Fighting For Faith: “Stairway to Heaven” -Genesis 28

The Television Network CBS ran a report recently about a new show they are running on the air called God Friended Me. They wrote:

[The show] is a humorous, uplifting drama about an outspoken atheist whose life is turned upside down when he receives a friend request on social media from God and unwittingly becomes an agent of change in the lives and destinies of others around him. Miles Finer is intelligent, hopeful and optimistic, but he doesn’t believe in God. This puts him at odds with his father, Reverend Arthur Finer, a beloved preacher at Harlem’s Trinity Church for 25 years who is stung by his son’s strong rejection of his faith. Miles feels he’s found his purpose in life hosting a podcast where he’s free to speak his mind, but that changes when he receives the ultimate friend request. After repeated pokes by God, Miles’ curiosity takes over, and he accepts the request and follows the signs to Cara Bloom, an online journalist suffering from writer’s block. Brought together by the “God Account,” the two find themselves investigating God’s friend suggestions and inadvertently helping others in need. … Miles is set on getting to the bottom of what he believes is an elaborate hoax, but in the meantime he’ll play along and, in the process, change his life forever.

I don’t believe that description has enticed me to watch the show, but it is nice to see God on CBS Prime time, at least in some vague form. It is even nicer to be reminded that those who have tried to follow God have left a trail of good deeds behind them – like the founding of our nation’s greatest schools, hospitals, orphanages and many benevolent works. It is a nice break from the growing sense of national hostility concerning the notion of a Creator.

Today we encounter a story that CBS won’t run, but it has the extra virtue of being a true story about a man who heard from God and walked away changed. Prior to that meeting with God, he was for all practical purposes an atheist, but grew up in the home of a God follower. Like many who grow up that way, he knew all the right words, but, when alone, made very different choices than God would have wanted, or his parents would have appreciated. The text of Genesis made clear Jacob, the subject of our study, didn’t meet God as a reward for being good. Rather, his story up to this point was filled with lies and deception. He cheated his les clever brother, and deceived his nearly blind dad on his death bed. Yet, God met him as he attempted to flee the scene after he got caught in his lies and faced paying the penalty. Here is the truth our story will make very clear…

Key Principle: A real meeting with God changes us.

When Isaiah saw God, high and lifted up (cp. Isa. 6), it changed his life. When God set afire a bush in Midian, the encounter wasn’t just a curiosity; it was a life change moment for Moses…You see, God doesn’t desire to slowly nudge us; He desires to profoundly change our life direction by a meeting with us – a divine interruption in our path. It won’t be a “poke” or “text message;” it will be something we know was Him when it happens.

The opening word of the story

To see this truth at work, let’s pick up our account with the simple, but powerful first word of Genesis 28:1 So

What a loaded word! The “so” suggests the story we are about to engage was based on a timeline of events that preceded it – for good reason. The “so” reminds us that by this point in the story, it became perfectly clear to both Isaac (Jacob’s dad) and Esau (Jacob’s older brother) that Jacob and Rebekah (Jake’s mom) conspired and tricked the nearly blind and elderly Isaac to get a financial windfall in his will. Jacob took by clever deception what was originally intended for Esau, the double–portion of inheritance and the charge over the camp that came with his “firstborn” status. Now Jake had the legal writ, but his trick wasn’t accepted by everyone as a completed deal.

In fact, (if you check Genesis 27:41) it is clear that Esau intended to kill Jacob as soon as he possibly could, in retribution for what he had taken. Isaac was still alive, but wouldn’t be for long. One of the last scenes times in which he played a role in the Word was when he brought Jacob in to tell him to flee the scene and preserve his life. Ironically, Isaac the passive probably only did this to appease his wife, because she heard people around the tent camp claiming Esau was seething and plotting Jake’s death (according to Genesis 27:42).

Time for an exit

In any case, Jake knew it was time to hit the trail and get out of there. Momma Rebekah’s words to Jake were these:

Genesis 27:43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice, and arise, flee to Haran, to my brother Laban! 44 Stay with him a few days, until your brother’s fury subsides, 45 until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you did to him. Then I will send and get you from there. Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?”

Can you hear it? Rebekah felt she could manage the situation. May I make an observation for a moment? So far, about everything she did led Jake into deeper trouble.

When you have a friend that keeps suggesting things that land you in a hospital bed or jail cell, you may want to expand your horizons and find some new (and dare I say, safer) friends. If you got banged up in the last few exchanges, don’t fall for the “I know a guy who has this really cool, inexpensive “bungee jumping” place you will just love…

What is really interesting is that while Rebekah was pulling aside Jake to prepare him to go, she was also bending Isaac’s ear about “what to instruct Jake to do” in finding a wife. She didn’t seem “short on advice” but perhaps thought some things would come better from even a passive dad. Genesis 27:46 tells the story this way:

Genesis 27:46 Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am tired of living because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth, like these, from the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

Let’s acknowledge that parents with adult children who have walked out in defiance of the family’s long stated values understand Rebekah’s comment: “I am sooo tired of this!” It IS exhausting to watch a grown child depart from right thinking and right living. Esau’s choices left momma tired of her life!

Well, the time came and Jake entered again into his dad’s tent – this time to hear his dad’s words about heading north. It couldn’t have been easy, since it was clear that he wasn’t honest with his dad a short time before. I am guessing this was rather awkward.

Not only that, but you shouldn’t miss the irony in the fact that Jacob was now on his way out of the Promised Land which was a key to the blessing God promised Abraham. The whole story is about a land and children being blessed to live in it. By cleverness, Jake got what amounted to a worthless blessing because he couldn’t peaceably inhabit the land simply because he couldn’t outrun his brother’s arrows. How could this be in the life of the “promised child” of Abraham’s seed?

Consider this: Jacob focused on getting material blessing in this life, not a walk with God for eternity. You never find the right things looking in the wrong direction.

He wanted to control his life now, he couldn’t waste time worrying about his life for the ions to follow this life. By his choices we can surmise he wasn’t really sure if there was a God, and perhaps he didn’t give it much thought. Jake’s thinking was more: “A man will get whatever his clever mind can grab from dullards around him.” When clever is a high value, integrity is a low one. When winning is all that matters, how you play the game just isn’t your focus.

Often God appears absent to one who is about to meet Him. Go back to Genesis 28:1 and pick up the story:

Genesis 28:1b …Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. 2 Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. 3 May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.”

Isaac tossed out a blessing that sounded like he may have been shaking his head and hoping for the best. This was the distance throw at the buzzer – there was no more time to put points on the board. Isaac used up his dad instruction time, and Jake was heading off to face the world. What he didn’t know was what Isaac knew – he was heading into the family of his wife’s relatives – and that was going to be an eye-opening experience for the young man. I cannot help but feel the possibility of sarcasm when Isaac offered: “I trust you get back… and “be blessed” dealing with your momma’s family.” 

Jake, confident in his clever mind, thought he knew where he was headed and who he would meet – but God interrupted his plan. Keep reading:

Genesis 28:5 Then Isaac sent Jacob away, and he went to Paddan-aram to Laban, son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau.

That was the summary of the journey. Now follow for a moment the detail of the journey that changed the young man – because in these verses the “big idea” becomes clear…

God Interrupted the journey

Skip down a few verses…

Genesis 28:10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said…

When God touches your life, you see (perhaps for the first time) the reality of life. Things are much more than they appear to be on the surface. The text detailed:

• He went to sleep and had a dream (28:12a).
• He saw the connection between the two worlds (28:12b).
• He saw the Lord above those who operated in both worlds (28:13).

Jake knew cunning and cleverness. He knew how to plot. What he never really stopped to consider was the fact that there isn’t just a physical world; there is a spiritual world behind what we see at home, at work and in our community.

The Bible is full of stories of people who set the limits of their understanding of life on this world and neglect to consider the power of the spiritual world operating behind it.

• Job’s friends tried to make sense of life without taking into account there may be a spiritual reason beyond the “cause and effect” world of the physical.
• Moses heard God’s voice from the bush and realized it wasn’t just a bush on fire – it was a holy place to meet God.
• Joshua, the High Priest and friend to Zechariah (cp. Zech. 3) wasn’t just discouraged about the temple; he was under attack by Satan’s minions.

I am not trying to sound spooky, but it is clear that you are more than you appear. You are both physical and spiritual. If you have not really spent much time thinking about your life as part of two worlds, you are like many of those who entered the Biblical account trying to make sense of life solely on the basis of the five human senses. The problem is, if you are perceptive about life, your senses will lead you to see the broken world and its inequity. That happened to Solomon, the author-king who left us his diary in Ecclesiastes. He rightly concluded that life here doesn’t make sense – because the One Who holds the story together isn’t under the sun, but in the heavens.

The Bible opens with a simple idea it presents as fact: all things here were caused by One in a dimension different than ours. There is a spiritual world. The things we see here don’t, won’t, and can’t make ultimate sense without the rest of the picture.

The “rest of the story”

Some of us recall the name Paul Harvey. Beginning as a newscaster during the Second World War, Paul offered his own brand of story-telling which consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects with some key element of the story (usually the name of some well-known person) held back until the end. Each broadcast concluded with some variation on his tag line “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Think of your life this way: It cannot make complete sense until you set the physical world into “the rest of the story.”

Listen to what God told Jake when He appeared in the dream:

Genesis 28:13b “…I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. 14 Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

Perhaps it is already clear enough, but we should point out that knowing there is a spiritual world isn’t enough to cause you to change course in your life – and it wasn’t enough for Jake long ago. God spoke. He explained what He intended. He clarified where Jake fit in His plan.

For some who are encountering this story (maybe for the first time) with an open heart, this is the piece you have been waiting for. Perhaps you have already been open to the understanding there is a spiritual world. Maybe you have long believed (though it didn’t set the boundaries of your behaviors) that God exists. That’s great, but that isn’t enough.

Consider the six things God said to Jake:

• I am the Lord.
• I met your fathers before you.
• I made promises and you heard about them.
• I have things planned for you and your children.
• I am with you all the time.
• You aren’t finished here; I will be drawing you back here later.

These six revealed truths changed Jake. Think of how knowing each would change you:

• If the One you are meeting truly is Master of all things, it is time to consider the fact that you are not some anonymous being hidden in the cluster of creation; God knows you. He sees you. He is aware of where you are, who you are and what you have done with the life He has provided for you.

• If this God has been working with those before you, you have received the benefit of a life that should have taught you to consider how what you are doing looks to God. We can’t sing “God bless America” and then make law after law that ignores Him, marginalizes His Word and makes right something judgy and negative. Our fathers carefully structured our society because they held “these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created and endowed by their Creator certain inalienable rights…”

• The recorded promises of God have been dropped into our life through countless translations and illustrated Bible books. God hasn’t been silent or somehow elusive. In modern circles, there has been a deliberate attempt to marginalize His Word from our society (something that is causing us to shudder from our foundational documents) and to introduce any number of “counter-claims” of other gods and religious texts. The outcome has been confusion and distancing our modern behavior from the legal foundation of our fathers. We are building to a national moral disaster, but God isn’t done with His grace!

Get personal with the last part of what God told Jacob. God claimed that He was with Jake all through his life. The journey wasn’t happening alone. God was there, God was watching and God wanted Jake to know it.

Is that where you are? Are you living your life with the full awareness that you are never alone? Let me offer this simple truth: If you truly believe God is watching, it will change how you respond to the issues of your life from this point forward. If Heaven is a reality, and not just a distant story – knowledge of it will change how you judge things. If God is really engaged in your life, it will force you to consider how much of your life is intentional about following Him.

C. S. Lewis said it this way: “You don’t have a soul. You ARE a soul. You have a body.”

That is the observation of one who has encountered God. Now keep reading, for the last part of the story shows clearly that “a real meeting with God changes us.” Look at how Jacob responded to God revealing Himself to him.

Genesis 28:16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21 and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22 This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”

Jake got up and admitted that God slammed into his life without warning and that he was utterly unaware of God’s activities in that place before the dream – but he acknowledged that what he saw was real.

The beginning place for us is to hear the revealed truth of God and then respond as though it is true – because it is.

The two profound reactions in Genesis 28:17 were fear and awe. He recognized the Creator of all things took the time to encounter him, a fleeing trickster on the run from his own selfish pursuits. Is that you? Are you living for yourself? Is God using His Word to pierce into you self-managed life?

When Jake recognized God was truly speaking, in Genesis 28:18-19, he marked the place with signs of worship and surrender. He didn’t want to get back to his regularly scheduled life – this changed his perception. It gave him the “why” of his life. He couldn’t just pass it by. He stopped, set up a memorial stone and poured out oil, a sign of a place of comfort, of healing and of worship.

Pastor Wesley Bishop offered this is a sermon some time ago:

We didn’t think up the need for worship. Someone wasn’t sitting around one day and said, “Hey, I think we should worship God.” Worship is not a human innovation. Some of what we do in worship is born of human creativity. Humans, using their God-given creativity, wrote the songs we sing… Even though the MEANS may include human effort, the ACT of worship was a God made thing.

Jake made a vow that promised God something. He told God that if His Word is true, he would vow to follow God’s leading. He would listen to God’s further directions as life progressed. He would give back a portion of his income to God to thank Him for His protection and oversight. In effect, he would begin living daily with a knowledge that God is watching, God has a plan, and God has deliberate expectations He is making known.

Jacob’s surrender to God included the same elements we all must have in such a Divine encounter:

• Trust that God is able to keep His Word concerning our destiny. (28:20).
• Recognition of subjection to God as Master (28:21).
• Surrender of things I “own” to His use (28:22).

Sam Wrisley shared this touching example a few years ago:

Currently Rudy is locked up and locked up is what he deserves. I met Rudy 4 years ago. He was drunk at a bus station. He wanted a bus ticket and I bought it for him. It would not be the last ticket I’d buy for Rudy. Rudy was arrested for robbery when he was 17. The judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison. One can imagine what hard time does to a teenager…

He has spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law… in fact on the wrong side of society. I didn’t know why but God wanted me to continue to invest into [what at the time seemed like] this worthless person. It’s taken four years but I now see why. It’s because no one is worthless to God. He has a plan for his children. I received a letter from jail just this week from Rudy and I want to share his words.

“Sam, you can tell the church that I pray for them as much as they do me. I’m learning that I should pray for others. God will take care of me. He knows my needs. Also tell them to bring it, don’t sing it! Like you said what are you doing Monday through Saturday? Being a Christian to me is 24/7 365. And as the word says, Love, Love, Love. In here I am tested daily. different ways. One word comes to mind. LOVE! That’s how I’m doing my time. I refuse to give Satan any power over me. (i love this part) I’m locked up and happy 🙂 You tell everybody that once you FINALLY surrender they will enjoy peace and happiness that I’m experiencing and sharing with others. Well I miss everybody… Take care. God Bless. RUDY” “worthy is the Lamb:)”

Spiritually, freedom comes through surrender. God set an incarcerated man free like Rudy because he recognized the implications of life being greater than the world of his cell… Praise God for true freedom!

Remember: A real meeting with God changes us.

Are you ready to be changed?

Growing Healthy Disciples: “Teaching Healthy Practices” – Romans 16

How much would you pay for financial advice from any of these wealthy people? I think it is safe to say that people pay a great amount of money for expert advice.

If our church could bring any expert from any time or place, how much would the counsel of the Apostle Paul be worth? It is obvious it would be worth more than could easily be calculated. Yet, we DO have an opportunity to “bring Paul in” and listen to his counsel for the church. We have something even MORE. We have the God-inspired directives Paul recorded, that were more than his mere impressions of how the body should behave.

When you need to teach another, there are two ways that are extremely effective. The first is to model, or show them how by doing it in front of them. The second is to offer specific and measurable verbal instruction on what to do. Paul closed his letter to the Romans with both model and verbal instruction.

Key Principle: Healthy practices for believers are not intuitive; they must be learned.

Let’s take a look first at the way Paul modeled healthy discipleship for people of his time.

Paul’s Model of Healthy Discipleship

It is significant in my mind the record of modeling preceded and is longer than the record of final instructions. We could argue that Paul had been instructing them for chapters, and that would be a fair observation. Yet, when it came time for a summary of what God wanted to do among the people of Rome and in the church body, the modeling was more profoundly recorded than the final instructions.

It is important that we remember that people get more from our example then from our words, particularly if they are close to us. Any good parent knows that our children observe our way before they hear our words. The same is true in a work setting, a community setting – and yes, even in a church setting. People are watching you, whether you are conscious of it or not. Your behaviors are being recorded, even when you aren’t asking anyone to notice you.

Here are some of the behaviors that Paul demonstrated as God used his life to model ministry and healthy discipleship:

Paul looked out for others in ministry.

Before you dig deeply, notice that Paul didn’t ignore or overlook the contributions of many people as he wrapped up the letter. On first glance, you will easily see the chapter is FILLED with names of people. Look at the opening two verses:

Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; 2 that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

Tucked into the verses there is a reference and two directives given by the apostle. He explained that Phoebe was a servant (the word is the same as “deaconess” and may mean that she held that office, if such an office was formed at that time). In any case, she was a proper servant of Jesus, and was to be seen as such. In that context, Paul called on the people to both “receive” her and “help” her.

Here we can easily notice three things:

Paul took time to point out people that might have easily been un-noticed by the body. Believers don’t mean to overlook people – but we must recognize that we DO overlook people.

Paul made clear that those who had a testimony of service must be more carefully regarded than others who just had strong opinions about things. More regard should be given to those who are actively engaged in the work than to those who simply want to call from the sidelines with their opinion about how they would do it if they were busy at the task.

Paul called believers to trust this servant to know what she needed, and be willing to provide it. He didn’t make them into a committee to give counsel on the work. He asked them to provide and assist, not counsel and coach.

Paul remembered what others did for him.

Paul didn’t only recall people that worked hard for the body; he recalled people who made a difference in his life. Take a look at verse three:

Romans 16:3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; 5 also greet the church that is in their house.

Did you notice the words “risked their own necks” in verse four? As best we can tell, this was no simple idiom at the time. It appears they were in danger of hanging or strangulation.

Ritual strangulation was the favored Roman means of execution that avoided bloodshed. It was the only form of death routinely practiced within the city of Rome. There are many examples:

Assinoe, Cleopatra’s younger sister was a failed rebel queen, and was captured by Julius Caesar. He had already promised loyalty to Cleopatra’s claim of reign over Egypt, and he made known he was planning to have Assinoe strangled (as he did with Vercingetorix, the Gallic leader who had surrendered to him). The crowd rejected the notion that a noble girl be publicly shamed beforehand and thus Caesar found himself unable politically to follow through (but later Marc Antony authorized the deed).

It is very likely that Priscilla and Aquila faced a judgment they were argued from by a lawyer on behalf of housing Paul and promoting the work he had among them. They may have been found reading his letters in a meeting. We simply don’t know.

We should remember that our faith was first lived out by people at great peril and profound sacrifice. Many died in Paul’s generation simply because they followed Jesus, and lived as one body in Christ. Paul remembered those who took risk – especially for him and his ministry.

Paul remembered who God reached in his ministry.

Romans 16:5b …Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia.

Paul fondly recalled Epaenetus, and recalled those who came to Christ because of his ministry. What an encouragement! He looked back on his life and could see the faces of those who would be eternally in Heaven because God gave him a moment to preach or teach and God opened their hearts! He never forgot them. If you have such faces, you won’t either!

Paul interconnected believers (and reminded them to commend others for their service).

Romans 16:6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. …12 Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord. Greet Persis the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. 15 Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Paul greeted many, and let them greet each other – because Paul wanted to join people together. Mature believers aren’t just trying to join people to Jesus; but are trying to tie believers together in the here and now. We are family builders. We are networkers. We want people to connect.

Note something else…

Paul’s connections were deep with other believers.

He wrote:

Romans 16:8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus. 11 Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord.

Listen to the words “beloved” and “approved” and “kinsman.” Recently I was dealing with a man who was leaving his church to go to another because he didn’t like some of the things that went on at his original church. It wasn’t sin; the church was making decisions that didn’t suit his preferences. He became disgruntled, and like any American “shopper” he decided to vote with his feet. He left. When I spoke to him, I asked him if it hurt him to leave the other people in the church. “Why would it?” He asked. I explained that he wasn’t really a part of that church. He was a spectator, not a family member. When we deeply connect, walking away becomes hard. It is supposed to become difficult. Paul felt and expressed a deep connection to other believers.

Paul connected to a team in every place he ministered.

Romans 16:21 Timothy my fellow worker greets you, and so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. 22 I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord. 23 Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother. 24 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

After the picture that Paul left us with his work, we should take a few moments to listen to his last instructions, and hear his heart for the church at Rome. Echoing over the ages, we see these same issues are still with us in the church of our time.

Paul’s Final Instructions to Healthy Believers

Paul pressed the churches to be vigilant about shutting down people pushing other agendas.

Romans 16:17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

Believers have to be trained (including those of us who lead) to put ourselves under the text of the Word and the domination of the Spirit of God. Those who resist that will divide the body, and must be dealt with.

Let’s look at three aspects of this instruction:

First, WHO is included in this?

Note the terms: “those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teachings which you learned.” Now look at verse eighteen and observe “slaves…to their own appetites.” You get the impression that these are people who cause disruption because what they want to do is add license to something God has told the church not to do. Because the issue seems to be their appetites, it appears they want to draw the church into something that satiates a desire, but not something that was allowed by the apostles in their teaching and establishment of the church.

Beloved, the church wasn’t designed to be “edgy.” We don’t have to look and sound like throw-backs to the fifties, but we also cannot ride every new popular trend. We have to measure what we will be involved in entirely on the teachings of the Word as they have been given to us.

Let me caution you here: the teachings of the Word mean the proper understanding and application of the text. Because people used to believe something was wrong, and they thought the Bible was the reason for that belief – did not mean the Bible taught what they thought.

Missionaries to Hawaii, one hundred years ago, taught the Hawaiians to wear long underwear under their grass skirts in order to be truly “modest” in the Victorian sense of the term. There is no Biblical prohibition to wearing grass skirts in tropical climates, but the missionaries from Europe and America felt the Bible justified their teaching. When other missionaries indicated that was an oversimplification of the text, they were immediately seen as liberal and compromising.

I have lived through the “evil” of PowerPoint worship words, the “horror” of drum sets in worship, and a variety of other strong opinions that were framed as Biblical values, but were really cultural preferences. The Bible is filled with references to worship with drums, but if the Beatles and Stones had them, they represented the introduction of the devil into the sanctuary. After all, if people keep the beat by tapping their feet, they will abandon all sensual restraints, won’t they? Don’t giggle! I have sat through those sermons!

At the same time, just because a practice has been largely accepted in the world, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully examine it under the microscope of the Word of God. We should, and must be sure it does not pull the church away from God in licensing something for which God has not given approval.

Second, WHAT is the church told to do about them?

There are two primary instructions: “keep your eye on” and “turn away from them” in the two verses. Take those two apart.

It is not a negative thing for elders, team leaders and those who are given charge over some area of the flock to watch out for things that would divide the work and appeal to the flesh in an “out of bounds” way. That is part of leadership. Though the term “keep your eye on” is given to all of the brethren, functionally speaking it was a leadership issue. We don’t want, need or accept the idea that everyone has equal right to walk up to someone else here and tell them what to do. That isn’t how leadership works. There are people in the body who will watch over the flock. If you are appointed as one of them – do the job. If you aren’t – don’t try to play a role you weren’t given. It only hurts people and disrupts the work without any accountable system to fix what breaks.

Let me be clear: If you don’t like the temperature, ask an usher about it. Don’t touch the control. You aren’t appointed to do that. In that same vein: if you see a young woman from our teen group wearing something you find too loose or too suggestive – don’t take it on yourself to address the issue with the young lady without relationship. There are two options here: build the relationship first, or find the shepherd of that young lady in the ministry. Among our youth, we have both men and women leading them, because they include both in that ministry.

Finally, HOW do we spot those who are a danger to the body?

We cannot “keep an eye” out for those who are bringing in contradictory license and disrupting the body if we don’t know what the Word teaches. We need to be careful to separate what momma taught me, and what I actually have verses and application for in the proving of a teaching. If we take the time to study, pray and seek God – we will hear His direction. It may be exactly what we were told. In my experience, it may just as well NOT be what we thought it was.

Paul made clear innocence isn’t naïve.

Romans 16:19 For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.

If you look closely at what Paul wanted them to really know and understand, it was a life of things he called “good.” The word (ag-ath-os’) means something that is “intrinsically good, good by its nature.” These “good things” were what believers were to “become wise” in, (to “become wise” is the Greek word “sophos” the word from which we get “sophistry and sophisticated). In other words, believers were instructed to become learned, cultivated, skilled and clever in things that were intrinsically good.

All around us we find people who place a high value on “street smart,” but often what they mean by it is actually “sin smart.” For so many, even among believers, you “really know what is going on” when you understand every element of base humor used by evening talk show hosts. When you know “slang” you are smart.

Paul didn’t place the value there; he placed it on people who became clever at things that were good by their nature. Honestly, it gets tougher and tougher, but we have to teach those who come behind us what is truly good, and how to cultivate that within them.

Art and beauty are good. We need to learn more of the great masters who tried to reflect God’s design in the world, and less of the artists who had a world view of a shattered existence. The world had many who wrote intricate pieces of music to reflect God’s greatness, and they are getting buried under a pile of one hit wonders that appeal to sensuality until they die a lonely death on the discount rack a few weeks later.

There is beauty, there is good, and our world has many praiseworthy things we can master – but we must reflect the value of learning those things. I applaud those who are pushing their children to be both practical and play a musical instrument, both hard working and art conscious. They are teaching them to value “good.” That is what Paul would applaud.

He ended with a note of confidence and praise, because that is the “tone” a believer should possess.

Paul shared confidence God would bring victory in their churches.

Romans 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you… 25 Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, 26 but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.

Paul made three things clear:

First, God was about to act in a way among them that would result in Satan’s crushing. He wasn’t going to get the last word or the best of them. God was on the move, and the points Satan had “on the board” were about to get run over.

Second, Paul shared that victory would come in the grace of the Lord, not solely because of their efforts. Our works give God an opportunity to show Himself strong through us, but they aren’t a NEED. God can show up and bless us (and He does) at any time, whether we have done anything to prepare for it or not. Grace is undeserved. We must always be reminded the things we have received from Him were not because of us, but because of His goodness.

Third and finally, Paul made clear that Jesus is the One Who is building up the believers through the truth and getting them ready to present to His Father. This was the truth proclaimed through the ages. We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. We are His poem. He is at work in us to show the grand design of the Master planner. God is at work changing us to be something incredible.

It may seem strange that the apostle seemed to end on a set of things that share a common thread of grace. On the surface, they seem passive. It looks like we could conclude: “Since God is crushing the enemy and Jesus is bringing us to victory and preparing us to meet His Father—and since we are a “work in progress” of God, doesn’t that sort of imply that what I become isn’t about MY EFFORT, but rather HIS WORK?

In a way, it does imply that. At the same time, it followed many words of instruction in the letter. In other words, this is a balancing truth. We are to do right; but our doing isn’t the whole story. We are to walk with God, but our walk alone isn’t what will make us acceptable to the Father.

You are to work to become what God intended you to be when He saved you – but you cannot complete any of that “becoming” without the good hand of God and the grace of God creating in your life a thousand things you cannot deserve and would not have thought to pick up along the way. God helps you put in your tool box things you don’t know you need when He tells you to put them there. He offers you experiences that change you, that YOU don’t see coming. He gives you people who will impact your life powerfully on a morning you didn’t know something life-changing would be said or explained. God is at work to give you what you don’t know you need, to make you better than you have planned. He is the only wise God. In the end, when you see how He placed things in your life, you will praise Him in Heaven and see He is every bit worthy of that praise.

That perspective will make you healthy – but it requires more than obedience; it requires the grace of God that He freely gives, even when we aren’t looking. Knowing that truth, in that knowledge we will be pressed to become grateful in advance of each gift of God. We have to learn it; it doesn’t come naturally.

Healthy practices for believers are not intuitive; they must be learned.

Fighting For Faith: “Grabbing the Wrong Hand” – Genesis 25 to 27

This is a lesson that begins a short series on a fight. The whole story is a tale of working through the pain of struggles.

I want to focus on one man for a few lessons and look at his family, and his life story as God related it in His Word. To do that, today we plan to move around the area of Genesis 24-26 and then at the end, drop into Genesis 27 and hopefully “catch” something we can all digest. Our focus is on the story of Jacob.

To prepare us, I want to begin with a set of questions that require you to be brutally honest with me. Are you ready?

First, let me ask: “How many of you are parents? One of my friends would say it, “How many of you own another human?”

With that number in mind, “How many of you honestly recall and are willing to publicly admit, that you lost one of your children for a time during their time under your supervision?”

To let you relax and make you breathe a little easier, let me tell you a story out of the “Smith Log” from a few years back, when my third child was still a tiny toddler.

Dottie and I were packing for a camping trip when we lived in Jerusalem. At that time, also living in our home was a young lady from South Africa who helped in our office and sometimes took care of our children. We were three adults watching over a busy travel office, a growing ministry and three little children. On that morning, Dottie and I were packing the van to go on a trip with all of our family, and we both thought Karen (the South African girl) knew where the kids were (I thought they were playing in their rooms). My little red-head, Sara Joy, took that opportunity (a breach in parental security) to make a break for it and wander down the street and cross the road to the local mall across the way. When mom and I realized that she was gone, and we had no clue where she was – we both moved swiftly down our street hollering for her and scanning yard by yard. After what seemed like a decade or two in lost child time, we discovered that Sara was sitting happily enjoying treats with the security guard at “Kanion HarE” in Gilo, our Jerusalem suburb’s local mall. The security guard spotted her wandering in the parking lot and took her in until parents came calling for her. He was kind and, to be honest, Sara didn’t feel lost. She knew where she was. She knew what she was eating. She was perfectly happy. We were panicked and, truth be told, near nervous breakdowns, both of us! Though Sara found safety, for a time, in the hand of a security guard at the local mall, she had two issues. First, the security guard wasn’t the right place to find true parental security; and second – she didn’t realize she wasn’t really safe. That guard wasn’t her real daddy, and he didn’t have her true long term interest at heart. He did his job, but it wasn’t the safety she would find in her family, holding mom or dad’s hand.

There is a point to the story of this unsettling memory. As we look at the introduction to Jacob’s life as God dropped him into the arms of his parents, we will see that Jacob started life believing real security came from grabbing a familiar pattern his parents lived out in front of him – instead of grasping God’s hand and following Him. His early life illustrated a truth that is so important for us to consider, God told it in His Word. Here is the big idea of his story I would like you to consider…

Key Principle: Real safety comes from grabbing the right hand and letting your true Father guide you.

Learning to hold my Father’s hand is a necessary skill every believer must develop.

We must cling – not to the pattern of life we learned growing up – but to the Savior of it!

If you study it carefully, you will notice that Jacob’s life was a struggle to learn how to hold his true Daddy’s hand – and not the other many hands he could easily have clasped to feel secure. Look even closer, but that is your story and my story as well!

Let’s take a moment and “set up” the story beginning in Genesis 24.

First, a quick overview of the text is probably justified. It is significant that the author of Genesis spent ten whole chapters on Jacob.

• He only spent 11 chapters describing the long period of time from creation, the flood and on to the tower of Babel.

• He included 14 or 15 chapters on Abraham (12-25) from which God established His covenant people.

It seems like ten chapters is a rather large stage for teaching God’s lessons. His story must be important – and we will find it truly IS.

Second, I am also forced to at least suggest that if modern “reality TV” is any indication of what Americans think is interesting, this short series on Jacob should be riveting. More than most stories of the Bible, his tale graphically displays the unusual interrelations of an entirely dysfunctional family, and cautiously highlights the influence bad parents can have on their children. This story is almost a “made for TV” series.

Let’s start the story with Isaac: Jacob’s dad.

Genesis has already been chronicling the life of Isaac, his dad. What is shared wasn’t particularly flattering, but does help us understand the family from which Jacob emerged. Genesis 24:1-9 opens with a scene late in the life of Abraham, when he had a servant set out to look for a wife for his son, Isaac. We begin here in our look at Jacob, because knowing his dad will help you understand the setting of his life. The servant of Abraham (we suspect it is Eliezar) is in the scene…

Genesis 24:10 recorded: Then the servant took ten camels from the camels of his master, and set out with a variety of good things of his master’s in his hand; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor.

It isn’t a stretch to admit that living in the shadow of the towering figure of Abraham; the Bible offered few details on Isaac, as though he really didn’t do much that was significant. That’s probably an unfair assessment (since I am not even mentioned in the Bible at all), but I think you understand why I said it. Isaac’s little story feels like, when you read it, a journal of “going along” with God’s work in his family. One writer called his story one of “passive acceptance” because he seemed to do the right things, but he was not presented as a very passionate player in the drama of his own life!

Consider the example of the scene we were just looking at and the fact that Isaac didn’t find his own wife – his dad sent a servant to do it. If I understand Genesis 25:20 properly, I can’t help but notice he appears to have been forty years old at the time. (Talk about a late launch!) …At least the servant knew where to look.

Oddly, if you look back into Genesis, it seems the place to meet a potential wife was at a watering hole, a well or a spring.

• Moses met his wife at a well in Midianite territory and chased away harassing bandits.

• Jacob scoped out the coming of Rachel by asking at the local well and then gallantly helped remove the stone over that well with the others who were gathered there.

Here’s the thing… in Genesis 24, Isaac didn’t even go to the well to find a wife. His father’s servant traveled a distance, found the right well, and got him a wife. It feels like we are being set up to see Isaac as a rather passive guy, and if you read the story – you will see that feeling fits the later narrative.

Isaac wasn’t a bad guy. I don’t want to only include his weakness. When he hit a wall, he was as likely to seek God as NOT, but that isn’t the most rousing endorsement. He had God’s blessing, but that wasn’t a guarantee he could be a good dad, just a rich one. Drop into Genesis 25 and take a quick look for a moment.

Genesis 25:11 It came about after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac lived by Beer-lahai-roi….21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived.

It seems Isaac learned some level of trust in God. Consider that:

• God’s blessing became personal after Abraham, not just from Abraham (25:11).

• When trouble came; he prayed – so he had some kind of walk with God. Isaac knew that God could deliver in the need for a baby – because God did it for HIS DAD years before. At the same time, he knew it took a relationship with God to steady him through the days of disappointment and keep him from undue impatience with God’s timing!

• God seemed to step in when asked and answer the prayer in accord with the promises given to Isaac’s dad. It seems like God wanted to keep the story going in Isaac, even if he was weak and passive.

I guess if I could communicate anything, it would be that Isaac just wasn’t a great leader or deep man of passion as he is shared with us in the text…

As we close in on the story of Isaac – observe the story that introduced Rebekah: Jacob’s Mom.

Go back again to the story of the servant that discovered Rebekah as a wife for Isaac, who became Jacob’s mom. The servant came to the well, and Rebekah offered to water his ten camels, while the man prayed she would make the offer as a sign to him:

Genesis 24: 19 Now when she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw also for your camels until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. 21 Meanwhile, the man was gazing at her in silence, to know whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not.

It is clear in the text that God’s choice was Rebekah. To really grasp what we learn about her from this little snapshot, there are a few things you should probably know about camels that make this story shine with vivid detail.

• First, they can drink 21-22 gallons in a single standing. Since a gallon is 8.3 pounds, a thirsty camel could add more than 200 pounds from one long drink. As a former helper in the camel drive, I can tell you that you NEVER let them drink that much in a single standing, or they will get drunk. It happens because of their blood vessels and the way the blood passes through their brain area.

• Since there were ten camels and Rebekah watered all of them, and since they had just come “hot off the desert sands” – I think it is obvious that Rebekah possessed incredible biceps and back muscles, and was not built like a “fashion week” model on a red carpet. She was one formidable woman you wouldn’t want to arm wrestle! (She was, no doubt, listed on “Farmer’s Only” dating sites).

If you took the time to research the whole account of her early days in Genesis, you would discover Rebekah was from nothing short of treacherous family of “used camel salesman” types like her brother Laban – who became a legendary manipulative negotiator, as we will see later in the series. Funny enough, her dad was also quite passive based on the text.

Put Isaac and Rebekah together and I think it is safe to conclude from reading the Word that the natural passivity and weakness in Isaac opened the door to allowing Rebekah, Jacob’s mom, to take over their home. Add to that the fact that she had experience engaging dishonesty and manipulation growing up with a passive dad and her brother Laban back in Mesopotamia. In the end, baby Jake was no match for what his parents patterned in their home.

Pattern One: Favoritism

In Genesis 25:26-34, the Bible records that Jacob capitalized on his twin brother Esau’s impulsiveness and cleverly manipulated his brother to promise away his “special legal standing” (called his “birthright”) in exchange for some stew. Dropped into the text of that story, one verse announced a glaring problem of the pattern in the home that we need to spot in verse 28:

Genesis 25:28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Do you see it? It looks like Jacob had a passive dad who focused on “what he liked” in meat, and was hard to get attention from if you weren’t a skilled hunter like Jake’s brother. Isaac had a favorite and Jake wasn’t it.

Don’t overlook the fact that the Bible made clear Isaac loved Esau for “what his child did for him.”

Now consider that Jake had a brother that was impulsive, driven by his immediate desires (something that seems to have been learned from his dad). Now add the third ingredient: Jake was raised by a manipulative mom who had a special love for him. She knew he was the promised future leader and she knew her husband didn’t have the same warmth for him that she felt.

Everyone wants to believe their momma loves them, but this picture is one of favoritism by both parents… Let’s assume that Rebekah told Jake what God told her about the younger son (him) ending up over the older son (Esau). In an environment where manipulation is rampant, can’t you see how easy it would be to convince yourself that working to bring about what God promised was no vice?

Now skip a stone across Genesis 26 for a moment.

The two big stories of chapter 26 show examples of God’s inordinate blessing on Isaac. A famine came, but God took care of him because of His previous promises to Abraham. Isaac lied to Abimelech (a local ruler) but God looked out for him (26:10) and multiplied his crops one hundredfold (25:12) – not because of his wrong behavior; but in spite of it.

Pattern Two: Inordinate Prosperity in Spite of Actions

Genesis 26 showed that Isaac’s wealth was significant, God-given and undeserved. Jake’s manipulation tendencies, as well as those of his mom, would only get stronger in the face of a huge windfall of cash. Ask any lottery winner or inheritance recipient who ever had manipulative relatives how they “upped their game” after the cash showed up.

Jake and Esau’s inheritance left them with a huge pile of cash and prizes. That brings us to the moment in the series where Jake’s mask fell completely off and his manipulations became crystal clear in Genesis 27.

Perpetrating Fraud by a the bedside of an elderly father (Genesis 27)

As we get to the center of this lesson, let’s remember that you and I got more from our parents and our home than the size of our nose and color of our hair. We got character stamps on our heart and ways of dealing with relationships. For many of us, our core values were established in our lives by our family before we were ever conscious of what was happening. These core values, character stamps and relationship coping mechanisms create the “default setting” in our lives – and take the place of grabbing God’s hand…

It is easy for any of us to fall back on “learned patterns” over the
“pulling” of our Heavenly Father.

Manipulators like Jake learned early not to trust God and grab His hand. They learned to get what they wanted through clever trickery. Life was a peach, to be plucked by one who was clever enough to see it.

Genesis 27 opened with Isaac, now old, stuck on a bed in the tent where the pattern he modeled in his home now reigned supreme.

Isaac was on his cot – now old and unable to see. Like many a dad, he taught at least one of his boys the value of work and productivity. He called to Esau. The text recorded:

Genesis 27:1 Now it came about, when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 2 Isaac said, “Behold now, I am old and I do not know the day of my death. 3 “Now then, please take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me; 4 and prepare a savory dish for me such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.”

Had the birthright not been traded, it wouldn’t have been wrong for Isaac to make a request of his first born, Esau. Yet, it seems he was ignoring the fact that Jacob now held the birthright, because Isaac had a favorite. Don’t forget the verse:

Genesis 25:28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Mom and dad each had their FAVORITE – setting up a struggle in their home for the future. Dad chose his favorite based on PRODUCTIVITY (stuff that Esau could do) and mom based her favoritism on RELATIONSHIP and COMMUNICATION at home. These are age old patterns.

• Dads, we cannot measure our sons by their pitching ability or their accomplishments on the shop floor. They are our sons when they are lazy and discouraged and equally our sons when they are productive. I cannot say it strongly enough: Sons are desperate to hear dad say he loves them.

• Moms, even the boy that barely speaks coherently is still your son. They need the tenderness and care in more subtle ways perhaps, but they still need it. Don’t overestimate the ability to “schmooze” – it may not be authentic expression.

Based on the few pieces of information we have, the passage seems to indicate that either Rebekah and Jacob knew that Isaac didn’t agree with Esau’s word to trade away his birthright, or they all kept him in the dark regarding the whole affair. Either would have been completely wrong. Keep reading:

Genesis 27:5 Rebekah was listening while Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game to bring home, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Behold, I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, saying, 7 ‘Bring me some game and prepare a savory dish for me, that I may eat, and bless you in the presence of the LORD before my death.’

Rather than dealing directly with her husband, Rebekah learned to eavesdrop and plot. Don’t miss that none of that lesson was lost on Jake, either. He observed that in order to get ahead, one must cheat, lie and use deception.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Rebekah sets up the plot to trick her aged husband in Genesis 27:8-10. She cooks the meal that would satisfy him and even provides a costume for Jake to feel like Esau in Genesis 27:11-15. Genesis reminds us this way:

Genesis 27:16 And she put the skins of the young goats on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 She also gave the savory food and the bread, which she had made, to her son Jacob.

Consider mom’s cunning nature – she watched for opportunities to get what she truly wanted.

Think about her demanding nature – she didn’t act as though she truly cared if her son shared her hunger for control or her value system. She was going to force him to do what was best for him even if her husband couldn’t see it, and even if HE couldn’t see it! The words echo from Genesis 27:8:

Now therefore, my son, listen to me as I command you,” and later… 27:13 But his mother said to him, “Your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, get them for me.

Both statements reveal a woman that had her mind made up. A demanding nature is tied to EGO – the idea that only I know what is best.

Consider her manipulative nature – she blatantly used her husband’s obvious weaknesses. Instead of guarding him in love, she was looking PAST his life and getting her son set up. She was using a WRONG MEAT (Genesis 27:9) and working on the trick with the skins and hair.

I can’t help but note that Rebekah didn’t seem to recognize that dragging a curse upon herself was no light matter. She wanted what she wanted so much that she didn’t believe the plan could go wrong.

Jails are filled with criminals that have the same idea!

She completely lacked boundaries – she raided Esau’s clothing at will – simply to have her plan work. Did she not believe that he would hear how the plan came together?

I suspect that there was much more to her helpin her son. She may have been unaware of it, but her zeal was likely FED BY HURT. Genesis 26 includes a mere sentence that tips off the whole problem:

Genesis 26:34 When Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35 and they brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

Do you see it? It looks like MOM was not happy with the daughters-in-law. She wasn’t unfounded in her complaints that Esau married local girls and that was NOT in accord with God’s stated words. Often trouble starts when a child disobeys God’s Word and marries one outside the limits of God’s Word.

We (parents) can see it, and they (children) don’t want to. We have tears and disappointment, but we don’t know what to do about it – they married them! We STEW (Esau pun intended) and when it comes out – how RASH we can be!

Let’s dive to the big truth here. The default setting in your relationship pattern may be to hide the truth, to fail to communicate, or to out and out lie to get your own way. You must face the wrong patterns you were brought up with. They aren’t the true hand of your real dad.

Early learned behavioral patterns picked up in a fallen world often don’t reveal our Heavenly Father’s ways. – That is important to remember.

You and I must STOP COPING with poor relationships and start SURRENDERING paths to the Lord for a complete overhaul.

Jacob believed that trickery in the service of self was no vice. If he was more clever than his dumb and dirty brother, that was Esau’s problem. Then it progressed as he grew older….If he was slicker than his sick dad could catch – no matter.

Jacob learned to fake WHO he was, and even what RELATIONSHIP HE HAD WITH GOD in order to get what he wanted. It was Jacob who openly used “God words:”

Genesis 27:20 Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the LORD your God caused it to happen to me.”

Jacob lacked the normal bond to his father, because he had an inordinate one with his mother. His mom felt no need to protect her ailing husband, and Jacob had no repulsion at tricking his father.

Jacob had no reflex reaction to breaking God’s Word. He was not going to honor BOTH his father and mother. The ship had long ago sailed on coveting. Now he could LIE and STEAL his brother’s blessing – justifying it against his brother’s stupidity.

This wasn’t simply “finder’s keepers” – this was IDENTITY THEFT. Yet, Jacob had been building what police call a “rap sheet” (list of crimes) for a long time!

Make no mistake about it; all of us must learn to carefully examine the “default pattern settings” in our life – many of which were adopted from our family behaviors and relationships. We have to look at our attitudes, our attachments, our way of behaving in relationships, our authenticity – and move from DEFAULT setting to RESET BY FACTORY.

We must not grab the pattern instead of our Father.

Real safety comes from grabbing the right hand and letting your true Father guide you.

The story is told that in 2007, a small ship left the harbor in Nova Scotia with two adults and two children. A series of failures on board the vessel, as well as horrid storms that crashed into the eastern US and Canada effectively made their return to land impossible. Blown about in the night, the small vessel had lost lights, sails, engines and its guidance radar. She was being hurled about by waves, with little hope to protect the small family that huddled below deck as the waves crashed around them. Mom and dad were clutching tightly to both of their young children. There was little else they could do. The series of terrible events that led them to this point was now irrelevant. All that was left to do was hold each other, pray, sing and hope that God would deliver them. It would take a miracle. Thankfully, they served One Who traffics regularly in miracles. With no idea where they were for several hours, they were startled when they heard a pounding on the hull of the small ship. Dad went topside and was shocked at what he saw. Nothing could have prepared him for this! Apparently, the waves had pushed them through the storm right back into the inlet, and now that tiny vessel was knocking against the dock from which they had departed the day before. How can this be? They had no steering. They had no way of knowing which way to go even if they had. What they had, was a complete dependence on their Father in Heaven. They held tightly to Him, because He was all they had left. When things seemed most out of their control, they remembered to intentionally put them all in His control. The truth is, that is where they always were. Pulling the rope onto a pole on the dock, they plucked the children from the deck and came into the boathouse feeling as though God just set them down gently after a horrible fright. They were safe because they were where He wanted them to be.

Are you? Onto what are YOU grasping tightly?

The New Class of Great Commission Bible Institute has arrived!

I am pleased to announce the arrival of the newest group to the GCBI Family.
They are making their way through the Bible, reading the whole text in a little over a week out loud as a group… then the real fun begins! Pray for each of these gifts from the Lord. They are an unstoppable and incredible bunch, and I am privileged to have a few moments with them. Pray for focus, health and strength. You cannot know how much we appreciate our praying friends!

“Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12:9-21

There are WAY too many choices here!

I hate shopping for groceries, I really do! There are too many choices. I don’t feel confident when I shop that I will pick the right brand, the right size and get it at the right price. Honestly, shopping is my wife Dottie’s domain.

If she sends me to get something at the store, I have to remind her that I am not native to that environment. I don’t intuitively know where the cheaper nuts can be found on the inner racks of the store, so I will probably buy the more accessible (and more expensive) ones from the obvious end cap rack next to the fresh fruits and veggies. I know they have another shelf somewhere with them, but I don’t know where it is, and I don’t want to waste a half hour searching for it. I will just buy the more expensive and console myself at the amount of time I saved doing it

My chief problem when I am charged with shopping is that I have to think like Dottie if I am to have any hope of choosing the right things. I have to ask “Which of these would Dottie buy in all these choices?” I have to search my mind for the few times I may have paid any attention at all to the brand of the item that she normally brings home.

The fact is, I am not buying these things for myself – I am bringing home what I buy – and the choices will be inspected. I don’t mind shopping for tools, because I don’t have this problem. She doesn’t care what tool I buy, as long as it helps me more rapidly complete the list of repairs she wants done.

Here’s my point: When you are making choices for someone else, you have to learn to think like them. You have to see with their eyes, and learn to perceive what they value. You have to choose with the knowledge that your choice will be judged as adequate or lacking. This isn’t a silly story of an inept Pastor trying to pick up a few groceries, there is a spiritual principle to consider…

One of the easiest things to say as a Christian, but hardest things to do is to really surrender my daily choices to my Savior.

In a culture that prizes personal freedoms and individual choices, it is quite easy to forget that surrender is not an optional aspect of our faith; it is at the very heart of it. My choices will, one day, be inspected by Jesus as I watch. I am not ignorant of the fact that even now, I am to make each with HIS DESIRES first in mind.

In fact, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul told openly mentioned that Jesus would measure our choices, when he wrote (writing to believers):

2 Corinthians 5: 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

The word “bad” is the common Greek word for “worthless.” Paul suggests that we will have things in our lives that are worthless, even though we chose them and cherished them.

Let me ask you something. If Paul really believed that, what do you suppose drove his daily choices? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. He reviewed his decision-making priority with some simple but penetrating words from the same chapter. Listen to what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:

2 Corinthians 5:14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf… 20b “… we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Paul began by saying Jesus’ love controls him, and therefore his choices. He responds in his choices to knowing the love of Jesus. As a result, his choices reflected Jesus’ character, the Savior’s chief passion and His most excellent joy. Paul was a CONTROLLED man – and it was by his choice the surrender of control became real.

Why did he give up making choices solely on the basis of what he felt, what pleased him and what he thought would gain him personally? The end of verse fourteen explained that Jesus died for all and in response each of us must die to self for Him. In case that was a bit cryptic, look very closely at the simple wording of 2 Corinthians 5:15:

He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again…

Did you catch those words? Jesus died for me, and His expectation is that I would fully comprehend that as a follower of Him, my choices are NOT MY OWN. Let’s say it this way:

Key Principle: When it is all said and done, our salvation is “lived out” in choices surrendered to Jesus’ direction and approval.

With that in mind, flip back for a moment to Romans 12 as we continue our study.

As you may recall, the Roman Epistle was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

Walking back into the dialogue of Romans 12, we looked last time at three statements that Paul made to set the stage for walking in health. We noted:

• A healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection by Jesus (12:1). His intense gaze helps me remember that I need to be careful how I allow my heart to entertain itself.

• Second, we learned that a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge (12:2). It is easy to get pressed into the mold the world tries to impose when it comes to moral thinking and values systems.

• Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self (12:3). We may be tempted, because we have a relationship with God, to think WE are more than others around us. We aren’t – HE is.

• Fourth, a healthy Christian recognizes the value of others in the body and tries to get connected to them (12:4-5).

• Fifth, a healthy Christian desires to understand and operate in their gifting, using it to the fullest for the body’s good (12:6-8).

Let’s move on with our list from this chapter in today’s lesson… Go to verse 9 and pick up reading where we left off last time.

Romans 12:9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Sixth, a healthy Christian knows how to treat people in a God honoring way (12:9-20).

In short order, Paul offers a whole list of practical ways we can treat each other in a godly way.

He began his list in Romans 12:9:

Romans 12:9 Let love be without hypocrisy.

First, he said, our surrendered choice of ceding life to the goals of Jesus should be seen in HOW WE LOVE PEOPLE. That is where the life turn of surrender meets the road of life. The term an-ypókritos simply means “not phony” or “put on, describing sincere and authentic love free from hidden agendas and selfish motives.

Don’t you get tired of all the phony pitches you hear in a week? Between advertisers and a flood of heavily editorialized “news” accounts, it get sickening trying to get to the truth. You watch your boss talk to a customer one way to their face, and use the opposite terms behind their back. You really like your neighbor, but you have learned she is a gossip peddler in spite of the fact that she seems to be nice face to face.

God starts His control in our lives with a demand for authentic relationship. Stop faking it.

People in the world are desperate to encounter an authentically loving person today. Since the days of “How to win friends and influence people” (Dale Carnegie) salesmen have feigned care for us – when they honestly wanted to profit from us.

I believe AUTHENTICITY is one of the greatest gifts you can develop in yourself for other people.

It truly seems to me that we are tempted to put on a mask because of some very basic fears:

• We fear that people will be able to peer inside us and expose the truth about who we are – with all our faults, foibles and failures.

• We fear when we are exposed for who we truly are, people will reject us and walk away because we aren’t as good as they thought before.

• We fear we will face intense pain and hurt out of that rejection.

All three fears drive us to a hidden hypocrisy. Paul said love – but make it AUTHENTIC love. Stop faking it.

If you don’t care as you should, it isn’t a personality flaw; it is SIN. Ask God to help you deal with your cold heart toward other people.

Next, Paul said:

Romans 12:9b “…Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

“Abhor” is actually the term apos-toog-eh’-o, which is to detest, and the term for “evil” is ponērós, which is an unusual word derived from the term for “pains of arduous labor.” The idea isn’t just “doing bad things” as it seems to be the inevitable agonies and miseries that accompany evil. In an ethical sense the words mean “Shun evil, that brings miseries in the results.”

Think about that! Do you recall a moment in your life when you KNEW what you were choosing was WRONG – but you did it anyway? Do you recall thinking, “But that will hurt so and so” but that didn’t stop your desire for momentary satisfaction? Did you ever say something to deliberately hurt another because you were hurt?

Paul wrote: Detest selections in your choices that will bring misery to you and those around you. Just walk away… You can find that satisfaction without compromising values and hurting people in your life. You don’t need to cheat. You don’t have to lie. Don’t entertain your heart in these things, or the detesting will fade away.

We MUST grow to be REPULSED by the conniving behaviors that create pain.

Watch five movies about someone who cheats on their spouse, and you may well start to think it is normal. It may be, but in a fallen world, so is DEATH. Because it is common doesn’t mean you are going to really have a good experience. He continued…

Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love;

It is likely if we were honest, that some would get off the merry-go-round at this point. Our lives are busy. We have way too many commitments to come to church today and get a long list of people we should be devoted to. After all, some of them, no matter how you cut it, will take more from us than they could ever give back. C’mon Pastor, how am I supposed to take care of ME and still “be devoted” to this whole room of people?

That’s a fair question, albeit a rather blunt one! Let’s put the words in context.

First, they aren’t an opinion or an optional appeal. This is a command. We can obey it or not, but it is a command.

Second, remember 2 Corinthians 5:15? We weren’t saved to live for self, but to serve the interests and desires of the Savior. Paul commanded them to philó-storgos “Foster the special affection shared between family members!”

You can choose to try to be a church without family affection, but on the authority of the Word I will flatly tell you it will not work. A church that is healthy is filled with people who put others and their needs ahead of their own. Oh that we believed the verse enough to do it! Oh that we truly tried to foster a bond with one another that intentionally pushes past our petty differences and temporal fussiness! Paul was “on a roll” and kept pressing…

Romans 12:10b “…give preference to one another in honor;

How can I be devoted to the others in the body? I can pro-ēgéomai (from pró, “before” and hēgéomai, “lead to an important conclusion”). Put the idea together. We are to lead the way, modeling the right example of gracious and proper behavior, i.e. so others can follow the one “going first.”

We are to put others first with what the text calls “honor.” The word timḗ (from tiō, “accord due respect”) means we are to treat others with a true perceived value; we handle them as something precious. The text says we must put others ahead because we think they are worth so much to God, we don’t want to handle them improperly.

Love is about valuing others. Humility is about seeing them as of greater worth than your cherished opinion, your deep desire or your personal reputation. Don’t forget:

Love drove Jesus to spend time with people other religious leaders thought would ruin their reputation and waste their time.

God took time with people who were broken. Should I do less? Not according to the Word! Paul added more texture to these commands. He wrote about the quality of my labor in loving, helping and caring with these words:

Romans 12:11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;

My caring, loving and serving is to be an energetic work,, not a resistant one. The word ok-nērós is from oknéō, “to delay”. I am to “get to it” and not dawdle. I must intentionally invite God to warm my heart toward people, so that I don’t “drag my feet” when it comes to showing love.I have to drop my reluctant attitude, and stop being secretly unwilling to act, protecting some kind of “spiritual disinterest” as a good thing.

Honestly, let me plead with you to put away the excuses about “I just didn’t grow up that way” or “my personality doesn’t express love.” Frankly, if I preach the truth, none of that matters. You live for Jesus. You serve Jesus. You do, as much as is within you, what He commands, what He desires, what He says. We don’t get a special pass because we had a dad who didn’t tell us he loved us – because we have a Heavenly Father that has made that point clear.

He told us to do something: serve without dragging our feet. Love with gusto and help with vigor.

We will never grow to be healthy is we try to avoid the exercise God prescribed… Let me remind you that Scripture makes the point that people with many problems are a gift to the church – not a problem. They are like the hill you climb to keep you fit. They force the church into learning and practicing being helpful.

At the same time, I am not licensing those who would perpetually need help because of their own laziness. There are other passages that address them as well.

What kind of people ought believers to be?

First, we aren’t just hopeful, we are noisy about hope. Paul offered this in Romans 12:12 “rejoicing in hope.”

We are to be a people of HOPE, an OPTIMISTIC bunch.

The word “rejoicing is “xaírō” and “favorably disposed, leaning towards” and its cognate is xáris, “grace.” We LEAN INTO the gift God gave us in this life – the gift of HOPE (certainty of a promised future). Hope is the word HOPE is elpís from the word “to anticipate or to be prepared to welcome.” This is a word for excited expectation of what is certain to follow. That is the chief reason verse twelve offers for the next phrase:

Romans 12:12b “…persevering in tribulation

How can we endure times of throbbing pain or angry persecution? We do it with the anticipation that the same God who created clouds and stars, the God who sculpted canyons – He has a plan that goes beyond the now. We are excited at the anticipation of what will happen when time surrenders to eternity. How do we keep THAT perspective? Keep reading… We are to become a people…

Romans 12:12b “…devoted to prayer,

We actively, intentionally, moment by moment are trading our sorrows and fears with God’s peace and purposes by handing them to Him. We work at prayer. We lean on Him in prayer. We seek His face in prayer. When we leave the huddle and move into the world, we START by looking squarely at the needs of the team God can use us to meet. Paul went on and share that believers are:

Romans 12:13 contributing to the needs of the saints

We are looking for ways to meet the needs of the others in the body. We WANT to SEEK their needs and meet them, not flee their needs and use the time for ourselves. One of those needs is OTHER PEOPLE. Paul reminds believers are:

Romans 12: 13b “…practicing hospitality.

Together they face hurt. Together they pray. Together they encourage one another. They don’t lash out, because they have the Spirit, the Word and the support of brothers and sisters. That is why they can:

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

That is why they learn to:

Romans 12:5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

That is how they maintain the unity of the Spirit and meet the words of this command:

Romans 12:16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.

The key is that last phrase. Don’t be too important to care. You aren’t and I am not either. We need each other, and we prove we believe that when we take time for one another. Love will keep me looking for other’s needs. Humility will help me hold back “lashing out” when people do wrong to me. It will build respect for others and help me do what helps them. It will build peace between people. A humble spirit is the antithesis of a vengeful one. It feeds the hungry – even when they don’t deserve it.

Finally, a healthy Christian knows how to get beyond defense (12:21).

Let me finish the words of this chapter with one thought. There is endurance in the healthy.

Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Healthy, mature Jesus followers can take a punch without running to the corner and sobbing. Why?

First, they have resources. The others on the team are fast to rally and protect them when they are under attack. The Spirit of God will bolster them when they cry out to Him.

Second, they know that no injustice in this life has the final word. There is a future. It is certain. God knows what we face and He is prepared to wipe the tears from our eyes. He doesn’t promise to deliver us from the tears HERE, but He does promise to set things in order in the end.

Rejoice in that realization. Make noise about that hope! Let this life become Hi opportunity to direct your steps and walk with you all through the journey. Don’t resist Him. Don’t lead Him. Don’t try to bargain obedience. He wants to dance; but only if He leads.

When it is all said and done, our salvation is “lived out” in choices surrendered to Jesus’ direction and approval.

Habits of Healthy Disciples (Part Two): “Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12: 4-8

In my formative years of Pastoral training, I became familiar with a writer that had a real influence on my life. His name was Gordon MacDonald, and you may have read some of his books. I found his insights helpful and his style of writing something really I connected with. Part way through my college career, his spiritual life appeared to have “flat lined.” He fell into sin and it became public exposed. For a number of years he stopped writing (at least so far as I was aware). After a time, another book came out. This time, a fallen, broken, publicly humbled and then gracefully restored man presented his journey over the edge and back – writing in a way that was both helpful and (I have to believe) deeply personal and embarrassing.

In an even later work, he reflected with these penetrating words:

My perception is that broken-world people exist in large numbers, and they ask similar questions over and over again. Can my world ever be rebuilt? Do I have any value? Can I be useful again? Is there life after misbehavior. My answer is yes. That is what grace is all about. A marvelous, forgiving, healing grace says that all things can be new. The escape route from sin is Jesus. The wellspring of forgiveness is Jesus. The power to mend broken lives and set us on our feet again is Jesus. The one who can guard us against the devastation of sin is Jesus.

Over the years, MacDonald has written a number of impacting works. Personally, I have been challenged as he has publicly probed and examined his inner life (like few others since C.S. Lewis did so in his grief). He wrote titles like: Ordering Your Private World, Rebuilding Your Broken World, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, Mid-course Correction and A Resilient Life – and these are just a few. He serves, now nearly 80, at Denver Seminary as its head.

I mention his testimony and his pain to remind you of what is at stake when we play church but don’t deal with what lurks beneath in our broken and selfish heart. We are talking frankly about our spiritual health in this series, and I want our thoughts to probe deeply inside us. I need reflection and self-testing (as well as a healthy dose of the Spirit’s conviction and the Word’s testing), and I am certain some of you do as well.

In our last study, we began examining the last part of Paul’s letter to the Roman church in the first century, looking for direction on gaining and maintaining spiritual health. We noted that:

  • Healthy habits are individually attained. No one can monitor your intake like you can, and no one can force you to take the stairs instead of the elevator should you choose to ignore your need for regular exercise. You can always sneak a cookie others don’t see.
  • Making rules on healthy habits doesn’t produce as much health as it does guilt. A guilty heart hides behind the bushes when God shows up in the Garden. Since that isn’t what we desire to produce, we need to find another way forward than to simply list laws of health and send you out feeling like failures.

Here is the key to this study:

Key Principle: God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

As you may recall, the letter was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

Walking back into the dialogue of Romans 12, we looked last time at three statements that Paul made to set the stage for walking in health. We noted:

• A healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection by Jesus (12:1). His intense gaze helps me remember that I need to be careful how I allow my heart to entertain itself.

• We also learned that a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge (12:2). It is easy to get pressed into the mold the world tries to impose when it comes to moral thinking and values systems.

• Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self (12:3). We may be tempted, because we have a relationship with God, to think WE are more than others around us. We aren’t – HE is.

Let’s journey past the first three verses and keep reading, while we look for evidences that God is doing a transforming work in us. Listen to these words for a moment:

Romans 12:4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly:

Romans 12:4 and 5 compare our relationships as believers to the body in which we live.

He established that our body is made up, by God’s brilliant design, of many parts that not only look different from one another, but he was pushing to the idea at the end of verse four that all the parts perform different and complimentary functions. You aren’t one big eyeball, and you shouldn’t be. That’s just weird to think about. Your body is designed with each part doing what it does. When one doesn’t, you quickly realize something’s missing. Here is the truth: because the body functions as a unit, any part that fails to operate properly hurts the function of the whole.

As God designed your body, so God designed a believer to function in connected relationship to other believers. You needn’t look for some deeper truth in the passage than this: body parts are connected, and so believers should be. It is how God designed us to work – as ONE UNIT.

Christianity is wholly incompatible with radical individualism. We are designed to follow Jesus TOGETHER.

I CANNOT OVEREMPHASIZE the point, because we have been thoroughly Americanized. We believe we were meant to drive down the street in our “wheeled living rooms” with a stereo entertaining us in a closed and personal environment, as we sing aloud with our favorite band or worship leader. We walk on the street with headphones on that say “unapproachable, please don’t BUG me.” Our people take countless “selfies” and buy one product after another that begins with the most used pronoun in the English language – “I.”
Paul wrote simple words: “The Christian life is NOT designed to be lived in disconnection from other believers.

We need to check our attitudes when we can show up at church only when there is “something designed for me” and when the music “touches me.” If we can easily quit and move on when we don’t like what the band plays, as if that is at the heart of what we came for – we are missing something. If we come and sit with people we don’t know and (if the truth were told) don’t really have time to get to know – something is wrong with our concept of the body.

Some of us honestly think: “After all, I have enough friends. I have TV. I have my golf partners. I have my bridge club. What do I really need the rest of these people for? I came for what I need, to get instruction in the Bible so I can grow, and I can be, and I can have, and I can honor… wait? Is that what the Bible teaches?

Here is an important question: Can I consider myself a mature believer and still act as though I entirely miss the point of the basic body concept of Romans 12:4?

Beloved, we are SUPPOSED to live a life connected to other believers. Yet, here is the secret we don’t often acknowledge: We must learn to WANT to be connected. It isn’t “natural” anymore.

Remember, the mere fact that Paul was teaching about this, indicates it is not innate in us to know the truth of our vital connection to one another. We must learn to care about the other parts, just as we learn to care about body parts that perform different functions.

The truth is that many parts of my body that I only acknowledge when they hurt. The rest of the time I just expect them to do their job. When they don’t, I want to help them. If it happens too often that they hurt, I get annoyed at them. The same can happen in a church if we aren’t careful. Rather than feel compassion for those who hurt more often than the norm, we can actually project that we are annoyed at them. Dear ones, we must want connection and we must remember we need it – even when it is difficult. Let’s say it this way: A healthy Christian recognizes the value of others in the body and tries to get connected to them.

Paul moved to a very specific way of sharing how we can learn to be connected in the use of our gifts. Here, Paul noted… A healthy Christian desires to understand and operate in their gifting, using it to the fullest for the body’s good.

He wrote it this way:

Romans 12:6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Paul offered a number of details in this passage about gifts of the Spirit.

The words “since we have” in the beginning of verse six remind us that believers possess the Spirit of God from the moment of their salvation, and with the seal of the Spirit comes a unique package of gifts for Divine enablement to help us accomplish our assignment from God both individually and as one body.

The word “differ” in verse six tells us that we don’t all get the same gift package. God gives what God knows will work best, and we receive what we are given before we even identify what it is.

The last part of verse six is written in our English Bible in italics. That means the words are not a translation, but are inferred in the original. Most of the time the translator gets it right, but it isn’t foolproof. Here, it appears the best linguists feel Paul was making the point that we have the gifting of God, but we need to use each gift according to its unique purpose.

What are these gifts?

The New Testament divides the gifts into “ministry” or “service gifts; “manifestation” gifts or “special signs that “God is at work.” In one place, Ephesians 4, God also revealed there are “men” gifts (in the generic sense), that is gifted people who are suited to the work in one place and then dropped into another place by God’s grace and power.

Seven gifts are listed here. This isn’t the only list in the New Testament (another companion list is found in 1 Corinthians 12).

The List

Here we have seven gifts mentioned:

• Romans 12:6b “…prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;

• Romans 12:7 “…if service, in his serving”

• Romans 12:7b “… he who teaches, in his teaching”

• Romans 12:8 “… or he who exhorts, in his exhortation

• Romans 12:8b “… he who gives, with liberality

• Romans 12:8b “… he who leads, with diligence

• Romans 12:8b “… he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Several have no word about the gift except to use it to its fullest, with zeal to help others in the body. Four of the gifts on the list have a description of HOW to best use the gift. Let’s look at each “up close” for a moment, and be sure we understand each of them.

The Prophetic Gift

Let me ask you as I begin to consider the list, “Are you a prophet?” It is a legitimate question. Some of the body has been gifted for the special task of giving Divine truth. God may have suited you to be someone who can research, examine, study and then deliver a careful explanation of what God said in His Word. Before we go further, I should say that in the early church, this often took a form that was combined with a manifestation sign of the Spirit (sometimes a tongue or a word like that) because they didn’t yet have God’s Word in writing. Today, it exists, I believe, in a different form.

The term is pretty broad in its meaning. It is more than just a white-bearded guy standing on a box on a street corner proclaiming the coming of an asteroid. Consider the term prophecy as it used here. The word is prophēteía (from pró or “before” and phēmí which is to “make clear or assert something as a priority.” It is something clarified beforehand or spoken with clarity in the front of a meeting. If you are terrified to speak in public, this probably isn’t your gift. If, on the other hand, you are honestly checking other passages while I am speaking and putting together the places prophecy as a word appears, you may be one of who is a prophetic voice that hasn’t been activated yet.

If that is the case, my best advice to you is to study to show yourself an approved workman. Do the work in the text before you look for an audience to listen to you. We should also remember that Paul made clear this gift was to me exercised “according to the measure (analogia) of your faith (pistis).” A person so gifted is to teach what God has made known to him from the revelation of His Word according to the measure of what they have already studied. In other words, we are to teach what we know from our labors. When it comes to the Word of God, don’t “shoot from the hip.” Don’t speak above what you know. Study and deliver the best that you can, but don’t go beyond what your real work. That is a big part of his point. We have to take the work seriously. We aren’t doing brain surgery, but the stakes are often higher than that! One more thing: remember prophetically gifted people spend more time preparing themselves in the Word and prayer than preparing the message. If you have ever seen this at work, you know exactly what I mean.

The Gift of Service

Paul turned his attention to another gifted ministry partner, the one with the gift of service. This is the word diakonía (which came from the term “waiter” in the ancient world and is translated “ministry”). We get the title of “Deacon” from it. The word specifically refers to gift of a Spirit-empowered desire and ability to serve guided by a specific knowledge of God’s Word. A person gifted for service delights in caring for the practical needs of others, but knows the difference between meeting a need and enabling someone, because they have the Spirit and have learned from God’s Word. They find joy in making a difference in the lives of others, even if it is by doing the most menial of things. My picture of this, ever-present in my mind, was Tom Solyntjes singing to Anita Byng as she lay dying in her bed. He shows love like few other men I have ever seen, and I have never forgotten it. Tom didn’t sing because he thought he sounded like a rock star – he did it out of a love for Jesus that he expressed in a quiet voice for a sister who was leaving this earth.

The Gift of Teaching

Maybe you have the gift of teaching? The word used for this in the NT, is didáskō, which nearly always refers to teaching the Scriptures in the Bible, but was used more broadly in literature of that time. Deep within someone with this gift is a special joy that is reserved for watching those you have worked to impart knowledge to work it out for themselves. Teachers LOVE to see students pick up the truth and “run with it.” It isn’t the gift of incessant studying to look like the smartest in the room, it is the gift of imparting, modeling and releasing. It is exciting and challenging, because you can invest years and the student may never become what they could be. Ask any parent about that disappointment, and they will tell you they have either seen it happen, or experienced it themselves. I have to admit to you that has been my chief motivation for many years. I would rather see others take what I have tried to teach and model and put it into practice than I would like to see people watch me do it. It isn’t a sign of old-age or laziness, it is a joy of watching others walk in truth and become what they were made to be for Jesus’ sake. Didasko isn’t about becoming famous for being good at something; it is about building up others and watching with joy as they launch out.

The Gift of Exhortation

Deeply embedded among the troops of the Lord are those who have the gift of exhortation. They are sometimes “encouragers” and at other times “prodders” to those around them. In my life, I have needed some who would make clear what God wanted me to do, and others who would give me that extra little “push” to get it done. The term “parakaléō’ is take from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call.” It is, properly, “beckon” from “close-up.” If you are one of these, you probably have been enabled to see through problems faster than most of us. You grasp the nature of oncoming problems, and you have a deep compulsion to cry warning and prepare us. You want, out of love and because of your gift, to warn us about what we aren’t seeing and doing. The problem is, without close relationship, you can easily sound caustic to the rest of us. You are valuable, even vital to the body – but you must learn to be careful. You can easily lose track of when your counsel is Biblical, and when it is about deeply held opinions based on personal biases and ideas. You must bathe in the Word and prayer, or the gift meant to build will crush others. Be careful with it, but don’t deny it. Foster the Biblical use of it! Make sure there is relationship beneath it, so you don’t presume to sound like an uninvited authority in someone’s life. Be very careful about using this gift on social media platforms. What is very clear to you may not be clear to the people to whom you want to give warning!

The Gift of Giving

Some in the body of Christ have a burning desire to supply others with what they want. Think of this gift like you think of parenting a small child. You see them struggling to carry the trash bag, so you want to go and help. You watch them trying to learn to ride a bike and you want to buy training wheels to make it easier. That impulse to provide things for you’re your children to help them, when pressed into the specific “gift of giving” as it is found here is the Spirit nudging you to spread that impulse into others around you. The term giving is literally translated “I offer so that a change of owner is produced; I give mine and make it yours. In the text, this is to be done with haplótēs , a strange word that translates literally “singleness, without folds, like a piece of cloth unfolded.” In this context, it denotes “not over-complicated or needlessly complex. The text argues that if you have the gift of giving, don’t get caught up in complexity – just do it. Take care of what God puts in your heart is a need. Don’t announce it. Don’t make fanfare and parade it about. Just do it. Get it done. Keep it simple.

The Gift of Leadership

Perhaps you have been gifted with leadership. You may not yet have the place to lead, but you have the gift, and God is developing you. The word comes from two other words: pro and histémi. They simply mean “to put before, to set over, to manage.” God has gifted some in the body to feel responsible for what goes on, and when they are affirmed and put in a place of responsibility, they show they are both capable and gifted in this area. The text makes clear this is to be done with spoudḗ (quick movement or swiftness to show zealous diligence). It is as though someone gifted with leadership is pushing us forward to “speedy diligence” to cause the body to quickly obey what the Lord reveals is His priority. Leaders help us elevate the best over the good – the most important over the important – and they press us to do so with earnest swiftness and true intensity.

The Gift of Mercy

Perhaps you are someone who hurts for people in a powerful way. You cannot help but be concerned for the welfare of anyone who is hurting. You might be one of the people with the gift of mercy. The term “eleéō” as God defines it, is helping only on His terms. This gift is to be used with hilarótēs form the word for “already won over” and in this context means with “cheerful readiness.” If you have the gift of mercy, helping mustn’t become hassled. The word hides in it a caution that you not overwork yourself until you are unable to be cheerful about the work.

Here is the important truth behind the passage:

God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Habits of Healthy Disciples (Part One): “Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12:1-3

For decades, Americans have been talking about health care. We have been searching for answers as to how best to utilize the medical brain trust that we have in our country to aid everyday Americans when they become ill or incapacitated. The discussion can be heard from Main Street to Wall Street, at kitchen tables and in the halls of Congress. We are still working to find solutions to this complex set of problems.

Some have tried to address it from legislating nutrition. They have taught the food pyramid, but that wasn’t enough. They sought ways to penalize those who would not practice healthy selections, and chose to harm their bodies with large amounts of calories and sugars, etc. In New York City, they have tried to regulate “sugared drinks” for instance. Yet, even that isn’t really stemming the unhealthy trends in modern life.

For this series, we would like to look at another kind of health – the spiritual health and maintenance of individual followers of Jesus – in order to grasp what we should be doing, and how we should conduct ourselves in a manner pleasing to our Savior. In doing so, we will hit some of the same snares we encounter when addressing physical health:

Healthy habits are individually attained. No one can monitor your intake like you can, and no one can force you to take the stairs instead of the elevator should you choose to ignore your need for regular exercise.

Making rules on healthy habits doesn’t produce as much health as it does guilt. A guilty heart hides behind the bushes when God shows up in the Garden. Since that isn’t what we desire to produce, we need to find another way forward than to simply list laws of health and send you out feeling like failures.

Here is the key to what we will study together:

Key Principle: God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Since there are timeless truths God has entrusted to us in His Word about how to walk in healthy ways as a Jesus follower, here is our plan. We want to explore the patterns of health He made clear we need. Each of us will be encouraged to consider three parts to our spitirual health, just as we would our physical health.

First, we will be encouraged to be careful about what we allow into our hearts just as we would be encouraged in the area of nutrition in our body. We will need to spend some time focusing on the choices we make in consumption.

Second, we will be encouraged to forthrightly look at how we use what we know to follow and serve Jesus. Here we can explore both the basic disciplines of the faith, and the use of every gift God has bestowed on us.

Third, we will be encouraged to reflect on what we choose to keep inside our lives – what we retain. This area is often neglected, but it is a critical part of a healthy walk.

Let’s open to the last part of the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman believers of the first century. Take a moment and try to put on their sandals and understand the problems and conditions under which they found themselves, so you can more accurately grasp what the Apostle told them.

There are four things you should know about this letter to really understand it.

First, the letter is in the written form of an Epistle, so it was understood from its reception to be a publicly read instruction for the whole body of those who claimed to follow Jesus. We know that, because it was addressed in Romans 1:7 to “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints…” The form of the letter as an Epistle was a known literary form in the New Testament period. That means this isn’t a personal note, but an address that every believer needed to heed.

Second, the people of the church at Rome included both returned Jews and Gentiles. (Many Jews had been evicted from Rome under Emperor Caligula and again under Emperor Claudius, as refernced in Acts 18:2 in the case of Priscilla and Aquila). The letter includes a way forward for both Messianic Jews and former Gentiles who have come to Jesus. Everyone, regardless of their background, could find help in the pages of this Epistle.

Third, the letter was probably drafted by Paul during his third mission journey (cp. Acts 18:23-21:16) likely while Paul was re-visiting the church for about three months in Corinth. Paul instructed the church in Achaia by letter, but needed to come to those churches and encourage believers. During that trip, Paul took the time to address the Roman church about his desire to come to them. The letter includes a warm desire of Paul to engage people lovingly, not some loose tossing of platitudes and flippantly “judgment loaded” standards. Everyone who listens will hear an inviting voice in its words.

The letter was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

My frame was given to me by God, and I am therefore called to do what He told me with what He gave me. I completely grasp that some part of my physical health is genetic. To some extent, then, each of God’s directives must be personalized because we are not all the same. On the other hand, some principles aren’t very personal at all. For instance, I understand that what I eat and drink (my daily diet) plays a significant role in my physical health. Though it plays out differently in each of us, the overall principle is still at work. In addition to that, I recognize the amount I move, push and work out my body and its muscles has much to do with my physical health. Exercise isn’t everything, but it is a component of health.

In the spiritual world, then, let’s ask the question Paul seems to be answering in the last part of the Epistle to the Romans: “What are the practices of a Jesus follower who truly wants to be healthy in their walk?”

Let’s unpack Paul’s response to that question by looking over the whole list found in Romans 12, and then doing a “deeper dive” on the first three items on the list. We will pick up the others next time.

In Romans 12, Paul enumerated seven important attributes of a healthy Jesus follower. He made clear that a healthy follower:

1. Sought regular heart inspections from the Lord (12:1).
2. Was openly being transformed in thinking from their old views (12:2).
3. Had a proper measure of their life and influence (12:3).
4. Had a deepening appreciation of the other believers in the body (12:4-6a).
5. Possesses a hunger to discern their function in the body (12:6b-8).
6. Builds different kinds of relationships because of their faith (12:9-20).
7. Draws on sustaining power from Jesus, not self (12:21).

Remember our key principle? It included the words: “He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.”

As you look more intently, don’t forget, that is God’s purpose. He is working to change you to get you prepared to accomplish the purpose for which you were designed. He is your Coach, your Personal trainer, and your Guide through the changes that must come to get you ready for what is ahead. Start with where the passage begins… start with the work that must be done on our heart. Paul made clear:

First, a healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection.

Romans 12:1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Most all of us know this verse! Don’t pass off the familiar and bypass the importance of its rich content. Paul urged them, based on the argument he had already made concerning the “mutiny of mankind” together with God’s costly liberation of those who choose to follow Jesus, to place themselves in a deliberate place of inspection before God.

The active verb of the sentence is “to present your bodies.” The term parístēmi is a compound word from pará which means “from close-beside” and hístēmi, which means “to stand.”

The term means to stand close beside, and in this form it is likely to be understood as “ready to exhibit inner traits.” The point is that every believer must learn to habitually recall they live each moment with Jesus watching. Recalling His personal and painful self-sacrifice for us is part of our daily desire to be inspected by Him. Jesus sacrificed Himself for our eternal life, and we must be prepared to live as one who demonstrates sincere gratitude.

Back in 1998, Tom Hanks played a starring role in the hit classic movie “Saving Private Ryan.” There is an ending scene in that movie that illustrates this sense very well. For the unenlightened, the movie chronicled how a man whose family name was “Ryan” was sought out and saved (to be brought home to his family) at the great expense of others who died keeping the order from command to locate and return him. The last scene finds an old man, Ryan in his later years, kneeling at the graves of the men who perished to get him to safety years before. Ryan was engaged in a vivid memory of one of the men who was shot and slipping away. His dying words (the actor played by Hanks) whispered to Ryan: “Earn this!” A man offered those words with his last breath. Ryan understood the depth of that request. In effect, the dying man said: “We died to get you home. We died to follow our orders because someone thinks you are worth saving at all costs. Don’t let our life be wasted! Live yours like what we did mattered.” As the elderly Ryan wept, his wife approached him kneeling at those graves. He looked up and said to his wife and said: “Tell me I am a good man.” He wanted an inspection on his life to verify he did what he was asked to do.

Don’t overplay the illustration, but don’t ignore it.

Jesus didn’t tell you to live in such a way as to earn your salvation. You can’t; He died for you and He alone has the power to forgive you. The Bible is clear on that. He did, however, stress on a number of occasions in His Word that you “walk worthy” of the price paid for you (as in Ephesians 4:1ff). You can’t earn your walk with God, but you can live in such a way that you gratefully show you recognize the incredible cost He paid. Your other choice is to live thoughtlessly, as one “entitled.”

A healthy Christian is one who daily considers the fact that Jesus paid dearly for us, and that He is daily watching our lives. A healthy Christian longs for the inspection to produce a smile on the Master’s face. Paul simply asserted it is reasonable for God to expect us to live for His approval, since He paid dearly for our freedom.

Say it again and again in your heart: “Jesus, You paid dearly for me. Look with piercing eyes into my walk. Try my thoughts. Measure my desires. Convict me of selfish thinking. I need Your inspection!” Yet, there is much more…

Second, a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge.

John’s Gospel recorded that Jesus prayed for His disciples only hours before His arrest and eventual Crucifixion, and God preserved the prayer for us in John 17. Jesus said to the Father:

John 17:14″I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15″I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil [one]. 16″They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17″Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18″As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19″For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

Hang out in any church for very long and you will hear these verses summarized as “We live IN the world, but are not OF the world.” Though that is catchy, it probably leaves many people with the wrong impression. Jesus didn’t leave you here so you could live in a permanent state of discomfort and protest over the wickedness in the world. Read the words carefully. They reveal:

1. Jesus is not of this world and neither are we – because we have believed the Word of God (John 17:14 and again in 17:16).

2. Jesus didn’t want us REMOVED from the world, but rather removed from the imprisonment of the fallen world’s temporary ruler (John 17:15).

3. What must set the believer apart from the world is a God- initiated separation revealed through God making His Word clear to us (John 17:17).

4. The destination of the believer isn’t FROM the world, but INTO THE WORLD – but it must be on mission.

We all agree Jesus doesn’t want His followers to be “of the world” in their thinking and in their choices. At the same time, notice that when Jesus says we are “not of the world” He isn’t making escape our destination to some holy huddle in disassociation from the active mutiny in this world.

No, this was no offer of an “escape hatch” from the world, but a confident assertion that by learning to firmly trust His Word, His followers would be truly prepared to walk boldly into the fallen world, changed by His teaching and not easily wooed by their beckoning.

Look at the way Paul addressed the same notion in Romans 12:2. He wrote these words:

Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Essentially, Paul wrote three compelling truths in the verse we just read.

He told them (based on living a conscious and inspected life in verse one) they are to intentionally block the influence of the world’s powerful stamping machine that would press us into a certain “mold” of the world.

We live in a conflicted world that both demands freedom of choice for every individual and then, in turn, increasingly punishes those who don’t choose as the culture dictates. You are completely free to choose, as long as your choice agrees with the ever-shifting moral value system of our times.

When Paul wrote “do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) the text literally reads “don’t let the world press you into its mold.” That deserves a close look if we are going to be sure and avoid this trap.

This makes plain the notion the world has a constructed mold, and they want you to follow their pressures to become what they are. Conversely, it reminds you that, as a believer under the power of a transforming Savior, you need not buckle. God never commands you to resist what you cannot resist. This is a call to firmly stand without acquiescing to the re-shaping pressures, and you CAN do it. He has given you the power.

I love that Paul didn’t just offer a negative of what NOT to do, but offset it with a positive. He didn’t just offer a “brace yourself for the coming powerful pummeling of the world” but rather he said, “open yourself to God in order to move forward!” When he wrote “be transformed” he referred to the “renewed mind.” Part of this call addresses the intentional work of the believer, while another part of the call is the result of that work.

Paul instructed the believer to invest time focusing their mind on grasping His Word, intentionally allowing it to rush in like a flood and rearrange our thinking within.

As I learn and yield to God’s Word, it will retire my old way of thinking and give me a new look at life. The transformation (the Greek word from which we take “metamorphosis”) isn’t something I do (God does it in me), but rather the effect of something I do. When I open to the flood stream, the rushing stream does its work.

Don’t miss the term “prove what the will of God is.” This comes from a term that means “what passes the necessary scrutiny and is found acceptable because it is genuine and verified.” What a truth!

Paul argued those who were pressed into the mold of the world were living unacceptably to God, not engaging Him at all. They lived a life largely absent of the scrutiny and validation of their Creator.

Ask one who does not yet know Jesus and they will tell you “I hope I’ll get to Heaven. I HOPE God will be happy with my life.” Yet, they have no assurance because they haven’t addressed the fact that God has made known His desires in His Word. They live a life unproven, uncertain, untested and unresolved.

A believer is called to live differently. Each is called to live with an eye keenly fixed on what God has said about life. He will use those words to transform their values, convert their ethics and (as they mature) empower new choices.

Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self.

How we see ourselves has a dramatic effect on how we treat others, and how we navigate life. Paul wrote:

Romans 12:3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

The world’s “thinking mold” impressed deep into us a false standard by which to measure ourselves – the yard stick of me against another person. It works in every way – from “fashion conformity” to our modern expression of values. As the world changes, our vocabulary changes and our fashion is “updated.” Not all of that change is a bad thing, since I cannot reach people if I grudgingly cling to speaking Chaucer’s English while the world moves on. I don’t want to be a distracting oddity. As the world changes how they address issues, I will need to keep apace in order to effectively communicate timeless values. At the same time, this constant change can be a danger, if I find my identity in it.

Look at what Paul wrote closely. He offered words seasoned with grace to the Roman believers, calling them to measure themselves properly and with “sound judgment.” He called them to make the “yard stick” the “measure of faith.” We have often said it: “Faith is God glasses.” It is “seeing things the way God says they are, not the way my eye would see things without looking through His revealed truths.”

Here, Paul made clear we are to see ourselves through the Word’s measure, not the world’s measure.

With a transformed mind, I measure my life’s success by a singular standard. “Did I deliberately commit to allowing God’s Word to do its work in and through me?”

That is the big third commitment of the text. Paul made clear that transformation by God comes from my intentional yielding of heart to God’s Word.

Let’s stop with these three for this lesson. Let’s rehearse the truths with these three desires:

• I want a regular and piercing heart inspection of Jesus.
• I want the Word to flood in and rearrange my thinking.
• I want to see myself properly.

God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Step into the workshop of a blacksmith, and you can discern three kinds of tools.

In the dark corner, on an old bench, lay a pile of tools that are in disuse. They appear outdated, broken, dull, rusty. They sit among the cobwebs, covered by a layer of dust and dirt. They appear to be useless to their master, oblivious to their purpose. They may have once been used, but they haven’t been called upon for quite some time. They are comfortable, but they are essentially unworkable.

In the shop’s center there are other tools positioned on or near the anvil. They have heated and often made molten hot. They have become repeatedly fashioned, each time closer to their final look. They are often changed by the blacksmiths hammer. They aren’t DONE, but they are BECOMING as they accept their purpose.

In the hands of the blacksmith, there are his chief tools. They are of greatest usefulness because they have allowed molding. They have submitted to the grind of sharpening. They have been filed, pounded and defined. They are ready for the blacksmith’s use. They are effective because he can count on them to do what he calls on them to accomplish.

In God’s church, there are three kinds of believers. Some wish to be used, but only if God will submit to their terms. They live broken lives, self choices – with talents wasting and time slipping away. Alive in their own purposes and dreams, they don’t seek the Master’s shaping. They run from the fire, push back at the filing and flee the pound of re-shaping. They want to be used, but they don’t seem to be willing to submit to the Master’s purpose.

Others believers are mid-shaping. They are open and hungry to change, accepting the file to peel off wounds of the past. They want to know the Master’s touch, be it comfortable or not. They want to be used even if it means giving up their dreams, their shape, their plan – all to be shaped by the Master. They have learned to welcome the painful pounding of the hammer, but they still long to be remade and repurposed.

Still others are well placed in their Master’s powerful and creative hands. They demand nothing, but surrender all.

What you can become is up to His shaping. How you get there is up to your willingness.

Where Transformation Began: “Basic Training” – 1 and 2 Thessalonians

The young man standing at my door bore only a slight resemblance to the pudgy little kid that used to live next door. Now twenty-two and serving our nation in the military, this young man had the look of a well-chiseled frame, taught of muscle and sharp in features. I could scarcely see in his eyes the youth and uncertainty that once marked his steps. This was no kid; he was now a US Marine.

I wonder… How did those who were engaged in making Marines out of our boys manage to press deep disciplines into undisciplined, sloppily-dressed apathetic youths? They took them through what has come to be known as “basic training.” They worked to transform these young men with rigorous training, discipline and constant contests against each other and their own lazy inclinations. They tested, tried, taunted and troubled them into transformation of mind and body. They repeated exercises until muscles responded in memory when the brain was still mostly asleep. I don’t know much about the process, but there is the one this anyone who passes through the experience can tell you: Discipline comes at a price. No one becomes well-trained in a passive and unintentional environment.

Dear ones, I have been spending time with believers in a number of places. God is at work in many corners of our planet, and I am blessed to be a part of many things far larger than I ever could have imagined. The believers I have been with come from many parts of the world, and they don’t all share the same experiences, cultures, languages and politics. Yet, it is clear to me as I journey that I am encountering many of the same attitudes and practices no matter where I turn. Out of a heart of concern, I say to you that I believe the world is impacting the believer, in many cases, far more than the believers are impacting the world. Collectively and individually, our salt is in danger of losing its saltiness.

I know that most of you know this basic truth of Scripture:

Believers are called, first and foremost to be “distinct” (the meaning of the word “holy” in Scripture).

When we lose that distinctiveness in look and sound, the “salt loses its savor” and becomes worthless for the purpose of witness and impact on our world. It offers nothing to flavor the world that is unique. Though our worth to God is not in question, our worth in witness is reduced to bland mimicry of the world’s ways. Let’s say it this way: No good cook reaches for salt shakers filled with beach sand to flavor the stew.

How can we go back to the training we received in the beginning to help us recover our individual paths of transformation? That is the question I want to explore for the moments we have together.

Maybe the place to begin is where instruction in our faith began. To that end, I want to look back at where the writings of Paul began to instruct the church to begin their impact on the world around them – by allowing the Spirit to transform them from within. I want to look briefly at his first two letters that were addressed to the Thessalonian believers of the first century. Here is what I believe will become obvious from our study…

Key Principle: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.

Drop your eyes into 1 Thessalonians for a few minutes. In the time allotted, I cannot offer a deeply detailed study, but I am not persuaded that is truly necessary to make the point Paul wanted us to take away.

Transformation by the Spirit can and does happen. It doesn’t always take ions of time and volumes of copious notes. It does, however, take intentional and focused submission to Jesus as we let Him lead us.

Paul’s first epistles opened with simple reminders of the authors and their intended recipients (1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1)

“Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is worth recalling that this wasn’t a tiny country village off the beaten track, but rather the capital and largest city of the Roman province of Macedonia. Located on the Egnatian Way, a major road from Rome to the eastern provinces, the city served as center of trade and commerce.

We know about the beginnings of this church.

The establishment of the church is recorded in Acts 17:1-9. This was on Paul’s incredibly difficult second missionary journey, He and his companions (Silas and Timothy) had just left Philippi and passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia to arrive at Thessalonica. As was his custom, Paul immediately located the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews for three Sabbaths concerning Jesus Christ. While some of them were persuaded, including a great number of devout Greeks and leading women, the unbelieving Jews became jealous and created uproar within the city. It became necessary to send Paul and Silas away secretly by night to the city of Berea, almost one hundred fifty (150) miles away!

Despite ominous beginnings, a strong church was established in Thessalonica (cf. 1:2-10). Mostly Gentile (cf. 1:9), its members included Jason (Ac 17:9), Aristarchus, and Secundus (Ac 20:4).

In spite of their initial troubles, Paul tried to open each letter (one written shortly after the other) with something “upbeat.” Listen to how positive his words were, considering the shortness of their time to get underway:

1 Thessalonians 1:2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…

5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit…

Leaders need to see past the troubles into the joys. Good leaders highlight the good things. They see the problems, but they also balance that with God’s good hand in the midst of the struggle. Paul demonstrated that.

We know about the specific circumstances surrounding the letters.

From the letter itself (1 Thess. 3:1-6), and the record of Paul’s travels in Acts (Ac 17:10-18:11), it appears that Paul wrote this letter soon after arriving in Corinth on his second journey. This would put it somewhere around 52 CE, when Paul was in his late 40’s in age. His concerns were used by God to ignite his writing career, and give us the bulk of the New Testament by his life’s end.

It is obvious when reading, that his abrupt and forced departure from Thessalonica so soon after the beginning of the church left Paul anxious about the condition of the brethren in that city. When Timothy joined Paul at Athens (cf. Acts 17:14-16), his concern prompted Paul to send Timothy at once back to Thessalonica to encourage and ground the new disciples in the faith, and to learn how they were enduring persecution (cf. 3:1-5). When Timothy returned to Paul in Corinth (cf. Ac 18:5), the news was mostly encouraging (cf. 1 Thess. 3:6-7).

Despite persecution they had remained strong (1 Thess. 2:13-16), and even proved themselves to be an example to others (1 Thess. 1:6-8). Yet, as with any young church, they needed further instruction concerning holy living and the work of Jesus in them.

We know about the problems they were facing.

The letters made clear issues were lurking beneath the surface. The three most prominent problems in Thessalonica were persecution, confusion and discouragement.:

In 1 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul noted the church barely got started, and was swamped with persecutors and problems – they needed confidence that God understood their problem.

One of the most powerful attacks of the enemy is PERSECUTION. It is not simply the act of beating down believers that he uses. He seeks to get believers stirred with a rage of injustice in order to get them to doubt God’s reality or perhaps question God’s true goodness. Troubles make us impatient at best, cynical at worst. This is an old ploy – and the enemy has used it since the beginning of the church. Because people are against your message does not mean that the message is wrong. It may mean their hearts are the problem. If you look closely, the condition of the attackers hearts will become apparent.

Paul made clear God is not unaware of the unfair attacks believers suffer – He simply awaits the proper time to respond. This is the nature of 2 Thessalonians 1. Be careful of being led away from sharing Jesus because of the injustice of an irrational lost world. It is a trick. Judgment will come in due course – but not until the last man, woman or child is reached by a sharing believer! If we allow ourselves to get stirred up, love will dissipate, and anger will suppress our call to obedience.

In our world, “wrong” (as defined by God’s Word) will be called “right.” God will be mocked by mutineers. People will make outrageous charges against the people of the truth – and allow others who are clearly sinister to walk by untouched by accusation. We must anticipate it, and we dare not allow ourselves to be distracted by it. God promised His unending presence; not unabated fairness.

By the time of 2 Thessalonians 2, it seems some were shaken by a false letter and forged explanations of eschatology that were designed to throw them off track of following the truth – they needed clarification of what Paul already taught them.

The enemy loves CONFUSION in the church. Sometimes it is the muddling of false doctrine that emerges from improper use of the text of Scripture. Sometimes it is the elevation of false scripture – or the relentless charges against the true Word of God. Still other times, it is the misguided and poorly formed teaching of a wayward pulpit. After two thousand years, the enemy has played a role in all of these.

Both letters show that some were upset and distracted by undisciplined and disorderly Christians, who were not living the truth – they needed a charge to make certain their responses.

This third attack invokes DISCOURAGEMENT. It is hard to serve God when you see so many believers that act with disregard to the Word and God’s Spirit! Paul ascribed the bad behavior in the wayward as undisciplined behavior. He didn’t simply call them lazy, he argued that proper disciplines in life that were essential to obedience were simply lacking – and that resulted in dependencies on others that were not right.

In the letters, I could seven direct calls toward transformation. That doesn’t cover every detail of the two epistles, but it does give the essentials to the basic training in the first of the manuals given to the church by God.

Seven Calls to Transformation

Drop directly into 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul picked up on the opening instructions of seven points of transformation, and look at their purpose:

1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

There it is! The clear purposes of each letter was to:

• Make a special request: erōtáō (from eromai, “ask”) – make an earnest request, especially by someone in a “preferred position” – as Paul obviously was.

• As well as offer a special encouragement: parakaléō (from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call”) – properly, “make a call” while being “close-up and personal.”

• The point of these personal requests were that they “excel more” (perisseúō: meaning “to exceed previous levels”) in a holy (distinctive) walk.

Don’t miss that verse two says the commands came from Jesus (1 Thess. 4:2) so they were essential.

What were they? Follow the line of his writings in the rest of the first epistle and in the second letter as well.

Call One: Live in Distinctive Purity

Paul started with the believers surrendered use of their body for God’s purposes. He wrote:

1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God … 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.

Sexual freedom as defined by our society is a masquerade for godless, pagan, rebellion. It isn’t rejection of the church – it is the rejection of God’s right to be God. He made us. He called us to define right and wrong NOT BY OUR FALLEN DESIRES but by His carefully stated and illustrated Word.

I plead with you if you know Christ today to learn to curb the desires of your body and walk in obedience to Jesus Christ. One million years from now, you will celebrate that victory. Don’t excuse your bad behavior by your desires. We all have them. They shouldn’t define you, nor should they control you. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Two: A Call to Distinctive Focus

If you keep reading, Paul offered a second word – and this one is about the sparkling objects to which we most pay attention. This one is about where we focus…

1 Thessalonians 4:10b “…But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

We live in a time when many will spend hours surfing the web and picking up causes over which they can fume. They will read about injustice. They will read about abuses. They will fall into the negative trap of believing that offering an opinion is what will change the world.

The believer should spend more time loving the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock and drawing her to Jesus than protesting Planned Parenthood. The latter deserves to be derided, but not more than caring for the people in our lives. Get busy doing more than criticizing what is wrong with our world. I would humbly suggest the world has more critics than it needs already. Get involved in something that stirs your heart and make a difference. Work hard. Be a person with that reputation. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Three: A Call to Distinct Understanding

Paul kept the fire hot and wrote…

1 Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. … 15 …we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive [n]and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. … 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. …11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.

Believers are to understand the times we live in. Some of us will die, but the body sown in the ground will get recycled at the coming of Jesus. Jesus can deal with all of it when He returns, and HE WILL RETURN. It will be sudden, when the world has tossed aside the idea that He ever came, let alone the idea that He will return.

Because we know He is coming again, we should be encouraged. We should be watchful. We should care about how we use our time, our talent and our treasure. We only have what we have because He gave it to us. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Four: A Call to Distinct Gratefulness

Look for a moment at the reminder of how we should sound concerning those God has given us to serve with in the Kingdom…

1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

Paul noted the way to do that is:

• 13b “…Live in peace with one another.
• 14b “…admonish the unruly.
• 14b “…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
• 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
• 16 Rejoice always;
• 17 pray without ceasing;
• 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
• 19 Do not quench the Spirit;
• 20 Do not despise prophetic utterances. 21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;
• 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

What if believers lived out those truths? What if the people of our churches focused on getting along instead of sharing dirt behind the scenes? What if we lovingly built relationships where correction wasn’t a mallet, but an act of love? You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Five: A Call to Distinct Courage

Paul offered in 2 Thessalonians 1 some inspiration to oppressed and persecuted Christians as he wrote these words:

2 Thessalonians 1: 5 [This is] a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is [only] just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and [to give] relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire…

He noted that believers must “take heart” in persecution?

If the days grow dark, we are to keep growing and know that our testimony is enhanced by the testing of persecution. We must learn to be settled in recognizing that God will deal with those who are hurting you (1:6). We have to remember that the Magnificent One is on His way! (1:10). We have to understand that God will use your lives powerfully to glorify Jesus (1:11-12). Ask the Coptic Christians that withstood fear in the face of Muslim Brotherhood. Ask the Iraqi believers who endured the horror of ISIS.

Massive numbers of followers of Jesus have sprung from those events. Though pushed out of some places in the Middle East, there are plenty of new congregations and believers. We have to be courageous. We have to stand firm. We have to stop trying to appease evil. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Six: A Call to Distinct Commitment

Paul offered instruction to perplexed Christians with this simple command:

2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we request you… 2 that you not be quickly shaken …or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for [it will not come] unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, … 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [will do so] until he is taken out of the way. … 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false… 15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught…

Believers are called to recognize that God clearly holds our future in His hands!

When trouble came, they tried to decide if they were in the wrath of the “Day of the Lord” – but they weren’t (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Knowing the Word and resting in its surety would have saved them much in anxiety. Paul made clear that first came the “snatching away” and then the “Man of Sin” would be revealed (2:3).

The Greek noun “apostasia” is used twice in the New Testament (here and Acts 21:21 referencing Paul as “teaching Jews among the Gentiles to forsake (apostasia) Moses.” The term is “apo” or from and “istemi” “stand” with a core meaning of “departure”. The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines “apostasia” as either “a defection or revolt” or a “departure or disappearance.” Is this the rapture of the church? Is this the falling away of the church? I cannot say for sure, though I have an opinion.

The point is that we are called to understand the times based on the revealed truths of the Word. God isn’t playing games, and times must be seen through the glass of the Word.

What is clear is there is a restraint on the lawlessness that is growing, and will come to an explosion when the end comes. (2:4-7). Lawlessness means “making up our own rules.” The pressure is building, and that shouldn’t surprise us – but there is a God-ordained restraint upon him right now. Don’t be dismayed, Jesus will deal with his power! (2:8). The enemy will work, and God will dull minds, but it will all be dealt with in the coming judgment (2:9-12). Be thankful with us that God has called us to rescue and deliverance! (2:13-17). Don’t let discouragement over the behaviors you see take over your heart. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Seven: A Call to Distinct Discipline

At the heart of Paul’s “Injunctions to disorderly Christians” he the need to deal with the unruly in the church. Many will be the voices that suggest we should ignore bad behavior because we don’t want to come off as “judgy.” Here is what the Word says:

2 Thessalonians 3: 6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we [kept] working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right [to this], but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example…

There will always be wayward ones in our world. Paul made clear:

• Back away from them during their disobedience (3:6).
• Keep walking in discipline and work hard (3:7).
• Don’t try to get things from others for free – work hard (3:8-10).
• Remember that people need productive work to do or they will multiply sinful behaviors (3:11).
• Recognize that practical instruction is part of the work of the church (3:12).
• Don’t tire of doing right and walking in obedience (3:13-14a).
• If someone won’t follow the Word, mark them and admonish them in brotherly affection (3:14b-15).

The point is clear: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.

Before we are finished, let’s hear two warnings:

First, while we are called to walk well, I won’t hesitate to remind you, that isn’t our ultimate focus. In fact, if we focus on doing right, our works will be good. If we focus on walking with Him, that relationship will help us begin to understand holiness – true distinctiveness. The two do not end in the same place because they come from a different place. One is rooted in accomplishment; the other builds on relationship.

Second, Jesus said that when He left, He sent the Spirit of God to work in the LOST to bring conviction. (John 16:8-9). Look at what a comfort that truth is!

• We do not ARGUE people into the Kingdom of God.
• We don’t PROTEST them into the throne room of the King.
• We don’t SHAME them into following Jesus.

We teach His Word – and do it with love and grace. We accept their harsh words, as those who “know not what they are doing” but stand unapologetically by the Word of the King.

How does that “weak” and “unaggressive” method work in such a “dog eat dog” world? It works incredibly well – because we have the privilege of laboring beside the powerful partner of the Spirit of God.

Jesus does the changing; we hold His hand and follow His lead.

Before It Happens: “Judgments of the ‘Day of the Lord’” – Joel 2

On September 25, 2015, the Business Insider web report offered a fascinating article called “Predictive Policing.” In the article, the author referred to a Tom Cruise movie from 2002 called “Minority Report.” The article described the movie as an action mystery-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg, and noted the story was set in the Washington, D.C. area in the year 2054. At that time the so-called “Pre-Crime” police unit was tasked with apprehending criminals before they committed the crime, based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “pre-cogs.” It sounded like a powerful thriller for those who like the science fiction genre. My chief interest, though, was in the information found in the article that described how police are, in fact, using stores of computer collected and analyzed data to suggest where police resources should be directed, (i.e. areas where crimes will likely occur) – as a computer “predicts” when and such help should be concentrated. I was fascinated with the notion that such “predictions” could actually one day be found a reliable aid in crime deterrence.

The fact is, though, that predicting coming trouble isn’t a new thing. God mercifully sent prophets centuries ago who did just that. In our last lesson, we began recalling some of the words of an ancient prophet in The Book of Joel.

As we look into Joel 2 in this lesson, it may be helpful if we recall that in our last lesson we made the point that it wasn’t a desire to punish that drove God to send prophets – it was a function of His grace to warn us. We made clear that these passages are sometimes cryptic, and often uncomfortable to wade through, but God was anxious that His people know what was to come. The passage begins:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming…

Does it sound like God desired to hide what was happening? Not at all! The truth is that however hard, however uncomfortable, we need the message of a coming reckoning of our lives. We need to know that God is not aloof, and our sin is not private and easily forgotten. Israel needed that message too!

Go back to the Book of Joel and you will recall that God used a graphic symbol to get the people’s attention. They saw a massive locust invasion described in vivid terms in Joel 1. The warning of God was made plain: this was to be an illustration of something larger that would devastate the children of Israel in the days ahead. The prophecy was horrid, messy and terrible… but that wasn’t the end of the story. Prophecy wasn’t designed to leave people in the “soup” of judgment. Let me explain…

Do you recall that Jesus used the scene of a woman in childbirth as His “go to” illustration concerning the prophecy of the end times of the human program? In Matthew 24, tucked into His warnings of “wars and rumors of wars” He offered these words: (Matthew 24:8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.). He said that when the time of judgment drew near, the birth pangs would begin, but that pain was just the beginning of the end. It is particularly helpful, I think, at that moment of pain to recall that the end is not in pain – but in a new life. The pain will pass.

In the same way, some prophecies are revealed in very messy terms. Some of them are not linear prophecies – neatly unfolded in chronological order like the organized closing argument of a lawyer. Rather, as God unwinds the cosmos around us and replaces it with a new Heaven and earth, there is a painful and nasty process – but it is designed to bring forth something wonderful and exciting. This isn’t the only example of such pain-ridden processes in life.

• Think about the first morning the athlete begins training for a spot on the Olympic team. It is still dark out, and they get up and head out the door in their sweat pants and t-shirt – a body is about to begin to be altered. There will be much pain ahead, but the end may find them standing on a platform with the whole world watching them receive a medal.
• Think of the confused and distressed drug addict that checks into the clinic and begins the process of stripping from within the body the harmful and powerful drugs. The process will be disgusting, but it will restore the life that was ebbing away. If they follow the given instructions, they will likely exit new and different people.
• Closer to more of us, consider the person beginning the terrible process of losing many, many pounds on a necessary but agonizing diet. The end will be greater health, but the path to get there may not be very pretty.

All of these examples are arduous and painful processes that are designed to end well. So it is with God’s eventual and dramatic end to the history of human rebellion. Time will surrender to eternity, and mutiny will be replaced by worship!

Joel’s opening vision was stark, powerful and heartbreaking – but the locust devastation provided a picture to refocus Israel on coming judgment – and encourage them with the message that it would end well.

This prophecy is more than it appears on the surface. It is a story of the world God made, and what He is going to do with it. It is the story of what God did for His people, Israel – and what He will do to bring them to full surrender to Him. Like the intricate settings and battles of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is detail and drama. We must not become quickly impatient for the revealed ending and miss the weight of the struggle – because the prophets aren’t in a hurry to skip over the painful details.

Here is why. God’s faithful character is uniquely revealed in the depths of a painful struggle. His glory is best discovered in a commanding triumph over the rebels, and His vast wisdom most clear in the rich texture of the prophetic struggle.
In detail, chapter two is probably the weightier part of the message of this prophet’s record. The chapter turns on the words: “The Day of the Lord.” This phrase was used five times in Joel beginning with Joel 1:15 (see also: 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14). You cannot begin reading the second chapter for but a few words and the phrase appears yet again.

Because the prophet did not begin with a definition, we will need to discern the meaning of the phrase FROM the text. As we seek to do so, we will see this truth emerge…

Key Principle: The “Day of the Lord is an extended period of time in which God deals with Israel’s constant rejection of Him.

It begins with their veiling from the former profound relationship with Him, and end with their restoration beyond any further judgment at Messiah’s return and judgment of His people. We will be able to discern this by looking at the best passage in the Bible on the subject – Joel 2.
When the prophets use the term “day” they don’t always seem to mean a chronological 24-hour period.

Think with me about what we see in the prophetic literature. The term “day” always appears to refer to time, but some references appear to be more than a single calendar day:

1. There is the term “Day of man’s judgment” in 1 Corinthians 4:3 referencing the current economy, when men have control over human jurisprudence- i.e. where men “run the courts.”
2. The “Day of Christ” is mentioned six times in Scripture (1 Cor. 1: 8; 5: 5; 2 Cor. 1: 14; Phil. 1: 6, 10; 2: 16) and appears to refer to a time period when Christ will come to snatch away the church (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13– 18) from the earth, bringing up the Christians of the church age to be with Him forever (Jn. 14: 1– 3).
3. Another term is the “Day of God” (cp. 2 Peter 3:12) seems to refer to the final disposition of Heaven and Earth (when they ‘pass away’) as God remakes things using devastation and fire.
4. With these, there is also the “Day or the Lord” which seems to include several profound kinds of judgment of God on His people Israel, and on the nations before, during and after the Tribulation.

Based on these uses of the term “day” in the context of judgment, the word doesn’t appear to be only used of 24-hour periods, but sometimes may be reckoned a protracted period of time.

What did the prophets mean by the “Day of the Lord” as best we can tell?

The specific phrase occurs nineteen times by name throughout the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, including once by the prophet Obadiah (1:15), five times in Joel (1:15; 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14), three times by Amos (Amos 5:18 twice and 5:20), three times by Isaiah (2:12; 13:6, 9), twice by Ezekiel (13:5; 30:3), three times by Zephaniah (1:7 and 1:14 twice), once by Zechariah (14:1), and once by Malachi (4:5). Add to that other occurrences of “that day” or “that great day” and you will pile on another seventy-five places where it was mentioned in at least a cursory way.

Rather than define the terms outright, I would like you to build with me a construct for the meaning of the “Day of the Lord” as we follow the record of Joel 2.

Our text offers descriptions of the “Day of the Lord” beginning with the call to assemble because of its impending arrival.

After Joel called the people in 2:1 to: Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, He went on to describe the event…

First, the “Day of the Lord” was swiftly approaching.

Joel 2:1b …Surely it is near.

From God’s perspective, Israel was running out of time before an event, that was part of divine judgment, would come upon them. The importance of that phrase is simple: People always think they have more time in life to straighten out their walk with God. Part of the blessing of warning is it reminds us to pull against our natural inclination to believe we have more time.

If you are honest with yourself, can you admit that you often think you can accomplish more in the day ahead than you actually can? Are you a victim of your own unrealistic expectations? If you are, you need to listen carefully when the Lord calls you to repentance and renewal – because you will tend to think you have more time.

Don’t forget, when you read “near” in the Bible, that when we talk in terms of time with God, we have to be careful, since He dwells outside of the dimension of time.

There is a Scripture connecting events of the “Day of the Lord” mentioned some time later in the words of Peter in Acts 2:16.

but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel. 17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on My bond slaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophecy 19 and I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. 21 And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

That quote from Joel was made as Peter defended the men who were speaking in tongues in Acts 2. In my view, Peter carefully noted that with the coming of the Spirit to begin indwelling the believers, the “Day of the Lord” judgments were commencing. Something at Pentecost appeared to be acting as the beginning point of the “Day of the Lord.” If my analysis of his reference is true, the “Day of the Lord” is a period of judgment beginning with the celebration of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Spirit of God fell upon the church. The effect that event had on Israel will become clear as we study.

In any case, don’t miss the point: People overestimate the amount of time they have to get their life straightened out – so we all need reminders that life is short and judgment is certain.

Second, the “Day of the Lord” would bring a darkening veil over the discerning eyes of God’s people.

Critical to the understanding of the nature of the “Day of the Lord” is the sentence that included the nature of the judgment – it was a “darkening” or “veiling.” The writer continued:

Joel 2:2 A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, So there is a great and mighty people…

The words evoke the image of the blanket of locusts that blocked out the sky. In the same way, the people of God would experience a darkening and a gloom. It may be the reference was to natural disturbances – and clearly that was part of the issue. At the same time, it appears that a veil descending over their hearts would also arrive, and it would make a clear walk with God a distant, vague, and darkened pursuit. Paul appears to have spoken of this “veiling” as a “hardening” in Romans 11:25:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion; He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.

If the “Day of the Lord” includes a judgment that placed a curtain of darkness between the Jewish people and God for a time, one form of divine judgment seems to be God placing a distance from Himself in the heart of someone that expresses (in word or deed) their desire for Him to “leave them alone.”

Don’t miss that: God may politely withdraw from you when your life message to Him is that you don’t want Him bugging you.

It is ONLY His grace that keeps needling you with embarrassing guilt. Your feeling of guilt isn’t your problem; your stubborn and rebellious spirit is! Part of God’s mercy can be seen in His uninvited conviction.

In the case of Israel, the veiling or hardening was neither total nor final, but it was part of the whole judgment.

Third, the “Day of the Lord” (though offering some resemblance of other judgments) was unique in the prophetic scheme.

This was both am exceptional and distinctive time…

Joel 2:2b …There has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations.

In the Bible, the “time of Jacob’s Trouble” (called by Jesus the “Great Tribulation”) was described in Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 exactly that way – as a time unlike any other. The description in those places are clearly of judgment so heavy on the Earth that the world would have been decimated were it not for God putting a stop to those days.

Unique judgment requires special attention. The fact that God clearly marked out a coming time that was unlike any other was an “historical highlighter” marking something very important. To God, the time of purifying His people wasn’t a WASTE of resources. The destruction of the landscape was “entirely worthwhile” as God drew people back.

It is worth remembering that even the hard times that call us and draw us back to God are precious times in His sight. In some cases, those severe moments of discipline are the moments He marks as the most important in our lives. So it was with Israel in the “Day of the Lord.”

Fourth, the “Day of the Lord” includes severe destruction of the landscape through divine judgment as a main feature.

Obviously, if you are a Bible student, the description here fits well with the later description of the Great Tribulation…

Joel 2:3 A fire consumes before them and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them but a desolate wilderness behind them, and nothing at all escapes them.

Parts of the Great Tribulation are described in those exact terms, as in Revelation 8:6

And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them. 7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, 9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.

It appears the “Day of the Lord” includes the Tribulation Period revealed most completely in Revelation 6-19, with the seven seal judgments (Rev.6), the seven trumpet judgments (Rev. 8) and the seven bowl or vial judgments (Rev. 16).

Here is the truth: when we are rebellious, it is nearly impossible to get our attention until we face catastrophic failure. Anything short of destruction of our dreams will easily be explained away and ignored. In the case of Israel, the whole earth will appear to turn against them because they won’t run to God until there isn’t anywhere else to run!

Are you really any different? Most of us can readily admit that we aren’t good at repentance, and we aren’t quick at picking up on the signs of judgment.

It will take a near decimation of the world to bring Israel to her knees. She won’t realize she needs God until there is literally no stone left unturned in her attempt to find her way without Him.

Fifth, the “Day of the Lord” includes the appearance of a massive army, just as the locusts graphically pictured.

The story of “The Great Tribulation” in Revelation 16 and 19 ends with a massive military buildup on the Earth that prepares to destroy Israel – but meets doom in the coming of Messiah and His forces from Heaven.

Note how the “Day of the Lord” in Joel 2 appears to include this time…

• It includes the movement of a swift army: Joel 2:4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like war horses, so they run.
• That massive army moved with great noise: Joel 2:5 With a noise as of chariots They leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire consuming the stubble, like a mighty people arranged for battle.
• The army that struck terror into hearts as it advanced: Joel 2:6 Before them the people are in anguish; all faces turn pale.
• It appeared as a well-trained, overwhelming force on the earth: Joel 2:7 They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like soldiers; And they each march in line, Nor do they deviate from their paths. 8 They do not crowd each other, They march everyone in his path; When they burst through the defenses, They do not break ranks. 9 They rush on the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter through the windows like a thief.
• The militia seemed unstoppable, and blocked out even the stars (dust cloud or aircraft?) above in their overwhelming power and might: Joel 2:10: Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness.
• The gathering of an army that would surely destroy them without God’s intervention was foretold in detail in Zechariah 12:12-14:5: The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. … 2 “Behold, I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah… 7 The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David… 10 “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. 11 In that day there will be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, every family by itself…14: 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. 3 Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. 4 In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east… 5 You will flee by the valley of My mountains … Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!

In the end, Israel won’t save herself. They will finally see God’s Son, their Messiah, and He will bring them rescue – just as He did for many of us.

Salvation isn’t about our ability to find God – it is about our response to Him when He stands right in front of our messed up lives and calls us to take His hand and follow Him. God isn’t interested in people “getting their lives together” so they can meet Him. We can’t do it. He is interested in us recognizing we have no one who loves us like He does.

Israel will see their long lost Son. They will recognize Him for His past sacrifice for them. They will weep – but they will reach out for His hand. That is the only thing for which God waits.

Sixth, God’s rescuing army also arrives.

Mid-way through the description of the advance of the army, the prophet appears to have changed his description from the opponents of God, to the army God sent in response:

Joel 2:11 The Lord utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, For strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it?

Isn’t this just like the description of the assembly called from Heaven for the defeat of the armies defiant against God found in Revelation 19: 17?

…Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in mid heaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army.

The “Day of the Lord” doesn’t only include the Tribulation Period, but also the end of that time with the coming of the Lord. The gathering of the nations was organized to attempt to destroy Israel and remove any memory of the God of the Bible – but then God showed up.

Never count God out in the fight… Never! When the darkness descends and you look in every direction but find no alternatives – look UP! God isn’t aloof. He knows where you are, who you are, what you’ve been doing, and where you are headed.

Many in Israel may have rejected the Messiah today, but He hasn’t rejected them. When the time is right, He will show Himself. At the same time, He is removing any doubt that there is another way for them to be reconciled to God and find peace on this planet. It isn’t until God removes the other options that we see the truth – He is all we have – but He is all we need.

Seventh, when God’s army appears, His people will again be called to repent.

A message was passed to the Jewish people to get serious with God yet again, as their time had run out. Even though God called for generations, yet He called again. Long after they had forgotten His love… His patience called them back to Him.

The message of repentance will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:12 Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.

The opening to return to God’s arms will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:13b…Now return to the Lord your God…

Is that true of YOU today? Have you been on the run trying to make it without God, but you sense Him calling you today?

Don’t ignore Him. In fact, listen to the way the prophet, the SAME GUY who described the decimation of things all over the world, described the character of God…

Joel 2:13b …For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Just as Zechariah 12:10 reminded us of the coming response of the people of Israel, so Joel cites the turning of the hearts of the people to the Lord in the face of the battle between God and the nations. The appearance of the army of God will be a new opportunity to bow before the Lord. The people will recognize the day and nothing will be more important!

In Joel 2:15 they are called to “Blow a trumpet”… to “Consecrate a fast” … 16 Gather the people… Assemble the elders

Even the long resistant spiritual leaders of Israel will call the people to repentance and recognize their own sins.

Joel 2:17 Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not make Your inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Clearly this will be a day when Israel will understand the choice they have to finally see the Lord clearly once again.

Here is the simple truth: God rescues when He is invited to do so. He saves when we recognize we need saving. As long as we think we can run our lives without Him, He lets us try.

Here is what Scripture makes plain: It won’t work for Israel, and it won’t work for you.

The “Day of the Lord” includes God’s heavy hand of judgment to get His people to stop running.

In our next lesson, we will finish the chapter with God’s wonderful rescue – but don’t leave the conviction of this moment…

The penalty for constant neglect of God and their invitation of evil while distancing themselves from God was this:

• God withdrew.
• Intimate knowledge of God became veiled.
• For dark generations the Jewish people suffered.
• Many invented marvelous things, and some achieved notoriety and wealth.

Yet, through it all they were living in turmoil under the “fog” of a spiritual life largely darkened.

The prophet explained it.

When we push away from God, He politely lets us walk in the peril of our own arrogance.

God’s judgment in His withdrawal is always palpable. They KNEW something shattered their identity. Even after the State of Israel has attempted to offer stability and identity to world Jewry, still they know the world waits for their destruction and they don’t know why. It hurts. It is lonely. It feels wrong and isn’t clear why these things are happening.

Yet, God’s promise didn’t stop at pain and rejection. There is coming an END to the pain. Significant to the narrative was this record of its end:

Joel 2:25 Then I will make up to you for the years That the swarming locust has eaten… 26 … Then My people will never be put to shame. 27 Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the Lord your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame.

Look at that.

Grab the import of a nation redeemed, lives restored.

Think about many people who have lived apart from God for much of their lives, only to find peace in the Savior late in life.

In a mobile home backed up to the church property lived a man who came to Grace Church years ago, walking in the back door and looking at the ceiling as though it might fall upon his entrance. I noticed him immediately because his skin was a pale yellow. He was apparently a sickly man with an advanced and serious illness. He decided to walk across his back yard one morning and walk into the church. At the invitation, he came forward, and we talked for a time after the service. He told me that he came to Jesus in his youth, many years before. He recounted God’s call to send him into a mission field, and how he told God “No!” in a church service, because he had things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He didn’t think God understood how hard the mission field would be for him. No one knew how much he was wrestling with God, but in a matter of weeks, he left the church, never to return until he walked in our door. Then he made the remark that I will never forget. He said, “I am old and I am very sick. My time here is short. I know what the Lord wanted for me, and what a WASTE I made of my life!” We prayed together, and he sobbed as he asked Jesus to take him back after years of wandering. I opened to Joel 2 and asked God to follow His own nature and “give back” for the years eaten away by the locusts of self-centered thinking. In the next months, I had the chance to visit the man a number of times, and each one surprised me, more and more. I would walk in, and he would be smiling, excited about his study of the Word. “I missed God through my life. I knew He was watching, but He knew I wasn’t listening! How glad I am that He restored me!” He didn’t live long, but he died happy.

You have the opportunity to ask for God’s rescue TODAY. That is God’s mercy to YOU. Won’t you respond before the locusts eat your life?

God waits to be asked.

Randy Alcorn reminds us that when we listen to the vocabulary of the Bible, it reveals something powerful with its language of God’s heart for struggling and wayward people. He noted, God often uses words like reconcile, redeem, restore, recover, return, renew, regenerate, and resurrect. God wants to put back the relationship that rebellion and mutiny is trying to keep at arm’s length. (My paraphrase from a note he made in Fifty Days in Heaven).

Before It Happens: “Preparing for Coming Days of Judgment” – Joel 1

What does your Bible look like inside? On careful inspection, if we checked the Bibles of many people who are active in the local church in America (I am speaking of those who study of God’s Word at least in their church services), we may observe a pattern others have noted before us. The text of many Jesus followers is well worn. Some parts are underlined and have scribbles in the margins. Some are filled with colored markings and symbols in an unintentional “code’ that no one but the owner and the Spirit of God may fully perceive. Yet, even in these cases, often there is a pristine portion of their Bible – a section somewhere between the books of Song of Solomon and the opening of Matthew – that appears cleaner. This section is often in near mint condition, with gilded edges still gleaming, despite the condition of the rest of the Bible in which they are found. Perhaps it is because there is so little preaching, as many pastors have openly admitted they struggle with how to bring the Hebrew prophets into the modern pulpit.

Part of the reason may be that we don’t understand the true function of the prophets and their writings. We may read their words and they strike us as vengeful or angry (with all that “God will bring fire and judgment” talk) – and that doesn’t match our understanding of God’s loving character and His general way of doing things. Some believers have made up their mind that the God of Israel was somehow transformed to a warmer and nicer version of Himself when Jesus came (as recorded in the record of the Gospels). Frankly, that is nonsense. God doesn’t change and doesn’t need to change. Perhaps the real issue is, that we haven’t taken enough time to carefully consider Who our God is, and make a true attempt to understand the truth of what the prophets provide as spokesmen of His grace. They weren’t angry – they were giving sharp warnings because people were haplessly but swiftly approaching a perilous cliff in their nation. The fact is that when you are trying to stop a tragedy, your words may often sound shrill and impatient. As we open to the beginning of the recorded words of the Prophet Joel for this lesson, I trust the Spirit of God will make clear this truth…

Key Principle: God’s prophetic warnings are a function of His grace. Those who snub warning eventually suffer judgment by their own choice.

If you are patient, that truth will show itself from our text. Before we begin to investigate the text, I want to remind you of how we got where we are in our churches regarding prophecy and its part of our Scripture diet. Honestly, there are several problems that naturally arise in the modern church when trying to preach or teach the prophets. In fact, I asked some friends who serve in pastoral roles why we don’t do more with the prophets from the pulpit, and they offered some helpful observations.

Honestly, it is hard to make the message of God’s eventual judgment all that helpful and practical to the struggling Christian. Today’s church is bent on practical life preaching and God-help strategies. I am not commenting on that truth here – just observing it. One pastor explained why he has largely skipped speaking on and teaching from the prophets. He noted (my paraphrase):
Sometimes I preach from a specific prophecy (say, concerning the coming of Messiah) and trace the promise to the eventual fulfillment in God’s story. To bring home some sort of personal application, I try to remind the congregation that prophecy shows the veracity of God’s Word and the faithfulness of God’s character.

My point is: You can trust God. He speaks; then He does exactly what He said He would do. Occasionally it is good, but it isn’t a very deep observation of the text.

He said, “I read over my notes, and if the text of my message seems dry in the study, I am sometimes honestly tempted to “spice up the story” and make it appear more relevant by offering some of my own thoughts on possible connections and even, on occasion (I admit) speculative end-times scenarios to help hearers see relevance for their lives today – because being relevant has become very prized in pulpit communication. This is a constant danger, because I want people to stay with me in the presentation and not sleep off the sermon! Because of these dangers, I spend less time preaching the prophets. When I DO, I tend to tell a story about the writer’s life and make parallels between a follower of God long ago and the hearers today. That helped me feel like I wasn’t skipping the prophets, but I mostly AM skipping them. I am not really explaining the message of the books themselves, and the congregation doesn’t appreciably grow in their knowledge of those books of the Bible.

I suspect that anyone who teaches the Bible has at least a little sympathy for what that pastor authentically shared of his own experience.

I mention the lack of time spent in these sections, and the three different natural bends of teachers of the Word to encourage you as we move forward. This study will require something of you in patience. That isn’t a veiled warning of a “boredom zone” ahead, it is rather a recognition that we are on unfamiliar ground in many circles today. You may be a student of prophecy, but most people aren’t today. We need to deliberately stretch ourselves. We need to speak the whole counsel of God’s Word. Some of the parts of Scripture have easy individual application and offer deep encouragement. Prophetic portions offer something very different. Without the words of the prophets, some of the lofty view of the Awesome Majesty of the Heavens would be barely touched, and a powerful and resounding call for us to tremble at His voice would barely be heard.

Prophets help us do more than satisfy ourselves that God knows where everything is going. They challenge us to bow before the One True Judge.

They call us to examine whether our outer practices are incongruent with our inner beliefs. They bring back a sense of the power and splendor of the God we serve.

There are examples of all the styles of preaching in the Word, if you look for them. When Paul stood on Mars Hill before philosophers, he carefully reasoned for the faith. When Jesus spoke of the Galilee hillsides, He pulled the minds of the people into the simplest imagery of daily life. When the Apostle Peter rose to defend God’s work in the men on the Day of Pentecost he launched into a full-throated support of the prophetic power of God before the crowd – and three thousand responded.
What the prophets of old offer is something more than mere learning about God. Think of the long, thin finger of Nathan the prophet stuck into the face of David as he uttered the words, “You are the man.” The value of the prophetic word is that it can be like an arrow to the heart in a way that few other portions can.

I am deliberately beginning slowly to introduce the prophets, because our next studies will have some unusual qualities as we work the text from a book of the Minor Prophets. Take a few moments with me to open our Bibles to the book of the Prophet Joel. The book is after Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and is the twenty-ninth book of thirty-nine in the common collection of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we turn for this prophet’s record, think with me about the painful process observed by a prophet of God, as they tell of the end times.

We must recognize that God made us emotional beings, and we gravitate toward positive emotion – but that isn’t the only kind we need to be able to reckon with.

We need to look at the painful parts of judgment to understand the glory of grace and rescue of redemption. As we open our reading, stand in front of a field that was stripped by the voracious appetite of locusts.

Joel offered his opening words in three parts:

• He called people to see what was happening as unique.
• He called specific kinds of people to respond to the scene.
• He called people to recognize the urgency of their time.

As you read his words, some will notice (because of their edition of the Bible) the way they are placed indented in paragraphs. The translator wanted you to know the words are lyrics. They were poetry. They were the record of a sad song written by a broken-hearted man who could barely believe what his eyes were seeing.

Look at the beginning of the three parts of his message from the first chapter…

First, he called the people to attention by telling them they have never seen anything like what was happening in front of them.

Joel 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2 Hear this, O elders, And listen, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this happened in your days Or in your fathers’ days? 3 Tell your sons about it, And let your sons tell their sons, And their sons the next generation.

If there was a word for what he was trying to say concerning the scene he was about to explain, it was: “Unbelievable!” He told the people and the elders who led them to stop moving and look at the picture God showed him. He went on to describe the scene.

Joel 1:4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.

Whether this was a vision in the realm of the spirit or an actual event on the landscape is not known. Whether the locusts were insects of a field or the imagery of an invading human army is not known. Whether this already happened or was about to take place is not known.

What is clear and certain is this: The man was overwhelmed by the scene of massive devastation – and he wanted them to see how obvious the marks of it were.

Some of us know exactly what he felt. We cannot believe that in a mere five years, our country has deliberately overhauled the most basic unit of mankind – the family. We have made perilous moves swiftly, based on the flimsiest testing of where that will lead our society. We are no longer drifting, we are swiftly moving with a furious current toward a rejection of one thing after another connected to Judeo-Christian practice. Left-over images of biblical texts on court rooms across the country are stark reminders of the violent lurching to the left.

In the Book of Joel, most scholars note that an invasion was approaching that would eventually devastate Judah – and this was a call to prepare and repent in hopes that God may withhold or reduce the judgment. Perhaps the locust invasion was a dramatic way for God to warn them of another kind of invasion just over their horizon view. Like the prophecy – the locusts were a symbolic warning given in GRACE.

Joel’s essential question was, “Have you ever known any invasion this severe?” (1:2)

That should have given them pause, instead of letting their eyes adjust to the dark setting. In fact, one of the common commands of the Law was for Israel to constantly rehearse her history before her children (cp. Dt. 4 and 6) in order to help them avoid the hand of God’s judgment.

The second part of the opening prophecy was separated into calls of specific kinds of people to face what was coming in God’s judgment.

• God’s first call was for those who were dull-minded as one would be with wine overindulgence to awaken (1:5).

Joel 1:5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.

The call came for Israel’s dullard drunkards to awake from their lulled, compromised and sinful state. They were to open their eyes to see that judgment was at hand.

One of the ways people deal with staying in a wrong state and not facing God is DIVERSION – they simply focus on something else.

There is a natural tendency in some of us when we are facing hard times to attempt to ignore the coming results or divert our attention to something that will help us cope with the pain of what we see. In fact, we have noted before the term for “turning off the mind” is called ‘AMUSEMENT’ and it has become for many a consuming passion.

This is a danger of a Christian population that focused more on how the church can meet their needs than how it can honor God’s call. We can end up with sermons that make us feel good about things when the actual call of God is to see how perilous they are becoming. ALL our teaching isn’t warning – but let’s admit that in some places the idea of warning NEVER rises to the pulpit.

• His second call was to those who were planning in ignorance of the impending doom.

Joel 1:8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.

Israel was to drape herself in the clothing of sadness and brokenness. The point was that while some could divert, amuse, or dull their minds, others made plans for celebrations and paid no attention to the impending troubles because they were unaware of them. They were the CLUELESS. When peril came, the power of judgment crushed them like the waves of mourning as their dreams were dashed against the rocks of reality.

We live in a time when people call, year after year, for every problem to be solved by their government – even when the truth is their government is up to its neck in debt. Freedoms are casually surrendered as we ask one new administrator after another to step in a help us solve some difficulty or injustice. It isn’t bad to have someone test the food in the packages we will consume or make sure the tires on the airplanes in which we travel have been made to certain specifications.

Government isn’t bad – it’s necessary. The problem is it neither CAN nor SHOULD be called on to feed, clothe and care for us in every situation. When we reward people for lack of preparation for difficulty, we discourage the next group from even trying to sacrifice and prepare.

Joel’s imagery of the bride, dressed and waiting for a groom that will not come because he has died – reminds us there is a process of mourning a severe loss that we are impatient in our culture to understand – but it has a purpose in the fallen world. We weren’t designed to face death, but God added “waves of grief” as a means of regaining equilibrium.

His point was this: Loss is most powerful in people who never truly considered it could happen to them.

The issue with the people was one of thorough forgetfulness that led them to clueless insensitivity. At one time, they knew evil, in principle, would be judged. By then, they knew their nation had plunged into evil. Yet they didn’t connect the problem with the result. They simply made plans for the next celebration and hoped for more years of good harvest – hoping against hope that things would go well.

The people hardest hit in the downturn of a market are those who have forgotten to consider the possibility.

The deepest despair comes from those who have honestly forgotten the risks of living in a broken world. In short, Israel was about to be walloped and some had never considered the possibility that God was actually going to judge as He repeatedly warned.

This is the danger of a church who has taught a generation of Christians that God’s chief interest is in their health, wealth, and happiness. They never considered the possibility the things that have happened to Iraqi or Syrian Christians could happen to them as well. Troubles, brutal martyrdom, and a tested faith are things they believe belong to another time and place.

• God’s third call was to priests and ministers (1:9) to lament the cutting off of the provisions for the spiritual life of the nation.

Joel 1:9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The field is ruined, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails.

While some were DULL and others were CLUELESS, those who oversaw the spiritual life of the nation should have been able to see without blur that things were heading in a bad direction. Joel beckoned SPIRITUAL LEADERS (those with an “elder” view” of the community) to step up and recognize the signs. A community elder is one who acts as a father or patriarch over more than his own biological family – but becomes a protector and provider for that greater community.

Let’s say it this way: When you serve God by serving His people, you think differently about the effects of sin on the society.

Those who sit in the counseling room, work at equipping of Jesus followers, and craft instruction for God’s people from His Word, are often “early adopters” of the message of the effects of bad decisions. There are some in our society who STILL don’t connect the dots between our decisions and their outcome as a people.

When we opened “no fault divorce,” we removed both legal roadblocks and public stigma to the decoupling of a marriage. Today, people are even insulted if you use terms like a “failed marriage” because they feel that is judgmental toward their situation – as if one of the natural options of people coming to the altar and declaring their commitment was an escape hatch.

Here is what I know. In the history of marriage, there have always been troubled people and difficult pairings. The profound difference in our time is that it is easy to get out of the problem without working it out – and the world around you will help you deflect any sense of responsibility for that event. Out of compassion for people in difficult marriages, we legislated our way into the mess of meaninglessness at the altar. The children torn up by these broken homes now fill our schools as a broken and bitter reminder that we made it easy on one person often by devastating another. They live together, because they don’t see the point of the commitment we call marriage, and we shouldn’t wonder why.

When our courts decided the people needed protection from the state invading their privacy so much that a woman had the unrestrained right to end the life in her womb, many didn’t connect that decision to the brutishness that has now become part of the modern American voice.

• They didn’t recognize with equal fervor the child within her to be also that of her partner – his rights were effectively muzzled in that termination of life.
• They didn’t calculate the loss of 57 million Americans in a single generation to the economy.
• They didn’t think through how human life itself, no longer sacrosanct, would diminish clarity of honored values of our society.

In a new way, motherhood was separated from fatherhood, and unborn children became throwaway dolls, removed in bags and treated like refuse. We no longer argue about if it is human life, but argue today whether we have a right to have tax dollars rid me of an inconvenient child in the womb. Politicians call for this without pausing to observe how far we have fallen from the image of tenderness that was once associated with the womb.

Some claim our pulpits shouldn’t address things like divorce, so called “same sex marriage” or abortion. They look at those social issues as merely political and judicial. They don’t get it – because they don’t understand the elder view. Those of us who know God’s Word and teach it, carry a special wound in the society for the self-mutilation that comes from our collective mutiny against God. We deal with the broken-hearted children, and we try to train those whose thinking has been so skewed that “right” and “wrong” are no longer clear.

The Bible is unequivocal and clear – morality is not a social construct.

Man didn’t crawl out of primordial ooze, invent a God, and then promptly NOT follow Him so they could invent guilt. That doesn’t make sense because it didn’t happen. Men didn’t invent God. He created us. Exacting design doesn’t flow haplessly from random happenings. You know it, and so does every observant person who isn’t bent on doing life according to their own rules.

Closer to home, we need to remember our own history in days like these as well. Our country simply wasn’t founded without a profound connection between a specific faith view of the world and human responsibility. It isn’t by happenstance that our Congress had a chaplain and our buildings were built across the land with Bible verses etched into them. The Bible men and women were sworn into office with wasn’t just a décor statement. We come from a long and detailed history of men who knew that our rights and responsibilities were based on the fact that all of us have the same Creator. They wrote carefully that none of us is more important than the other because they reckoned that we all will eventually kneel to the same God. That story may be ignored in our halls of learning, but our history is literary and stubbornly stained on parchments with ink. The only hope of those who desire to mute the voices of our fathers is to fill the heads of the young with nonsense and hope they don’t grow up and get wise by doing things like reading the documents for themselves.

• A fourth call was for farmers to recognize the shame of losing everything in an act of God’s disfavor (1:11).

Joel 1:11 Be ashamed, O farmers…

The FARMERS were presented as those who knew deep disappointment. Perhaps no one truly understands the sense of hopefulness for the crops like the farmer; conversely, no one feels the depth of the disappointment in the stripping of the land. People attached to the land become more sensitive to their impact on it. They who worked the land and saw it destroyed weren’t to be MAD, as though God has abandoned them – but ASHAMED as if THEY had abandoned God.

When we see judgment clearly, it will not be a mark against God, but a mark against us. Our modern jails aren’t a statement about our contemporary judges as much as they are statement about our growing contention to live inside the boundaries of the law.

• A fifth call was for the vinedressers to wail (1:11) for the loss of the vines, fig trees and other fruit trees. They were to see their joy withered as the trees melted away (1:12).

Joel 1:11b “…Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.

VINE DRESSERS were a subset of farmers who acted more as attendants. They didn’t plant the vines as much as tend them. They were to grapes what daycare workers are to children. People who tend and care for the fruit cultivation have a very specific “parenting” view of the vines and trees they attend.

The third (last) part of Joel’s opening urgently called people to stop acting like the time was far off and get serious with God right away.

The call starts with the clergy and warns on them to get serious before they expect the nation to get on board.

Joel 1:13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

God’s worship leaders were told to change what they are wearing, and put on the symbols of mourning so all could see them. They were told to pay attention to the provisions of God being diverted from the temple. They were called to publicly call the people to fasting, public repentance, and mourning. The warning of judgment connected to public acceptance of egregious errors started with God’s leaders. Also note that God didn’t just tell them to “get sad” and look somber before the masses. He gave them their message: God will not let what we are doing go on forever – His day is coming. He isn’t playing around, and He is right on schedule to do what He promised.

Judgment cannot be avoided by ignoring it.

Joel 1:15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

God intended the people to notice the time of judgment was getting close:

• First, they were to see their prosperity evaporating.

Joel 1:16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes…

• Second, they were to notice the sobriety of those who studied God’s Word and taught them from it.

Joel 1:16b “…Gladness and joy from the house of our God

They were to reckon the natural disruptions in the earth as part of the tremors of coming judgment.

Joel 1:17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle wander aimlessly because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.

They weren’t supposed to call for a new legislature so much as drop to their knees. They weren’t supposed to look for help from the king as much as from the King of all Kings!

Joel 1:19 To You, O Lord, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You; for the water brooks are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

It wasn’t enough for the temple to keep the schedule as usual. The people were to be awakened to the voice of the Lord concerning the days ahead. They should be clear, pronounced and deliberate. God said:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion …

Why? Were they to be depressed while the world was rejoicing? The point was they were to show the warning before the world around them connected the dots between their sinful violations and God’s coming of judgment.

God’s leaders were, and are, to make clear the hour is late and the warning is becoming more and more obvious.

God’s prophetic warnings aren’t as much a function of His judgment as they are of His grace.

He didn’t tell us what was coming because He savors judgment, but in order that we might step out individually and stand with Him against the normative trend of our day. When God called believers to be HOLY as He is HOLY – the call was to be distinct as He is not like any other.

If you blend well in the company of lost men and women – something is wrong with your distinctiveness.

If people note the difference in you and it makes them uncomfortable, you may be the warning sign they most need to turn before they plunge into the broken road ahead. Don’t forget…

Those who close their ears to the pronouncement will eventually suffer God’s judgment by their own choice.

If you took the time to read the last three chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you would surely note four powerful truths that emerge from looking closely at the final judgment scene called the “Great White Throne” Judgment. You would note:

• THE IDENTITY OF THE JUDGE: the offended Son of God
• THE ABSENCE OF AN ADVOCATE: sinners stand fearfully alone
• THE FINALITY OF THE VERDICT: no appeal is possible
• THE SEVERITY OF THE SENTENCE: Eternal separation from God into torment becomes real for countless people

Looking over the edge into that prophecy of the future, we have a responsibility to articulate the warning to those who do not know Christ as their Savior – and will only know Him as their judge. It need not happen. The peril is both clear and obvious.

The warning is a function of God’s GRACE.

• When you work hard for a day’s pay- we call that a wage.
• When you compete well for a trophy – we call that a prize.
• When you achieve recognition for a high level of service – we call that an award.

When you didn’t work for it, didn’t compete for it, didn’t accomplish it and never could even if you tried – we call that a gift of grace. Come to Him today, receive His forgiveness, and avert standing in judgment for your sin.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2)