Monday, March 31, 2014

Raising The Next Generation of Pharisees

In the modern church, there are many of us who are diligently striving to raise up our children in the Word, to provide that Biblical foundation above all else.  We are careful with the shows we allow into our children's eyes as well as the lyrics of songs we allow into our children's ears.  We are standing in the gap for the next generation we're nurturing.

And yet, when I look at my own generation's "us versus them" mentality that we're transferring onto our children when viewing the lost world, I can't help but think there is something serious missing.  A look into Revelation 2 and the seven letters to the seven churches may hold the key, as this passage reveals churches that are missing one thing or another in their service to Jesus.

In all seven letters, Christ is a good teacher, first commending the churches for what they're doing right before showing where their faith is lacking.

Of the Ephesians, He says, "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate " (Rev. 2:2-3, 6).

In this passage, there is so much good Christ finds in the Ephesians' faith.

First, they were not content to be pew-warmers. Instead, they are living a faith in action, working hard for the cause of Christ. A glance at the Greek shows the word "toil" as meaning "to grow weary, tired, exhausted (with toil or burdens or grief)"* This group takes seriously the Great Commission, demonstrating to the point of exhaustion their belief they are not saved to sit but saved to serve. Even in their physically weariness, Christ says they "have not grown weary." Despite physical weariness, they were still strong spiritually.

Next is the Ephesians' commendation for "perseverance." The very fact that this group is persevering implies that there is something they were having to persevere through. They are steadfast. They are enduring great trials and suffering, yet remain loyal to Christ.

These hardships are alluded to when Christ says, "have endured for My name's sake." The King James version renders this phrase as Christ knowing what this congregation "hast borne." This wording seems to better reflect the symbolism offered by the original Greek's "bastaz┼Ź," which means "to bear, to carry"* From this, it is easy to envision the Ephesians bearing the burden of claiming Christ's name and metaphorically "carrying" His cross. It seems they are taking seriously Christ's edict that "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk. 9:23).

And finally the Ephesians are seeking out and expelling any who deviate from the true gospel. Unlike today's Christianity where small concessions of false gospel here and there are splintering churches and watering down denominations until the gospel is completely ineffective, the Ephesians seem to hate false apostles just as Christ hates them.

BUT (and here's where the Ephesians went awry), Christ finds something specific wrong with their faith: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Re. 2:4).

This problem is so poisonous to the lost world around them.  They hated as Christ hated. BUT, they did not love as Christ loved.

They did not love with Christ's "agape" love, a love only available to those infused with the Spirit, a love not possible by any human means.

Somehow, they lost this kind of love. Whether the Ephesians lost Christ's love because they grew cynical after booting too many impostors out of their church or whether they lost that love in the busy-ness of "doing" for God...I don't know. Maybe it was a little of both, which made them become Pharisees, so focused on busily standing guard at the front door to keep out the false teachings that they exchanged a passionate, merciful love for legalism.

And perhaps then this legalism led their righteousness to turn into all-too-easy leap to make when you know you hold the truth and forget what pit God's grace saved you from.

In America today, I see Christianity being painted as a legalistic, self-righteous religion, mainly because too many Christians are using their swords of truth as weapons of hatred and self-righteousness when standing against such polarizing sins as abortion and homosexuality. This using legalism as a justification for not demonstrating agape love reveals that we, too, have left our first love.

While this heart problem affects our witness to a lost world, it also affects our teaching of our own children.  Even when we are doing what is right by raising our children in the Word and carefully guarding their hearts and minds, if we are teaching them the tenets of our faith but are not routinely showing them, ourselves, our love for the world beyond our doorsteps--if we don't consistently give them opportunities to demonstrate that love of Christ beyond the walls of our families and our churches--then we have left our first love.

Even as I write this, I'm still not sure how to walk that line of hating as Christ hates yet loving as Christ loves. They seem so opposite. But I think it goes back to what Jesus pointed out as the top two commandments--to love God and then love my neighbor as myself.

If we maintain or reclaim our first love for God, His Spirit will help us show agape love, which will then infect everyone around us, and the rest will follow.  Yet, if we do not, then my fear is that despite our best intentions to set ourselves apart from the world, we Christian parents will be raising another generation of Pharisees who will hate as Christ hates but who will not love as He loves. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

A Building Thunderhead
There are days when I want to shove God into action.  I read of the injustices around the world--stories of brother slaughtering brother, of women being trafficked instead of protected, of children living in fear and extreme poverty, or of one group seeking to wipe another from the face of our planet in the name of religion.

I feel a mixture of anguish and anger at the injustice of it all, often asking why our most patient God doesn't step in and just put an end to all this suffering.  This isn't how it was meant to be.

My prayers repeat the words of the martyrs beneath the altar in Revelation who call out, "'How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" (Rev. 6:10).  No matter my impatience, God continues to wait; it is as if I have received those saints' same answer: "a little while longer" (v.11).

"How long, O Lord,"  I push-- impatient, antsy, lacking comprehension of who or what He is waiting on.  And yet, all the while, He sits in perfect patience.

The prophet Isaiah describes this patience as a building thunderstorm: "For thus the LORD has told me, 'I will look from My dwelling place quietly Like dazzling heat in the sunshine, Like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.'" (Is. 18:4).

I have watched such clouds of morning dew transform ever so slowly into the wrathful thunderstorm caused by a Louisiana summer's "heat of harvest." In the morning, clouds stretch small and thin on the horizon, streaks of translucent gray against the brilliant aqua of a sunlit sky.

By noon, I compare both how dark and opaque as well as how high and how wide the heat has made the clouds to determine whether or not the storm will come; yet, despite modern meteorology and radar available on every smart phone, there is still no telling if or when or even where the day's heat will build to the breaking point.  Those clouds are still, ultimately, a mystery.

What's more, even in those times of drought when cities and sometimes entire states are praying for such showers of rain to come, there is no rushing or forcing those droplets to fall.

This is the image of our God, waiting to enact judgment.  The word used in verse four is "quietly."  Unlike me at times, He is not concerned about the unjust getting away with anything because He always has an eternal view versus my short-sighted, temporal one.  Unlike me, He will not be rushed.  Also, His timing cannot be predicted with any certainty.

We do not know the when or the where.  The only certainty in this simile is that His storms of judgment will come.  And when they do, they will be at the perfect time: "For before the harvest, as soon as the bud blossoms And the flower becomes a ripening grape, Then He will cut off the sprigs with pruning knives And remove and cut away the spreading branches" (Is. 18:4-5).

The next time we witness injustices around us--perhaps even suffer greatly from them, ourselves--we must keep this image of God in our minds, as a God quietly, slowly building wrath as a thunderstorm in the summer afternoon heat.

It is am image both to fear and to give comfort, depending on where you are in your relationship with Him.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wrestling With the Familiar

Five months into life as a newlywed, I left a lonely husband at the airport terminal so that I could attend a professional conference in Austin, Texas.  My trip only lasted a few short days, but during that time, my husband got the hair brained idea that he should wash all his clothes in order to make my job easier when I returned. 

Unfortunately, the poor man had zero experience with separating lights from darks, and so, he never imagined the dangers of adding bright red socks into a full load of white laundry.  Worse, once the damage was done, he didn't know stuffing those clothes (including the two wet, red socks) into a hot dryer was the next worst thing he could do.

As you may imagine, I returned home to find all the white underwear tie-dyed a mottled pastel pink, their hue heat set.  Permanently.

In the end, he sheepishly wore those pink Hanes until they wore out.  Little did I know that with children in my future, this would merely be the first of many experiences with inadvertently dying fabric.

An infamous verse in Isaiah speaks of our sin as dyeing our souls: "'Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool"

I know.  This is a verse well known to most Christians. But immediately before this part, the first words of this verse read, "'Come now, and let us reason together,' Says the LORD" (v. 18).  With those words, God is stating that He wants us not to mindlessly do as we are told.  Instead, His desire is that we wrestle with His words so that we comprehend and obey based on an understanding and true desire of the soul to obey, not because of mere tradition or religiosity.

These words mean God wishes us to wrestle with the common words we may have had before us our entire lives.  With the familiar, we are to pause.  To reread.  To study what we believe ourselves to already know.  To approach Scripture with the intent to learn what more God has for us to know in the common everyday language we have already committed to both and mind and heart.

In the above verse, it initially looks like God is repeating himself, giving two different words for red--scarlet and crimson.  Yet, since we know God does not waste words, either the two words hold different meanings or He is using emphasis for a reason.

"Scarlet" dye was created from "the insect 'coccus ilicis', the dried body of the female yielding colouring matter from which is made the dye used for cloth to colour it scarlet or crimson"*

According to Matthew Henry, this word scarlet denotes  "a deep dye, a double dye, first in the wool of original corruption, and afterwards in the many threads of actual transgression; though we have often dipped into sin, by many backslidings; yet pardoning mercy will take out the stain."

The concept of our sin being "double dyed" seems to be reflected in God's double use of words for "red," emphasizing just how permanently we are stained by sin in His eyes such that nothing we can do could ever release us from that stain.  

What I find most interesting, though, comes from Henry Morris' Biblical Basis for Modern Science.  Morris explains further the tern scarlet as it is created by the coccus ilicis insect:

"When the female of the scarlet worm species was ready to give birth to her young, she would attach her body to the trunk of a tree, fixing herself so firmly and permanently that she would never leave again. The eggs deposited beneath her body were thus protected until the larvae were hatched and able to enter their own life cycle. As the mother died, the crimson fluid stained her body and the surrounding wood. From the dead bodies of such female scarlet worms, the commercial scarlet dyes of antiquity were extracted. What a picture this gives of Christ, dying on the tree, shedding his precious blood that he might 'bring many sons unto glory' (Hbr 2:10)! He died for us, that we might live through him! Psa 22:6 describes such a worm and gives us this picture of Christ. (cf. Isa 1:18)" (Morris 73).

Knowing how two red socks transformed one load of laundry, I have long looked at this verse differently.  Yet, now that I have wrestled to understand how "double dyed" I am by my sin and how scarlet dyes were created in Bible times, I am even more in awe of how impossible it is for me to be "white as snow" without Jesus' sacrifice.

It makes me wonder what more God will teach me the next time I encounter this same Scripture.

*Blue Letter Bible Lexicon

Monday, March 10, 2014

Even If You're Not Chosen First

Growing up in a non-Jewish household, I found myself feeling a stab of jealousy every time God referred to Israel as My people in Scripture. 

Sure, I was grateful for those verses in Romans 11 that showed how even as a Gentile "wild olive shoot," God had chosen to "graft" me into His chosen family (v. 11-25).  I clung to Paul's words showing how the Gentiles were on equal footing in His kingdom, "adopted as sons through Jesus Christ"(Eph. 1:5).

And yet, even while I was in thankful awe of God's grace in offering me salvation, I was still jealous of those who naturally were called God's children.  In my mind, adopted had a "second best" ring to it, like I was someone "less," much like being the last one picked to be on a kickball team at recess. 

Only recently have I come to understand that this view of the world as the "chosen" and "not chosen"  is not really what God intended.  God did not choose a people, a nation, to just sit around being special and taking pride in their chosen status.  Instead, the Jewish nation of Israel was to serve as a beacon of light, drawing all men to become part of God's chosen children.

As God's chosen children, yes, the people of Israel were supposed to be set apart from the rest of the world but not so that they could think themselves entitled; instead, they were to lead the world to salvation, ultimately through Jesus.

The problem?  Then and even now, Israel did not and has not fulfilled its purpose.  As is human nature, its people grew proud of their chosen status, believing themselves untouchable, even by God's judgment.

Remember how the prophet Jonah was angry at God for wanting him--a chosen Jewish son--to go warn those worthless pagans in Nineveh of God's wrathful judgment to come? Who were they to deserve God's blessing? They weren't of the chosen nation of Israel.  So, why did God care?

But God did care.  And throughout the Old Testament, he gave hints as to Israel's larger purpose as a light to draw the world to Him.  First, He adopted foreigners into His chosen family, even into Jesus' own lineage with non-native Jews like Rahab and Ruth.  Next, He sent messages specifically meant for the pagan countries through prophets such as Jonah, Nahum, and even Isaiah.   At other times, He spoke both in dreams and in an audible voice, such as when He told King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, "You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes" (Dan. 4:32).

From the beginning, God's chosen people were chosen for a purpose much greater than themselves.  In the book of Isaiah, several times, God gives a glimpse at the nation of Israel during the Millenial reign of Jesus.  It is an image of Israel finally fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, a purpose which appears to be threefold: (1) to worship the Lord, (2) to testify about the Lord, and (3) to draw the nations (i.e., the entire world) to Him.

As Isaiah says, "And in that day you will say, 'Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; Make them remember that His name is exalted.' Praise the LORD in song, for He has done excellent things; Let this be known throughout the earth.  Cry aloud and shout for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel" (Is. 12:4-6).

In the verses above, we see Israel as it was intended to be.  First, it is worshiping God by giving thanks to the Lord in both word and song.  Next, it is testifying about the Lord by "mak[ing] known His deeds"and "Cry[ing] aloud" with joyful shouts concerning all the excellent things He has done.  All of this leads to the third purpose--to draw unto the Lord the nations, all of which come to Israel during this time.  As the Lord says later in Isaiah, "I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is. 49:6).

Only when Israel fulfills this three-fold purpose will it become what God intended--a blessing to the whole world: "In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth" (Is. 19:24).

This was always God's plan.  His adopted Gentile children were not afterthoughts, not second best. As Gentiles from every tribe, tongue, and nation, you and I were always predestined to be part of God's chosen family and Israel's purpose was always to draw us to the Lord.  Sadly, Israel missed the boat.

Still, we serve a God of second chances.  Although the nation failed the first time, the prophecies of Scripture show that God is not done with Israel yet.  It has yet to fully fulfill its purpose, but that day is coming.  

But until then, let us who are adopted into His kingdom join in fulfilling the purpose God originally gave His chosen people:

Worship the Lord.  Testify about the Lord.  Draw all men unto Him.

Monday, March 3, 2014

And Then There Was Light

I don't know what complete darkness is.  Living this side of Edison's first step towards illuminating a whole world where light is a simple flick of a switch away, I simply don't have a good grasp on living in physical darkness.

Even without Edison, though, I still can't conceive of a darkness where there is no lightOnce the sun dances to another side of the globe, the dark of night is broken not only by the moon overhead but also by several billion pinpoints of light from distant stars.  And even when those tiny lights are extinguished by storm clouds, still, the horizon has a faint glow from the capitol city located thirty miles away.

Despite my inability to fully comprehend the idea, the prophet Isaiah describes such an utter and complete darkness when referring to the wrath of God..

Over the course of the first five chapters of Isaiah, the prophet presents God's case against Israel, outlining the people's sin against a holy God and warning of the judgment to come. By the end of this introductory passage, God's wrath has built to a point where His hand can be withheld no longer. 

As such, the very last verse of Chapter 5 ends with an image of God's wrath as rolling storm clouds that are not far off in the distance but that are already directly overhead so that no light is left to be seen: "If one looks to the land, behold, there is darkness and distress; Even the light is darkened by its clouds." (Is. 5:30).

This is an image of complete darkness, where the light of God's glory is made invisible by the darkness of His wrath. As John MacArthur states, "wrath eliminates light." (p. 765).

It is not, however, the light of God's glory that is eliminated by the wrath of holy judgment but the light of hope that is completely absent.  Such a complete lack of hope--so that not even one ray of light can be seen--speaks of how inescapable God's judgment of sin is.  It also speaks to the holiness of God and to the complete justice of God's judging sin.

Though speaking directly to Israel, this utter darkness is, likewise, a perfect image of mankind in general's sinful state without Jesus as its salvation.  Without Him, there is no light, no hope. All is complete darkness, the darkness of God's wrath as He has passed perfect judgment on each and every one of us for sin

I don't think it is any coincidence that the very next chapter presents Isaiah's vision of God enthroned.  How better to compare the depth of darkness to the blinding light of God's glory than to juxtapose the two side by side--Chapter 5 ending with utter despair in darkness because of sin and Chapter 6 opening with the utter perfection of God's glory?

Yes, I understand that in terms of time, the vision of Isaiah's calling occurred before the first five chapters.  However, I also understand that in God's providence, He had this chapter fall after the first five chapters and after presenting a picture of such darkness caused by the people's lost state in their sin.

After viewing this image of God's glory enthroned, the darkness just becomes that much darker.

Once we understand the utter hopelessness of our estate as subjects of God's wrath, a few chapters later, God introduces hope, saying, "The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them" (9:2).

Notice God doesn't say the people "may see a great light."  No.  He says they "will see a great light."  Just as there is wrath and hopelessness in escaping judgment, so there is, too, a light of hope coming.  What God has purposed will come to pass.

The total darkness of our lost state WILL BE suddenly transformed by a blinding light--Jesus: "For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (9:6).

Jesus would later tell the Pharisees, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life" (Jn. 8:12).

He was, and remains, man's only hope for reconciliation with God. 

Late in Isaiah, the prophet writes of a day yet to come when there will be a new Zion and Jesus its king:
"Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness will cover the earth
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will rise upon you
And His glory will appear upon you.
Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising" (Is. 60:2-3).

Just imagine.  If we cannot conceive of complete darkness, then we also cannot conceive of the brilliance of complete light.  

Yet, one day, that brilliant light will return to this earth, shining as a beacon of hope for those who love Him.