Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Voices from the Grave

In Hebrews 12:1-2a, we are encouraged that "since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith..." This cloud of witnesses is said to surround us, and another way to translate this Greek word is to "be bound (in chains)". In other words, our stories are intimately tied to is the same story...the story of a God who pursues those who run from Him and loves the is the story of faith (ch. 11).

In our day and time, history does not seem to be very important. Oh, we may have daily calendars on our desk that say "On this day in 1784...", but this is more like training for Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. It doesn't contribute to the shape of our contemporary lives. This is why I have been seeking to read more history this year...admittedly, not a whole lot, but some. For example, in January, I read The Autobiography of George Muller. The encouragement I found in those pages still inspires me to persevere as we trust the Lord in the adoption of our child. (Side Note: Still no word on bringing our daughter home...I have plane tickets for this Saturday, December 1, but unless we hear something in the next 24 hours, we'll have to move them back. Everything else is done...just waiting to get word that I can travel.) Muller's voice from the grave challenges my heart to believe in the providence and provision of God in all things.

In addition to Muller surrounding me, I currently have the 17th century theologian John Owen spurring me on. I am participating in an online reading group, taking his Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers one chapter a week and making comments. It may seem like a hefty title, but it is incredibly practical in the arena of battling against sin in this life. Owen has proved to not only stretch my brain (it is 17th century language, after all), but the Lord has used him to stretch my heart. I have been renewed in the seriousness and necessity of facing and fighting sin daily. As he writes in chapter 2, "Be killing sin or it will be killing you." Another voice from the grave being used for my sanctification.

One more example. This one is a little closer to today. William Newell (1868-1956) was a Bible teacher and pastor in the Chicago area and served as assistant superintendent at Moody Bible Institute under R.A. Torrey. Newell wrote the hymn "At Calvary" - "Years I spent in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified, knowing not it was for me He died at Calvary - Mercy there was great and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary." He also wrote commentaries on the books of Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation.

In his verse-by-verse commentary on Romans, William Newell penned a list of seven things that our souls learn as we live under grace. This list has been near and dear to my heart over the last few months. The words have been so powerful and used by God to convict me, it's as if Newell himself has climbed out of the grave to kick me around my living room...and this, all for my sanctification. Another voice from the grave used by God. Here's his list...maybe it will grab your soul for a few rounds.

1. To "hope to be better" is to fail to see yourself in Christ only.
2. To be disappointed with yourself is to have believed in yourself.
3. To be discouraged is unbelief - as to God's purpose and plan of blessing for you.
4. To be proud, is to be blind! For we have no standing before God, in ourselves.
5. The lack of Divine blessing, therefore, comes from unbelief, and not from failure of devotion.
6. Real devotion to God arises, not from man's will to show it; but from the discovery that blessing has been received from God while we were yet unworthy and undevoted.
7. To preach devotion first, and blessing second, is to reverse God's order, and preach law, not grace. The Law made man's blessing depend on devotion; Grace confers undeserved, unconditional blessing: our devotion may follow, but does not always do so, in proper measure.

If you breezed through that list with no reaction, read it again because you missed something. I'll wait...

Now, what's the point of all this? The point is that there are many spiritual mentors lying dead but waiting to help you on your journey to be more like Christ. There are many voices from the grave just waiting to be heard. Don't just let your pastor or professor or Sunday school give you little quotes here or there. That would be like occasionally enjoying a good appetizer when there's a continual amazing feast waiting to be had. Take up the challenge to spend some time with these dead men. Get to know Muller, Owen, Newell, Spurgeon, Baxter, Bunyan, Luther, Calvin, Carey, Judson, Wesley, and others. Read their biographies and renew your passion. Read their writings and challenge your thinking. You won't agree with everything they write, but who cares! You'll be able to think more clearly about the things of God and live more passionately for Him if you'll let the cloud of witnesses surround you...if you'll let the voices from the grave speak to you.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Worst Sort of Pain

A meditation on Psalm 55:12-22.

It's interesting that in this part of the Psalms we have three "betrayal" psalms. Psalm 52 is David's response to being turned in to Saul by an Edomite, and Psalm 54 is his cry after being ratted out by his own countrymen...the Ziphites. Neither of these two things could compare to the kind of backstabbing betrayal David will feel and present in Psalm 55. It is a betrayal that cut so deep that David says, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness" (v. 6-7). My movie-infested mind can't help but recall the first part of Forrest Gump, in which Jenny's abusive father drives her to kneel in the corn field and pray, "Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far...far, far away from here."

Much like Jenny, David has been betrayed by someone close to him...someone that he calls his "companion and...familiar friend" (v. 13) Some guess that David is either writing about Absalom (i.e.- David's son who wanted to take over the kingdom) or Ahithophel (i.e.- who was David's advisor that turned on him). We can't really be sure...all we know is that whoever did this was close to David. He loved this man. They "had sweet fellowship together...[and] walked in the house of God in the throng" (v. 14). They had been together in worship, lifting their hands to the Lord in praise. Maybe they sat together in wonder as they discussed the great forgiveness of God in David's life. Maybe they had been holding one another accountable...each according to their greatest temptations. Imagine the closest Christian relationship you of deep trust and mutual adoration. Now, imagine that person betraying you...turning you out...acting as if you meant nothing to him/her.

Imagine that great friend speaking of you in ways if he/she were some wicked, persecuting unbeliever. In fact, if it was an unbeliever, you might be prone to bow out your chest a little and get ready to fight to defend yourself and your faith. However, your chest doesn't bow's deflated by the knife that has been shoved into your back, at the hands of the one who always said things like "I've got your back", "You can count on me", and "We're in this thing together."

How will David respond? To whom will David turn in such an awful situation? "As for me, I shall call upon the Lord, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and He will hear my voice" (v. 16-17). The pain will turn to prayer. The shock will turn to supplication. The deep cuts from a friend will turn into loud cries to the Lord. There's no way to understand it when this happens...there's no real explanation when the man or woman you've trusted for so long breaks it all in one moment. It has to send you reeling back to the only One who is completely trustworthy and will work on your behalf.

This kind of praying apparently brought clarity to David's mind. No longer was he simply trying to regain equilibrium from the "knife wound". Now, looking back, he sees a different friend...hindsight is 20/20, they say. Now, David understands who the man really was. "He has put forth his hands against those who were at peace with him; he has violated his covenant. His speech was smoother than butter, but his heart was war; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords" (v. 20-21). Now, it's all clear.

James Montgomery Boice writes, "Earlier David was deeply pained by the betrayal. Here, having laid the matter before God and having assured himself that God is his Savior and that he will surely deliver him from such evil, David steps away from his own feelings and reflects on the wrongdoing itself. The real problem is that the man is a covenant breaker, and the reason he breaks covenant is that he is a hypocrite. He pretends one thing but plots another. He speaks peace, but actually he is devising war" (Psalms: Volume 2, p.463).

Interestingly, when we come to verse 22, David speaks what seems to be a personal word of advice to any who would hear. If it were a televised event, I'd imagine that everything around David pauses, and David stays animated and looks directly into the camera. With a sincere heart, he says, "Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken" (v. 22). It's just like the hymn says, "Friends may fail me, foes assail me, He, my Savior, makes me whole...Hallelujah, what a Savior!"

Have you been there? Have you stood in shock or wept with grief, having found that dear friend to actually be a great foe? Have you had those sleepless nights of wondering, "What just happened here?" Listen to David, my friend. Turn your feelings of bitterness, frustration, and anger into an assault of prayer. Then, cast your anxieties on the Lord, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

Ultimately, consider this...Jesus Christ Himself had such a friend...a friend named Judas. When Judas betrayed Jesus, Jesus was already feeling the weight of suffering that the betrayal would bring, so He was assaulting heaven with His prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the betrayal, when all was said and done, what is it Jesus did? He cast Himself into the arms of the Father...remember? "Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). So, what should we do? Let's let the Bible answer..."consider Him who endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:3).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What a Privilege!

A meditation on 1 Peter 1:10-12.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else? Little boys and girls may dream of being baseball players, astronauts, pro golfers, or firefighters, but they don't know what it's like. What's it like to feel the grass beneath your feet in Fenway Park? What's it like to walk on the first tee at a major championship? What's it like for every part of your body to feel the force of the space shuttle lifting off? What's it like to walk out of a burning building with a child in your arms who would have otherwise died?

We can make guesses, read accounts, even interview people who have had the experience, but it's not quite the same. There is a certain privilege to having the experience. In these verses, Peter is writing to scattered, suffering believers about their experience in Christ. He has already assured them in their status as "elect aliens" (v. 1-2), instructed them in the blessings of salvation (v. 3-5), and encouraged them for their joy in all things (v. 6-9). Now, Peter tells them how their salvation really sets them apart from two distinguished groups...the prophets and the angels. In comparison with these two, these scattered, suffering believers are really quite privileged.

Peter first mentions the prophets, who prophesied of the grace that was to come (v. 10). As the young children's catechism reminds us, these prophets were some of the "chosen men inspired by God" that wrote most of what we call the Old Testament. They stood up to rebellious, sinful people and called them back to the Lord. They predicted the coming of the Messiah in a multitude of passages. What an amazing place these men have in the salvation history of God! So, what does Peter say about them?

First, the prophets made searches and inquiries, seeking to know more about the Messiah (v. 10-11a). The prophets did not only preach with passion and predict the Messiah, they intently looked for Him. They longed to see Him, to know Him, to follow Him. Who was this Messiah that would be full of grace? When you take a look at a few places in the book of Daniel, you'll see that amid all the prophecy are places where Daniel didn't get it and wanted to study more (8:15, 27; 9:2; 12:8). In fact, Jesus said, "...for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things that you hear, and did not hear them" (Luke 10:24). The prophets lived searching lives, trying to understand what God was doing...maybe even wondering what the fulfillment of their own prophecies would look like.

Second, the prophets were inspired by the Holy Spirit (v. 11b). We know this from 2 Peter 1:21, but we can also see it right here, as the Spirit of Christ indicated the Messiah's sufferings and future glories. The Spirit was active among the prophets, keeping them from error in their prophecies and protecting the writings that would be handed down for generations to come. These men spoke wonderful, Spirit-inspired things that they would never see fulfilled in their lifetime.

Third, the prophets understood that they were serving Peter's readers, and even us (v. 12). They understood that their place in salvation history was to lay the groundwork for not only the Messiah's coming, but also for the faith of men and women who would read their prophecy and see the Messiah as the fulfillment of those prophecies. Their great service to you and to me is that the fulfillment of their writings, the Lord Jesus Himself, is preached in the gospel.

Having looked at all that the prophets accomplished, do you see your great privilege? (1) The prophets searched and searched for a Messiah that they would never find in their lifetime. They died with only the hope that one day He would come. We actually have this Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ, having our sins cleansed by Him, and having Him stand before the Father as our Advocate. It is a life experience that not even the prophets had. (2) The prophets had the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak wonderful truths about the Messiah, but we have the Holy Spirit...God Himself...dwelling in our hearts. He testifies that we are the children of God, and He is the seal that we are forever redeemed. These are assurances that can only be experienced after the death and resurrection of Christ, so they are privileges that the prophets did not have. (3) The prophets were our servants. Their lives were about our lives. They spoke and wrote so we would listen and believe. Their writings exist to help us see and savor the glory of Jesus Christ and embrace Him as the supreme Lord of all.

The other thing that Peter mentions is that angels long to look into the things of salvation. There's not much written there, but it seems that our position in Christ is the envy of angels. It is our redemption and the daily experience of it that angels wish they knew. You see, fallen angels are not redeemed, and holy angels are not redeemed. I think Peter is getting at this...there is something so great, so glorious, so Christ-exalting about having fallen into sin and being redeemed from it that angels wish they could glorify God as we do. They can read the Scripture, watch and celebrate as men and women are converted, and continually wonder...but they will never know what it's like to be be bought with the precious blood of the Lamb.

You know that saying, "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? Well, I think it would be fair to say that it's better to have fallen and been redeemed than never to have fallen at all. In the sovereignty and wisdom of God, He allowed mankind to fall into son because there was something more glorious then for humans to never sin. That something is for a race of redeemed, born-again men and women and children to have been redeemed from their sin. Why is this so glorious? Because it fulfills God's ultimate purpose in the universe, which is to exalt above all things His name and His exalt the Lord Jesus Christ to the highest place with a name that is above every name.

Now, knowing your privileged position in Christ, don't take it for granted. Don't think that conversion is "the shallow end of the pool". Enjoying the work of God in Christ is the greatest joy there is on earth. Don't long for "deeper things". This is the deepest water there is...that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, was buried, and rose on the third day, proving that He was, is, and always will be the Savior, King, and Judge of all mankind. By faith, He is ours, and we are His. This is not is glorious!!! Swim in the great waters of redemption today, and know that you are the envy of prophets and angels because of what Christ has done in and for you.