been saying to the Israelites was something like this: ‘Celebrate the New Year by remembering the blood shed for you!’ And the application for us is, perhaps, something similar: Ring in the new year, not so much by asking: “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” but by asking: “Should the blood of the Lamb be forgot and never brought to mind?” Or, as William Rees, the Welsh hymn-writer put it:
Who His love shall not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
throughout heav’n’s eternal days!
There’s a New Year’s song for you! And, O, how important that we remember that God has given us times and seasons and months and dates for a purpose – so that we would have mile-markers along the way to remind us of times gone by, and to cause us to reflect, and resolve, and take stock, and so on. And, in the biblical pattern, the first month of the year was a time of special remembrance of salvation purchased with precious blood. And, if the Hebrews could ring in the year with the blood of lambs, how much more should we remember, in these days, “the blood of Christ”?

December 24, 2010

Just When you Think All Hope is Gone

Each year, I write a poem, based on one of the people in the Christmas narrative, to be read at our Christmas Eve service. This year, I chose Anna, the prophetess who spent every day in God's temple, fasting, praying and waiting for the Messiah who would redeem Jerusalem (Luke 2.36-38). Particularly, I wondered why Luke thought to include the name of her father (Phanuel) and her family's place of origin (Asher). Why was she waiting so intently? What human means did God use to mold her into the woman she was? Did her dad and her 'home county', if you will, have anything to do with it? Of course, we don't know for sure. But the poem below is a gathering together of my thoughts on how, perhaps, God may have worked His wonders in Anna's life. I hope, while imaginative, it is true to the biblical lessons that her life, and the rest of Scripture, place upon us. Enjoy!

The hills of Asher in the north
Are gold and green and bubble forth
Like olive bunches on a tree,
And tumble down toward Galilee.
From this rich soil grew faith in Christ:
Where five loaves and two fish sufficed
To feed a crowd five thousand strong;
Where God forgave the sinners’ wrongs;
Where wonders were too rife to count
And Jesus taught upon the Mount.

But Galilee and Asher’s land
Were once as fertile as the sand
That has no place for roots to hold,
And bring forth faith like olives gold.
It’s people jumbled truth and not
And stirred it all into one pot –
The Gentile’s faith mixed with the Jew,
And cooked into a poison stew
So that true faith was almost gone,
And few looked for Messiah’s dawn.

But sometimes sand becomes a pearl …
And, thus, there was a little girl
Whose father sat her on his knee
On Asher’s slopes beside the Sea,
And said: “I know this land is bare,
And people live without a care,
And sin is ripe and faith seems gone,
And few look for Messiah’s dawn …
But we live in a privileged place!”

A furrow grew on Anna’s face.

“Remember what the prophets told?”
Her father said. “The green and gold
Of faith will sprout here once again
Just like the olives after rain!
Isaiah put it best, my pearl” –

And then, as she began to twirl
Her fingers in her tangled hair,
He said, now with a distant stare,
The land is now under contempt
Like hair, or gardens, long unkempt.
It’s dark now, like the winter sea
Here in this Gentile Galilee.
But those whose land is grayed with blight
Will see a great and glorious light;
And those benighted in this land
Will dwell no more on shifting sand.
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

Young Anna’s heart began to race.
Into the furrows on her face
Were planted seeds of blessed hope
Which grew in clumps and helped her cope
With famine spread in Asher’s land,
Whose faith was built on shifting sand.
“The Christ will come!” became her cry.
“Perhaps I’ll see Him with my eye,
And bend and kiss His holy feet,
And see Isaiah’s promise, sweet,
Come true and spread o’er Galilee
And Asher’s hills beside the Sea.”

Ten years passed by, Anna was grown.
Her faith was now all of her own …
But shared, now, with another man
Who, like her dad, had more than sand
Beneath his feet. With sandals strapped,
He’d walk with her to where she’d clapped
Her hands that day in pure delight
When daddy spoke about the light,
About the Christ, about the day
When Asher’s tears He’d wipe away.
For seven years they made that trek.
And each year, faith grew by the peck –
Like olives beaten from the trees –
As she would sit upon his knees
And look into the sunrise, gold
And quote the words Isaiah’d told:
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

The eighth year, though, she went alone,
And came back to an empty home –
But sure as she had ever been
That, even with all Gal’lee’s sin,
And even with her own regret,
Messiah’s dawn was coming yet.
“A Child is born to wipe away
The tears that flood my eyes today;
A Father for this daughter’s cry;
A Husband that will never die;
A Savior who’ll our sins erase;
My God I will see face to face!”

The years passed by, her face grew old.
Her skin began to crease and fold
Like olives set aside to dry
For winter. She’d no longer try
To travel back to Asher’s land –
She had arthritis in her hand,
And in her knees, and in her spine.
Her neighbors blamed it on the time
She spent all hunched down on the floor
Behind a little hidden door
Inside the house of God. She’d pray …
And skip at least a meal a day.
“O God our help in ages past*,
Come now, and heed this widow’s fast.
Come, bring the light to Asher’s hills …
And also to this town that kills
The prophets and the men of God –
This city where the peasants plod,
Where harlots play their games of chance,
And priestly phonies march and prance.
Reverse our fortunes, ever grim!
O God, redeem Jerusalem!”

Each day she’d hide behind that door
And plant her knees into the floor
In hopes that answered prayers would grow
Like olive clumps so long ago
In Asher. And she’d make the walk,
In her mind’s eye, and hear him talk
Again – her father Phanuel.
Some days she thought she almost smelled
His cloak, all fragrant from the herds.
At times, she thought she heard his words:
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

And then, one day, she did! She heard,
As, clear as day, her father’s words:
For Israel’s glory comes a Child,
And for Galilee’s lost Gentiles.

“My dad’s been gone for sixty years”
She thought, her eyes now filled with tears
Of joy. “Who could it be?” she said.
A thousand thoughts ran through her head.
And then she flung the door all wide –
And there, amidst the pomp and pride,
A simple man, holding a child.
“Our light is no longer exiled”
He said. “My eyes have seen the King –
The end to all our suffering
And sin.”

“He’s right” said Anna now,
And curved her back into a bow.
“Isaiah put it best” she said.
Our hopes and dreams, as good as dead
From sin that covered us with night
Have given way to glorious light.

Then Anna took Him on her knees –
The answer to her years of pleas;
The hope for Asher’s barren hills,
And for Jerusalem that kills.
She ran her fingers through His hair
And said, now with a close-up stare:
Now, those whose land is grayed with blight
Will see a great and glorious light;
And those benighted in this land
Will dwell no more on shifting sand.
For unto us a Child is born
To hide our shame and bear our scorn.
Just when you think all hope is gone,
Then comes the Savior’s blessed dawn!

So widows: Hope when hope seems vain,
And when you’re overwhelmed with pain.
Like Anna, wait and watch and pray.
A Husband comes to be your stay.

And children: Hope when parents die.
A Father comes to wipe your eye.
So make you parent’s faith your own,
And be like Anna when you’re grown.

And parents: Take them on your knees
And put their little souls at ease.
Tell them: “I know this land is bare,
And people live without a care,
And sin is ripe and faith seems gone,
But look out for Messiah’s dawn!

*This line, of course, comes from Isaac Watts's great hymn by the same title.

December 20, 2010

Benjamin: Ransomed, Redeemed

Today we come to the last of our thumbnail sketches of Jacob’s twelve sons. So far (and in a variety of ways) we have noted that lives of several of the twelve boys (warts and all), were foreshadowings of our Lord Jesus:
  • Levi, from whose line was drawn the Israelite priesthood, reminds us of Jesus, our great high priest.
  • Judah, who was willing to give his life in place of his brother Benjamin’s, reminds us of how Jesus substituted Himself for us on the cross.
  • Naphtali, the giver of beautiful words (Genesis 49.21), reminds us of Jesus, our great Prophet and Teacher.
  • Zebulun reminds us of Jesus because it was in Zebulun’s territory (i.e. Galilee) that the Savior spent most of His life and ministry.
  • And, of course, Joseph reminds us of Jesus in the way he suffered so unjustly … and eventually, single-handedly, rescued all Israel from death.
But today we come to a different kind of character. Benjamin, Jacob’s twelfth and youngest son, reminds us not so much of Jesus, as of ourselves! Remember Genesis 44 … when Judah stepped in and offered to give his life in place of his younger brother’s? Benjamin was the younger brother! Benjamin had been accused of stealing a silver cup from Egypt. The punishment? Being turned into a slave. And this is where Judah stepped in (v.33): “Please let your servant (i.e. Judah himself) remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.”

What a picture of Christlikeness! Judah, on a much smaller scale, of course – but in a very compassionate and costly sense, nonetheless – was doing for his little brother what Jesus has done for us! His was willing to give himself up for the sake of another. And he is, as we said several weeks ago, another Old Testament picture of Jesus! And, therefore, the brother who was getting out from under the penalty; the brother whose sentence was being taken by another; the brother who was being loved in such an amazing way is a picture of the Christian! We all, if we belong to Christ, are Benjamins! We have had our sentence repealed – not by some clever courtroom maneuvers, but because someone else loved us (and loved His father) so deeply as to be willing to take the penalty for us!

Yes, remember that Judah didn’t just offer himself up in place of Benjamin because he loved Benjamin, but because he loved his father (Genesis 44.34) and did not want to displease him! And so it was with Jesus! He died because He loves us, yes. But He died, even more fundamentally, because He loves His Father. And it was His Father’s will that He die; His Father’s will that we be saved from our sins!

So, if you’re ever looking for yourself in the Bible; if you’re ever wondering if there is a character with whom you might really identify – not the best way to read the Bible, by the way … but if you are looking for such a person nonetheless … check out Benjamin. He was as good as done in Genesis 44 … until his older brother stepped in on his behalf. And that pretty much sums up your position, too, does it not? So thank God for our older brother, Jesus!

December 13, 2010

Joseph: The Suffering Servant

Well, unlike so many of his brothers (about whom the Bible says very little, and over whom this author has often had to really stretch his mind to fill up an articles’ worth of space) … Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, has more written about him than almost any other person in the Old Testament (filling up Genesis chapters 37-50). In fact, in more recent times whole books have been written about him! So what could I possibly say in this small allotment of space?

Well, we could talk about Joseph’s arrogance, as a young man (boasting about his special place in God’s plan). We could think on his integrity later in life (refusing to give in to the seductions of his master’s wife). We could notice all his sufferings (enslavement, false accusation, imprisonment, famine, estrangement from his family, and so on). And we could surely talk about how, though others meant all those things for evil, meant them for good (Genesis 50.20). Each of those would be worthy subjects!

But what is most intriguing, to me, is how much Joseph’s life and career (and especially God’s good design in his sufferings) resemble the life and sufferings and ministry of Jesus! Think it out …

  • Joseph, like Jesus, was “despised and forsaken” by His brethren. That’s what Isaiah 53.3 says about Jesus. And the New Testament shows it playing out on horrific detail. And Joseph’s being sold by his brothers (also for silver!) is an amazing foreshadowing of what would happen to the Christ!
  • Joseph, like Jesus, spent a period of his life as an exile in Egypt.
  • Joseph, like Jesus, was “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” before his accusers. Again, notice Isaiah 53 … this time, verse 7. And notice how the New Testament fulfills that messianic prophecy. Jesus could have called ten legions of angels to His defense at His mockery of a trial. But He didn’t. And when Joseph was falsely accused, he didn’t argue and murmur and threaten either. Like his greater descendant, he entrusted himself to a higher judge.
  • Joseph, like Jesus, pointed away from himself and to his heavenly Father. When it was said he could interpret dreams, Joseph’s reply (worthy of our imitation) was simply: “It is not in me, God” will give the interpretation. That sounds startlingly like the way Jesus’ spoke about His submission to His Father, doesn’t it?
  • In Genesis 42-45 Joseph, like Jesus, single-handedly rescued his people from death!
  • And, in the wise plan of God, the betrayal of Joseph, like the betrayal of Jesus, led to the salvation of the very people who betrayed him.
Now what’s the point in noticing all these similarities? To extol Joseph? To convince you that he was almost as good as Jesus was? No! My point, rather, is simply to remind you that, all throughout the Old Testament, God was dropping breadcrumbs that would lead hungry and attentive readers to the Messiah. The Passover Lamb, the ministry of Moses, the Tabernacle, Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale, and the life of Joseph … all these people and events were placed into the Old Testament so that, when Jesus came along, we would recognize the divine stamp upon His life; so that we would see that He so clearly fits the pattern … because the pattern was cut after His silhouette!

And there may be no Old Testament character whose life was more closely cut after the pattern of the coming Messiah than the eleventh son of Jacob. In fact, in times of old, there were two strands of thought about what the coming Messiah would be like. Some noticed the Old Testament’s promises of the Messiah’s triumph and kingship, and called the Messiah the Son of David. Others noticed prophecies like Isaiah 53 (which depicts the Messiah as a suffering servant), and saw in Joseph a portrait of what the Christ would be like … calling the long-awaited one: the Son of Joseph. Both were correct, weren’t they? Jesus came (and is coming again) as a king, the Son of David. But so much of His mission, the first time around, was to suffer like Joseph (and, of course, to suffer in far more significant ways and for far more significant reasons than Joseph)!

So, the next time you’re reading through the latter pages of Genesis; the next time you find yourself drawn in by the amazing drama of Joseph’s life … remind yourself: The Son of God was (and is), in a strange kind of way, the son of two different Josephs!

December 9, 2010

Sermons from Psalms 51-60, Setback Psalms

Setback Psalms. That's what we're calling our recent look at Psalms 51-60. In each of these Psalms, David is wrestling with some problem ... and with God in prayer. Sometimes the problem is himself (sound familiar?). Sometimes the problem is someone else. Sometimes it's his circumstances. But David was a man like us - with problems, and with emotions to go along with them. May these psalms and sermons prove to be a balm to your soul as you listen to David walk through trials, and triumph in faith!

Psalm 51 - The Sinner's Prayer
Psalm 52 - Dealing with Doeg
Psalm 53 - "Not even one"
Psalm 54 - Words from the Wilderness
Psalm 55 - Setback Psalm
Psalm 56 - "When I am afraid"
Psalm 57 - "I will sing"
Psalm 58 - "Shatter their Teeth"
Psalm 59 - When God Laughs
Psalm 60 - "Will You not go forth with our armies?"

December 6, 2010

Can Anything Good Come out of Zebulun?

Jacob’s tenth son, Zebulun, reminds me a little bit of George Washington. That is because he, like our first president, had a whole chunk of land named after him upon which he likely never set foot! But, unlike George’s Pacific northwestern namesake, the territory named after Zebulun (and lived in by his descendants) is surely more famous than the man himself!

And why is the land of Zebulun famous? Mainly because of one sentence, written centuries after Zebulun’s death, by the prophet Isaiah. Predicting the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah wrote (in Isaiah 9.1):
“In earlier times [God] treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles”.
And what was so glorious about Galilee (the territory formerly known as “Zebulun and Naphtali”)? Well, of course, that’s where Jesus grew up; and where He performed so much of His earthly ministry. It was in these territories that He turned water into wine, and fed the five thousand, and raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. It was in “Zebulun and Naphtali” that He spent most of His adult life, making the town of Capernaum His home base for ministry. And it was specifically in the territory of Zebulun, in the town of Nazareth, that Jesus spent the greater part of His boyhood! Not by ancestry, but by location, Jesus grew up as a Zebulunite!

Now that, in retrospect, is surely a great honor for the man Zebulun, tenth of the twelve patriarchs! But it must also have been a great surprise to those who knew what Isaiah meant when he referred to Zebulun as a God-forsaken patch of ground! The people there were, in many ways, backwoods. Their religion there was so often a hodge-podge of false, mixed with true. And, as we always say of Bethlehem at Christmas, so we also say of Jesus’ growing-up town and district: ‘Nazareth in Zebulun surely didn’t seem like the kind of soil from which the Savior of the world would likely grow.’ So much so that one of Jesus’ future disciples (Nathanael), upon learning that this supposed Christ was from up Zebulun way, said famously: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1.46).

Nathanael must not have known His Bible very well. And I don’t just say that because he obviously didn’t know Isaiah 9.1. Surely that verse would have answered his question! But even if he hadn’t known Isaiah 9.1, Nathanael ought to have known (and so ought we) that God delights in using the weak things of the world to shame the strong; that He delights in using people and places that are more like jars of clay than they are like fine china. Doing it this way demonstrates that it’s His power, not our pedigree! And, along those lines, we ought to know, more than anything else, that God loves taking people that don’t deserve anything from His hands (like the rag-tag folks in Galilee) … and sending them salvation in the person of His Son! This way we realize that our relationship with Him is all of His surpassing grace, and none of our supposed goodness!

So of course Jesus grew up and ministered in Nazareth, Zebulun! What a perfect place to show that God is gracious to outcasts and ne’er-do-wells. And, of course, Jesus delights in coming to live in and redeem your mixed up, messed up life, too. Your failure, and weakness, and sin are the perfect landing place for a Savior; the perfect backdrop against which God can demonstrate His grace!

So take courage, all you who live in your own personal Zebuluns and Galilees! If you are in Christ, “He shall make it glorious”!

November 30, 2010

Issachar: Picture of Grace

What to say about Jacob’s ninth son, Issachar? Well, like his brothers Levi, Naphtali, Dan, and Asher … much of what the Bible has to say about Issachar is more about his descendants than about the man himself. And, like his brother Reuben, what is recorded is an up and down story, filled with triumphs of faith, alongside gross failures.

For instance, in Genesis 49.14, Issachar’s father prophesied that his descendants would eventually give themselves over to be slaves. And when, alongside their countrymen, they were carted off as exiles to Assyria, that prophecy came true! And yet we also read that the men of Issachar were among those who came to the aid of David in his struggles against the tyrant Saul (1 Chronicles 12.32). The men of Issachar understood the times, knew what needed to be done, and served the Lord and His people by following through and doing it!

But then we also read that, a few generations later, it was a descendant of Issachar named Baasha (1 Kings 15.27-16.7) who usurped the throne of Israel and led the people to worship idols … and who incurred the curse of God because of it. What a black mark on the name of Issachar! And yet it was also the men of Issachar who came to the aid of Deborah, the Hebrew judge, as she fought off the oppressive Canaanites (Judges 5.15).

So the story of the tribe Issachar is much like the story of many of our lives. Depending on what snapshots a bystander might observe, they could walk away thinking of me as a scoundrel and a loser … or as a mighty man of God. And the same could be said of any believer who is reading these words … and surely of the man Issachar himself. We are all so up and down, aren’t we? We can be so irritable, and selfish, and proud, and ugly sometimes. And then, often within the same hour, the light of Christ can shine through us in amazing ways so that people see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven!

And it’s all a reminder of God’s grace, isn’t it? When someone gets a Genesis 49.14 kind of glimpse into your life – watching you submit yourself to a yoke of sinful slavery – that is a reminder of our need for the forgiving grace that comes to us in Christ Jesus! And yet, on the other hand, when someone catches us in a 1 Chronicles 12.32 snapshot – showing wisdom and doing what ought to be done – that too is a reminder of grace; a reminder of the transforming grace of God in our lives, molding us more and more into the image of His Son!

And there is, perhaps, one other way in which Issachar points us to Jesus. Think it out with me. Issachar’s father, Jacob, had two wives. And, before Issachar was born, one of them (his mother, Leah) bartered a night in bed with Jacob by paying her rival off for access to his bedroom (Genesis 30.14-18). Now, I know, none of that sounds like Jesus, or his mother or Father. Not at all! And yet, as a result of that transaction, Issachar was born. Indeed, his very name means “wages” (see Genesis 30.18). That is to say that Issachar’s very name reminded him, every day, that he had been bought with a price; that he was alive because someone paid for him to be so!

And, in much purer, holier ways … we may say the same about ourselves. If we bear the name ‘Christian’, that name ought constantly remind us that we, too, have been bought with a price; that we are alive because someone – in His forgiving and transforming grace – paid for it to be so!

So, when you think of Issachar, remember his name. Then remember yours (Christian). And thank God that, in far more profound ways, you have been bought with a price. Your life is the “wages” of Jesus’ death!

November 22, 2010

TV's Three Most Disturbing Words

You might be forgiven for thinking they are "to be continued" (those are annoying words, aren't they?). But Mike Cosper, a pastor down the road in Louisville, thinks otherwise. And maybe he's right. Cosper's three most disturbing words on TV? "Move that bus!" from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Tyler Kennedy at Desiring God, emphasis mine:
There’s no arguing with the warmth and altruistic sentiments of the show. The families who have been profiled always seem to be wonderful people, I don’t impugn them or the show’s creators with secret evil intentions. But a disturbing thing happens in the final moments of the show. After profiling the family’s suffering, after talking about hardship and perseverance, after recruiting an army of volunteers, the family is brought in front of the new home, which is hidden from view by a large touring bus. They count down and call out those three words, and the reaction can only be described as worship. There are tears and shouting while people fall to their knees, hands raised in the air.

Here it is on bold display: the ultimate hope of most Americans. It’s as though a phantom voice is responding to their suffering with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant. Here is your reward: dreamy bedrooms, big-screen TVs, privacy fencing, and wireless internet. We watch. We weep. And we hope for ourselves. It’s yet another gospel alternative, this one packaged as a heart-warming vision of the way life is “supposed to be.”
Thought provoking, huh? Read Cosper's whole article here.

An Encouraging Update from Pakistan

Last week, you read this. Today, there is better news. Keep praying ... and remember that their are thousands upon thousands of Christians suffering who will never make it onto CNN. Learn more at

Asher: The Merry-Making Chef

Jacob’s eighth son was called Asher (or ‘Happy’ in English), because his step mother was so overjoyed when he was born (Genesis 30.12-13). And, though a name like ‘Happy’ might conjure up images of a mafia boss, or a puppy dog … Asher was, evidently, neither of the two! According to the only information we have about him, either he or his descendants were actually fantastic chefs! “As for Asher” his father said, “his food shall be rich, and he will yield royal dainties” (Genesis 49.20). So he was, perhaps, a kind of Old Testament Jacques Pepin (or Guy Fieri, or Dom Deluise … take your pick, according to your food preference!). I might like to think of him along the lines of Justin Wilson ('I Garontee')!

And, while Asher’s culinary prowess may seem like an odd and pointless detail to include in the Bible (especially as the only detail about his life!) … it is at least a reminder that all God’s servants are valuable and necessary. For, remember, Asher’s family tradition of good cooking was not granted them simply so that they might host a good family Thanksgiving dinner (much as I am looking forward to just that in a few days!). No, the morsels that Asher and his family would be expert at preparing were actually to be “royal dainties”. It seems that God was starting a tradition, way back in Genesis, that would one day issue in Asher’s family serving the people of God by providing cooks to the king! So their cooking was a God-given talent, not to buried in the ground, but used for the kingdom of God … just like your talent, whatever it may be.

Not everyone is from the tribe of Levi, as it were … called to carry the holy things, and teach the holy book, and work every day in God’s holy house. No, most of us are more like Asher and his family … given different talents and gifts, but expected to use them in the service of God just the same. So when you read of David and his mighty men winning great battles, and Solomon wowing the Queen of Sheba with his wisdom, and building the house of God … remember that it may well have been some God-gifted Asherites that delighted and nourished them all with their rich foods! And, thus, it wasn’t just his step mother whom Asher made smile!

What’s the point? Well, just as David and Solomon could not lead the people of God to greatness without unnamed Asherites and Danites and Benjamites, each performing their God-given tasks … so the church cannot become great and the gospel cannot go forth as it should without church ladies who cook, so that Thanksgiving guests feel welcome; and custodians who clean, so that the atmosphere for worship is inviting, not distracting and dank; and singers who sing, so that the whole congregation is drawn into praise; and nursery workers who serve, so that young moms can be replenished spiritually and have the where-with-all to go back home and lead those youngsters to follow hard after God!

On and on the list could go. Because every member of Christ’s body has its important function, as Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians! Hands, eyes, feet, eye-lids, toe-nails, and so on – all are important! And so it is in the church! So go all out! If God has called you to cook, then do it with all your might as working for the Lord, and not for men. If He’s called you to clean, or sing, or teach, or greet, or cut the grass ... do it with all your heart! Your role is vital and important! Jesus is surely being made known in and through your local church … and His fame spreads just a little bit farther because of the work that you put in! So you keep cooking in the name of Jesus, Asher! Heaven is smiling too!

November 18, 2010

Sad news from Pakistan

A Christian mother of two to be hanged for 'blaspheming' Mohammad. Read it here ... and pray.

November 15, 2010

Gad: Child of Good Fortune

We return, in these lines, to a familiar theme. Not just the theme of studying each of Jacob’s twelve sons; but the theme of having very little information to go on in reviewing the lives of these last few! The book of Genesis tells us very little about fifth child Dan, and sixth child Napthali. And there is perhaps even less to go on when thinking about number seven. Perhaps we could think of Gad, along with the couple of brothers born just before and after him, as the classic middle children. As in many families, so in Jacob’s – the first and last few children are the ones everyone remembers. And then in the middle are the what’s-his-name’s. It’s a sad but true fact in many families. And it seems to have been somewhat the case in Jacob’s.

But what can we say about Jacob’s seventh boy? Well, Gad was born into a mess of a family. His father had two wives – sisters, but in many ways rivals. Rachel was loved, and Leah was … well … not so much. The rivalry intensified when it became obvious that Leah could have children, while Rachel was having problems. So distraught was Rachel that she sent her washer woman (Bilhah) into her husband bedroom to sleep with him, and to become a kind of surrogate mother on her behalf. Two sons were born that way. Meanwhile, Leah stopped bearing. So, taking a page out of her sister’s sordid book, she sent her own washer woman (Zilpah) on the same kind of errand! And somehow Jacob went along with it all!

Well, the first of two children born to Leah’s maid was named Gad, which means “fortune”. Leah was evidently quite pleased. We’re not entirely sure if she was thankful to God … but somehow she was thankful, at least in a nebulous way, for the good fortune of having, now, a fifth little boy to call her own. And there is a lesson in that, it seems to me. In the midst of all their dysfunction, and selfishness, and foolishness, and lack of faith in God … these women still had sense enough to see a child as a blessing! And that’s good to remember in these days where human life is so often cheapened and cut short because children are seen as obstacles and trials, rather than as “fortune”.

Even when a child is born into an absolute mess of a family; or even when he or she is born into no family at all (and perhaps dropped in a dumpster or left on the front steps of a church or hospital) … we should recognize that child as “fortune”; as a blessing from the hand of God. And we should defend and cherish that life – both before and after it is born (insert admonitions about adoption and crisis pregnancy care here!). Children are a gift from the Lord, not a burden! And, as believers, we ought to lead the way in demonstrating, in very practical ways, how much we believe that!

And let me point out one other thing about Gad’s birth. In the midst of all the dysfunction, and selfishness, and foolishness, and lack of faith in God in God … God gave Leah a gift she did not deserve! He was gracious to her in sending a son. And as Christmas rapidly approaches, what a parable the birth of Gad can be for us! This world – with you and me as part of the problem – has, for 6,000 years been groaning under the weight of sin. Words like ‘dysfunction, and selfishness, and foolishness, and lack of faith in God’ describe planet earth to the ‘T’, do they not? And yet, in the midst of it all, “a child [has been] born to us” (Isaiah 9.6); “a son [has been] given to us.” And, of course, His name does not simply mean “fortune”; it means “Savior” (Matthew 1.21)!

So, the next time you see a baby born; or the next time you read in the paper about some poor little Gad, born into a mess of a family; into a family which, you may think to yourself, doesn’t deserve such a precious little gift … remember that a child has been born to us, who don’t deserve Him either!

November 9, 2010

Napthali: Giver of Beautiful Words

Having now come to the sixth son of Jacob, we are forced to say what we have said twice before already (and will probably say again a few times over the next six weeks): ‘Boy we sure don’t know a lot about the life of ___________’. This time the blank is filled in with the name “Naphtali” – born to Jacob’s handmaid, sixth of his twelve sons, a patriarch in Israel … and that’s about all we can say. Not much beyond his genealogical record is told us about the life and times of Jacob’s sixth son.

So how am I going to get an entire article out of him? Well, there is one other tidbit about Napthali. It comes in Genesis 49, as he stands beside his father’s deathbed. In that scene, as we have noted in previous articles, Jacob is pronouncing blessing (and sometimes woe) upon his sons as he prepares to leave this world. And what he says to Napthali is interesting … and not a little opaque. We’re not sure if Jacob’s words, in Genesis 49.21, are a description of Napthali’s character up until that point, or a promised blessing concerning his (and his family’s) future. Here is what Jacob says: “Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives beautiful words.”

What does that mean? It sounds like an assessment of who Naphtali already is, since it’s spoken in the present tense: “Napthali is a doe let loose, he gives beautiful words.” So maybe Jacob’s sixth son was the poet of the family. Maybe he wrote the songs they sang around the campfire. Maybe he was like King David, the psalmist, before there was a book of psalms. But, then again, we have to notice that what Jacob is really doing in Genesis 49 is pronouncing blessings upon his sons’ futures. That’s mainly what the chapter is about. And, given that information, even though his words for Napthali are spoken in the present tense, it is quite possible that they were still intended as a future prophecy of what Naphtali and his family would become. In other words, perhaps Jacob was prophesying that Napthali and his family would, in the future, be a source of “beautiful words” … not necessarily that his son was already a bard. We can’t be sure, but I suspect this latter interpretation. I suspect Genesis 49.21 is a prophecy about the future of the tribe of Naphtali.

I don’t know for sure how this prediction may have been fulfilled. But I have one good guess. And it comes from remembering that the land allotted to Naphtali and his descendants is in the area that most of us know better as Galilee (see Isaiah 9.1 and Matthew 4.15). And we all know what happened in Galilee don’t we? Weren’t its hillsides and villages and famous lake the scene in which some of the world’s most famous, most “beautiful words” were spoken? Wasn’t it on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus spoke the “beautiful words” that calmed the waves and the wind? Wasn’t this where He spoke the “beautiful words” that sent seven demons out of Mary Magdalene? And wasn’t it in the ancient homeland of Naphtali that those “beautiful words” that we call The Sermon on the Mount were spoken? So yes, ringing forth out of Galilee – out of the tribal allotment of Naphtali – came the most “beautiful words” mankind has ever heard, from the most lovely of voices!

So thank God for Napthali! Uneventful as his life may seem, as it unfolds (or doesn’t unfold) in the pages of Genesis … thank God that this man lived, and had children, who had more children, who settled in the Promised Land and cultivated the land and the villages whose names are so familiar to readers of the New Testament! Thank God for how they prepared the way for Jesus! And may God grant – whether we live to see it or not – that Jesus’ “beautiful words” would echo forth with saving power in all the streets and neighborhoods that we ourselves call home. May we prepare the way. And may our land, like Naphtali’s, once again ring out with “beautiful words”!

November 2, 2010

Dan Who?

You might be forgiven if your pastor stands up some Sunday, begins talking about some guy named Dan (as though you knew exactly who he meant), and leaves you saying to yourself: ‘Which Dan is he talking about? Was there a political candidate this week by that name? Is Dan Quayle back in the news? Dan who?’ That is, you may have been forgiven for having that private conversation with yourself prior to reading this article. But, from now on, if your pastor makes an off-the-cuff, you-all-know-who-I’m-talking-about reference to “Dan”, you can assume it’s the character named Dan in the Bible!

And yet, even with that helpful sermon listening hint, you may still be left wondering: ‘Dan who? I know he’s referring to someone in the Bible. But who is this Dan character? Is this the modern way to refer to the prophet Daniel? Or is there something I missed?’ And that is probably because the biblical character named Dan – one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and a patriarch in Israel – is so easy to forget. Even in Genesis – whose final 39 chapters tell the story of his family, Dan is rarely mentioned by name. We read about his birth (to one of Jacob’s household servants) in Genesis 30.1-6. His name is mentioned in a couple of genealogies, but with no personal details. And we can presume that he was a part, both of the plot to sell Joseph into slavery, and then of the reconciliation that happened in the family toward the end of the book. But that’s about all we know of Dan’s life. No day-to-day details. No sordid scenes, as was the case with some of his other brothers. No heroism, either. Dan appears to have just been a normal Joe (or a normal Dan, perhaps we should say).

One other detail is that, on his death bed (Genesis 49.16-17), Dan’s father pronounced that Dan would be like a serpent, surprising its unsuspecting enemy … and that he would be a judge among the tribes of Israel (the name ‘Dan’ means ‘judge’). What exactly that meant, I am not sure. Perhaps Dan was to produce a large percentage of the men who made up the judicial arm in the nation of Israel. That would give new meaning to the phrase, “Book ‘em, Danno”, would it not? But perhaps the reference to Dan as serpent and judge is a prophecy of the role that Samson, a Danite judge, would play in the surprising overthrow of the enemy Philistines (see Judges 13-16). That interpretation of Jacob’s words probably fits best with the very next sentence in Genesis 49: “For your salvation I wait, O Lord” (v.18). Apparently, Jacob knew that someone from his son Dan’s family would bring about salvation (at least temporal salvation) in Israel. And, for all his foibles, Samson the Danite did just that … foreshadowing all that Christ would do for us in delivering us from the enemy of our souls, and from our own sin. There is a gospel portrait in the blessing of Dan in Genesis 49!

But another lesson we learn from Dan comes precisely from his anonymity. All we really know about him is what his step-mother was thinking when he was born, and what his father was thinking when he himself died … but nothing about the man, Dan himself. But isn’t that so much like so many people who follow Christ? No one knows who we are, really. And certainly no one will remember us in 6,000 years … not even as well as we remember Dan!

And, as with Dan, we can fairly assume that all the nameless Christians who have gone before had portions of their lives about which they were greatly ashamed and sorrowful. Like Dan, we can also know that, before it was all over, God brought them to a place of reconciliation and repentance. But, as with Dan, we don’t know the details. We just know that God works it that way. History is filled with Dans – people who’ve blown it in anonymity, and who have been forgiven and remade, also in anonymity … and with no great fanfare or dazzling testimony to present on stage. History is filled with Christians, in other words, who lives would probably make boring biographies, and whose names would scarcely be noticed were someone to write 39 chapters about their family history … but whose names are written in the Lamb’s book just the same! God knows who we are. And that’s enough.

What Every Believer can do to Serve the Whole Church on Sunday Morning

Good advice ... from Colin Marshall, via Ligon Duncan, via Anthony Mathenia.

October 25, 2010

Judah: The Substitute

In many ways, Jacob’s fourth son was perhaps the worst of them all. Yes, most of the others had gone along with the dastardly plot to sell their baby brother into slavery. But the sale was actually Judah’s idea (Genesis 37.26-27). He figured he could make a little money off the whole fiasco. That’s strike one against him.

And not only was Judah treacherous toward his brother, but toward his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as well. She had married into his family and her first two husbands (Judah’s two oldest sons) had died (Genesis 38.1-11), leaving her widowed. Whose job was it to take care of her in a case such as this one? Judah’s! He was supposed to provide her needs and arrange for his third son to marry her. But he didn’t do it. He sent her back to her own family and people … with no opportunity to re-marry or to have sons who would care for her when she was old. Once again, it seems Judah chose financial considerations above family loyalty. Strike two!

And then there is the rest of chapter 38 … in which Judah, after the death of his wife, got himself tangled up with a prostitute. Not exactly what you’d hope for from a patriarch in God’s chosen family. But there he was, in the prostitute’s lair, adding more and more yellow to an already dingy reputation. And, as it turns out, the prostitute was his own daughter-in-law, in disguise! If he wouldn’t give her his son for a husband, and ensure that she would have children to care for her in her old age … she would make sure of it herself. And when Judah found out what had happened, he must have been doubly ashamed. Strike three!

But aren’t we glad – for Judah’s sake, and for our own – that God does not operate on a three strike policy! That no matter how many times we blow it ... as long as we still have breath, there is yet opportunity for repentance and restoration. And Judah becomes a wonderful picture of that fact as we read into the latter chapters of Genesis!

You may recall that, after being sold into slavery, Joseph had (by God’s mercy) actually moved up the ladder in Egypt rather rapidly. In a few years, he went from being a foreign slave to being a governor in the land … responsible, during the years of great famine, for distributing food to the starving masses. Well, among those starving masses came Judah and his brothers – unaware that the ‘Egyptian’ governor before them was actually their long lost brother. And, in a bizarre twist, Joseph (it seems to me out of revenge) gave his brothers all sorts of trouble … eventually threatening to lock the youngest of them (Benjamin) in jail (ch.44). And here is where we see that, some time in the long years of regretting the way he’d handled Joseph and Tamar, Judah evidently came to repentance. His heart had changed. The man who’d been so willing to sell his little brother so long ago had been made new!

Listen to how he responded to the ‘Egyptian’ governor (44.33): “Please let your servant (namely, Judah himself) remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.” ' Take me instead of him. Let me bear the punishment in his place.' That is what Judah was now saying. He who had once sold his brother was now willing to be the substitute for his brother! He who had once made his brother a slave was no willing to become a slave for his brother. Judah had completely changed! He had, evidently, been what we would call ‘born again.’ And he is a wonderful picture of the grace that God has bestowed on so many of us. We are no longer what we once were! Not perfect, to be sure. But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God really has changed us. This is the Lord’s doing … and it should be marvelous in our eyes.

But Judah is not only a picture of us regenerated sinners, is he? Remember what he said? ‘Let me take my brother’s place. Let me be punished in his stead. Take me, and let him go free.’ Does that sound familiar? Isn’t that what Jesus, the great Messiah from the line of Judah, said to His heavenly father about the church? ‘Take Me. Punish Me. And let them go free.’ And God, our Father, mercifully, has done so for all who believe! Indeed, it was the Father's plan all along.

So thank God for Judah! And thank God for Jesus, the lion of Judah’s tribe, who became a lamb and substituted His blood for ours!

October 18, 2010

Levi: The Curse Broken

The book of Genesis does not tell us a great deal about Jacob’s third son. We do know that Levi was a part of the hot-headed and murderous plot to kill all the men of the village of Shechem (chapter 34). We know that he was also a part of the equally hot-headed and murderous plot to kill (and eventually sell into slavery) his brother Joseph (chapter 37). And we know that his father, because of the incident in Shechem, pronounced a curse on him – saying that his family would not be able to settle down like their kinsmen in Israel, but would be scattered about in the land with no tribal allotment in Canaan (49.5-7). And that’s about all we know. Levi (along with his brother Simeon) killed a whole village of innocent men, and plundered their goods, wives, and children; Levi plotted to kill his youngest brother, and eventually settled (with the help of eight other brothers) for selling him as a slave. And Levi was cursed with the promise of no tribal allotment in the Promised Land. That is all that Genesis has to tell us about Levi, save a few genealogical details about his descendants.

But it is as we read about Levi’s descendants that we learn, perhaps, the most valuable lesson from his poorly lived life. As we read on past Genesis, and into the book of Exodus, we discover that among the descendants of Levi was a couple named Amram and Jochabed (Exodus 2). They had two sons. Maybe you remember them – Aaron and Moses. And what became of them? Well, Moses became the greatest man in Old Testament history. And that means that, until the coming of Christ, Moses was the greatest man in all of history! He was used by God to pigeon hole the most powerful man on the planet (Pharaoh). He called down from heaven God’s curses on Egypt. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground. He organized the nation. He supervised the building of the tabernacle, God’s dwelling place. And he put into place the various sacrifices that pointed the people of Israel forward to the great and final “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1.29) – Jesus! And Moses, of course, wrote for us the first five books of the Bible!

And what about his older brother Aaron? Well, he became the very first Israelite priest. He – and his descendants after him – were the ones who had the privilege of teaching the Israelites God’s word, and interceding on their behalf in prayer, and offering all those sacrifices that pointed them forward to Jesus, God’s full and final Passover Lamb! And all of Moses and Aaron’s cousins (i.e., all the rest of the descendants of Levi) had the privilege of helping Aaron and his sons in all these affairs. They carried the tabernacle, and the furnishings, and helped with those sacrifices that prepared the way for Jesus.

So the encouraging part of the story of Levi is largely in the descendants who came after him! They, many of them, were men of great commitment and zeal and love for God. They were men who, like no one else in the Old Testament, got regular, daily glimpses of what we call the gospel. They were men who, like no one else in the Old Testament, prepared the way of the Lord Jesus. All of this, even though they were descended from one of the most despicable characters in Israelite history!

What an excellent reminder Levi is of that truth taught to us by the apostle Peter – namely that, by the shedding of “precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ”, men and women everywhere may be “redeemed from” the “futile way of life handed down from their forefathers” (1 Peter 1.18-19). Levi illustrates what Peter explains – we don’t have to be ruined by the sins of our parents and grandparents! The generational curses which are very real, and from which so many people suffer, are broken by the blood of Christ. Indeed, God was busy breaking them in the lives of those Levite men who were daily offering up those shadows and copies of the blood of Christ! Even the curse of having no tribal allotment in the Promised Land (Genesis 49.7) was turned into a blessing. Yes, the Levites were scattered all across the land of promise, with no place to call their own. But, dispersed as they were, the descendants of Levi (in their best days) became the salt and light of Israel, teaching God’s word to all the other tribes (Deuteronomy 33.10)!

So we who know Christ read the story of Levi (and his descendants!) and say to ourselves: ‘So what if my family was a mess. So what if my background is filled with generational curses just waiting to rear their ugly heads and destroy my fruitfulness. So what if I have some seeming handicaps because of the family or background from which I came. God can turn those curses into blessings. Or He can erase them altogether. The futile ways of life handed down by my own personal Levi’s are not decisive! I have been redeemed with precious blood – that which the Levites and the lambs foreshadowed … and which Christ shed once for all!

October 11, 2010

Simeon: Braveheart or Cruel Soul?

Simeon, the second son of Jacob, had a dilemma on his hands. In Genesis 34, the unthinkable had happened – his little sister, Dinah, had been raped. It came about like this …

Jacob and his ever-growing family had bought a field near the city of Shechem, and Jacob had begun to settle his family there for a season. I picture them setting up shop a bit like the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. Jacob had even gone so far as to erect an altar to the Lord there in the land near Shechem. So they were becoming semi-permanent in this neck of the woods. And therefore, one day young Dinah decided to go out and make friends with her new neighbors; to “visit the daughters of the land” (v.1). But, as she made her way through that neighboring town of Shechem, the young prince of that place (who was also named Shechem, either after an ancestor, or after his hometown) took a liking to her. In fact, the young man Shechem took such a liking to Dinah that he evidently cornered her in some secluded place and “lay with her by force” (v.2).

Now those words just roll off the page, for most of us, without any emotion. But just bring it into the 21st century, and place Dinah in your hometown … and giver her your last name. Imagine Dinah was your little sister, or your daughter, or your granddaughter, or your wife, or even your fellow church member. What kinds of thoughts would go through your mind? I’ll bet you might have a few moments (you men especially) where you, like Simeon (vv.18-24), wanted to emasculate the guy who did it. You might even think murderous thoughts, just like Simeon and his brother Levi (vv.25-31). I suppose that I might if something like this happened to one of my girls … or to any one of the other little girls in our church. But would it be right? Is revenge, in an instance like this one, right?

John Grisham movingly dealt with this question in his novel-turned-movie, A Time to Kill (set in Mississippi, by the way). Is it right to take justice into your own hands? Should that jury have freed Carl Lee? Our emotions often side with the dad who’s out to defend the honor of his little girl … and perhaps also with the brothers, in Genesis 34, out to defend the honor of their little sister. Our emotions side with a William Wallace who (at least in the movie) picks off the cruel English one-by-one for the way they had murdered his wife and pillaged his country.

But where do we draw the line? Well, since the law of our land does not permit honor killings and revenge motivated crimes (as much as we might sometimes understand the avenger’s motive and emotion) … we must draw the line where the law of the land draws it. But what about in our hearts? When is it right to pray, with David, that God would break our enemies’ teeth and shatter them against the rocks; and when does that kind of thinking (and potentially acting) go too far?

Well, Simeon is a good test case for us. His father was decidedly angry with his sons for what they had done (see 34.30 and 49.5-7). But why? Was he opposed to the death penalty in a case like that of his daughter’s? I doubt it. God would later implement the death penalty for cases of rape (see Deuteronomy 22.25-26).

Was he upset, more precisely, because his sons took the death penalty into their own hands? We don’t know. But there was, at the time, no civil government like we know today; no government official who might lay down the law in a case like this one. So I doubt that was Jacob’s primary qualm.

So why was Jacob so upset with his boys? Surely he was just as grieved about Dinah as his sons were … probably more so. But what he says to them, in Genesis 49.5-7 is instructive. He distances himself from their actions precisely because of their “cruelty”. It was not just that Simeon and Levi wanted justice … they wanted bloody revenge. And so they not only singled out Shechem for punishment … but his entire village. And they did not merely calmly execute their version of justice, but they deceived and humiliated the men whom they intended to kill before they actually did the killing. And then they looted the village and took captive all the widows and orphans whom they had just created.

So was Simeon a hero who honored his sister and fought to defend his family? Or was he a bloodthirsty animal, overgrown with cruelty and even greed? Was he a Braveheart, or a cruel soul? Clearly the latter. And he is, therefore, a proverb for us. Is there a place for the avenging of wrongdoing? Is there room to be angry when someone destroys or defiles another human being? Absolutely! We saw this recently in a sermon on Psalm 52. There’s not only a place for righteous anger, but a necessity. And yet we must “be angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4.26). We must not let righteous anger turn into bloodthirsty cruelty. We must not carry our desire for justice too far. And ultimately, we must allow our God to be the one to take matters into his hands. “Vengeance is Mine” says the Lord.

And thank God that, for those of us who, just as much as Shechem, deserve to die for our sins ... He has poured out that vengeance on the head of a willing scapegoat, the Lord Jesus.

October 8, 2010

Counting Down the Days

Operation World, perhaps the third most used book in my library (behind my Bible and corresponding concordance), releases it's new edition in just a few days! I can't wait. What's inside?
  • Maps
  • Political info
  • Economic, social, and people group statistics
  • Religious temperature gauging
  • And gospel-oriented prayer requests ...
... for every country under the sun! Plus information on hundreds of mission boards, a window onto the persecuted church, and so on. Pre-order at Amazon. Check out OW's book release website. Or follow them @operationworld.

October 5, 2010

Reuben: A Mixed Bag

We begin our look at the twelve dysfunctional sons of Jacob (and patriarchs of Israel) with Reuben, the first born … given by God as a special blessing to an unloved mother (Genesis 29.31). Such a blessing was this little boy that Leah named him ‘look, a son’ (the literal Hebrew meaning of the name Reuben, see v. 32). She was so happy, so thankful for her little baby boy that she selected a name for him that would reflect her joy and surprise! And given that joy; and given the fact that Reuben was a direct gift from God, we might expect that his life story would be one of heroism, and dignity, and continual blessing to those around him.

But what we actually find, as we read on through Genesis, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Reuben is the only one of Jacob’s sons who came out of the fiasco with Joseph with his reputation not totally ruined. You’ll remember that the ten oldest sons of Jacob were quite jealous of their little brother, Joseph. And understandably (though not excusably) so! Jacob clearly favored this little one above all his brothers (37.3). And, in a fit of jealousy, Joseph’s brother determined to kill him (37.18). “But Reuben heard of this and rescued him out of their hands and said, ‘Let us not take his life’. Reuben further said to them, ‘Shed no blood. Throw him into the pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay hands on him’ – that he might rescue him out of their hands and restore him to his father” (37.21-22).

In this instance, Reuben was the voice of reason, and potentially could have been the hero. And when his intervention failed, and his brothers sold Joseph as a slave behind Reuben’s back, he was heartbroken (37.29-30) … tearing his garments and crying out in agony. So here we have Reuben the dignified, brave, caring older brother.

But when we read on in chapter 37 (vv.31 and following), we discover that Jacob’s sons hatched a clever cover-up scheme to hide what they had done with Jacob. They forged a lie, complete with a bloody coat as exhibit A, to convince their dad that Joseph had been killed by wild animals (and to cover up their own shameful aggression and sin). And it would appear that, at this point, formerly brave and upright Reuben lost his nerve. Even if he did not devise the plan himself, he clearly went along with it … and prevented any opportunity of his father setting out for Egypt to buy his son back out of slavery. Add to that the fact that Reuben, in chapter 35.22, had had an affair with his father’s housemaid-turned-live-in-lover (who was also the mother of two of his little brothers) and we have an entirely different picture of Reuben.

So I say that Reuben is a mixed bag – capable of wonderful compassion and loyalty; but also capable of great weakness and even treachery. Sound like anyone you’ve seen in the mirror lately? Yes, sad to say … Reuben’s life story reads much like each of our own. All of us are mixed bags, spiritually … are we not? Created in the image of God, we have great capacities for noble and loving behavior. But fallen in the image of Adam, we are all steeped in a history of broken promises, by-passed opportunities, unthinkable disloyalties, selfish ambitions, and actions we’d just as soon forget. Even in spite of our great, God-given capacities for good, “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10).

And so, when we look in the mirror and see Reuben staring us back in the face … we’re thankful that, just over Reuben’s shoulder (and stemming from his own dysfunctional family tree) stands One who is not a mixed bag; One who was “tempted in all things as we are” (Hebrews 4.15) – tempted, like Reuben, to lose his nerve and eschew courage and loyalty in favor of self-preservation (Luke 23.41-44); tempted, like Reuben, to usurp His Father (Matthew 4.8-10) – “yet without sin”! And because Jesus is “without sin”, He could, at the cross, stand in the gap for so many Reuben’s, laying down His life for their weakness and treachery; laying down His life for your weakness and treachery. So … have you looked in the mirror yet today? And can you, by faith, see Jesus standing over your shoulder – far fairer and purer than you could ever be, and willing to forgive your every failure? Have you entrusted the mixed bag of your life into His nail-pierced hands?

September 27, 2010

Twelve Dysfunctional Men

Reuben, Simeon, Naphtali, Issachar. Those names probably don’t roll off your tongue quite as easily as Peter, James, and John. That is to say that you probably know a great deal more about the twelve apostles than you do about the twelve patriarchs (or at least the eleven not named “Joseph”). Join the club! How many of us recall why Leah named her 6th son Zebulun? And who remembers which one of Jacob’s sons was known to his father as “a strong donkey”? In fact we might well ask if anyone reading this article could even name all twelve of Jacob’s sons without some help. I’m not raising my hand!

So it occurs to me that, having once written an article apiece about each of the twelve apostles, perhaps it would be a learning exercise if I committed to write an article apiece about each of the twelve men who gave their names to the tribes of Israel – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

The fact that we know very little about them is not for lack of information. Although some of them remain in the shadows, having little recorded about them in the biblical record … others of them are painted, in the book of Genesis, in vivid (albeit often dark) colors. Just as we know far more about Peter, James, and John than we do, say, about Bartholomew … so we have far more information of Judah and Joseph than we do about Gad. But no matter. I am certain that there are God-ordained lessons to learn from each of their lives (even though I do not yet know what they all might be!). And I believe that my time (and yours) will be well spent in these studies.

So let’s just start with a general overview of the family. I’ve already reminded you that these twelve names represent the twelve sons of Jacob. And, of course, they were the great-grandchildren of that man of faith, Abraham … such that their individual families became the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

But just because these men were born into God’s chosen family did not mean that they were born saints … or even that they were born under the most saintly circumstances. You may remember (from Genesis 29) that Jacob had two wives – Rachel whom he loved, and Leah whom he, at best, tolerated (v.31). So the family was dysfunctional from the start. And when Rachel saw that she was unable to have children, while Leah had given Jacob four sons already, she became so impatient that she practically pushed her maid into Jacob’s lap so that he might have children with her, and that Rachel might raise them as her own. Then Leah, having hit a barren patch in her own reproductive history, did the same thing with her maid … so that, by the time Rachel herself was finally able to bear children, Jacob already had eight sons by three different women – two of whom were never his wives! Not exactly the picture of an Ephesians 5 kind of family! In fact, the story reads more like an episode of The Young and the Restless! And yet these were the circumstances under which the twelve founding fathers of Israel cut their teeth – watching their parents (who allegedly followed God) bicker and fuss and use Jacob’s bed as a bargaining chip.

Now what would we expect to come from such a family? Disaster, right? And there is plenty of that as we turn the pages of Genesis. The example of their parents, mixed with a heavy dose of their own sin nature, made for toxic lifestyles in the lives of these twelve boys become men.

And yet God used this family … with all its dysfunction; with all its foibles; and with all its sin. God changed hearts. God molded futures. God healed breaches and rubbed oil in old wounds. And when we finish the book of Genesis, the diseased and gnarled family tree that had been planted in Genesis 29 has become a beautiful and fruit-bearing olive tree … indeed, the very olive tree out of which a shoot named Jesus would someday spring, rescuing you and me from our dysfunction and sin.

So don’t judge too quickly, or give up too readily on those people who seem absolutely hopeless and useless in God’s kingdom. I suspect we will keep learning this lesson, over and again, as we peruse the lives of these twelve men. If God can nurse to health the family tree of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel … then He can surely renew and rehabilitate and make useful any sinner anywhere!

September 22, 2010

Our Sermon Audio is Moving

A note for any of you who follow the PRBC sermons via RSS or Atom ... or who have the sermons page bookmarked. Please be advised that, in the next week, the sermons portion of PRBC's website will be moving.

Keep checking in at the main site ( to watch for the changes. Once the new site has gone live, you can click on the "sermons" tab and be directed to our new audio home. From there you can resubscribe to podcasts, bookmark the new sermons page, etc.

September 17, 2010

Ethiopia, and Zambia, and Uganda, O My!

Anthony leaves this weekend for Zambia, to talk with some Zambians about helping to train pastors in Uganda. Then he heads, with a couple of those Zambians, to Ethiopia, to train pastors there. Got it? Follow him @amathenia.

September 16, 2010

While I'm on an Ethics Soapbox ...

Read this. And then listen to this.

God and Instant Replay

Major League Baseball is in the middle of a debate about whether the sport should allow for instant replay. In other words, should the umpires be able to see the same slow-motion replays of disputed plays that we can see at home? Was that ball foul or fair? Was that runner safe or out? Sometimes getting a single play called correctly can make the difference between a win and a loss. In a couple of cases, a bad call by the umpire (that every Joe Blow watching slow motion replays in his armchair at home could see was a bad call!) has made a potentially decisive swing in the outcome of the World Series. So there is no little push to allow the umpires to catch up with current technology. And understandably so.

And last night, a little more fuel was added to the fire! The pitcher threw one high and tight. The ball struck the batter on his wrist (or did it?). He dropped to his knees ‘in pain’ and even went so far as to call the trainer out of the dugout to come and ‘examine him’. And then, finally, he took his free pass to first base. The only problem with all of that is that, while the player was on his knees ‘in pain’, and while the trainer was ‘examining him’, the television replay showed – again and again, and with crystal clarity – that the ball actually hit his bat, not his body … making the rightful result of the play a foul ball, not a free base. But, since there is no instant replay in baseball, the charade went on unchecked … with the player in question even admitting, after the game, that the ball hit his bat, not his wrist. ‘It’s my job to get on base’ was his confident assertion. Translation? The end of getting on base justifies the dishonest means of getting there.

So today, across the radio airwaves, the debate ensues – and not just the debate about whether or not Major League Baseball should have instant replay. No, no! Surprisingly, as I drove to pick up my daily Mountain Dew, I heard listener emails being read questioning the play-acting player’s ethics. ‘I wouldn’t want my kid doing that, so why should it be OK for big leaguers to be dishonest?’ To which the radio hosts replied, in essence: ‘This is not Little League. It’s professional baseball. And the player is right. It’s his job to get on base. That’s just how things work in the big leagues.’

One wonders, incidentally, why we even bother to teach our children about the ills of lying, or cheating, or cursing if those rules are destined to change once they turn 18, or make it to ‘the big leagues’ of their chosen profession!

But let’s grant that this is, indeed, this is how it works in the big leagues. I have no doubt that it is. It’s how it worked in the legion and high school ranks in which I played (and even on the rec Softball fields this summer). It’s just how things are, right? Get on base at all costs. Deceive the umpire if necessary. Achieve my ends no matter the means. ‘Just win, baby!’ There’s no instant replay, after all! There is no getting caught … at least not in any punitive sense. The fans at home can’t do anything about an obviously blown call. And since it’s ‘part of the game’, the Commissioner isn’t going to step in on the side of ethics and propriety.

Now … why is a Christian pastor taking up all this time and space to write about baseball, and replay, and so on? Not because I am arguing for instant replay’s use in Major League Baseball. But because this whole incident reminds me of Romans 3.18: “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

That is really the crux of this whole issue, it seems to me. The reason that batter was able to fake getting hit by a pitch (and later fearlessly admit that he did so!) is because, evidently, “there is no fear of God before his eyes”. He doesn’t believe (or remember, or care) that God is watching. Indeed, isn’t that one of the reasons that, at times, allows each one of us (and I include myself in that clause), to lie, and lust, and cheat, and look down our noses at other people? We forget (or ignore, or disbelieve) the fact that there is a God to whom we must give an account … and that, unlike instant replay in baseball, He is always watching.

If there was instant replay in life (or in baseball), we’d likely think twice about some of our sinful charades! But since there is not; since there is often no human mechanism or repercussion to cause us fear, a ballplayer can fall to his knees in a great heap of dishonesty; and we can hide our sin too, and pretend to be something we are not. Or so we think. All because instant replay isn’t watching; and often, in our consciences at least, neither is God.

September 13, 2010

Kidnapped ... and Hopeful

Now the Arameans had gone out in bands and taken captive a little girl from the land of Israel; and she waited on Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” 2 Kings 5.1-2

I read these words, and the chapter that follows, this past Sunday night. And I was amazed again at the wherewithal of this little Israelite girl! Alistair Begg, preaching on this passage,* has noted what an amazing thing it is that such a little girl – kidnapped and far from home – still had the faith and the presence of mind to know that, back home in Israel, there was a God and a prophet who could work miracles. And I echo his observation in these paragraphs!

We don’t know how old she was, exactly. Old enough, I suppose, to have been of some domestic use to Naaman’s wife, but young enough to still have been considered “a little girl”. Ten years old, maybe? Twelve? Probably something like that. So picture the scene …

Marauding bands of Arameans swoop down upon her family’s farm or village. As they plunder horses, and jewelry, and wine, and wheat … they also notice a little girl who would make a splendid housemaid for their master and his wife. And so they just scoop her up, as though she were nothing more than another bushel of wheat, and whisk her away to her new ‘home’. Perhaps they did the same with any number of young men and women on that devastating day. We don’t know. But whether she was the only one taken, or whether the Arameans captured a few dozen village children that day … the wound would have been just the same for her poor parents. One can scarcely imagine what the parents of a kidnapped child go through. ‘Is she alive? And if so, where is she? And what are those awful men doing to her? Will we ever see her again? And if we did, would she even remember us?’ I tend to think having a child kidnapped might be the worst thing a parent could possibly go through.

But such was the fate of this girl’s poor parents. And we are not told if they ever saw her again. Did Naaman, thankful for her good advice (and his subsequent healing from leprosy), grant her freedom? Did she ever escape? We don’t know. Nor do we know what happened to her parents after these events. Did they ever recover? We’re not sure. But one thing we can surmise is that, before she was kidnapped, those now grieving parents must have done a good job raising their little girl! Why do we infer that? Because, though their little girl had been kidnapped; though she had been taken out from under the watchful eyes of her parents; though the unthinkable had happened to her … she did not lose her faith! Even in the midst of the worst of circumstances; and even taken out of Israel and away from God’s word and God’s people … she still remembered her God; and she still believed He could work miracles through His people and His prophet!

Isn’t that amazing? Most people, in her shoes, would have wondered if God had forsaken them. They would have begun to doubt His power after all: ‘If He’s not rescuing me, why would he ever rescue Naaman?’ Indeed – instead of pointing Naaman to the cure to be found in God – most people in this little girl’s situation would probably have wished that the leprosy would kill their captor! But not this girl! Something had happened in those 10-12 years under her parents’ roof … something that apparently gave her every reason to believe that God works all things for His people’s good; that God knows what He is doing; that God is kind and wise and merciful … even when we can’t see it with our eyes; and that God could work miracles! I say that something must have been going on – probably in her relationship with her parents, and in the training that they gave to her – such that she trusted God no matter what!

And so let me just ask you: If (God forbid) something should happen to you, or your child, or your grandchild; if you should be separated from them this very week … would the time spent under your roof and in your care have convinced them of the goodness and power of God, no matter what happens? I hope so! But let’s not just hope! Let’s make sure that we do everything we can to so live and teach that our children might stand up to the grimmest circumstances … and do so with all faith!

*Begg preached twice on 2 Kings 5 in June 1996. The first message deals with Naaman and his healing at the hands of Elisha. The second tells of the greed of Elisha's servant Gehazi. Although the second sermon focuses on verses 15 and following, it is in this sermon that he comments on the little servant girl from Israel. I commend both of the sermons to your listening.

September 7, 2010

Contending and Building

Jude says two very different things at the polar ends of his short, single chapter epistle. He begins by admonishing his readers to “contend earnestly” for the Christian faith (v.3) – to fight for the truth; to ensure that false doctrine has no place in the church; to battle for the purity of the gospel! But then, toward the end of the letter, he urges the same readers to “build themselves up on” the Christian faith (v.20) – to grow in the truth; to ensure that the church increases in its appreciation for Bible doctrine; to fall ever more in love with the pure gospel!

Now those are two very different things are they not – contending and building? It’s the difference between building a house, and fighting off an intruder who tries to break into it! It’s the distinction between cutting the weeds out of your overgrown flower bed, and planting the good soil that has been prepared. Both are necessary! But they are quite different tasks! And, as with tending a garden or caring for a home … some of us are more prone to enjoy one task or the other.

That is to say that some of us may love to read the scriptures, and pore over the concordance, and study the maps, and so on. But when it comes to standing up for truth (at church, or in the home, or in the public square) … well, let’s just say that we’d rather be in the library or the easy chair than on the battlefield!

But others of us are bent in exactly the opposite direction! We are glad to debate the truth of Bible doctrine – at work, or school, or wherever the opportunity arises. But we are not always so good at loving it, and growing in it, building ourselves up on it. We’d rather tear down false doctrine than delight in and study the true!

I can recall an argument I got into on the school bus when I was in the 5th or 6th grade. I well remember arguing (with the help of a couple of my classmates) the merits of being a Baptist – how our denomination was the best, and the most biblical, and so on. I can’t remember who I was arguing against (a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Roman Catholic, a Mormon? I’m not sure). But that didn’t really matter. I just enjoyed arguing, I think! Nevermind the fact that I was not yet a Christian … and was still sunk deep in my sins! Nevermind the fact that I did not know Jude from Judges. I was contending for the faith! Or so I thought!

Now what that illustrates is just how easy it is for some people to contend for the faith without building themselves up on it! I was arguing for biblical doctrines which I did not really understand … and certainly had not yet come to appreciate, much less love! And some of us may be in the same boat (or on the same school bus, I should say!). We may “contend earnestly for the faith” … but not actually be growing in it ourselves. In fact, we may allow for the fact that we have tried to persuade our co-workers that Jesus really did rise from the dead; or that salvation really is by faith alone … I say we may allow the fact that we contend for those Bible doctrines to convince us that we really must be growing in them ourselves. But the truth may tell a different story!

So let’s not be content to know the basics of Christianity … and to contend for them earnestly (important as that is!). Let’s also grow into deeper and deeper maturity! Let’s climb the heights of biblical revelation and know our God all the more! Let’s make sure we “keep ourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21) by “building ourselves up on our most holy faith”!

August 30, 2010

God, the Gospel, and Glenn Beck

A far more thought-provoking article than my last one ... but on a similar subject. From Russ Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ... and, perhaps almost as happily, a native Mississippian.

Return to God? Or Ready Excuse?

Last Wednesday night, we studied Luke 14.15-24 as a church. It’s that famous parable where the banquet master (God) is turned down again and again by people who are too pre-occupied to accept his invitation. One man has to check on his real estate, and another his farm equipment. A third is too into his new wife to attend. And so the story goes … with the point being that money and possessions (as in the first man’s field), work and business (as in the second man’s team of oxen), and family and relationships (as in the third man’s marriage) can become deadly idols. I say it again – money and possessions, work and business, and family and relationships can become deadly idols in the life of a Christian!

Are they bad things? By no means. But it is precisely because they are good things that they can so subtly substitute for the best thing – Christ himself! If we seem to be doing well for ourselves, and achieving some measure of success as decent, family-oriented, hard-workers … we are prone to think we have achieved our highest goals; to believe we are just where God wants us … and to miss the call to repentance altogether!

And yet this is precisely what is happening to thousands (dare I say hundreds of thousands, or even millions) of Christians in our country. Good morals, the freedom to be whom and what we want to be, and even family values have become the watchwords for so many church going people. These kinds of topics can gather enormous crowds (witness D.C. last weekend) filled with people who equate having good families, good values, and the freedom to work and earn an honest wage with what it means to be people of ‘faith’; and to ‘return to God’. But it doesn’t take a return to God to want a good family, to want to be a decent person, and to want a job and my freedom … does it?

And, stepping back inside the churches … there is little wonder that pastors who recycle these topics every three months or so should have full churches! I don’t doubt that many of these men have good intentions. They want to see people coming in … just like I do. And they have figured out that if their sermon series run a regular circuit through the topics of friends, family, and finances … people will be more likely to come than if they announced a seven-part series on the attributes of God, or on the book of Zechariah. So they do three weeks on finances, followed by five weeks on marriage, followed by two weeks on how to find fulfillment at work, followed by four weeks on child-rearing, followed by three weeks on true friendship, followed (once more) by three weeks on finances, five weeks on marriage, and so on. And then, every now and again, just to keep themselves honest, they’ll do a one month fly over of a book like John, or a topic like prayer.

And it is little wonder, I say, that people flock to their services! Because these preachers – many of them unwittingly (although inexcusably) – are simply helping them to prop up the idols that all Americans (and all human beings) are most prone to worship. And many conservative politicians and commentators have tuned in along this same wave length. I agree, on a surface level, with a lot of what they say. But for a pastor, politician, or pundit to equate good families, good morals, and the basic freedom to work and live in peace … I say to equate those things with returning to God or being people of faith is to miss the whole point! Everyone wants to have a good family, and good finances, and fulfillment at work! It does not require repentance for sin or faith in Jesus to want that!

Indeed, it is precisely because people pursue these things with such ardor, Jesus says in Luke 14, that many of them never come to Christ! The natural man loves his money and his family and his freedoms more than he loves God! That is just plain and simple fact. And what he needs to be challenged to do is not to prop up his idols and fight for them in the public square, but to lay them aside in favor of repentance toward, and faith in, and love for, and abandon to Christ and His gospel!

So what am I trying to say? That preachers or politicians should never speak about issues like family, or finances, or work, or even good morals? Or that Christians shouldn’t care about these things? Not for a moment! I am simply saying that these things do not equate to the Christian faith! At best, they are some good side effects of it. But, for most Christians in the world, things like freedom and financial stability are never to be seen. And, further, when we equate these various pieces of American Dream with faith … not only is the plain and simple gospel often marginalized or even overlooked entirely (in favor of other, more ‘relevant’ material); but those who preach in this way are only further fixating people’s minds on those things which Jesus says are already their most prominent preoccupations … and, indeed, their most ready excuses for delaying real repentance and faith!

Jesus says, in Luke 14, that it is precisely because we are so concerned for our stuff, and our jobs, and our families that many of us miss heaven! Because, having achieved some measure of success in these areas, we might think that we have achieved our highest goals … and thereby miss eternity! So let’s heed His advice … and never confuse the good with the gospel.