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.