God’s Hand At Work

January 23, 2015

How does God work in our lives? How does He bring us to Himself?

Sometimes He works through a Damascus-road experience: Suddenly, in an instant, an enemy of Jesus becomes His follower (Acts 9).

Other times the work is slow and painful. There are steps forward. Then steps backward.

One such case is Jacob’s first wife, Leah.

Remember the story: Jacob flees from his brother Esau, who wants to kill him for tricking him out of his birthright and his father’s blessing.

Jacob leaves home, using the pretense of going to find a wife from among his relatives in order to get his father’s blessing for the journey. But when he meets his cousin Rachel, he sheds the pretense. This is the girl he must marry!

He agrees with Rachel’s father Laban that he will work seven years for her. When the time is complete, in the dark of the wedding night, Laban sends Rachel’s older sister Leah into Jacob’s tent. In the morning, Laban tells the irate Jacob that he can marry Rachel also the following week – if he will agree to work another seven years.

In this culture, children are vital and sons are especially important. Sons will provide security for their parents in their old age, and will inherit and manage the property. A wife who bears many children – particularly many sons – is highly honored. A wife who does not bear children is in danger of being replaced.

Leah clearly enters this marriage unwanted and unloved. But then, “The Lord opened Leah’s womb” (Genesis 29:31). She bears four sons in short order. Their names tell us what is going on inside Leah’s head.

First, she gives birth to Reuben – meaning, “See? A son!” – saying “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32).

What does this tell us about Leah? What does she want more than anything else? She wants her husband to love her!

In the booklet, “Marriage: Whose Dream?” Paul Tripp tells the story of a woman he was counseling:

I once was talking with a lady who had been married many years.

She was married to a person who, very honestly, I would have to say was a bad man. He was angry, controlling, and manipulative. He said and did hurtful things. She had dreamed of the ultimate husband, but she certainly hadn’t gotten him. Now she was so embittered by the blessings other women in her church enjoyed that she said she could no longer go to worship. She felt as if God had forsaken her, so much so that she couldn’t read her Bible or pray.

As I listened, I wanted her to understand her identity in Christ. I wanted her to know the love of the Lord; that God is a refuge and strength, an ever‑present help in trouble. So I started reading her passages that spoke of the amazing, abundant love of God, and in the middle of a verse she said, “Stop! Don’t tell me again that God loves me. I want a husband who loves me!”

And she pounded her fist on her chair as she said it.

That woman is seeking God’s gifts, rather than God Himself.

She doesn’t want God’s love. She wants God to provide her with a husband to love her.

Do you see how that is demeaning to God?

God becomes the genie whose gifts give us delight. His presence is not fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). Rather, His gifts are fullness of joy.

Isn’t this the case with Leah? She acknowledges God’s hand in giving her a son, and that’s good – as far as it goes. But she does not treasure God. In essence, she doesn’t even treasure the son God has given her. She treasures her husband’s withheld love. And so she’s miserable.

Leah bears two more sons and it doesn’t get any better:

She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. (Genesis 29:33-34)

That attachment doesn’t happen. Sons do not produce the love from Jacob Leah so desires

But finally, with her fourth son, we see a different Leah:

And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. (Genesis 29:35)

Do you see the difference? She does not see this child as a tool by which she will achieve her desires. Instead, she simply praises God for what He has given.

So ask yourself:

  • Are you more like Leah after the birth of Reuben, or Leah after the birth of Judah?
  • Are you excited about what God’s gifts will enable you to enjoy?
  • Or are you first and foremost simply thankful to God for His gracious gifts?

Unfortunately, Leah does not live day by day in a state of praising God. But at least after the birth of Judah, Leah shows us how to respond to God’s gifts. This is one step to becoming a man or woman of God: Acknowledging God as the source of all that is good in our lives, and praising Him for it.

Not pining after what we don’t have, but rejoicing in the God who is working together all things together for our good and His glory.

For God is behind all that happens – in this story and in our lives. He is behind Leah’s pregnancies. He is behind Rachel’s barrenness.

He is in control.

But like us, those in the midst of the story have a hard time seeing His hand at work.

William Cowper wrote these wise words about such times:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will. . . .

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

God moves in His mysterious ways Leah’s life. By God’s grace, she is becoming a woman of God.

The next paragraphs show us Leah still has a long ways to go. Hers is not a Damascus Road experience.

But God in His wisdom is at work, via a long, slow process. Leah has taken an important step.

So consider those you love. Those you have witnessed to – both those who have not come to faith, and those who have professed faith but seem stalled, seem to be floundering.

God moves in mysterious ways. Pray for the sovereign God to continue the process, to guard these loved ones from hardening of heart or making shipwreck of their faith. Trust in His sovereign hand to work all things together for the good of His people – including you! – and the glory of His Name. And then play your role – your role in the sovereign plan of God – so that you yourself might be one of the mysterious ways that God makes your loved one a man or woman of God.

So check, first, your heart: Is God your treasure?

Second, check your faith: Do you trust God is at work?

Third, check your actions: Pray, and consider: What would God have me do in the lives of these I love?

(Parts of this devotion were taken from a sermon, “The Making of a Man of God” on Genesis 29:31-31:55, preached August 29, 2004. Both text and audio of that sermon are available.)

Knitted Together in Your Mother’s Womb

January 22, 2015

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision, removing virtually all state restrictions on the destruction of the unborn in their mothers’ wombs.

With that in mind, consider these thoughts on David’s Psalm 139, verses11-16:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:11-12)

David acknowledges that there are times when he wonders: Can I be hidden from God? Can I go voluntarily where He can’t see me? Can I be forced to go anywhere where He won’t watch over me? David realizes the answer is no. No darkness can hide us from God. All is light to Him.

David then explains this further, considering the first dark place we all experience: The womb:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:13-16).

In the womb, absent any light, God knitted you together. You are a remarkably complex being, and God fashioned every aspect of that complexity in the darkness of your mother’s uterus. He saw all, and like a master weaver He intricately and carefully wove the fibers of fabric that make up your being just the way He wanted. More than that: He had planned out your life – every day – even when you were just the merging of two cells.

Can we then take this fabulous creation and rip it apart – in the name of convenience?

We can and must understand and care for women caught up in the trauma of an unexpected and undesired pregnancy. We can and must show compassion and provide help for those who can’t imagine carrying a child and giving birth. (For an example of such understanding and compassion, see this video from the Pregnancy Resource Center of Charlotte).

But every one of the unborn is made in the image of God, knitted together by Him, created for His glory. Who are we to choose which ones shall live, and which ones shall never be born? Who are we to decide which remarkably complex being will become full grown, and which will be tossed out as medical waste?

We cannot hide from God – nor does anything hide us from Him. He sees us. He watches over us. He knows us. Every one – including all the unborn. And their mothers. And their fathers.

He is a just God – He will not let any sin go unpunished. Yet He is a gracious and compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7) – all through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son God knit together in Mary’s womb.

So walk in the light as He is in the light. And may God be pleased to grant us as a country both repentance for the tens of millions of unborn who have died these last decades, and compassion for the frightened women facing unplanned pregnancies.

God Opposes the Proud

January 17, 2015

James tells us: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

But who is proud?

Consider some obvious biblical examples

  • Haman, rejoicing in the favor of the king and (he thinks) the queen, is full of pride (Esther 5:11-12).
  • Nebuchadnezzar, surveying his domain and exulting in his power, is full of pride (Daniel 4:29-30).
  • The Pharisee, thinking highly of his religiosity while looking down at the tax collector, is full of pride (Luke 18:10-12).
  • Herod, delighting in the people calling him a god, is full of pride (Acts 12:20-23).

But there are also less obvious biblical examples, where pride manifests itself more subtly.

Consider Job. Is Job proud?

Job is a righteous man (Job 1:1). He has avoided sexual immorality, not only in act but also in desire (Job 31:1, 9-12). He has been generous, helping the poor (Job 31:16-22). He was wealthy, but did not trust in his riches (Job 31:24-25).

Yet God allows Satan to afflict him. Job suffers terribly. His friends tell him he suffers because of his sin.

Job knows better. Compared to other men, he is good. He is righteous. God Himself has said so! (Job 1:8). If God were to apportion suffering according to the measure of a man’s sinfulness, Job would not suffer.

When Job protests against his friends’ accusations, he initially echoes God’s statement about himself. But then he goes further – and here pride comes in. He demands from God the opportunity to defend himself. In effect, he asserts that God has done wrong by having him suffer. While his perplexed cries to God in the midst of despair are right, proper, and necessary (for example, Job 30:27-31), his assertion that God would have to give way before the logic of his case is prideful (see, for example, Job 23:3-7).

This truth comes out more clearly in the last several chapters of Job. Elihu – who himself is infected with pride (Job 36:4)! – concludes his speech with these powerful and true words, even as God begins to manifest Himself in thunder and whirlwind:

“God is clothed with awesome majesty.  The Almighty — we cannot find him; he is great in power; justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate.  Therefore men fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.” (Job 37:22b-24)

Then God speaks, reprimanding Job – who has indeed been wise in his own conceit:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:2-4).

After Job says he cannot speak before such majesty (Job 40:4-5), God asks him:

Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?  Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?  Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor.  Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on everyone who is proud and abase him. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand. (Job 40:8-12)

Note: God says that He is right and just. He is acting from His very nature when He brings low the proud and treads down the wicked.

Job knows that he himself has spoken in prideful ways. He therefore repents. He acknowledges that he has not really understood God’s greatness, power, and righteousness. By despising himself, he is acknowledging his pride:

I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;  therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3b, 4-6)

Job’s pride is very different from that of Nebuchadnezzar or the Pharisee or Herod or Haman. Indeed, he did not consider himself prideful until God confronted him.

This type of pride is especially dangerous because we so often pretend that it is not pride. This pride manifests itself:

  • Whenever we think we are not getting what we deserve
  • Whenever we think we have been good and righteous and hardworking and God is not coming through
  • Whenever we are upset that someone else got the promotion we thought we deserved
  • Whenever we are hurt that another person – in the school, in the church, in the family, in the workplace – is receiving more recognition or attention than we are
  • Whenever we are jealous of gifts that others have which we do not have

So check your heart. Pride is a subtle, infectious sin. Learn from Job. For God opposes all types of pride – but He gives abundant grace to the humble.

 

 

 

 

How Sovereign is God?

January 9, 2015

How sovereign is God?

That is: What does God control through His sovereign will?

Scripture tells us:

  • Even the tiniest bird doesn’t die apart from His hand (Matthew 10:29)
  • You don’t even lose a hair from your head apart from His knowledge and will (Matthew 10:30)
  • He controls the moon and what we now know are trillions of stars in millions of galaxies (Psalm 8:3)
  • But He also keeps a man from having sex with a woman in his harem (Genesis 20:2-4)
  • He performs mighty deeds, obvious miracles, like parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites can pass through on dry ground (Exodus 14)
  • but He also speaks in a still, small voice to bring about His purposes (1 Kings 19:11-12).

God controls all things – major and minor, intergalactic and microbial, global and personal.

He works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11).

Specifically, He controls the desires of the most powerful of men:

Proverbs 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever he will.

Daniel 4 gives us a specific example of such turning. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the mighty Babylonian empire, the greatest ruler of his day, Is surveying his city, delighting in his power and accomplishments. While the king is boasting in his pride, God turns not only his heart but also his mind – Nebuchadnezzar becomes mad, and acts like an animal until he acknowledges “that the most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will” (Daniel 4:32). In other words: Nebuchadnezzar will remain crazy until he knows that he deserves nothing. He is emperor by God’s grace, not because of His breeding or intelligence or military prowess.

Nebuchadnezzar does come to his senses. He recognizes God’s sovereign power and praises Him:

Daniel 4:37  Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

So, the Bible claims that God is that sovereign. He controls all things – even kings’ hearts, even generals’ hearts, even presidents’ hearts.

Do you believe that?

Have you come to acknowledge what Nebuchadnezzar had to be forced to acknowledge?

We are beginning a series on the book of Esther. This book is unusual: It is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God explicitly. God is not the stated subject of any sentence.

Partly for this reason, some have questioned: Should Esther really be a part of Scripture? Shouldn’t every book in the Bible actually mention God? Is this just a book about Jewish nationalism?

Indeed, such were the questions that early church leaders wrote commentaries on every other book of the Bible prior to writing a commentary on Esther. The earliest known Christian commentary dates from around the year 700.

But although God is not mentioned, He is present in all that happens – in every event recorded in the book. In Esther, God acts providentially – that is, He works behind the scenes. So at the time, it’s rarely clear that He Himself is actually acting. But by the end of the story, it is abundantly clear that only God could have orchestrated all the recorded incidents to bring about the salvation of His people.

Now, consider our own era. Isn’t it much like the time of Esther?

  • Like Esther and Mordecai, we are recipients of great, precious, ancient promises. But, like them, we don’t know how those promises apply to us specifically.
  • Like Esther and Mordecai, we are faced with dangers, with ambiguities, with a lack of an obviously right choice – and yet we must act. We must make decisions.
  • Like Esther and Mordecai, we don’t see God parting the Red Sea or sending fire down from heaven to consume an offering; we don’t hear God speak from Mt Sinai or witness Jesus walking on water or risen from the dead. Like them, we must walk by faith, not by sight.

So the characters in this book face situations much like ours. Esther is thus highly valuable to us.

The fundamental message in Esther is this:

God is sovereignly working out His grand plan of redemption for the glory of His Name, through all events that happen.

In this book we see multiple examples of God at work, often in seemingly minor and personal matters. But in the end, through these small acts of providence, God saves His covenant people from genocide.

The lesson for us must be: God continues today to work sovereignly, even through minor events in our lives, to bring about His good, perfect, and pleasing will.

So if we belong to Him, we can step out with great confidence, praying that God will use us no matter how great our past sins, no matter how bumbling our efforts. We cannot mess up God’s plan.

For as the Apostle Paul tells us, God works all things together for good for those who love Him, for those whom He has called. And if we are in Christ, nothing can ever separate us from His love (Romans 8:28, 37-39).

[This devotion is taken from the introduction to last Sunday’s opening sermon in the series Esther: The Miracle of Providence. Follow the link to download or listen to the audio of the sermon.]

 

In the Beginning

January 9, 2015

In the beginning of 2015, let’s reflect on beginnings:

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So begins the Bible. So begins this creation, this eon. But Scripture also tells us:

John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Jesus is God, and was in the beginning with God. Distinct, yet one.

See the same distinction and unity in Revelation:

Revelation 21:5-6a  And he who was seated on the throne [that is, God] said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Yet in the next chapter Jesus says:

Revelation 22:12-13  Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

Jesus is the beginning and the end. Distinction, yet unity.

Furthermore, this One with God, who was God, through whom all things were made, became man, became a created being:

1 John 1:1-3  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–  the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–  that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

John and the other disciples handled Jesus – they felt His muscles, they saw Him sweat, they heard Him snore. He is the eternal life; He is the source of life; He is the Way to life; and He became man to bring life to His people.

In the beginning, God created the world for a purpose – a purpose that He is certain to bring about:

Isaiah 46:8-10  ”Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’

And what is that purpose?

Revelation 4:11  ”Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Psalm 19:1  The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Isaiah 40:25-26   To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.  Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.

Isaiah 43:6b-7  Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

He created all things – and mankind in particular – for His glory, for His praise. All creation displays Who He is. This is the purpose for which we were made in the beginning.

Expanding on this idea, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that the Church fulfills God’s purpose for humanity:

Ephesians 1:3-6  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Ephesians 3:8-11  To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles [that is, to the nations] the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning, He created us, He chose us, He predestined us for adoption, to the praise of His glorious grace. And that praise will come not only from redeemed mankind, but also from “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” – spiritual beings – who will see God’s glory in us, in the church, and praise Him.

So the psalmist sums up the proper response of all creation to God, their glorious Creator:

Psalm 148:1-5, 11-13  Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!  Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!  Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!  Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!  Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created. . . . Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children!  Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.

So may we, at the beginning of 2015, fulfill God’s purpose for us from the beginning of time: May Christ Jesus be our increasing joy, may we praise Him from redeemed hearts, and may we magnify His Name in love and faithful witness to those around us.