Monday, October 27, 2014

The Greatest Counterfeiter of Them All

I hand a twenty dollar bill to the cashier and watch as she pulls out what appears to be a yellow highlighter.  Although this has happened to me dozens of times, my chest always tightens a bit; I unconsciously hold my breath those few seconds until, satisfied, she opens the register and tucks my twenty into its appointed slot. 

What color the bill would turn if it were counterfeit, I don't know, but I don't really want to find out. Words like "virtually undetectable" aren't exactly reassuring, nor is the Secret Service's comment earlier this year that "authorities reported that 6.5 counterfeit banknotes are passed as real currency out of every 1 million banknotes in U.S. circulation."

It's those 6.5 I'm concerned about and the damage they could do to my life.  

In Scripture, God speaks of counterfeit Christianity, of wicked men growing up right alongside righteous men, virtually undetectable. 

Isaiah says, "Thus says the LORD, 'As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, 'Do not destroy it, for there is benefit in it,' so I will act on behalf of My servants in order not to destroy all of them" (Is. 65:8).

Here, God compares the children of Israel to a cluster of grapes, using this analogy to explain why He allows wicked men to continue living alongside the righteous. Just as you can't pluck a bad grape out of the center of a cluster without the possibility of dislodging other good grapes, the Lord says the same is true when it comes to judging His people.  To destroy the bad grape would be to destroy the good grapes in the process.

This should sound very familiar to Jesus' parable of the wheat and tares when He said, "'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also....The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn''”(Matt. 13:24-30).

The bad grapes growing in the same cluster as the good, the tares growing amongst the wheat--I've heard this latter passage so often taught as a warning for the church to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing coming through our front doors and sitting next to us each week on the pew. It's a deceptively simple parable concerning authentic and inauthentic Christianity.

And yet, the passage in Isaiah makes me reconsider God's purpose in allowing the bad to grow up with the good. 

For starters, in both Isaiah and Matthew, there is a sense of certainty of this happening, not an "if" mentality.  In fact, since Matthew refers to the greatest counterfeiter of all sowing the tares while men slept--and since only God needs no sleep--I would assume this is Christ's way of saying "Hey, this is going to happen.  Just expect Satan to plant counterfeit Christians amongst you. You can't be on guard out 24 hours a day."  Likewise, since God needs no sleep, He is quite aware of Satan's actions--it doesn't surprise Him.

I believe this part.  I've experienced the tares among the wheat inside the church.  And perhaps that is what makes me pause, because I know the consequences of tares in the wheat field...of counterfeit Christians in the church.  My heart bears the scars.

Allowing the bad grapes to remain in the same cluster with the good grapes can sometimes spoil the grapes near them.  Likewise, allowing the tares to remain in the same soil as the wheat can sap away vital nutrients in the soil and suck up much needed water that will negatively affect the wheat's growth. 

In my feeble estimation, it just sounds like a bad idea...until I read the second half of the verse in Isaiah and the second half of the parable in Matthew--to destroy the bad, one may destroy the good in the process.  

And so, God waits for the day of judgment.

That is God's purpose--to grow a harvest. Our God has a "whatever it takes" mentality when it comes to maturing His wheat for the day of harvest. He is patient as He waits to see how each stalk will turn out. He sends trials in the life of the true wheat, purifying them for the day of judgment.

We Christians have a tendency to put ourselves in the place of God, believing we can be the Holy Spirit for other Christians, that what we think, God must think, and surely, we are able to discern who is truly Godly and who is not.  We also have a tendency to be less than patient with new Christians, expecting them to be light years ahead in their walk with the Lord when we only stuck a bottle in their mouths yesterday.  If nothing else, this should easily prove to us that we are not God, and in our human mindset, we can do more harm than good if we set about to root out the tares in the church.  

We cannot tell 100% of the time the tares from the wheat until they bear fruit.  Without God's perfect accuracy, that means we can't run around like the boy who cried wolf screaming "Tare! Tare!" In doing so, we might misidentify a wheat as a tare, cutting off what may have only needed to be brought under a Godly mentor for instruction.   How damaging would that be to the kingdom?

In the end, we must remember: the Father allows the tares to grow up right beside the wheat; this tells me that there is a purpose in His plan.   

Yes, we must be ever-watchful and discerning, rooting out blatant evil in our midst and protecting the church from false teachings & doctrine, as Paul admonishes us to do.  Still, we can't treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with immediate suspicion when their walk with Christ doesn't look exactly like ours.

Part of living out loud for Jesus means putting our hearts out there.  Just expect it--you will be hurt.  I will be hurt.  In those times, though, we must stop and remember God's greater purpose in it all--a great harvest of souls.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When Assassinations Become Entertainment

"I watched an assassination today,"  she said.

My head jerked upwards in shock, but she continued calmly swirling her spoon through the steaming bowl of soup as if she were merely speaking of the weather.

"It's not that I wanted to," she continued.  "It was just on Face book, and I couldn't believe the video would be of an actual assassination, so I clicked......and I just watched.

I sat astonished, not really knowing what to say.  Earlier in the day, I had prayed through an email from missionaries I know personally in the Middle East.  This couple reported how in a particular village where the UN has withdrawn, ISIS is methodically going house to house to all Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus.  So far, he said, "not one child has.  And so far all have consequently been killed.  But not the parents." 

This missionary couple begged prayers for courage, for the grace to be able to minister to those families whose children have been martyred for the cause of Christ, and for the faith to accept their own martyrdom if called to do so.

A militant Islamic group is beheading children.  Assassinations are being posted on Facebook alongside videos of cat tricks.  And I sit here helpless, asking the Lord for deliverance, for Him to be jealous for His name.  I ask the Lord, "who can make a difference?"

Lately, I have noticed a pattern in Scripture wherein a hopeless situation presents itself.  Then, either man or God, Himself, seeks for a righteous man to stand in the gap.

This happens when the prophet Isaiah receives his initial calling.  When he is transported into the presence of the Lord seated on his throne with the angels proclaiming His holiness, Isaiah is confronted with his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips,And I live among a people of unclean lips" (Is. 6:4).  Yet, in the midst of this hopelessness, the Lord seeks one to go to the people of Israel with a message of both warning and of hope: "Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, 'Here am I. Send me!'" (Is. 6:8).

Here, the Lord seeks and Isaiah responds as a willing man of God to stand in the gap for his people.

Later in Isaiah, though, the Lord seeks one righteous enough to stand in the gap--not to merely warn or offer a message of hope, but to be hope itself, to reconcile Himself to mankind...but He finds no one: "Now the LORD saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice.  And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede" " (Is. 59:15-16).

This is very similar to when the Lord told Jeremiah to look for a righteous man in Jerusalem but found no one: "Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, If you can find a man, If there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, Then I will pardon her" (Jer. 5:1-3).

In Isaiah 59, though, God provides a solution: "Then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him" (Is. 59:16).

A few chapters later, God's search for one righteous enough to redeem His people occurs again in much the same language: "I looked, and there was no one to help, and I was astonished and there was no one to uphold; So My own arm brought salvation to Me, and My wrath upheld Me" (Is. 63:5).

In the two verses above, there is none righteous enough, none just enough, none who seeks truth enough to intercede for the people, so God says his "own arm brought salvation," a reference to Messiah who alone is able to bring salvation for His people.

There was none righteous to deliver mankind from the sinful mess and devastation he has made of this world.  And so, God sent His son because He alone is "mighty to save" (Is. 63:1). He is the only mediator worthy enough to bridge the great divide between a holy God and sinful man.

In John's vision in Revelation, he witnessed this same search at the end of time: "I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals' And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it. Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it; and one of the elders *said to me, 'Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.' And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain"  (Rev. 5:1-6, 9).

The response to this lamb is immediate worship: "And they *sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation'" (v. 9).

This lamb, this Messiah--He is our only hope for deliverance both from our sin and from the evils of this world.  Our response should be to worship Him, to seek Him for salvation, for deliverance both on this earth and in eternity.

It is an understatement to say I am devastated at the daily massacre of Christians around the world--especially of children who profess the name of Jesus.  I feel helpless.  And so I do the only thing I can--I pray to the one who can intervene on their behalf.  

Join me this week in concentrating your prayers on the Middle East.  Pray that God would keep our hearts from being desensitized just because this is happening on the other side of the globe.  Pray for God to work in a miraculous way to deliver His people.  

Pray for God to be jealous for His name.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bearing the Permanent Marks

In The Blood Covenant, Clay Trumbull (a late 1800s clergyman) explores the concept of covenant, a binding agreement, and how it permeates cultures around the globe, even those not reached by modern Christianity. No matter how remote the culture, each one he encountered in his studies demonstrated understanding of the solemnity of "cutting covenant" with another.

From the darkest heart of the African Jungle to the deserts of the Middle East and on into Europe and Asia--cultures throughout time have shared many significant similarities when it comes to cutting covenants, from the sacrifice / shedding of blood (Gen. 15 & 31, Ex. 24) and partaking of a meal to the sharing of gifts and creating a visible sign to memorialize the covenant.

In one passage, Trumbull writes of African blood covenants as witnessed by Christian missionary and explorer Dr. Livingston: "Commander several illustrations of the observance of this rite...'The first operation consisted of making an incision on each of their right wrists, just sufficient to draw blood; a little of which was scraped off and smeared on the other's cut; after which gunpowder was rubbed in [thereby securing a permanent token on the arm]'" (p. 15-16).

At first, this blood rite may not seem like anything found in the Old Testament. Yet, while the intentional maiming oneself and the co-mingling of literal blood may not be found in its pages, the intentional marking of one's body as a sign of covenant definitely is.

The second time God entered into covenant with Abraham, He gave two memorial signs--the changing of names and circumcision. God says, "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham...This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you....But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (Gen. 17:5, 10-11,14).

The first memorial of this covenant is the changing of Abram and Sarai's name. Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary says, "Some think it added to the honour of Abraham’s new name that a letter of the name Jehovah was inserted into it, as it was a disgrace to Jeconiah to have the first syllable of his name cut off, because it was the same as the first syllable of the sacred name, Jer. 22:28 . Believers are named from Christ, Eph. 3:15."

What a beautiful depiction of how God's covenant would find its fulfillment later in the New Covenant, with God, Himself, inserting not merely the letter of His name into our names but His Spirit, Himself, within all Christians--Yahweh within us.

While the symbolism of this renaming is fulfilled by the Spirit residing within Christians, it seems there is still a literal re-naming of God's people. God tells His people that in the New Zion, "
you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the LORD will designate" (Is. 62:2). In the New Testament, the apostle John also alludes to those who enter into the New Covenant through the blood of Christ receiving an actual new name: "To him who overcomes, to him I will give...a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it"(Rev. 2:17)

The second memorial of covenant is the act of circumcision, where all male Israelites
were to shed their own blood, symbolizing their being God's covenant people. This was a literal "cutting" of covenant; without the shedding of this blood, God is quite clear that those un-cut should be "cut off" from His people.

While the apostle Paul makes it clear that literal circumcision is no longer necessary for partakers of the New Covenant of faith since "circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter," he mentions other bodily scars as a reminder of his covenant with Christ Jesus, saying, "I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Rom 2:29, Gal. 6:17). Here, Paul does not speak of his actual circumcision as a Jew but likely of scars from many beatings he endured while sharing the gospel. As one who often refers to Himself as the servant/slave of Christ, Paul also may be referring to himself (and other Christians by extension) as having a literal brand or "seal" similar to those that slaves would receive in ancient Rome...but if that is the case, then that's the subject of another post entirely.

One other interesting comparison is that in the blood covenant of Livingstone's Africans, both covenant partners would have had remaining visible scars. Similarly, God describes Himself as having cut His own palms to remind Himself of His covenant promises; He tells His chosen people, "Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands" (Is. 49:16).

While this Scripture does pertain directly to the Old Covenant, one need only look at Christ, Himself, to see the scars of the New Covenant that He still bears.

After His resurrection, Christ appears to His disciples with the scars of His sacrifice: "Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing'" (Jn. 20:27). Even in Scripture's final vision of heaven, the apostle John makes sure to describe Christ as appearing with the scars of the New Covenant, as "a Lamb standing, as if slain" (Rev. 5:6).

Even in its non-religious uses in cultures around the globe, the historical understanding of covenant seems to show even more so that we modern-day Christians have lost our way simply because we have minimized what a covenant is supposed to be.

The marks on our Savior's body aren't just so someone can pick Him out of a lineup or a painting hanging in an art gallery. They are tokens of remembrance, marks of everlasting one.

Published 08.07.11

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Life Out of Alignment

"Just listen to me," I sighed audibly and moved forward to snag him by the shoulder and draw his eyes to mine as I spoke.

Obviously, the "arguing with everything mommy says" phase was rearing its ugly head again, making communication between adult and child, male and female, that much more difficult.

Three times before, I had tried to give instructions while I worked to clean off the gathering table in the kitchen, but each time, my son failed to hear me.  As his mouth opened to argue with my statement before it was even complete, his ears ceased to function, causing him to miss the full import of what I was trying to say.

"Listen," I said again as he squirmed under my hand.  This time, I looked at him as I spoke.  This time, he heard me.  "Oh," he sheepishly uttered before wordlessly shuffling off to complete the task I required of him.

All it took was listening for him to understand what I required of him.

In the book of Isaiah, the Lord asks the peoples of the world to do the same--listen to Him.

Chapter 55 begins with an invitation from the Lord: "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost...Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance.  Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you..." (v. 1-3).

The invitation is clear--Come to the Lord.  Everyone--Jew and Gentile--come and enter into the everlasting covenant of salvation, free for all men and in such abundance that there is no limit.

In these verses, the word "come" is repeated three times along with the word "listen."  Thus, although salvation is a free gift from God (and one which God, Himself, initiates in these verses), it requires us to listen to determine what God seeks from those He offers this free gift.

A few verses later, Isaiah says, "Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the Lord, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. ' For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,' declares the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Is. 55:6-9).

Clearly, the offer of salvation is not for the wicked or the unrighteous, but these are the ones addressed here since they are in most need of God's offer.

While I have often heard this Scripture passage used to explain how the mysteries of God are beyond human comprehension, that's not exactly what Isaiah is saying.  Reading the verses in context shows that these verses are, instead, seeking to explain how the wicked man can "forsake his way" and how the unrighteous man can forsake "his thoughts" so that he may enter into God's covenant of salvation.

A true "return to the Lord" requires wicked, unrighteous men and women to listen to the Lord and forsake their old thoughts, forsake their old ways, and take up God's thoughts and God's ways. In essence, they are choosing to give up their own self and align their values and agenda with God's values and agenda. 

Verses 7 and 8-9 are even parallel in structure to emphasize this comparison, verse 7 mentioning the wicked man's "his way" and "his thoughts" before verse 8 and 9 mentioning the "My thoughts" and "My ways" phrases twice in reference to God.

This passage should remind us of the New Testament verses wherein Jesus says, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth," reminding us we cannot live with one foot in the world and one foot in heaven (Matt. 6:24). We must choose a side--God or ourselves.

The apostle Paul took up this idea as well, saying, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please" (Gal. 5:16-17).

The spirit and flesh in Galatians are in opposition just as man's natural thoughts and God's thoughts in Isaiah 55.  One must reject those values and thoughts of the flesh in order to take up, to put on, the values of God.  In essence, the offer of salvation is the offer of a total transformation from flesh to spirit, as Paul describes in Galatians.  

One cannot have a mind filled with both unrighteous thoughts of man and the righteous thoughts of God.  There must be a divine exchange of ways and thoughts if we are to seek God's compassion and pardon.  
This should be a reminder to all of us as we go about our daily lives that we can't use this verse as a get-out-of-jail-free card and say, "Well, God is such a mystery and His ways are so beyond mine that I don't have a shot of understanding in order to align my ways and thoughts with His!" 

On the contrary--our thoughts and our ways must align with God's thoughts and God's ways.

The very next verse explains how we can do this, saying, "So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it" (Is. 55:11).

The Word of God--The Bible--it is the answer, teaching us God's thoughts and God's ways, helping us align our thoughts with His thoughts and our ways with His ways.

Granted, that divine alignment may not be complete until we reach the other side of eternity.

But it begins here on earth.  It begins each time we truly listen to God's Word and choose to line up our lives with the words found in its pages.