Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Dangers of Ear Tickling

We've all seen them on television, read about them on the Internet, perhaps even sat on a pew under their tutelage.  Whatever the circumstance, there is never a shortage of eccentric people claiming to be God's mouthpiece.

Some achieve notoriety, warning that the end of the world is coming on such and such a date.  Then, there are those self-appointed prophets who either twist the Word of God beyond recognition or lay it on the chopping block, choosing a positive self-help gospel of love and peace while discarding those hard passages that are perceived as "not pertaining to modern society" or just too judgmental.

Although many find humor in the ridiculousness of some of the prophesies, a false word of God is nothing to laugh about.

In the book of Ezekiel, God condemns Israel's false prophets for leading a nation of exiles astray.  The prophets would "prophesy from their own inspiration," saying "Listen to the word of the Lord!"; yet, it would be their own words, not God's, that would flow forth (Ez. 13:2).

Nobody wanted to hear of a seventy year exile.  Nobody wanted to hear about repentance and having to deny their flesh to change their hearts.  So, these prophesies chose to tickle the people's ears,weaving false words of hope and the quick restoration of Israel to her homeland. 

While it may initially seem almost harmless for these men and women to speak a false prophecy that would not come true, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ezekiel gives two reasons why false prophecies are so destructive.  First, he says, "You [prophets] have not gone up into the breaches, nor did you build the wall around the house of Israel to stand in the battle on the day of the LORD" (Ez. 13:5).

Simply put--God's prophets did not stand in the "breaches," the gaps in the spiritual wall surrounding Israel's people.  They failed to protect Israel, failed to fill in those gaps with the truth of God's Word and, thus, "build a wall," thereby shoring up the spiritual defenses the Israelites needed to face God's judgment to come.

Instead, the false prophets plastered over those gaps in the people's spiritual defenses with pretty whitewashed falsehoods of peace, hope, and a quick end to their sufferings.  The problem was that when the floods of God's wrath would come, the gaps would again be revealed, exposing how unprotected God's people truly were (Ez. 13:10-13).

The only way to prepare God's people for His judgement was by preparing their hearts, strengthening their spiritual defenses.  To accomplish this preparation, the people first needed to repent of their sin and accept the justice of God's judgment.  Yet, the prophets failed to encourage repentance.

As such, Ezekiel condemns them because they "have encouraged the wicked not to turn from his wicked way and preserve his life" (Ez. 13:22).  Without being presented with the truth of God, the wicked saw no need to repent and continued in their sin, which led to their eternal death.

While the prophet's falsehoods were devastating for the wicked, Ezekiel also states they were devastating for the righteous as well, condemning the prophets "Because you disheartened the righteous with falsehood when I did not cause him grief" (Ez. 13:22).

God's truth, then, is needed both for the unrighteous and the righteous.  

While we may want to discard these passages with the thought that prophets are merely those who look into the future, who receive visions or special revelation from the Lord, the various definitions of prophet imply that a modern-day prophet can be anyone who claims to speak for God, anyone who claims to proclaim the truths of God.

In the New Testament, Paul charged Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim. 4:2-5).

From Ezekiel's day through the time of Jesus until now--people would rather hear messages that are encouraging versus ones that ask them to examine their own lives and turn from their sin.  The time period may be different, but human nature remains unchanged.

This is why we Christians must be so very careful in what we attribute to God, in how we use Scripture from God's Holy Bible. Otherwise, we, too, can be guilty of not preparing the people for God's wrath to come so they don't feel a need to repent and of discouraging the righteous.  

He's looking for just one person to stand firm.  For you, for speak the truth of His word in and out of season.  To speak the truth of His word in love even if it's not politically correct, even if it costs us our lives.

May God not say of our world what He said of Israel: "I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one" (22:30).

We must expose the falsehoods that exist in our culture, find the places where the gospel is needed, and stand there in the gap with the truth of God's word.

Image: C. Jeremy Price on Flick'r

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What to Do With a Useless Vine

Autumn's first chill brought out the fall gardener in me.  Black-topped rows already tilled and planted with kale, mustard greens, and broccoli, I turned my attention to the flower beds and the defiant clematis vine that had strayed from the wooden post it had determined not to climb, likely because that is the one thing I wanted it to do.

Armed with long-handled loppers, I marched into the backyard with full-scale massacre in mind.

Throughout a sweltering summer full of bountiful rain, the tendrils had sneaked away from the post and crept across the tops of the bed's other foliage until they formed a verdant tangled heap atop the iris, chrysanthemums, and heirloom rose.

I let it grow, determining to cut it down and throw it into the fire after the intertwined carpet of tiny white flowers had shriveled into seed.  Blossoms spent, the vine would die back anyway at first frost.  It was useless.

Many Christians are familiar with the New Testament passage wherein Jesus presents the analogy of Himself as the vine and His followers are the branches.  Christ warns "'Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned'",  (Jn. 15:4-6).

Old Testament Scripture uses the same analogy of the vine but here, the vine refers to God's chosen people, the nation of Israel.

The prophet Isaiah plainly states, "the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant" (Is. 5:7).  Then, he describes how God did everything to help His vineyard grow and produce fruit: 

         He dug it all around, removed its stones,
         And planted it with the choicest vine.
         And He built a tower in the middle of it
         And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
         Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
         But it produced only worthless ones.
  (v. 2)

Even with all this special treatment, though, the vine did not produce good fruit.  The prophet Jeremiah confirms this, saying, "I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock.  How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?" (Jer. 2:21).

The nation of Israel thought itself better than the other nations because it was God's chosen nation.  In the Israelites' mind, God would bless them above all others no matter whether they followed God's law or played the harlot with idols.  Yet, through the prophet Ezekiel,  the Lord takes them to task over this faulty belief, asking what is a vine good for if it doesn't bear fruit?

The Lord says, "how is the wood of the vine better than any wood of a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Can wood be taken from it to make anything, or can men take a peg from it on which to hang any vessel? If it has been put into the fire for fuel, and the fire has consumed both of its ends and its middle part has been charred, is it then useful for anything?" (Ez. 15:2-4).

God makes it clear that other trees can be used for construction to make something else.  But a vine that is fruitless?  It is worthless, useless.

A vine is created for one, simple, single-minded purpose--to bear fruit.  It cannot deviate from its purpose and decide to have itself carved into a chair or a table.  Instead, if it refuses to do what God created it to do, it is worth nothing and will glow for a mere moment in the fire before being consumed in ash (v. 7).

Both Old and New Testament references to the vine may be different, but they impart the same lesson--God made His children, Christ's followers, to have a single-minded purpose--to abide in Christ so that we glorify God while pointing the world to Him.

John McArthur says, "In every age, the people of God have their value in their fruitfulness" (p. 907).

We must believe that.  The world may say that the heyday of Christianity is over, that we have lost our influence in the areas of morality, government, and the family...that it's too late to turn back the tide of rampant sin and evil.

But God says differently.

He says to you, to me, that we are still useful if we continue bearing good fruit to glorify God for all to see.

It's the one thing we were created to do.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Can America Learn from Israel's Mistakes?

Despite its economic woes over the past few years, America still ranks among the top ten wealthiest countries in the world.
Honestly? It's what Americans expect--to be the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most innovative. Even when the outlook looks dim, t
here always seems to be an underlying belief that things are destined to get better over time..."because this is America, the greatest nation in the world."

It wasn't too many thousands of years ago that another nation felt the same as many Americans--blessed, better than everyone else, undefeatable .

In the days of King Solomon, Israel was at the top of its game in terms of its economy, size, and military might. Scripture records that "
all the kings of the earth were seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart" (2 Chron. 9:23). With each visit, the foreigners added to Israel's wealth so that by the end of his opulent reign, "The king made silver as common as stones in Jerusalem, and he made cedars as plentiful as sycamore trees that are in the lowland" (2 Chron. 9:27).

God had blessed Israel beyond its wildest dreams, transforming the descendants of Egyptian slaves who had wandered aimlessly in the desert for forty years into the most powerful nation on earth.  

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God described all He had done to bless Israel as a nation: "I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you" (Ez. 16:10-14).

Yet, the nation of Israel disregarded God's laws, "played the harlot" by worshiping other gods.  To add insult to injury, Israel used all those blessings God had given it to create idols: "You also took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images that you might play the harlot with them.  Then you took your embroidered cloth and covered them, and offered My oil and My incense before them.  Also My bread which I gave you, fine flour, oil and honey with which I fed you, you would offer before them" (Ez. 16:17-19).

God repeats the word "My" throughout the passage to emphasize the fact that all the nation's wealth had come from Him.  Yet, all the gold, silver, cloth, oil and decadent foods--Israel used it to court not only the favor of false gods but to also court the favor of pagan countries like the Egyptians, Philistines, and Assyrians (v. 26-28).

A powerful, wealthy nation did not give God thanks for the blessings, but rather used those gifts for its own evil, wicked purposes as it turned its face almost entirely away from God--sound familiar?

History records that the Israelites did not repent and turn back to God.  Instead, they continued to think because they were God's chosen people, He would never turn His back on them.  Even when His blessings began to dry up like a raisin in the sun, they still believed they were immune from His judgment--because they were citizens of Israel, God's chosen nation, which made them the greatest--right?

Wrong.  God warned Israel time and time again that He would judge them for their worship of false idols, for their ingratitude, for their breaking of His holy law.  He warned He would "give you [Israel] into the hands of your lovers [the nations], and they will tear down your shrines...strip you of your clothing, take away your jewels, and will leave you naked and bare...they will stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords...They will burn your houses with fire" (Ez. 16:39,41).

Not too many years later, God did just that, giving Israel into the hands of its enemies, which stripped the nation of its wealth, massacred its citizens, and burned the city of Jerusalem with fire

As the old saying goes, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."  

America must not believe itself insulated from God's wrath just because it has received God's blessings all these years.  Instead, it must seek to learn from Israel's mistakes.  If not, it, too, will be doomed to walk this same road, repeating the mistakes of the too many proud nations that have come before us.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What's More Terrifying Than an Earthquake?

After the earthquake in Haiti, after Hurricane Katrina, after the twin towers fell in New York--these are the times when some journalist pulls a major religious personality on screen and asks the same question--where was God when all this happened?

Several times, I've seen that religious personality be God's mouthpiece, claiming the disaster was a direct outpouring of God's wrath, was His judgment--on Haiti for its practice of witchcraft, on New Orleans for its culture of voodoo, on America for its pride, greed, and moral decline.

Yes, when Christians think of God's wrath, great devastation worthy of a front page story comes to mind.

We SEE God's wrath as a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado that makes a town look like Tinker Toys after a two-year-old gets her hands on them.  We SEE His wrath as a tsunamis with its wall of water towering over the tallest building.

But I would argue there is a more terrifying outpouring of Godly wrath and judgment that goes almost unnoticed--the wrath of abandonment.

For instance, in Ezekiel when a group of elders comes to consult the prophet, God doesn't give the answer they expect, telling them to "Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations" (Ez. 14:6).  In other words, God wants His people to turn their faces away from sin and toward to Him.

If His listeners refuse to repent, though, God spells out the nature of His wrath and judgment: "anyone of the house of Israel...who separates himself from Me, sets up his idols in his heart...I will set My face against that man...I will cut him off from among My people" (Ez. 14:7-8).

The punishment for not repenting?  Abandonment.  God will cut the person off, will leave him to his fleshly heart's basest desires with no Spirit to keep him in check, will allow him to believe his own delusions with no Spirit to whisper truth, will not put forth His holy hand to stem the tide of evil.

We've seen an example of God stemming the tide of evil by keeping a man's desires in check before.  When Abraham deceived King Abimelech, saying that his wife Sarah was actually his sister, God warned the King not to touch her.  Abimelech responds that he is innocent to which God replies, "I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her" (Gen. 20:6).

Scripture even says that when God abandons man in His wrath, He may send a delusion in the form of a false prophet, a false spirit, to reinforce the lies the person insists are truth (See also 1 Kin. 22:20-23).

The New Testament confirms this, saying, "" They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness" (2 Thes. 2:10-12).

Such a judgment should frighten us to their knees.  If it doesn't, we should then read the words of Paul who speaks of this "wrath of abandonment" as a result of mankind's wickedness.

Paul gives a list of what mankind can expect when God withdraws His hand in His wrath, "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator...since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (Rom. 1:24-25, 28-31).

Sound familiar?  This is what we can expect of those left to their own devices when God abandons them in His wrath.

With no Spirit to guide them, to keep their fleshly desires in check, mankind can do much worse to itself than any natural disaster we see on the news tomorrow.

We must repent, turn away from our iniquity and beg God's continued hand of mercy on our lives.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Before We Point Another Finger...

The government, the Democrats, the Republicans, Wall Street, Roe vs. Wade, our public school system, Feminism, divorce, materialism--

If I were to ask you what's wrong with our planet, would it be hard to point your finger at one or more of these as the root of all moral decline?

Or maybe it's something else you see when you turn on the 10:00 news, read a newspaper, or better yet, just take a walk through your neighborhood.

Most of us need not even open our eyes to find something, someone who would meet the qualifications of an abomination in Scripture. We Christians?  We're really good at finger pointing.

Still, you and I might shamefully yank our hands back to our sides if we truly understand how God's judgment works.

God's condemnation of sin?  His judgment?

It starts with His own people.

Scripture records the prophet Ezekiel's vision of God's coming destruction of evil.  Since Ezekiel and thousands of Israelites were living in exile in pagan Babylon at the time, one might expect God to be pointing His finger at King Nebuchadnezzar and that whole bunch of murderous idol worshipers who were mistreating God's chosen people, defiling His holy temple, and mocking His holy name.

Yet, that's not what happens.

Instead, after having a "man clothed in linen" "put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in [Jerusalem's] midst," He tells His executioners, "Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women, but do not touch any man on whom is the mark; and you shall start from My sanctuary.' So they started with the elders who were before the temple" (Ez. 9:4, 6).

Here, God's judgment starts in His holy city of Jerusalem. At His temple. With His chosen people.

God restates this concept in the New Testament when the apostle Peter says, "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God" (1 Pet. 4:17).

Judgment of sin starts at the house of God.

Judgment of sin starts with the people of God.

What's even more condemning of a Christians's finger-pointing attitude is John's inaugural vision in the book of Revelation, a book that is often used on street corners to tout God's coming judgment of this whole sinful world. 

But before God describes all the woes coming upon the earth? Before He gives us a vision of the the final judgment and of unsaved being dragged down into an eternal pit of fire?

Like Ezekiel, he starts with God's people, the temple of God represented by the church: "I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man" (Rev. 1:12-13).  Just so we don't miss the lampstand reference, John clearly states the "the seven lampstands are the seven churches" (Rev. 1:20).

What follows is two chapters chock full of both praise and condemnation of God's church for not being the pure, holy, passionate light to the world that God has called it to be.

Do you see the pattern?

All these passages show that God doesn't first point His holy finger at your unsaved neighbor, at the masses living a flagrantly sinful life.  Instead, He is pointing His finger at Christians like you and me in an attempt to purify us of all sin so that we can glorify Him as a light in the surrounding darkness.
Judgment begins at the house of the Lord, with the people of God.

So, before we wave that index finger too boldly, we must first look to God's word to see what finger He may be pointing at each of us. 

Image: Sculpture in Brisbane, Australia