Almost Persuaded

Posted on August 24, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

JUDAEA, Herodians. Herod Antipas. 4 BCE-39 CE....Image via Wikipedia I almost made coffee last week.

I’m a cheerful riser. Happy to talk and visit, happy to greet the new day. I’m almost always in a good mood first thing in the morning. But my brain isn’t exactly working at full speed. I need a routine to follow in the morning or I do goofy things.

And a week ago, when Diane and I came back from a little festival near Brenham, we came in the back patio and something spelled wonderful. Like fresh ground, vanilla roasted coffee beans. See, early that Saturday morning, Diane was still asleep, and I tried to do two things simultaneously first thing in the morning. I tried to walk our dog, Bella, and I tried to make coffee.

The coffee maker has a grinder on top, so I got the bag of beans out of the freezer, and put them in the top of the grinder. Yum, vanilla roasted beans, my favorite. Then I put the bag back, and put in just enough water to make a half a pot of coffee. Then I pushed the start button.

Now it’s time to get Bella. I get the leash out just as the coffee grinder starts grinding, clip the leash to her collar, and step outside… and I can still hear the grinder. It’s grinding a whole lot longer than I expected. Suddenly I realize I forgot to turn this little knob on the front of the machine, and it’s grinding enough beans for a whole pot of coffee. And this will be combined with a half pot of water and be some very strong coffee indeed. I come rushing back inside, tell Bella to stay by the front door, and find the off button on the coffee maker. Whew.

Ok, I can still save this pot of coffee. I don’t know how much beans have been grounded, but I can restart the brewing cycle without further grinding. Push this button, turn off the grinder… ok, I think I got it. Push the button to start brewing. Go back, get Bella who is very confused about this walk so far, and walk out the front door.

But something doesn’t seem right to me. I can hear the gurgling from the brew cycle starting, but something’s not right. And it dawns on me I forgot to put a filter in the coffee machine. And the next most reasonable thing for me to do in my cheerful and completely inept morning state is… to pull the filter basket out to look to see what’s inside.

Which dribbles hot coffee sludge, a mix of hot water and soggy coffee grounds down the front of the kitchen cabinet. I… put my hand under the basket to keep from dripping on the floor… hot! Hot! Hot! I push the basket back in.

Ok brain, try to get it together. Ok, first, unplug the coffee pot. I’m still creating hot coffee sludge. Open the back door. Pull the basket out *and* the coffee pot simultaneously, carry them both outside. Find some lucky plant that wants some vanilla fertilizer, dump the whole mess out.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I was walking the dog. Later that day, after the sun had been out and we came back from our festival, our patio had that lovely, vanilla-roasted coffee fertilizer smell. Diane asked me what it was, and I said… “Look! A dragonfly!”

I almost made coffee that morning. But you know, “almost coffee” isn’t good enough to drink. Lot’s of things aren’t good enough if they’re “almost” right. Skydiving, for example. Skydiving “almost” done right sounds horrible.

And this week, we’re going to look at another example of “almost” good enough. We’re studying Acts 24-26 this week, and let’s setup the situation. First, Paul is in jail. Again. Seems the last few weeks, Paul’s always in jail. Why is he in jail this time? Well, we have to go all the way back to Acts 21 and Paul is in Jerusalem. Paul is speaking at the temple, and some Jews stirred up the crowd, the crowd mobs Paul and begins to beat him with the intent to kill him. This mob attracted the Roman troops in the city who came down to see what the fuss was all about. When the Roman troops showed up, the crowd, of course, stopped beating Paul, and the Roman commander has Paul arrested. He asks Paul what all the rioting is about, and Paul says, “well, let me show you; may I speak?” Then in Acts 22, he stands in front of the temple and gives his testimony to the crowd, and the crowd erupts again.

And then, oddly, the Roman commander orders that Paul be arrested and flogged to find out why the people were yelling at him. Just before they flog him, Paul asks them if it’s legal to flog a Roman citizen. Alarmed, the commander withdraws and decides that perhaps beating a Roman citizen isn’t such a good idea.

By Acts 23, the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees decide that if the Romans aren’t going to kill him, they will. They ask the Roman commander to setup a meeting with Paul on the pretext of gathering information, but secretly they’re arranging an ambush. Paul’s nephew gets wind of the plot and tells the Roman commander who has had enough of all this rioting and plotting. He decides to transfer Paul to Caesarea with 200 Roman soldiers to protect him.

The commander also writes a letter to the Governor of Cesarea, Governor Felix. It basically says, “Governor, I can’t find anything this man did wrong. But because there is a plot against him, I’m sending him to you and ordering his accusers to present their case to you.”

Everybody up to speed? We’re in Acts 24, in front of Governor Felix, along with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and a whole bunch of lawyers. The lawyers present their case first; Acts 24:5-8, they say,

“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”

It’s like the Olsteen trial all over again. Anyway, Paul gives his defense, saying that even his accusers know he’s done nothing wrong. At the end of Acts 24, we find that Felix is a piece of work. He knows Paul is innocent, and he’s even interested in Christianity, but what he’s really interested in is money. He wants Paul to give him a bribe. Paul spends two years in prison teaching about righteousness, self-control, and judgment, and at the end of two years, Felix leaves him there.

He’s succeeded by Festus in Acts 25, and in Acts 25:13, Festus gets a visitor, King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice. King Herod Agrippa II is the grandson of the Herod that killed all the newborn males in Bethlehem when Christ was born. Agrippa was the nephew of the Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist. Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa the 1st who executed the Apostle James and would have executed the Apostle Peter had not the angel of the Lord rescued him. For Agrippa, this was a chance to meet a celebrity, so Festus sets up a meeting. Acts 25:23 says,

The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.

In Acts 26, Paul begins, yet again, his message of redemption, repentance, and judgment. From Acts 26:1 through Acts 26:23, Paul gives his testimony. How he lived as a Pharisee, the promise given to the twelve tribes of Israel. Paul’s persecution of Jesus in verses 9-11, and then Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus from Acts 26:12-15, and the instructions Christ gave Paul to reach the Jews and Gentiles in Acts 26:16-18. Then Acts 26:19-23 –

“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

At this point, Festus yells at Paul that Paul’s lost his marbles, his education has made him insane. And Paul keeps focusing on King Agrippa in Acts 26:25-29 –

“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Agrippa’s response is a hypothetical question. The New King James translates it as, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”

And that is probably one of the saddest responses in the entire bible. “You almost persuaded me.”

What went wrong?

It wasn’t the messenger. Paul was a very powerful messenger, and apostle of Christ who had seen the risen Lord face to face. How much power did Paul have? In verse 22, Paul says, “But God has helped me to this very day.” And the messenger was passionate, so passionate that in verse 24, Festus leaps up and tells Paul that he’s lost his mind. And Paul was persuasive – in verse 29, Paul tells Agrippa that he wishes Agrippa were just like him, but without the chains. The irony is incredible here – Paul is free in Christ, even though he is in chains. It’s Agrippa that is in bondage to sin.

So the messenger was powerful, passionate, and persuasive. So it’s not the messenger. Perhaps it was the message?

I don’t think so. The message was the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. And not hearsay; Paul’s personal testimony was how Jesus had interceded directly on Paul’s behalf and proven to Paul firsthand. And the message was true. King Agrippa knew the words of the prophets and he knew the fulfilled testimony of Christ. Agrippa has no rebuttal to this; in verse 27, when Paul asks, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do,” Agrippa’s only response is that… “you almost persuaded me.”

Almost persuaded.

As we share God’s word with others, Paul has shown us that the message isn’t always received the way we would like it to be. Some people want to wait; we just keep talking. Some will ridicule us, but we’re called to show respect in our responses. Some receive the message with silence; we learn to ask open-ended questions to get them to talk. And some absolutely refuse, and all we can do is express concern. But there’s nothing sadder than somebody who hears a persuasive message from a persuasive messenger and is almost persuaded.

For those that have not accepted Christ, there are forces in opposition to the Word. Satan does whatever he can to keep people from giving themselves to Christ, and we can see almost all of these in Agrippa.

The forces include –

• Pride. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” It’s pride that tells us we can be good enough to get to heaven, that we can stand unashamed, on our own, before an almighty and holy creator. And Psalms 10:4 says, “In his pride, the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Pride blinds us to our need for a savior.
• Position. Agrippa was king of the Jews. Like pride, our position in society keeps us from being humble. We are too important to make ourselves low. But Jesus called a little child to him and told his disciples in Matthew 18:3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
• Possessions. Agrippa was a very rich man. Matthew 19:23, Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” People, like Agrippa, get attached to the things of this world and can’t give them up to save their own souls.
• Peer pressure. Felix and other Jewish leaders were looking at Agrippa to see what he would do. Galatians 1:10 says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
• Procrastination. Agrippa was “almost persuaded” but put off his decision. He could always revisit this question tomorrow. But sometimes, tomorrow doesn’t come. Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” And 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

But Paul looks directly at King Agrippa through this exchange. Paul was persistent and told his personal testimony about how Jesus changed his life. While Herod Agrippa II and his family may have been persecuting Christ, Paul also confesses he once persecuted Christ. Agrippa’s sins are no different than Paul’s sins, except Paul’s sins are forgiven.

It’s true that in the bible (Mark 6:11), Jesus told the disciples that if they were not welcome in a town, they should shake the dust from their feet as they left. But that’s a matter of being a good steward of the time we have available. Jesus never counseled us to give up on somebody. Jesus didn’t give up on me, and I am so thankful He didn’t. If you have a family member or a friend you’re praying for, don’t give up. You don’t want them to be almost saved.

Michael Rodriguez is a man thankful somebody didn’t give up on him. He’s one of the “Texas Seven” that broke out of prison in 2000 and on Christmas Eve, killed a policeman. He was sentenced to death; unlike most people on death row, for the last 2 years he has been waiving every appeal opportunity, saying he deserved the death penalty. The sentence was carried out a week ago Thursday.

At 6:10pm, he began his last words. “I know this no way makes up for all the pain and suffering I gave you. I am so, so sorry. My punishment is nothing compared to the pain and sorrow I have caused. I hope that someday you can find peace. I am not strong enough to ask for forgiveness because I don’t know if I am worthy. I realize what I’ve done to you and the pain I’ve given. Please Lord forgive me. I have done some horrible things. I ask the Lord to please forgive me. I have gained nothing, but just brought sorrow and pain to these wonderful people. I am sorry. So so sorry. To the Sanchez family who showed me love. To the Hawkins family, I am sorry. I know I have affected them for so long. Please forgive me. Irene, I want to thank you for being with me on death row and walking with me and helping me find Christ’s love. These last few steps I must walk alone. Thank you and thank your husband Jack. I’ll be waiting for you. I am so sorry. To these families I ask forgiveness. Father God I ask you too for forgiveness. I ask you for forgiveness Lord. I am ready to go Lord. Thank you. I am ready to go. My Jesus my Savior there is none like you. All of my days I want to praise, let every breath. Shout to the Lord let us sing.

“My Jesus, my Savior, there is none like you,” he sang softly. “All of my days I want to praise, let every breath. Shout to the Lord, let us sing ….”

Among his last words were, “I’m ready to go Lord.” At 6:20pm, he was pronounced dead.

Michael Rodriguez is thankful that Irene and Jack, whoever they are, didn’t give up on Michael Rodriguez. And while the angels in heaven rejoice that another sinner has turned to God, non-Christians don’t understand why a murderer gets to go to heaven. They don’t understand that they can never do enough good to get to heaven, nor can they do enough evil that Christ cannot save him. It’s never too late.

Who’s been watching the Olympics the last week? Anybody here actually in the Olympics?

When it comes to the Olympics, most people are spectators. They don’t actually participate in the games; they watch some of the events on television. A few actually get to participate. The best of the best win medals – some win bronze, some silver, and the very best wind the coveted gold medal. Or like Fred said last week, perhaps a tin medal.

But the gold medal for all humanity is arriving in heaven in the pure and holy presence of God. The vast majority of people are spectators in this race. They see the lives of Christians, but they make no effort to join. They’re… almost persuaded.

The bronze medal for Christianity is being aware of Jesus. If you ask them what religion they belong to, they may even answer that they’re a Christian. But if you press them further, they don’t know why they’re a Christian. They know Jesus is a really good person, and they also want to be a really good person. And that means not being judgmental. They believe all roads leads to heaven, there are many paths. They don’t believe a loving God would send people to Hell, not realizing that God doesn’t send people to Hell, people go to Hell because they reject God. They are really only dimly aware of what Jesus said, and they make no effort to share their faith or go to church or grown in the spirit. They get a bronze medal for being aware of Jesus. King Agrippa gets a bronze medal. He had plenty of knowledge about Jesus.

Then there’s the silver medal, awarded to those who believe in Christ. They know He’s the Son of God. They’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount; they’re happy the meek will inherit the earth, because then they can beat up the meek and take it from them. Their actions don’t reflect the love of Christ; they do not model forgiveness, controlling their tongue, serving others, or loving their neighbors. But they believe in Jesus, so they win a silver medal. But they don’t grasp the concept that even the demons believe in Jesus. As Fred mentioned last week, faith and repentance are linked. It’s not enough to say you have faith without your life demonstrating your repentance.

But spectators and bronze medalists and silver medalist are almost persuaded to be disciples of Christ. Perhaps they have an idea that heaven will be like standing on the scales of justice – as long as you do more good than evil, you get into heaven. But Jesus says that isn’t enough. Jesus says to follow Him and He will make you fishers of men (Mark 1:16-17). Jesus says that if anyone would come after Jesus, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). And we may have heard Jesus say in John 8:32, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” but what’s the line immediately before that? “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.’”

And what about the disciples that settle for “well, this is good enough?” Jesus tells the church in Laodicea what he thinks about “good enough.” Revelations 3:15-16 –

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Literally, it means “vomit you out of His mouth.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, except when I get to heaven, I don’t want Jesus to be looking at me like that.

The gold medal is a heart that yearns to follow God. Matthew 7:13-14 –

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

The gold medal is the narrow gate to heaven. Everything else is just “almost.” Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8 just before his death –

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Thank the good Lord that He loves us. Thank the good Lord that He is our gold medal. Can you imagine if the scripture says that God so loved the world that He almost gave His only begotten son? That Jesus almost died on the cross for us?

Let’s yearn for that gold medal of righteousness, and not settle for merely being “almost” persuaded.

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Facing Questions

Posted on August 3, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Fred took us through Acts 15 last week; we’re going to cover from the latter part of Acts 15 through Acts 18 today, Paul’s second missionary journey. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas have spread the gospel of Christ among many churches. Now, they want to revisit those same churches and see how the new churches are doing. Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus; Paul chose Silas and headed up the coast.

Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
map from http://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/JBPhillips.htm

1 Syrian Antioch Acts 15:36-40, Paul and Silas (and Luke)
2,3,4 Syria , Cilicia , Derbe Acts 15:41 , 16:1
5 Lystra Acts 16:1-5, Joined by Timothy
6,7 Phyrgia , Galatia Acts 16:6, Holy Spirit prevents them from preaching in Asia
8 Mysia Acts 16:7, Holy Spirit prevents them from entering Bithynia
9 Troas Acts 16:8-10, Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia
10,11 Island of Samothrace , Neapolis Acts 16:11
12 Philippi Acts 16:12-40, Lydia baptized. Conflict over girl with spirit of clairvoyance, beaten and imprisoned. Singing hymns and midnight . Earthquake opens prison doors; Paul stays and converts jailer. Released because Paul was a Roman citizen, asked to leave Philippi
13,14 Amphipolis, Apollonia Acts 17:1
15 Thessalonica Acts 17:1-9, Convert large numbers, infuriates Jews
16 Berea Acts 17:10-14, Bereans accept gospel, but Jews from Thessalonica followed and caused trouble. Silas and Timothy remain in Berea .
17 Athens Acts 17:15 -34, Bereans accompany Paul to Athens , return with instructions to Silas and Timothy to rejoin Paul as soon as possible. While Paul waits, he addresses the philosophers of Athens .
18 Corinth Acts 18:1-17, Made tents with Aquila and Priscilla. Paul preached to Jews who abused him, so Paul shook his fists and decides to preach to gentiles. Paul stays at the house of Titius Justus for 18 months. Silas and Timothy catch up to Paul. The Lord encourages Paul to continue to preach. Jews band together to attack Paul, but the governor Gallio refuses to judge.
19 Cenchrea Acts 18:18 , Sails for Syria , accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla. Cuts hair short because of a solemn vow.
20 Ephesus Acts 18:19 -21, 24, Paul leaves Aquila and Priscilla to debate Jews in synagogue. Jews ask Paul to say, and Paul says "if it is God’s will" (eventually returning during 3 rd missionary journey). Priscilla and Aquila train Apollos who goes to Achaia.
21,22 Caesarea , Jerusalem Acts 18:22, Paul pays respects to church at Jerusalem
23 Antioch Acts 18:22 -26, travels regions of Phyrgia and Galatia

Paul and Silas travel through Syria and Cilicia and strengthened the churches, then to Derbe and Lystra. There Paul met Timothy who was held in high regard by the brothers, so Paul takes Timothy, too. They pass along words from the apostles and elders from the Council at Jersalem.

Then to Phyrgia and Galatia, but the Holy Spirit prevents them from entering Asia. Then down to Mysia and tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus prevents them. I thought this odd that the Holy Spirit would stop them, but God had a bigger plan and knew where He wanted them. The missionaries head down to Troas, and Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So they sail from Traos to the island of Samothrace, and then to Neapolis and then to Phillipi.

There is lot of activity in Philippi. First, there is the conversion of Lydia who opens her home to the missionaries. Then there is a slave girl with a spirit of fortune-telling. Paul commands the spirit to come out of her, and the merchants who own her are furious because they can’t make money off of her anymore. They drag Paul and Silas to the marketplace where the magistrates order them stripped and beaten. They’re flogged and thrown into prison. Talk about a bad day. But instead of whining and complaining, the scripture says Paul and Silas up to midnight praying and singing hymns to God. And then an earthquake shakes the jail and all the doors fly open; the jailer wakes up and is about to kill himself because he was responsible for security, but Paul stops him saying, “Stop! We’re still here!” And then the jailer asks to be saved, too. Great example of the joy in Christ in all circumstances and how God can use your joy to reach others.

And in the morning, the magistrates find out they’ve beaten a Roman citizen and become alarmed and escort them very nicely to the edge of town. Paul and Silas and Timothy (and Luke, since he’s the historian documenting all of this) go to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and then Thessalonica.

At Thessalonica, Paul and Silas go to the synagogue as usual and convert large numbers of people, and this infuriates many of the Jews who round up some bad characters from the marketplace, form a mob and start a riot. They try to grab Paul and Silas, but the brothers help them escape that night to Berea.

In Berea, they got a better welcome, and there’s another great lesson here. It says in Acts 17:11, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Paul was a well-known apostle who had seen the risen Christ himself and proclaimed the gospel all over the world. And the Bereans received this message eagerly – and still examined the scriptures every day to see if Paul was telling the truth. Don’t take the word of some televangelist or some preacher. Don’t just read the words of Mac Lucado or Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” and think you can understand God’s direction for you and your life. Don’t take Ed Young’s word. And for sure don’t take my word even though I’m standing right here in front of you. Examine the scriptures for yourself daily to see if what you’re being taught is true. 2 Timothy 4:3 says, ” For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

What that means is that people will preach what we want to hear. If we want a prosperity gospel, we will find somebody to preach a prosperity gospel. If we want to hear the end times are coming, we will find somebody to tell us the exact time and date. If we want somebody to tell us that sexual immorality, adultery, lying cheating and stealing is ok, we can find somebody to teach us that. But that is only the word of men telling us what we want to hear. What does God say? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by examining the scriptures ourselves to see if what we are being told is true.

Paul’s time in Berea was cut short; the angry Jews from Thessalonica followed him and stirred up the crowds in Berea, so Paul departs for Athens and leaves Silas and Timothy behind. In Athens, Paul addresses the philosophers of Athens (we’ll come back to this in a bit) and waits for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. After a while, Paul heads down to Corinth, meets Aquila and Priscilla and preaches to the Jews, but the Jews abuse him and Paul gets discouraged. Silas and Timothy catch up to Paul, and then Paul has a vision from the Lord, and encouragement to keep on preaching.

Then Paul sails for Syria with Aquila and Priscilla, stopping at Cenchrea and cuts his hair short to fulfill a solemn vow. Paul preaches at Ephesus while Aquila and Priscilla train Apollos, then Paul heads to Caesarea and the church at Jerusalem, then back to Antioch where Paul travels the region of Phyrgia and Galatia. Whew. Paul was a busy, busy man.

I want to return to Paul’s discussion with the Athenians in Acts 17. The city of Athens dated back to 3000 B.C., and had once been the home of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, but that was 400 years before Paul. The city’s prominence had faded since then, and it was now a town of about 10,000 people, primarily pagans and intellectuals and philosophers. Athens still remained famous as an intellectual and artistic center.

Starting in verse 16, Paul is walking around Athens. If you and I were walking around Athens, we’d be impressed with the magnificent architecture and the fabulous artwork, but Paul is distressed. The impressive buildings were dedicated to various gods and goddesses. Some historical accounts indicate there were more statues of idols than there were people in Athens. Paul is distressed by the paganism of Athens because it is an offense to the one true God for He had forbidden idolatry. Paul sees highly educated but spiritually lost people, ignorant of the one true God. Paul turns his inner turmoil into positive action. We should ask ourselves if we are good students of Paul. Do the lost people around us spur us into action? Do we shun the unbelievers, or do we seek an opportunity to share the gospel?

In verse 17, we can see Paul’s heart at work -

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”

Paul is reaching out to three types of people. First, the Jews in the synagogue, who Paul preached to throughout his journeys. He also preached to “those who worshiped God,” gentiles who worshipped God but did not know of the good news of Christ. And then he also preached to anybody else who happened to be there; pagans, philosophers, academics. Paul reasoned with them; this was the beginning of apologetics, which is not apologizing for your faith as I once thought it was. Apologetics is an argument for natural theology based on God’s self-revelation.

Two groups of philosophers began to argue with Paul in verse 18. The Epicurean philosophers followed the teachings of Epicurus, who taught that everything came from eternal, material atoms. They did not believe in life after death; they believed that when you died, humans returned to material atoms. The soul was considered part of the body that also died. The Epicureans also believed that gods existed, but the gods were far removed and unconcerned about humans. Because life was temporal, people should seek to be free from pain and anxiety, and instead seek pleasure through intellectualism. The Epicureans were deists, practical materialists, and they did their grocery shopping at Rice.

The Epicureans, to me, sounded like atheists of today. If there is no god, and no afterlife, then there’s no reason to serve or sacrifice. Get as much as you can out of this life.

The other group, the Stoic philosophers, believed in gods and divine providence, and that people should use one’s ability to reason to lift themselves up and be harmonious with nature. The god principle, or divine spark, was present in all things, and when we die, there is a great disturbance in the force. They were pantheists, and there is god in everything.

Stoics today are like the “all paths lead to heaven” philosophy. We’re all right in our own way. We define our own truth, and your truth may be different than my truth.

And of course the Epicureans and Stoics misunderstand Paul and call him names. They call him a babbler and seem to think Paul was just trying to add Jesus to the other gods they already worshipped. “Babbler” may also be translated “pseudo-intellectual,” but the word here literally is “seed-picker,” an image of a bird hopping around eating whatever seeds fall on the ground. They were accusing Paul of picking up scraps of philosophy and repackaging it as a new but worthless philosophy.

So in verse 19, the philosophers invited Paul to the Areopagus, which was either a philosophical court for an informal public lecture, or it may have been a place dedicated to Mars, the god of war. Either way, to the Epicureans and philosophers, they were expecting just another entertaining idea to debate.

A. Find Common Ground

Paul is the model apologetic; he’s getting ready to share the good news of Christ to an unbelieving and skeptical world. He begins by trying to find common ground. He debates, not berates. Sharing the gospel should be done in love, kindness and compassion. Yelling or belittling makes us poor examples of the love of Christ and renders us ineffective. Verse 22 –

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”

That may sound derogatory to us. “Ah, I can see you are very religious.” But it’s far more likely that Paul was being complimentary here. He shows respect for the intellectualism of the philosophers and congratulates them for they already know. He acknowledges that these are very smart people.

[Why is it important to find common ground?]
[Why are confrontational methods ineffective?]

Also note what Paul does not do – he doesn’t start by reciting Jewish history. When Paul preached in the synagogues, he preached about fulfilled prophecy to know about the messiah. Jewish history meant nothing to these philosophers, so instead, Paul searches for a frame of reference they can understand.

Verse 23 –

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Again, this sounds derogatory, accusing these people of not even knowing what they worship, but Paul is still seeking common intellectual ground. The people of Athens had shrines to every god, the shrines that had so distressed Paul. The Athenian philosophers were either polytheistic (worshipping many gods) or pantheistic (believed all nature was god). When disaster strikes, the people of Athens might believe they had been worshipping the wrong god, so they’d worship a different god and build another shrine. After many trials and errors, they’d finally cover all their bases by building an altar to an unknown god, whoever that might be.

Paul points out to these intellectuals that they already inherently recognize that the other gods they have built shrines to are deficient. They know inherently that there is something else out there. And Paul gets ready to show them that the unknown god they worship with stone could indeed become known personally to them.

B. Correct errant views of God

Then Paul tells them who God is and who God is not. Verse 24-25 –

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.

[Why is it important to correct perceptions of God?]
[What are some false perceptions of God?]
[Why is Christianity unique?]
[Why is insisting on the uniqueness of Christianity important?]
[Why is this offensive to some people?]

Paul’s witness is effective because he’s well-equipped. Passion alone is not sufficient, we must have knowledge. We must know about the bible, what it means, why it is true, and how to apply it. That doesn’t mean we keep silent until we feel we are ready; how could we ever be completely ready? How in heaven can we possibly know all there is to know about God? We are only called to share what we know. We are called to seek Him and to help others seek Him. But the more we know, the more effective we can be for the Lord by answering questions and arguments more effectively.

The unknown god that the Athenians worshipped was indeed a knowable God. God does not live in shrines built by humans, even spectacular Greek wonders like the Acropolis. God cannot be shrunk into a box. How could a box built by man contain a god? It makes no sense. A god that requires things from mortals or can be built by mortals is not a god at all. God himself is the source of all life and breath and all things. This statement would appeal to the Epicureans who believed in gods that were above all things human. And “all life and breath” would appeal to the Stoics who were trying to align themselves with some cosmic purpose. The idols that the Athenians worshipped were believed to control the sea, or the weather, or war, or agriculture, but the one true God is the Creator of all things.

So Paul begins with common ground and then exposes the flaws in their worship. Their man-made idols are inherently deficient. How could an all-powerful God need anything from humans? Paul’s message tells them –
- who God is
- who God isn’t
- why God is unique.

C. Nurture our need to know God

Then verse 26-27 –

From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

Paul then discusses more claims about our common heritage in Adam. The proud Greeks might have been offended; they might have believed they were intellectually or racially superior to the barbarians living around them. Both historically at appointed times and geographically at exact place, God has a plan for us. It’s not the plans or ingenuity of humans that determine the rise and fall of nations, but God’s plan. God does this so that people will try to find purpose in their lives and therefore seek God. The Athenians were using intellectual and logical groping in the dark to find the unknown god they seek.

God is not far removed and distant; the Greeks believed their gods were secluded and distant and unapproachable, but the one true God is knowable and not far from each and every one of us. God is not an idol. God is not one of many gods. God is not just some philosophical idea. God is alive, God is personal, God is truth.

And as his creation, we are born wanting to know God. This, too, would appeal to the Greeks who wanted to know everything. Verse 28 –

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

These words had greater meaning to the Greeks – the phrase “for in him we live and move and have our being” came from the Greek philosopher Epimenides, and “we are his offspring” came from the Greek poet Aratus and Cleanthes. These poets were referring to Zues, but for Paul, the reference was to the one true God.

Paul used many words like “seek,” “find,” “grope,” “not far,” “in him,” “we are his.” These would have been understood that for those seeking the truth, the truth could be found. God wants us to seek him and find Him. Paul corrects the false Greek teaching that God was unknowable, God lived in man-made temples, God was not involved. These are all false. Instead, the nature of God is knowable; Romans 1:20 says,

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

How does God reveal His character to you?

Now Acts 17:29-30 –

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

Paul provides some insight into the nature of God. People are not made of gold or silver or stone. Since we are his offspring, neither is God made of gold or silver or stone. In fact, people who worship an idol made by human hands have it exactly backwards. God made people; therefore, people cannot make God. Therefore any understanding of God that we create is false; we must not seek God in what we create, but in what He creates. Anything else is idolatry.

D. Judgment and Resurrection

Paul’s message also contains a warning that God’s desire for people to seek Him is not an idle request. It’s a command. Seek God, repent. Turn from idolatry, turn to God. They had overlooked God in the past, but it was nothing compared to overlooking Christ in the present. Why? Verse 31 –

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

The Greeks had no real concept of judgment. They lived, they died. Most of them preferred to worship many gods, depending on their needs. And although it appeared their gods became angry from time to time, there was no accountability.

Paul presented a different picture, that our lives have intrinsic worth to our Creator, and we are judged with God’s perfect justice. Daniel 7:13-14 –

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

God’s perfect judgment for eternity is coming. Once we hear the word, we no longer have an excuse for our ignorance. How awful to fail the test of righteousness before the living God! People need to know that they are being judged, and forgiveness is found in Christ and no place else.

This concept of judgment would be offensive to the Greeks, but Paul did not hold back the truth. While Paul might adapt his approach to sharing the gospel, he never varied the message of the gospel. Faith in Jesus alone will save us.

Is this concept of judgment still offensive today? Why?

E. Expect a variety of responses

Verse 32-34 –

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

The message of the resurrection of Christ ended Paul’s speech. Some of the intellectuals sneered and ridiculed Paul. Some outright laughed. Some were polite but dismissive, “we want to hear from you again.” But that’s ok. Because a few, a very few, became believers. And that’s ok. It’s our duty as the messenger to present the message. Paul showed us how to do it, and he did it expertly. And yet, an apostle of Christ got a mixed reaction. Sneering, some still searching, some believing. He did this by relating to them, nurturing them, and proclaiming the death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. That’s all we’re asked to do. The fruit is God’s responsibility.

So don’t hesitate to share what you know, and don’t worry that some will not believe you. Don’t expect a unanimous, positive response. Just tell the good news and plant the seed and let God do the rest.

[ In your opinion, what is the most troubling belief you have encountered about Christianity? ]
[ What reason can you give for your personal faith in Jesus? ]

In our culture, many people view Christianity as just another religion. Even some believers have accepted the false belief that all religions lead to the same place. But God wants us to acknowledge the unique gospel of Christ and to understand it more fully so that we can share it more effectively.

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Encouragement

Posted on July 13, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In the

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word
For what can an antelope say?

Every spoken word, every action we take, effects another person. We either affect somebody positively or we affect negatively. Even many neutral actions, since they don’t affect another in a positive way, can be considered negative. We label ourselves as either an optimist who sees the glass half full, or a pessimist who sees the glass half empty. Or an engineer, who sees the glass as too big.

Some Christians look at the people around them and find fault with them. They gossip too much, they only hang around with their friends; they don’t serve like they should. Other believers seem to have a good word for everyone they meet. Which type or person do you like to be around? Which type of person are you?

If we’re critical of others, we make excuses for our behavior. I don’t feel good. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It’s just the way I am. God made me this way. Or, they’re just out to get me. They deserve it. Or we hide our criticism behind the phrase, “bless their heart.” You can say the absolute meanest, despicable things about somebody as long as you add the phrase, “bless their heart” to it. “He’s just a blathering idiot, bless his heart.” “She’s a wicked gossip who smells bad and dresses like a vagrant, bless her heart.”

Why do we do this? Like many sins, this one, too, is based on pride. We’re better than them. If they don’t know that, then we can drag them down and push ourselves up by criticizing them. We think so highly of ourselves that we don’t consider the other person’s feelings before we open our mouths.

That’s not God’s plan for us. God wants all of his children to encourage and lift one another. Proverbs 10:10-11,

He who winks maliciously causes grief,
and a chattering fool comes to ruin.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.

And Hebrews 3:13,

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

What day is it? That’s right, it’s Today. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. And 1 Thessalonians 5:11,

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

And Ephesians 4:29,

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ok, so does God want us to encourage one another? Who can guess the answer to that question?

Today we’re going to study Acts 11 starting in verse 19 about a great encourager. This is a difficult time for the early church; the early Jews preaching the gospel were persecuted by Herod. Stephen had been stoned to death, and the early Christians were scattered. There was some confusion around this time about the good news of the gospel and who could receive it.

Then Peter has a vision; Fred touched on this last week in Acts 10. In Acts 11:1-3,

The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Criticism is everywhere; here, early believers are criticizing Peter, one of the original 12 Apostles. I can imagine them saying, “Well! He may have traveled and listed to Jesus for 3 years, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why, just the other day, he was eating with so-and-so, you know, that ‘gentile’. He calls himself a follower of Christ but you sure can’t tell he’s one by the way he’s behaving.”

As a devout Jew, entering the house of an unclean gentile would cause Peter to become unclean, a fact other Jews pointed out to him. In verse 4, Peter tells them about his vision. He repeats it “precisely” to them; he saw a sheet coming down from heaven, and inside were four-footed animals, and a voice from the Lord saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

Peter’s response indicated Jewish thinking; he cannot eat those animals because Jewish law forbids it. “Surely no, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth!” And the Lord responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

When we study God’s word, we often stop right there and think that God’s message is that it’s ok to eat pork. Or shellfish. Or… scorpions. Or whatever. And indeed, the scripture tells us this. When you couple this vision with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” we can also conclude that we are not bound by the Old Testament laws because Jesus completed them. We are free in Christ.

But for Peter, the vision he received also addresses the salvation of gentiles. Gentiles are also made by God. Gentiles can also be made clean by God. Peter would not defile himself by walking into a gentile’s home. The Holy Spirit came upon some gentiles in Acts 11:15-18,

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

In verse 19, after the stoning of Stephen, the early Christians scattered but continued to preach. Those that went to Phoenicia, Cypress and Antioch taught only to Jews. Other early Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene also went to Antioch, but began to teach the gentiles, the Greeks. The early church began to grow rapidly. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the early church there began to hear of the conversion of gentiles in Antioch. Verse 22-24,

News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Barnabas is a great example of the Christian God wants us to be. In Acts 4:34-37, scripture introduces us to this man.

There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

His name was Joseph, but the early church gave him the nickname “Barnabus”. A complete reading of the word “barnabas,” gives a more complete picture of his name. Barnabas means –

• Son of encouragement
• Son of prophecy
• Son of refreshment
• Son of comfort
• Son of consolation
• Son of preacher

In Hebrew names, the prefix “bar-” meant “son of.” For instance, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah.” It meant “Simon, son of Jonah.” If Jesus had said, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Smith & Wesson,” that could also mean “blessed are you Simon, you son of a gun.”

The selection of Barnabas by the early church was a wise decision. Barnabas is described in glowing terms in verse 24. He is the only man in Acts called “good.” He is “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of faith.” And then Barnabas gives 3 examples of who we are to encourage. First, by going to Antioch to share the gospel with gentiles in verses 19-22, Barnabas encourages new Christians. These new Christians came not from Jewish backgrounds, but from pagan backgrounds. It is because of this encouragement that (verse 21) “the Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

Why do new Christians need encouragement?
• May have zeal and happiness, but not knowledge of scripture
• May fall into old secular habits easily
• If not welcomed, may seek inclusion elsewhere

We can definitely encourage new Christians by assuring them that God is at work in their lives, that God loves them and gave His son for them. We can encourage new Christians, not by looking at what they are doing wrong, but by affirming the positive qualities they have and the positive actions they do. We must approach them in love, not criticism or condescension.

I look at these early Christians, the aggressive evangelism they do to spread the Word, and the persecution they endured, and compare it to the safety and comfort of our modern church. We’re coddled by Christianity, but it’s the suffering of the early Christians that produced the hope and character of zealous Christians.

Another person Barnabas encouraged was Saul. Verse 25-27,

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Saul wasn’t exactly a new Christian; Saul was an educated Pharisee, a very devout Jew who had persecuted the Christians until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. When Saul converted to Christianity, there was a lot of suspicion about him. After all, Saul was a witness to the stoning of Stephen; how could this man be so changed after his encounter with Jesus?

Barnabus went specifically to search for Saul and bring him to Antioch and together they helped grow the early church there. This was not the first time Barnabus had encouraged Saul; in Acts 9, immediately after Saul’s conversion, the Jews conspired to kill him and Saul tried to join the early church. But the Christians there were afraid of him and distrusted him. Then Acts 9:27, “But Barnabas took Saul and brought him to the apostles.”

Saul became Paul and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wrote most of the New Testament, including the letter to the Hebrews, verse 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today.” While we think of Paul has an incredible teacher, how much of Paul’s writing can be attributed to the encouragement and joy of Barnabas?

Why do established Christians need encouragement?
• Initial zeal of forgiveness fades, tempted by world
• The stronger the Christian, the more Satan steps up his attacks
• Like Paul, Christians we encourage may contribute to God’s work in ways we could never imagine

It says here in Acts 11:26 that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Here’s the rabbit trail for this week; up until this time, followers of Christ had sort of an identity crisis. For a while in Acts 1 through 4 they were called “believers”. In Acts 5, they referred to themselves as the church, and then in Acts 6 they called themselves disciples and then brothers. In Acts 9, they called themselves “The Way,” I assume because Jesus called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They also called themselves the Lord’s people in Acts 9, the Followers in Acts 17, and the Flock in Acts 20. But it was here in Acts 11 that followers of Christ were first called Christians.

So back to Barnabus; he’s encouraged new Christians, he’s encouraged experienced Christians, and now Acts 11:23 it says Barnabus encouraged all of them, the entire church of Antioch. So Barnabus has shown by his example we are to encourage new Christians, established Christians, both individually and in groups. Did we miss anybody?

Acts 11 ends on a note that a severe famine began to spread throughout the Roman worlds, and in verse 29-30, ” The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Barnabus’ encouragement was not limited to words; he also encouraged them by his acts of service. There are many ways of providing encouragement; here’s a list called “8 Simple Ways to Encourage Others” :

• Take an interest. I believe this is one of the most effective ways of encouraging others. Show that you’re interested in what they’re doing. Get them talking. People like to talk about themselves and once you get them talking, you fire up their enthusiasm.
• Acknowledge what’s important. When you acknowledge what’s important to another, you provide validation about who they are and what they’re doing. Whether we admit it or not, each of us craves acknowledgement. Affirmation fuels confidence and self-esteem.
• Acknowledge a job well done. Worthwhile accomplishments take time and effort. You can encourage by acknowledging someone’s effort. A simple “well done” or “thank you” can have a strong effect, which can make the difference between going on or giving up.
• Show your appreciation. It’s common courtesy. Thank someone when they do something for you. Thank your partner after they cook a nice meal. Thank a friend for lending you a book. A simple thank you lets others know what they have done is meaningful to you.
• Return the favour. If someone does something nice for you, show your appreciation by returning the favour. This should not be seen as an obligation, nor as a contest. You’re not trying to top the other’s contribution, but to express what their actions mean to you.
• Do something unexpected. This is a step beyond returning the favour. Respond with something unexpected: out of the blue. Such a response has a strong impact and can reach others at an emotional level.
• Ask for advice or confide in them. Haven’t you felt important when someone asked for your advice or confided in you about something important? Didn’t you find you were energised and eager to help. Taking someone into your confidence can motivate them to show your faith in them is well founded.
• Lend a hand. Waiting for someone to ask you for advice is passive. You can take the initiative by offering to lend a hand. If a person sees you are willing to commit your time and energy to their interests, they will be more committed to seeing it through and less likely to give up.

What about you? Are you an encourager? Do uplifting words come from you, or do words of condescension and criticism come from you? Are you a Barnabas? Or are you a barnacle?

Let’s keep in mind that all Christians need encouragement. For new Christians, simply going to them and offering help is encouraging. For maturing Christians, we can encourage them by affirming their good work and character and helping them apply their spiritual gifts in service to the Lord. For all Christians, just being concerned about them and helping them is encouraging.

Nicole Johnson, a Christian author and encourager herself, wrote “Encouragement is to a friendship what confetti is to a party. It’s light, refreshing, and fun, and you always end up finding little pieces of it stuck to you later.”

Let’s go be encouraging confetti to someone today.

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Christian Carnival CCXXVIII

Posted on June 11, 2008. Filed under: Christian Carnival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This week, Chasing the Wind is honored to host the 228th edition of the Christian Carnival, a collection of this week’s best Christian blogging. This week is Father’s Day – so let us remember this week that it is our Father in heaven that gives us Life in Him!

Would you like to participate in a future edition of the Christian Carnival, either as a host or as a writer? Jeremy has provided up to date instructions on how to do that at his website, Parableman.

First on our list is a promotion for a new Christian social network called His-Friends:

Christopher Johnson presents Smart Personal Finances » Blog Archive » His-Friends posted at Smart Personal Finances. I need your help to build a Christian community where everyone can come to make friends, keep in contact with friends and family, and give and receive support and encouragement.

What does the bible say about money? Quite a bit, actually:

FMF presents The Responsibility of Wealth posted at Free Money Finance. With wealth comes responsibility.

The bible also has quite a bit on the subject, of sex, too:

Cheapham presents Paul and Sex(uality) “According to Nature” posted at Theology for the Masses. The post deals with Roman sexuality and Paul in Romans 1. However, there is some good discussion brewing the comments on how to do biblical scholarship.

At the same website, a different author offers a prayer for the community:

JR Madill presents A Prayer I Prayed posted at Theology for the Masses. JR was asked to pray a prayer for “the least of these” Parkade Baptist Church “Battle for America” Concert of Prayer Monday night, June 2nd.

Diane looks at some positive benefits of legalism:

Diane R presents The Old Time Religion (Legalism)…Maybe Not So Bad After All? posted at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. Maybe the old time fundamentalist legalists weren’t that stupid after all.

John asks what it’s like to be accepted by God:

This week at Light Along the Journey John looks at the great truth that Christians are Accepted by God.

Does observing the liturgical calendary help or hinder the Christian Church?

Mark Olson presents Toward or Away From The Secular posted at Pseudo-Polymath. Liturgical calendar, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Easter/Pascha, Pentecost, and so on. Many Protestant churches have abandoned the liturgical calendar. Why? In asking, I present argument why not.

A thoughtful post on the theology of St. Luke is here; I look forward to the next installment:

Richard H. Anderson presents Reading Conzelmann Again for the 1st Time posted at dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos.

What is the bright side of the high price of oil? Find out here:

Thom presents High Priced Oil, a Struggling Economy, and Spirituality Part 1 posted at Everyday Liturgy. Thom begins a discussion on the spiritual consequences of living in the present economy.

Where is God when you need Him most? God is here:

Wickle presents God Is Here posted at A True Believer’s Weblog. After a terrible week, Wickle and his family were reminded that “God is Here,” and he shares some of that in his post.

God is our Father, not just on Father’s Day, but everyday. Why not our Mother?

Jeremy Pierce presents John Oswalt on God and Motherhood posted at Parableman. John Oswalt gives an interesting explanation of why the Bible calls God a Father and not a Mother.

And finally, broaching the subject of Christian erotica. Can erotica and/or porn also be Christian?

In P$rn vs. Er*tica posted at The View From Her. Discussing a disturbing trend in writing “evangelical er*tica”.

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Empowered to Witness

Posted on June 1, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The book of Acts was written approximately 60AD; the strongest evidence is that Acts closes with Paul in a Roman prison. We also know that Paul was martyred in 63AD or 64AD, and this would surely have been mentioned by the author.

Who knows who the author of Acts is? Most scholars believe it’s written by Luke as sort of a conclusion to the book of Luke, especially because in several places the author switches from a third person “they did this” to a first person “We saw this,” implying that the author saw some of the events firsthand. Acts 1:1 begins with the words, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Luke 1:3 says “… it seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus…”. So we can think of the book of Acts as sort of Luke, Part II. Or Luke, the Sequel. Or Luke and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Luke begins Acts with short summary of the last days of Christ and 4 major points –

a) Verses 4-8, the resurrected Jesus appears and tells the apostles to wait for the gift of the Holy spirit;
b) Verses 9-11, Jesus ascends into Heaven and angels remind them that Jesus will return the same way;
c) Verses 12-14, all the apostles unite in prayer as they wait for the Holy Spirit;
d) And verses 15-26 the entire church, about 120 of them, discuss the fate of Judas and his replacement according to scripture.

We’re supposed to covers Acts 1 & 2 today, and we’re not going to be able to do it justice. There are so many lessons in here; prophecy, obedience, the kingdom of God, the resurrection, the ascension, baptism, spiritual gifts, tongues, the early church structure, loving and caring for believers, and more. I remember when I was teaching about the life of Joseph and how his brothers threw him in the well. I thought, “Is that it? Can’t I have the next chapter where Joseph gets out of the well?” The first 2 books of Acts, though, are full of lessons.

I want to focus, though, on verses Acts 1:4-8 and the last instructions Jesus gave to his disciples.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus tells us that we will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. What keeps Christians from fulfilling this command? Why do Christian not witness?

Notice Jesus says, “wait for the gift my Father promised.” What is this gift? And what is the Holy Spirit? Is it a ghost? Is it, as Obi Wan says, a force that flows through us and surrounds us? No, the Holy Spirit is a person. He is the third person of the Trinity.

What does the Holy Spirit look like? Oh my goodness, we just got through studying Genesis and you’ve already forgotten. Genesis 1:26, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image.’” The Holy Spirit sort of looks like you and me.

The Holy Spirit does many things for us; for instance, sometimes He tells us what do do. Look at Acts 8:29 –

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Yes, sometimes God, through the Holy Spirit, commands us to do things. The Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us; look at Romans 8:26-27 –

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

The Holy Spirit is more than our conscience; the Holy Spirit guides us, helps us, gives us moral direction by directing us to obey God’s will. When you are troubled or confused or in conflict, ask God to search your heart like David did in Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” The same Psalm in verse 7 asks,

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

That is why Jesus says if you seek Him, you shall find Him, because no matter where you go, there He is. Come to think of it, no matter where I go, there I am, too. Coincidence? I think not.

The Holy Spirit also guides us. Look at John 16:13-14 –

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth; if what you hear conflicts with the Word of God, then you’re not hearing the Spirit, you’re hearing something else. And notice that it says the Holy Spirit will bring glory to me. The primary purpose of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Jesus Christ. Turn to John 15:26-27 –

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”

The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to tell people about Jesus Christ and how they can have a relationship with God. God, Spirit, Jesus. The Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus, and then Jesus says we also must testify. Let’s turn back to our study today at Acts 1:4 –

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised”

Why do you suppose Jesus told them to wait?

I find it interesting that these disciples were with Jesus throughout his ministry, they witnessed His teachings, His miracles, His death, resurrection and ascension. But they were not told to give a witness of their account. They were told to wait for the Holy Spirit and *then* witness.

God can do all things in His good time; I believe God is teaching us two things here. First, be patient. “Dear Lord, give me patience, and make it snappy!” We’re are by nature impatient and we want things now, but God’s plan requires us to wait on Him. We want things now; we want a new car, we want a bigger house, a better job. We want a bible study to grow, we want a family member to be saved, we want pain to end, we want, we want, we want. But God is trying to teach us that it is not our ability that accomplishes anything lasting. Only by waiting on Him will His will be accomplished through us. So the apostles were to be patient and wait on the Lord. We are not to do things under our own power; when we do, we are attempting to bring glory to ourselves. Listen to these instructions from the Lord to Israel in Ezekial 36:25-27 –

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Notice a pattern there? Who is responsible for cleansing us, for changing us, for putting the Holy Spirit in us? God wants us to know that He is responsible for all of these things. We wait on the Lord, because we need Him. Jesus repeats the instructions from John 15 in Acts 1:8 –

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Not only do we need the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises we can have it! Turn to Acts 2:1-4 -

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

This is not the first appearance of the Holy Spirit; He was with God in the beginning and He made appearances throughout the Old Testament for specific reasons and for limited times. But at the day of Pentecost, the holy Spirit makes a powerful entrance to show us the power and permanent residence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

The Day of Pentecost was an annual feast celebrated on the day after the seventh Sabbath according to the rules of Leviticus, the 50th day after Passover. It was originally the Feast of the Firstfruits of the grain harvest. After the resurrection of Jesus, He appeared for 40 days, then ascended into heaven, so there were 10 days the disciples waited and prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit to come. The Feast of Firstfruits has significance as these were the first 3000 who came to faith of many millions who would come after.

The Holy Spirit arrived dramatically; there was noise, a sound like a violent wind like a tornado or hurricane. There was sight as tongues of fire came down on each of the 120 disciples gathered. And then a gift of the Holy Spirit, speaking in many languages to enable them to spread the gospel to the entire world. In verse 8-9, they spoke the language of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia and Egypt and Libya and Rome and more. And the people witnessing this extraordinary event, did they immediately recognize God at work? Verse 13, “Ah, they’re just drunk.”

It’s important to understand the power given to Christians. Just as we are to wait on the Lord instead of doing things on our own, the handiwork of God is not apparent to nonbelievers without us telling them about it. In verse 14, Peter stands up in front of the crowd and explains the prophecy of the Holy Spirit’s coming. As believers, can you see the work of God? Can you see the stars and marvel at His glory, can you look at a blade of grass and marvel at the intricacies of the tiny veins? Can you look at your spouse and see the fingerprints of God? Psalm 19:1 says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” Romans 1:20 says,” For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” For people that do not know God, they attribute the beauty of the heavens to anything *but* God. God chooses to work through people filled with His Spirit to spread the Gospel, people that rely on the Spirit and not on their own abilities. Since the day of Pentecost, this power of the Holy Spirit is available to all who follow Jesus.

Notice what Peter does in Acts 2:14-36; Peter tells them about prophecy fulfilled, about the son of God paying the price for our transgressions, about Christ’s resurrection. Acts 2:15 Peter says, “These men are not drunk, it’s nine in the morning!” In verse 16-20 he quotes the book of Joel so that the unbelievers hear about the fulfilled prophecy, with a powerful statement in verse 21, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s everyone, as in Jews and Gentiles alike.

And then in verse 22-23, Peter tells them how evil they have been,

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

Peter repeats the accusation in verse 36,

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Some of you know that I grew up as a believer in Jesus. But I wasn’t a follower of Jesus until I gave my life to him in 1998. This statement by Peter was a powerful influence on me. Sure, I knew that Jesus died and was raised. But did He do it for me? When Jesus was arrested and people in the temple asked Peter if he knew Jesus, what did Peter say? That’s right, he denied it three times. Now Peter’s faith is firm because he saw the resurrected Jesus. Peter now knows Jesus conquered death. And he now gives this eloquent witness to the power of the death and life of Jesus, and telling the Jews, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

In my mind and in my heart, I realized then that I was no different from Peter. I didn’t have to deny Christ; I was a living example that I was not following Him. I wasn’t going to church, I wasn’t reading His Word. I could see myself doing the same thing Peter did, the same thing the Jews did, the same things the Romans did to Jesus. I was denying Him, I was mocking Him. If I had been there, I would have crucified Him. Christ died for me, personally.

We all crucified Jesus. We weren’t there, but we aren’t any different. And through our sinful actions, we crucify Jesus over and over again. We nailed Him to the cross and murdered Him, and He went willingly so that we, who knew not what we do, could have eternal life in Him. What a stunning display of mercy and grace.

What was the response of the people when they realized they had brutally murdered the son of God? Verse 37-41,

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Luke, the historian, does not mention tongues of fire or the sound of violent winds when the 3000 were baptized. While the Holy Spirit empowers all Christians, the miracle of Pentacost was a one time event.

When we wait on the Holy Spirit, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the only thing God asks us to do is be a witness to the good news that Jesus is our savior. What is the ultimate purpose for the Holy Spirit empowering believers?

Let me ask you, and don’t raise your hand. How many people have you led to the Lord? One? Three? None?

If your witness if ineffective, there are many reasons that may be holding you back. Perhaps you don’t feel you know enough of the Word of God. How do you change that? Read the Word of God. Perhaps you’re afraid they’ll make fun of you, or perhaps they’ll think you’re odd. Perhaps you’re relying on your own understanding. We are not responsible for making nonbelivers feel guilty for their sins; that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. Our job is just to share our faith, our witness, our testimony of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives.

It’s not about you; it’s not about me. It never was. It’s about the good news that in Christ, we are free, free from the bondage of sin. We have everlasting life in Him whom we trust. Peter, scaredy-cat Peter who denied Christ, is now infused with the power of the holy Spirit and proclaims loudly that Christ is Lord. And with the Holy Spirit filling him, those 120 followers of Christ baptized 3000 more believers. Those were some powerful firstfruits working for the Lord.

How do we get more of the Holy Spirit? That’s just it, you can’t. You have to surrender and let the Holy Spirit have more of you. The Holy Spirit isn’t like Underdog’s Super-Energy Pill that we take just before we sing, “Here I am to save the day!” If you want to be part of the work of God, you have to live with the spirit every day. Galatians 5:16-18 tells us how to do this –

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

When we surrender to the Holy Spirit, we walk with Him daily. What does that mean? It means submitting to God’s authority, being obedient to His word. It means communicating with God regularly through prayer and study. It means being active with other believers in fellowship and in service so that we can see and hear the Word of God at work in the lives of others. With a lifestyle of obedience and communications, we learn to give control of our lives to the Spirit and let God direct our lives instead of us trying to tell God who He is.

We need the power of the Holy Spirit; God tells us to wait on Him. We can use the power of the Holy Spirit because it is a gift promised to all followers of Christ. And when we submit to God’s authority in obedience, we can see the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and the lives of others.

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When All Hope Seems Lost

Posted on April 20, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Coptic-Arabic manuscript, Ayyubid period, AD 1249-50. Images depict Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, the kiss of Judas, the arrest of Christ, his appearance before Caiaphas, Peter's denial at cockcrow, Christ before Pilate, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
This week we follow Joseph into prison. If we’re headed to prison with him, let’s recap how we got here. We know that Joseph was born into a family that was trying to follow God’s will but at the same time was highly dysfunctional. Joseph had eleven other brothers, born to four different women. His own mother had passed away. His father Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph because Jacob learned that from his father Isaac.

Joseph has a dream that God will make him ruler, and Joseph’s family will bow down to him. Joseph’s brothers are less than enthused by this dream, and they throw him in a well, expecting to kill him. Now, when I was growing up, my brother and sister and I fought, but we never threw any of us in a well. At least not that I remember. At least not for very long. And we never sold one of us to the Egyptians which is what Joseph’s brother decided to do, rather than kill him.

When Joseph was at the bottom of the well, things looked pretty hopeless. No food, no water, and the only people around that could get him out of the well were the same ones that threw him into the well in the first place. Joseph knew God’s plan for him held great things in store for him, but how were they possibly going to come true if Joseph is dying at the bottom of a well? I think we can learn from Joseph about how to handle serious setbacks in our life and how we should respond. I came up with four ways, but I’m not going to tell them to you yet because the lesson would be over and it’s too early for lunch.

Instead of killing Joseph, his brother decided to sell him to the caravan to Egypt. I was always amazed at that caravan to Egypt that “happened” to come by, right at that moment, while Joseph was at the bottom of the well. How many months had that caravan been traveling to reach that exact spot at that time? From Joseph’s perspective at the bottom of the well, things must have looked bleak. Things must have looked hopeless. But God was in control all along. He knew Joseph would be in a well that day, so months earlier he sent a caravan to pick him up and take him to Egypt to fulfill His plan.

And for a while, it certainly looked like Joseph was living the dream. Head servant to Potiphar, officer to the Pharaoh himself, Joseph is given great responsibilities and freedoms because of his faithfulness and trustfulness. But then, Joseph is a victim of seduction and false accusations. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, but Joseph denounces the seduction as a wicked sin. Potiphar’s wife isn’t named in the scripture; she’s one of the unnamed people in the bible, like Lot’s wife or David’s mother or the Magi. Scholars believe her name was Zulieka, married to Ptahwer, an officer of Pharoah Ahmenemhet III of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Zulieka’s shade is observed by Dante in the Eight Circle of Hell. She doesn’t speak, but Dante is told the Eight Circle of Hell is reserved for perjurers that violate the ninth Commandment not to bear false witness and she will spend all of eternity with a burning fever. And this is the kind of thing that sidetracks me when I’m studying and I need to get back to Joseph. Joseph flees from the sin of temptation but he leaves some article of clothing behind, and because of this evidence, Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison.

I think sometimes we tend to think that if we follow God’s will, we will only see God’s blessings. Or perhaps we think that if we’re going through some challenge, we’re in some dark well or we’re in prison to our sin that God has forgotten us. Joseph had been in a tough position, what would be sexual harassment today, a daily temptation. If he resists Potiphar’s wife, she’ll be mad, and if he gives in, Potiphar will be mad. God will be offended. Clearly, Joseph had no choice that was without serious consequences. Joseph chose to do the right thing and was thrown into prison for it. And again, where was God? Would God send the equivalent of another caravan to rescue Joseph? Let’s read Genesis 39:21 and see.

But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that being the best darn prisoner in all of Egypt is not what Joseph expected when he decided to follow God’s will. But when all hope is lost, when we’re in a well or we’re in some prison and we don’t know how we’re going to get out, we can learn the first way we can respond to serious setbacks in our life. How many ways are we going to study? Four, that’s good, just checking to see if you were paying attention.)

I. We can trust God

We can trust God, that He has a plan and He will see His plan done. While Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him. We might be tempted to ask, well, if the Lord was with him, why was he in prison in the first place?

Well, the Lord doesn’t seem to work like that; there is a place for suffering in the lives of Christians. Paul tells us in Romans 5:3-5 that suffering will produce perseverance, character and hope. James 1:2-4 tells us that the trials we face gives us spiritual maturity. Faith in an all-benevolent, gift-giving God is easy; to increase our faith, God grants us trials so we not only believe in Him, but we learn to rely on Him. God is interested in our circumstances, but He is far, far more interested in our response to our circumstances.

Joseph was in a place of hopelessness, a life imprisonment. The only he had going for him was the fact that Potiphar didn’t execute him, the customary punishment for adultery. Potiphar must have believed him, but it didn’t keep him out of prison. Joseph has no family to comfort him; it was his family’s actions that setup this circumstance in the first place. He’s a slave, in a foreign land. Joseph had one thing and one thing only. Scripture says the Lord was with Joseph.

Sometimes, when things look bleak to us, this is the only thing that can sustain us. The Lord is with us, even when we can’t see it. Family members hospitalized, troubled marriages, abuse, traumatic accidents, lost jobs.

Q: What does it mean to you to trust God? How does the promise of God’s presence build your trust in Him?

We know Joseph’s future. Joseph only has his knowledge of what the Lord has told him in a dream. If Joseph knew what we knew, having faith in prison for a crime he didn’t commit would be easy. Joseph didn’t have such knowledge, but he did have faith that God is true. And that’s the same thing we have. We have God’s word that He is with us, no matter what. You’ve heard it said that if it is written once in the bible, it’s important, but if it’s written twice, better sit up and pay attention? Look at Deuteronomy 31:6 -

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

And Joshua 1:5 -

No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

And Hebrews 13:5 -

…because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

And Matthew 28:20, Jesus says,

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God is with us. Emmanuel. God is with us. What’s our first step to dealing with troubles in our lives? Trust in God, for He is with us.

II. We can serve others

Let’s read Genesis 40:1-8 -

Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them.

After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.

When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?”

“We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”

Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

Joseph could have been wallowing in self-pity. He had a lot to wallow about. He could have used his situation as an excuse; “I can’t help you know, can’t you see I’m in prison? Sheesh!” But instead, Joseph looked to serve others. In verse 4, the term “served them” or “attended them” or “ministered to them” could mean he performed menial service, but Joseph’s care goes further than that. It was Joseph that noticed their faces were dejected. Joseph took the time to care about them, inquire about their welfare, and taking the time to listen to their stories.

And Joseph credited all the dream interpretation to God. Just like Joseph, even when we’re troubled, we can still find a way to minister to others. Joseph used his faith to reach out to others in their need, just as we can serve others in the Lord’s name as a way to comfort others.

Helping others is a sure fire way to take your mind off your own troubles. If you can do nothing else for somebody else, just take the time to listen to them.

One of the reasons we suffer is so that we may understand others who suffer. People afflicted with cancer relate better to a cancer survivor. Recovering alcoholics attend AA meetings to be with other people with the same struggles. A large reason Diane relates so well to the elderly is because many of the aches and pains they have, Diane identifies with them because she’s had them, too.

Nobody understood that better than Jesus. Jesus suffered, died and was buried for our sins. Do you think Jesus can’t identify with your pain? The humanity of Jesus gave him direct access to the worst pain that can be inflicted on a man, and His anguish troubled Him so much His sweat was like blood. Jesus knows suffering. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 -

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.

Q: What kind of things can we do today that makes a difference in somebody else’s life?

III. We can seek help

So Joseph offers to interpret their dreams, and the chief cupbearer goes first. Genesis 40:9-15 -

So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, “In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.”

“This is what it means,” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”

Just giving comfort to others helps us, consider that getting comfort from others blesses them, too. Joseph saw an opportunity for somebody to help him, and he wasn’t afraid to ask. Joseph’s ordeal had him in prison for the rest of his lift, and the prophecy of this dream coming true gave Joseph hope for the future. He was not afraid to ask for help. “Mention me to Pharoah and get me out of this prison.” Sometimes there is a solution to our problem that’s available if we just ask for it.

The cupbearer received good news from Joseph’s dream interpretation. The baker now asked for Joseph to interpret his dream. Genesis 40:16-19 -

When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

“This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”

Well. Sucks to be the baker, I guess. Actually, there is a lesson here. Joseph approached the cupbearer for help because he knew the cupbearer would eventually be in a position to help him. It’s important to use discernment when seeking help. Seek those who can provide Godly wisdom and comfort or who may be in a position to help. And don’t be a baker in Pharaoh’s prison.

Q: How did God use others to encourage Joseph? How has God used others to encourage and help you?

IV. We can be patient

And lastly, we can be patient and wait on God whose timing is perfect. Genesis 40:20-23 -

Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.

The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

Patience is hard; patience is a virtue. Patience takes practice. There are many places we wait in life. We wait in traffic. We wait for the microwave to finish. We wait for the right job to come along. We wait for the right spouse to come along. We even wait on our spouse to become the spouse God intends, just like our spouse waits on us. We’re waiting for children to grow up, we’re waiting for children to move out, we’re waiting, waiting, waiting.

Have you ever considered that we’re sometimes just waiting in God’s waiting room? We see a situation in our lives or the lives of someone close to us, and we wonder why God doesn’t fix it now. Surely it is God’s will for this thing to happen. Why is He taking His time?

God has great plans for Joseph. Plans to prosper him and not to harm him, plans to give him hope and a future. But for now, Joseph is in God’s waiting room. And sometimes, we are, too. God has a plan for each and every one of us. He wants us to love Him, He wants us to love one another. He wants us to grow spiritually in a closer relationship with Him. And sometimes He uses time to accomplish His will.

Are you waiting on God for something? For somebody to come to faith, for somebody’s heart to soften, for somebody to apologize, for the pain to stop, for the health to improve? I understand, waiting is hard. God understands waiting is hard, but sometimes it takes time for God to work His will, not because God is slow, but because people are slow to respond. As Joseph is getting to depend on the Lord and serve the Lord, he’s waiting in prison. His hope for the chief cupbearer to tell Pharaoh at the birthday party about Joseph’s innocence did not happen. The chief cupbearer forgot. But God remembered, and when His timing was right, we’ll see Joseph delivered. But he has two more years to wait on the Lord.

Be patient. Whatever you are waiting on is a small part of the picture. God sees the whole picture in the fullness of time. When God acts, it may look like good timing, or bad timing, or no timing at all, but its God’s perfect timing. Keep Romans 8:28 in mind,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

God will act when He knows the time is right. In the meantime, we continue to grow in Him by serving and studying and being obedient and praying. Timothy must have asked Paul about the persecutions and the injustice he saw, and Paul told him in 2 Timothy 3:14 to just continue.

Q: Why do you think the cupbearer forgot Joseph? Why is it so hard to wait when facing a hopeless situation?

Q: Which one of these four steps is the easiest to do? Which one is the hardest?

These four steps take practice. Pray and lean on Him when you’re going through difficult times. Our human nature often leads us to respond incorrectly and in ways that are ultimately destructive. Joseph could have responded with anger and bitterness. He could have said ugly things about Potiphar’s wife. He could have been mad at Potiphar. He could have harbored resentment towards his brothers. Joseph’s life so far includes abuse, abandonment, hatred, slavery, false witness, and now prison, all while Joseph tried to do the right thing. Can you picture Joseph years later, a 90 year man, eaten up with bitterness about how he was treated? Anger and bitterness are not the solution.

Or Joseph could have turned his back on God and taken the situation into his own hands. Joseph could have gossiped about Potiphar’s wife, you know how many slaves she sleeps with, she’s such a tramp. And that Potiphar, what an idiot for believing her. Sometimes we want to take charge of the situation and change it, only to make it worse. Some people see trouble and turn their back on God, not understanding the pain and the waiting could possibly be from a loving God. And they seek other sources of comfort in alcohol, drugs, infidelity, materialism, whatever. Others see the same pain and waiting and understand God’s perfect timing as a time of spiritual growth and develop a deep confidence in waiting on the Lord.

In an Expositional commentary to Genesis, I read this story told by Billy Graham. Billy Graham told a story of a friend that went through the Great Depression who lost his job, all his savings, then his wife and then his home. But he was a believer in Jesus Christ and held onto his faith even through he fought with depression about his circumstances. One day he stopped to watch some workmen doing stonework on a huge church. One man out front was chiseling a piece of stone into a triangle. Curious, he asked what the triangle was for.

See that little opening on the top of the spire? I’m chiseling this down here so it’ll fit up there. And his friend left with grateful tears; God was doing the same to him, shaping him for heaven by chiseling him through his ordeals.

So trust in God. Continue to serve, and to ask for help, and be patient and wait on God’s perfect timing.

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Christian Carnival CCXIX

Posted on April 9, 2008. Filed under: Christian Carnival | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

c. 1220
Chasing the Wind is honored to host the 219th edition of the Christian Carnival II, the blogosphere’s best Christian writing. My comments on the post in italics after each entry, but I left the author’s original thoughts when he or she provided them. I included almost all posts I received; I excluded two from the same blog that were more about “the power of positive thinking” that didn’t seem to mention Christianity, and a similar post about raising children from a site mostly dedicated to gardening. Oh, and I excluded an advertisement blog for Branson Missouri. If I excluded your post and you don’t agree, email me and let me know why I erred and I’ll correct it.

Submit your blog article to the next edition of christian carnival ii using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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God's Dysfunctional Children

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Dysfunctional: abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.

We’ve been studying a dysfunctional family now for the last several weeks. They’re a mess! We had Abraham; Abraham had been promised by God that he would have so many children, as many as there were stars in the heavens. How long did Abraham wait before God answers? Over 80 years – and Abraham thinks that maybe it’s time for him to do things his own way. A godly decision would be to continue to wait on the Lord. A dysfunctional decision would be … to sleep with the maid, Hagar. And it was his wife’s Sarai’s idea! And then when Hagar gets pregnant, Sarai gets mad at Abraham and Hagar and tells Abraham to fix it. I’m sure Abraham was like, “but this was your idea, wasn’t it?” and Sarai would be like, “don’t give me that, just fix it.” So Abraham sends Hagar and her son, Ishmael, to live in the desert, and the bible says that Ishmael’s descendants live in hostility toward their brothers. Wonder why. Stars in the heavens, indeed, with these little supernovas going off.

Abraham finally has a son with Sarai, Isaac. Isaac probably grew up a little distrustful of Dad because Dad almost sacrificed him on an alter. Isaac marries Rebekah, and they have two children, Jacob and Esau. They play favorites with the children; Isaac likes Esau best, Rebekah likes Jacob. As Isaac lay dying, Rebekah and her son Jacob make a plan to steal the blessing from Esau. Then Esau’s mad as a hornet and wants to kill Jacob, so Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s home.

Jacob and Laban trick each other for years over Laban’s daughters and livestock, and Jacob eventually marries two daughters, Leah and Rachel. And Jacob runs from Laban back to Esau hoping that his brother won’t kill him. The two brothers sort of patch things up, and Jacob settles down with his wife Leah, who he didn’t really want to marry, but he has 6 sons with her, so I guess they got along ok. Two more sons with Rachel, and then for good measure, two son’s with Rachel’s slave Bilhah and two sons with Leah’s slave Zilpah. Twelve sons in all by four different wives, all living together. And of course, Jacob has learned from Isaac that he should play favorites, so he likes Rachel best, and her son Joseph best. One big happy, dysfunctional blended family.

We’ve actually learned quite a bit from this dysfunctional family.

a) The human nature is rebellion against God.

While we can point fingers at Abraham and Sarai and all their children and grandchildren and say, “what were they thinking?” stop for a moment and reflect on your own life. You are a believer in God. Have you ever rebelled? Romans 3:9-12 says,

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

Not even one. Your life and my life is full of thoughts that rebel against God. Your life and my life is full of actions that betray the Lord. This can be caused by many different things; circumstances in our lives that cause us to wonder if God is in control. Or a lack of appreciation for our relationship with God, or our desire to do things our way instead of God’s way. All of this comes from our natural rebellious state. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all people of God and didn’t seek rebellion, but often fell into rebellion because they didn’t remain focused on God. We aren’t so different; we rebel, we pretend we are not rebelling, we miss God’s calling because we’re doing it our way instead of God’s way. We are the Lord’s dysfunctional children.

b) God is in control.

God knows more about us than we know about ourselves; God was able to accomplish His plans. God knows every human heart, and knew that Isaac and Rebekah would have favorites and that Jacob and Esau would feud. But God is in control no matter how much we rebel. The lessons learned by this family teach us that our own rebellious nature makes things harder on us and on the others around us. Whether we justify our behavior because “I deserve this” or “he did that first” or “she said that to me,” we initiate a chaos in our lives as our actions and reactions fail against God’s omnipotent plan for us. We blame the chaos in our lives on the actions of other people, and pretend that our own rebellious actions have no effect at all.

And now we come to the story of Joseph, born in the middle of a dysfunctional family. A grandfather who slept with a maid, cousins who dislike us, and uncle that wanted to kill his father, a mother who died at childbirth and half-brothers from a step-mother and two other slave mothers. Let’s pick up the story in Genesis 37:1-4,

Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

I spent some time trying to figure out what Joseph was up to here. It appeared to me that Joseph was snitching on his brothers, but I think it goes deeper than that. The phrase “bad report” can also be translated “evil whisperings” or “malignant defamation.” Joseph was 17 by this time, and he’s probably old enough to decide that his brother’s comments were some sort of evil or threat against his father. Perhaps some of his trials are the result of a commitment to do the right thing. The right thing is not always easy to do, especially when others around us are not doing the right thing, either.

Joseph’s brothers hate him. Coming from a father with 2 wives, 2 concubines, and twelve half-brothers, all the half-brothers are affected by bad decisions from their parents. God is aware that our rebellious nature is inevitably going to lead to our chaotic lives. The sins of our parents cause damage in our lives and the lives of our children. Exodus 20:4-6, in God’s instruction not to worship idols, God says,

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 34:6-7,

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

God is well aware that the rebellious nature of men and women lead to chaos in their children’s lives. But that is not an excuse to blame our rebellious disobedience on our parents and grandparents; look at Jeremiah 32:18-19,

You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers’ sins into the laps of their children after them. O great and powerful God, whose name is the LORD Almighty, great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds. Your eyes are open to all the ways of men; you reward everyone according to his conduct and as his deeds deserve.

The disciples asked Jesus a similar question in John 9:1-3,

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

God knows about our chaos. He knows that our lives are in chaos because of not only our rebellion, but also the rebellion of our parents. But our dysfunction circumstances are not an excuse for even more dysfunctional rebellion. We are responsible for our own actions.

Why do you think Joseph’s brothers hate him?

Is Joseph responsible for the hatred of his brothers? Yes and no. In telling Jacob that his brothers were up to no good, Joseph was doing the right thing. That was his own action, and doing the right thing stirred up their anger. The right thing isn’t the easiest thing, and it may make those you are closest to mad at you.

But Joseph’s brothers hated him because of their father Jacob’s actions, too. They were jealous. Joseph was the second youngest son, but Jacob’s favorite. That’s not Joseph’s fault; he didn’t choose his mother or his order of birth. Joseph is dealing with people who hate him because of his own actions, other people’s actions, and just plain circumstances.

Do you think Joseph should have told his father what his brothers were up to?

In Genesis 37:5-10, Joseph shares his dreams with his brothers,

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Knowing that his brothers already hated him, did Joseph do the right thing by sharing his dreams with his brothers.

Some commentaries go into a study of discernment and speaking the truth in love here. I think there’s a lot to be said for that; sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes kindness should temper our words. On the other hand, Joseph has a faith and a walk with God like no other person in Genesis so far. If he knows what God says, should he keep his brothers in the dark, or should he tell them what he knows, even if they hate him for it?

I think it’s important we temper the truth with kindness. There’s nothing in the scripture here to indicate Joseph’s tone; he doesn’t appear arrogant. I think Joseph was correct in sharing the dream with his brothers because his brothers were a part of the dream, even if the dream added to his brother’s hatred of him. Why do you think Joseph shared the second dream with his family after the reaction they had to his first dream?

When we share the truth about God with others, whether they are believers or not, it’s important to be kind. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to speak the truth in love. What do you think that mean, to speak the truth in love?

Let’s read Genesis 37:12-19

Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”

“Very well,” he replied.

So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.

When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”

He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”

“They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ “

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Joseph is persistent in doing the right thing, following his father’s instruction. Jacob sends Joseph to check on the status of his brothers and the flocks, and sends him to Shechem about 60 miles north of Hebron, and when he gets there he travels another 15 miles to Dothan. Joseph’s brothers see him coming and plot to kill him. They call him “that dreamer” so they’re obviously still mad about Joseph’s dreams and perhaps plot to kill him to prevent the dreams from coming true.

Genesis 37:21-25

When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing- and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

Rueben was the oldest of the ten brothers there (Joseph was the 11th, and Benjamin wasn’t with them). Rueben has second thoughts about killing Joseph and convinces the other 9 brothers to throw him in a well instead. I don’t know where Rueben goes at this point; he’s making some sort of plan to rescue Joseph and he’s taken off somewhere. The other 9 brothers are callous; while Joseph is at the bottom of a dry well without food or water, they sit down to have a meal. Then a caravan comes by.

God’s control is amazing – many weeks before Joseph is thrown into the cistern, God has sent a caravan to be there at the right spot to pick up Joseph and take him to Egypt to complete God’s plan. How awesome is that?

Genesis 37:26-30,

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.

When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

Judah comes up with an idea to sell Joseph for 20 sheckels of silver, the price of a slave. I find his justification for this interesting; “let’s not kill him, he’s our brother. Let’s sell him instead.” When we look at such simple reasoning, it looks silly, but we all do this. We convince ourselves that instead of doing something really horrible, we only did a little bad thing, then we pat ourselves on the back for how much we restrained ourselves.

Reuben returns at this point and finds Joseph is gone and Reuben’s upset. I don’t know what Reuben thinks happened; eventually, he must find out Joseph was sold, but for now, Reuben participates in this next deception in Genesis 38:31-36,

Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”

He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”

Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him.

Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

“All his sons and daughter came to comfort him” shows the hypocrisy of his children; the sons knew Joseph was alive and they were responsible for Jacob’s grief, yet they came to him to comfort him. Meanwhile, Joseph has been sold again, this time to the Egyptians.

Joseph’s trials are the result of his own actions, the actions of others, and his circumstances.

• What were Joseph’s actions that led to his trials?
• What were the actions of others that led to his trials? (Father’s favoritism, brother’s hatred)
• What were circumstances that tried him? (being born 11th of 12 sons)
• And a final question to think about: how long did Joseph have to wait to see the dreams from the Lord fulfilled?

Joseph waited on God for years and years and went through many more trials. Joseph accepted the trials that came with obedience. He could have used his circumstances as an excuse not to follow God; he could have said, I’m the 11th of 12 children; it’s up to Reuben to do God’s will. He could have found an excuse in the actions of others; I don’t have to follow God’s will anymore because this person said something to me or that person did something to me. Or he could have found an excuse in his own actions; hey, I did my part, now it’s up to somebody else.

But God understands our dysfunction; He knows who we are and He knows how we got here. He knows our circumstances. He knows our grandparents were in rebellion to Him and our parents were in rebellion to Him and that we are in rebellion. And He loves us anyway. What God wants for us is our spiritual maturity and a focus on Him, regardless of our circumstances. We are responsible for our own actions. Joseph came from a dysfunctional blended family, yet Joseph has a solid relationship with the Lord. The Lord wants us to learn patience and to wait on Him to complete His plan.

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Wrestling with God

Posted on March 16, 2008. Filed under: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


As we’ve learned the last few weeks, God has a plan for Jacob. Jacob knows this, too, but he’s still trying to do things his own way and for personal reasons. Jacob was the second son born of Isaac and Rebekah, and God had told Rebekah that the elder would serve the younger. Esau was born first and became Isaac’s favorite. Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite, but he was a deceiver and an opportunist. When Esau came home from hunting and was hungry, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s bad judgment and sold Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for a bowl of stew. If these two brothers weren’t fighting already, they’re fighting now.

When Isaac approached death, Isaac wanted to lay his blessing on Esau, but his eyesight was so poor, Rebekah and Jacob believed they could trick Isaac. They concocted a plan to give that blessing to Jacob by dressing him up in Esau’s clothes. They lied to Isaac. And when Esau found out, he vowed to kill Jacob.

Their family is now in complete chaos. Rebekah sends her favorite son to live with her father to save his life, and there’s no indication she ever saw her son again. When Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, he gets a taste of his own medicine. Jacob falls in love with Rachel and gives 7 years of work to Laban for her hand, but Laban tricks him, and Jacob marries Leah instead. Laban gives Rachel to Jacob also, but only in exchange for another 7 years of labor. The deceiver had been deceived.

After 20 years of mutually destructive behavior, Laban and Jacob are no longer getting along, and Jacob flees. Again. God tells Jacob to go back home. Jacob’s caught in a tough spot; Laban and his children hate him, but if he goes home, Esau wants to kill him. Jacob may have gained wealth from working his whole life, but his life is in shambles.

I think we gain some insight into Jacob’s character development at the end of Genesis 31; this is where Laban confront Jacob and Laban essentially agrees not to kill Jacob. Jacob defends his actions with these words in Genesis 31:42,

If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.

Jacob acknowledges God is Abraham’s God and Isaac’s God, but I don’t see that he has acknowledged God is his own God. Jacob’s progression of faith is such that he knows who God is and even recognized God’s sovereignty, but he has not truly placed his trust in the Lord.

Well, maybe Esau’s no longer mad at him; it’s time to return home. Do you think 20 years away from home has eased the old wounds? Or do you think 20 years away from home has hardened Esau’s heart and made him more bitter? Do you think putting off his conflict for 20 years has fulfilled or delayed God’s promises to Jacob?

We pick up our story in Genesis 32 as Jacob begins his journey home. The angels of the Lord meet him. This must have been comforting to Jacob and it reminds him that the Lord had promised him back in Genesis 28 that the Lord was with him and would never leave him. Jacob was stressed out, not know what his reception would be like when he returned. In the Old Testament, the appearance of angels offered great comfort but often appeared just before times of great trial, like the appearance to Lot just before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Jacob is about to undergo an ordeal where he has to face up to his own deceitful character. Jacob had put himself in this predicament because he had stolen the blessing from Esau instead of relying on God, and now he’s going to have to face Esau and do things God’s way.

Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to Esau in verse 3.

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my master Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’ “

Jacob wants to tell Esau, oh hey, I’ve been gone 20 years, you probably wondered where I went. I went to see our uncle Laban he says Hi. I’m coming back now, and I’m bringing goats! P.S. Please don’t kill me. Verse 6,

When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

Oh, this isn’t going to be good. Jacob’s coming with cattle and donkeys and sheep and goats and servants. Esau’s coming to meet him with 400 warriors. Verse 7-8,

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

I think I’d be afraid, too. Jacob is completely outmatched; Esau will have the anger and the manpower to crush Jacob’s little donkey and goat army. Jacob starts laying out his plans; he’s expecting Esau to attack, and Jacob makes plans for half of his party to escape should the other half be destroyed.

Jacob has a decision to make. Doing the right thing means reconciliation with Esau. We all want to do the right thing, don’t we? But doing the right thing is not easy. This is a crossroads that every believer must eventually face. What do I do, and how will I do it? When God calls me to do a most difficult thing, will I do what God wants? Or will I take the easy way, and do what I want?

Unfortunately, sometimes we take the easy and selfish way. In this class, we are closer to our spouse than any other human being on the planet. We should examine ourselves daily to see how God wants us to treat our spouse, but we’ve all discovered (and are still discovering) that being married comes with a few challenges. Will we do what God wants us to do? Or will we find some excuse? It’s too easy to say that we don’t have to do the right thing because our spouse does this or our spouse doesn’t do that. But God calls us to trust in Him. We face the same sort of decision Jacob faces. Will we do it God’s way, or will we do it our way?

God has promised Jacob that the land of Canaan will be his. In order to claim this promise, Jacob is going to have to face Esau in an honorable way, in a way that is obedient to the Lord’s will. But the last time Jacob saw Esau, Esau wanted to kill him. Loving God will require Jacob to love God more than he fears Esau. Doing the thing we resist most will gain peace with God. We must show God that we fear Him most in order to prove we love Him most.

What holds us back from experience the completeness of God’s love for us? Is it fear, like Jacob experiences? We’re afraid to do something that God wants us to do? Is it anger that holds us back when God wants us to forgive? Is it something worldly God wants us to surrender but we want to keep it selfishly? In Jacob’s case, he had selfishly destroyed his relationship with His brother, and God is calling him to repair it. Jacob had spent 20 years of his life, not wanting to face this moment. If Jacob was going to receive God’s promise, he was going to have to face the repercussions of his own actions.

And finally we see Jacob start to break, to finally start to realize that the God he knows, the God of Abraham and Isaac, is his God. Jacob has worked himself into a bind that he cannot fix with his usual deviousness and deceit, and now he needs help that no man can provide. And we see Jacob go to his knees in prayer, the first recorded time that Jacob prays . Genesis 32:9-12,

Then Jacob prayed,

“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ “

Effective prayer:
• Personal
• Humility
• Obedience
• God’s will

The prayer has many important elements of a prayer that God hears and responds to. He addresses God as God of his father and grandfather again, but he’s added “O LORD,” Jehovah God, the proper name of the one true God. Jacob’s God, Jacob’s Lord. No longer is God merely the God of his fathers, but it’s the “Lord who said to me.” It’s Jacob’s God.

He’s approaching the Lord with humility; Jacob praises God for His kindness and faithfulness, and he knows he is unworthy of this favor. When we pray with a sense of pride or a sense that we deserve this favor, our prayers are ineffective. When we know that we cannot achieve anything on our own, that whatever ability we have in itself comes from God, then we realize how much we need God in our lives. God is so much bigger than us, but our own egos tend to inflate our sense of worth. We are important to God, we are very important – but we’re not worthy of the love and grace He gives to us.

And Jacob is approaching God as an obedient servant; God told Jacob to return to Canaan, and as Jacob approaches God in prayer, Jacob tells God he trying to be obedient to Jehovah God. One of the keys to effective prayers is to come to the Lord with a sense of obedience. Jacob has a lot of guilt in his life, being deceitful with his father and brother. As Jacob prays, he’s acknowledging that obedience to the Lord is important.

And Jacob for the first time is his life seems to be praying for God’s will instead of his own. His prayer to God tells God that Jacob believes God’s promise that the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will be fruitful and multiply, but Esau is coming to slaughter the mothers and the children. When we pray with God’s long-term plans as our primary motive, we are far more likely to pray for the right thing and to do the right thing.

Now it is time for Jacob to fulfill his promise to the Lord that he made years earlier, back in Genesis 28:22 that Jacob will do the Lord’s will and return to Canaan. But there is an obstacle. It’s Esau. The anger in Esau is a direct result of Jacob’s bad behavior, of which Jacob must now repent. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus tells us that if we have a gift for the Lord our brother has something against us, we are to do 3 things in order – 1) leave the gift at the alter, 2) go and be reconciled with your brother, 3, come back and offer the gift. Often times our path to the Lord requires us to travel right through the family member we have the most difficult relationship with. Jacob is learning the Lord’s lesson that in his new spiritual growth and being obedient to the Lord, he is going to have to face Esau and his 400 warriors and reconcile with his brother.

Even after praying to the Lord, I think Jacob is still scared. In verses 13-21, Jacob arranges for a series of gifts to be sent ahead of him. Hundreds of goats, hundreds of sheep, camels, cows (my cow), bulls, and donkeys. Each herd is sent separately in waves, and each servant is to tell Esau that they are gifts from Jacob. And Jacob spends the night in the camp before meeting Esau the next day.

This is an interesting paradox. Because Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, this blessing was now a curse. The blessing that was promised by God was now the very thing that might get Jacob killed. The only thing that Jacob has to offer Esau is the very thing he stole from Esau in the first place.

No doubt praying to the Lord has given Jacob some wisdom on how to resolve the conflict with his brother. God gives us a brain and expects us to use it; just because we trust in the Lord doesn’t mean we give up and wait for the Lord to fix things for us. We pray and we act together.

In Genesis 32:22-23, Jacob send his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and all his sons and servant across the river, and he spends some time alone with God. Verse 24-31,

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

Jacob is wrestling with “the man” and because of the word play in the original Hebew, it’s unclear exactly who Jacob wrestled with. Was it really a man? Perhaps it was an angel, or perhaps Jacob wrestled with his own conscience. The phrasing is probably intentionally ambiguous so that we focus on the wrestling and not the person. Ultimately it is the Lord that Jacob wrestles with, and Jacob realizes this. Up until this night, Jacob thought his struggle his whole life was with Esau or Laban, but it’s not. He realizes that his whole life, he’s been wrestling with God.

Jacob has made a spiritual journey that we all must travel. Often Christians will talk about “wrestling with God.” The struggle between our own will and God’s will is a daily battle. We want to do one thing; often God wants us to do something else. Some people struggle with addictions; others struggle with trying to keep their words and actions in harmony with what Christ wants from them. Sometimes God wants us to do something, but we don’t. And we wrestle with God. Or another time God wants us to stop doing something. And we wrestle with God.

Something that impressed me about Jacob’s struggle is that God will let us win. If we are so set in being disobedient to God, God does not force us to be obedient. C.S. Lewis once said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” If we are so determined to have our own way, God will let us have it. Non-christians who want nothing to do with God, who want to have no relationship, nothing, zero. God will let him have his way, to spend eternity without God in his life.

God will also let Christians have their way. Christians that want to believe that their own special disobedience is ok can, indeed, continue their disobedience. One can be a Christian and continue to find they still have within them the evils of the heart listed in Matthew 15:19; evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lying, slander. We are all unclean, and like it or not, we are probably guilty of one or more of the things on that list. We continually practice deceit like Jacob, and we continue to be disobedient. In fact, we have been disobedient so long, we no longer hear God calling to us in that area of our lives. We continue and continue to sin until we can no longer hear God, and then we wonder why God doesn’t hear our prayers. But we know that an effective prayer begins with obedience and humility; that is why David prayed in Psalm 139:23,

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

David knew that praying to God to show him his own sin leads God to reveal his own offensive character to him, and that it would be painful and uncomfortable but would eventually lead to a closer relationship with God.

So Jacob wrestles with God, and God does not overpower Jacob. God is so much more powerful, but yet God is gentle with us as we wrestle with Him. God with a mere touch cripples Jacob. We think we can wrestle with God and win, but we really can’t. A mere touch from God is all it takes for God to win. God has control of the situation all along.

When Jacob wrestled with God, what was he wrestling over? What choices did he have?

Jacob is wrestling with the sin in his life by seeking to reconcile with his brother who he had defrauded when they were 20 years younger. This reconciliation is the right thing to do and Jacob knows it, but it places his life at risk. Esau wants to kill him. Will Jacob trust in himself and save his own life? Or will he risk his life doing God’s will? Jacob and God are wrestling over who gets to control Jacob’s life.

Once it’s clear to Jacob that God is in control, Jacob finally submits to God. His life of disobedience has come to an end. This is what God longs for, for each and every one of us, for us to give up selfish control of our own lives and seek God’s will in our lives. Jacob finally submits and does not ever want to lose the presence of God in his life. Jacob says, “I will not let you go.” Jacob thought by fighting with God and doing it his own way would yield the best possible outcome, and instead ended up fleeing from his father-in-law and afraid of his brother’s wrath. Perhaps he thought if he could fight God and win, he could fight anybody and win. But only by submission to God does Jacob finally begin to see that true strength lies in submission.

Jacob’s plea to God to never leave him is rewarded two ways. One is by God’s changing his name from Jacob to Israel. Jacob means “he grasps the heel;” Jacob was a heel, a deceiver. But now his name is Israel which means “struggles with God.” Jacob will continue to have days where he struggles to do God’s will, but gone are the days Jacob takes pride in his deception. The second sign is his limp, a sign of Jacob’s humility. He’s no longer the arrogant and prideful man, but a humble man whose strength comes not from himself but from his faith in God. Physically, he was weaker, but spiritually he was stronger.

One of the most important blessings one can receive from God is the promise He will never forsake us, that he will never leave us. When we are resisting God, we are walking in darkness. When Jacob’s life was darkest, family members trying to kill him and all alone in the camp along the river at night, he needed God to show him the way. Once Jacob wrestles with God and submits, daylight comes. Psalm 119:105 says,

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

When we submit to God and seek Him, we walk out of darkness and into the light, just like Jacob.

God says to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” This is an important event in the Old Testament, because in Exodus 33:20 God will tell Moses that no one may see God’s face and live. God protects Jacob by withdrawing from him before daybreak and not showing his full glory to Jacob, but even so, Jacob does not come away unscathed. His limp will forever remind him of his struggle with God and remind him where his strength comes from. Paul had a similar struggle with the Lord when he pleaded for the Lord to take away his thorn in his flesh, but God tells Paul that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. It’s only by submission and asking for God’s will that we get out of His way and let Him accomplish what He was going to do, with or without us.

When Jacob was in darkness, afraid and alone, he probably felt like God was very far away. How far away was God? When we wrestle with God, God is closer to us then than at any other times in our life. It feels like we’re alone in the dark, but God is there with us. It feels like a great struggle we face all alone in the dark, but it’s because we are not in submission to God that we feel we are alone. God is with us in our struggle. Once we turn from our rebellion and to Him for our strength, we walk out of the darkness and into the light and begin to see God’s blessings in our life. We, too, wrestle with God, and when we are submissive to his will, we see the day break.

Jacob finally begins to receive God’s blessings in Genesis 33. Jacob must have confidence that the Lord was with him the next day, but still fearful that Esau wanted to kill him. But the Lord was at work on Esau; Genesis 33:4 says Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him, and they wept together. God can do great miracles if we only submit to His will and let Him.

Effective prayer depends on our obedience and humility and a focus on God’s greater plans. When we wrestle with God, we often feel alone and in the dark, but God is closer to us when we wrestle with him and submit than at any other time of our lives. And when we submit with humility, we walk out of that darkness and into the light.

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Finding your Calling

Posted on December 15, 2007. Filed under: Movies and TV | Tags: , , |

I first heard about this fellow earlier this week, a former mobile telephone seller who has always wanted to sing opera. When Paul Potts opens his mouth and the first notes come out, I think you, too, will be amazed.

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