So, we’ve been in a series at my church on being the church. Today was more of a discussion, and I found it very enlightening. The comments offered made it obvious that people at the church had done some thinking about not only church, but also their role in church, in being the church. The discussion was generally focused around Acts 2:42 and the characteristics of the early church. One of the points made was that house churches, in some ways, are probably our best bet in bringing the vision of Acts 2:42 forward to the modern age. That’s because of the relatively small size and the ability to focus on life issues that are beyond the scope of a typical large gathering on Sunday.
If this was true, the question before us became, what characterizes smaller gatherings like house churches? What really sets them apart? And how do we get those who do not have a history with house churches to fully appreciate what they’re all about enough to want to be part of one? Many offered possible answers. As I listened to the responses, I wondered what my response would be? The word “family” was being batted about a bit as a distinguishing factor of church and house church. But why? Is that really true? And if it’s not, what prevents it from being true?
I’m sure there are many things that could be said about family as it relates to church, and visa-versa. For me though, the thing about family is that it can’t be compartmentalized. We have become really good at this in this modern era, and especially as it relates to the church. I am part of this friend group, not that one. I’m doing my job, leave me alone. I do church on Sundays, and possibly Wednesdays, but that’s all (unless of course it involves eating!). We’ve compartmentalized and legislated just about every aspect of our lives. But there’s one part of our lives that keeps escaping the net — family. Family, it seems, is never in the right place at the right time. Family always spills over the edges and fills up other parts of our lives. The spouse is in a mood, the kids are sick, relatives are coming for an unplanned visit. There is no saying, “Oh no you don’t, not today!” It is what it is. But also, on a more positive note, family is always on our minds. We make plans for family to do things together, we celebrate milestones with each other, if asked “can my friend come too?” we say “sure!” just to make certain family will be there.
When people talk to me about what they love about house church, the thing that impresses me is that they actually want house church to spill out into other parts of their lives. They don’t just want it to be some meeting on a Wednesday evening. They want to have dinner together, they want to hang out after the meeting, they want to meet each other during the week, they want to do projects together, they want to sit together at the church gathering on Sunday, they like it when discussions get off-track, they like keeping up with each other’s comings and goings, they want to attend each other’s weddings, babysit for each other’s kids, bless and pray for each other’s houses. They like the inter-generational aspect because it feels like family, they like that there are men who act like fathers and brothers and women who act like mothers and sisters because it feels like family, they like that people are gifted differently because it feels like family, they like that there’s always more to know about each other because it feels like family.
The questions, which will remain open at this moment, is how to encourage all of this? That will be another blog post. 🙂
(This is the last chapter in the book The Choices God Makes. Previous chapters can be viewed in the archives.)
The Apostle Paul had a very clear understanding of his calling, which included both positive and negative facets. He knew without a doubt that he was called as an apostle, and he began many of his letters to the churches reminding them of that fact. On the other hand, he knew, as Jesus had foretold when Paul was converted, that he would suffer for the Gospel. But this negative aspect of his call was not something he ignored or avoided. He embraced it, as we read Acts 21:10-13:
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Likewise, we need to embrace the totality of our call, not just some part of it. When we try to selectively live out our call, the way we want to, focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative, we drain our calling of its power and ultimately do harm to the Kingdom of God.
According to the Bible brokenness is a sacrifice that is pleasing to God. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). We as Christians do not bring animal sacrifices to God, because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice as the Lamb of God. Instead, our Lord expects us to live a life of sacrifice. Who is it Jesus says will be blessed in the Beatitudes? The poor (broken) in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek.
Matthew 21 is a remarkable chapter in the Gospel account of Jesus’ life. It begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and it ends with Jesus referring to Himself as the cornerstone. In between we see Jesus revealing Himself to the crowds, overtly, as the Son of God. Jesus cleanses the temple saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” then He demonstrates His authority over creation by causing a fig tree to wither which was not producing fruit, and finally He tells two parables which make it clear that God had rejected the leaders of Israel because they had rejected the prophets, John the Baptist, and even the Son of God Himself.
Thus, Matthew 21:42-43 are a kind of summary of what Jesus has just demonstrated and taught. In these verses, Jesus is warning the spiritual leadership of Israel that their rejection of Him would result in the Kingdom of God being given as an inheritance to the Gentiles. But then in verse 44, referring to Himself, he says something very strange: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” He is giving the people a choice, between being broken and being crushed. I think if I’d been in the crowd that day, I would have asked Jesus, “Is there another choice?” This verse may sound very negative, but it is clear that Jesus considers being crushed to be the worse outcome. Tommy Tenney has said the same thing in one of his books: “Fall on the rock before the rock falls on you.”
It is not God’s desire for His children to be crushed, yet this happens, most often when we refuse to be broken. We believe we can choose not to be broken before God and just continue to live our lives. But biblically, if we choose not to be broken, we are also choosing to be crushed. Our God is sovereign. He is all-powerful and in control of every situation. As He says in Isaiah 46:10, “I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” He allows trials in our lives to refine us and purify us. We all have lessons to learn every day about humility and righteousness. If we come before the Lord with acceptable offerings, a broken and contrite spirit, completely dependent on Him, releasing control of our lives to Him, He will bring healing and victory. If not, we will remain in our circumstances, becoming progressively more desperate, until finally we are crushed under the weight of the rock.
We fall on the rock, Jesus, in order to die to self. This is to our advantage. The Apostle Paul, who fell on the rock many times, makes the key observation in Colossians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is now hidden [or protected] with Christ in God.” If we are dead with regard to the world and our own desires – the lust of the flesh, the pride of life – then satan is robbed of the weapons he can use against us. Paul also says in Romans 6:7, “…anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” At the same time, we understand from Scripture that God is close to us in our brokenness, and that we will receive the healing that we need. Psalm 147:3 assures us that our Lord “…heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
One thing we should also note about suffering is that it is not an unusual thing as far as Scripture is concerned. In fact, it is almost expected. First Peter 4:12-16 states:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Here we see the intermingling of God’s sovereign will (Boulema), His desire for man (Thelema), and man’s moral will. God’s sovereign intent is for His glory to be revealed, God desires that we participate in that glory through suffering for Christ, but it is our choice whether to enter into that. Further, not all choices to suffer glorify God. There exists voluntary suffering that is not of the kingdom of God, as indicated in these verses – things that we do by habit or out of choice that result in our suffering but which do not glorify God. These are the negative effects of our moral will, things like binging and purging, or cutting, or making bad choices and being involved in destructive relationships. As much as we might feel like these things are not voluntary, they are, though the motivation for them may lie outside of us (as with the way we were brought up, or traumas we experienced).
Sickness or disease is certainly not voluntary suffering. There are many Christians who believe that God causes sickness to test us or to mature us. Jesus had a different response to this when asked by the disciples about a man born blind (John 9). For the disciples, there were only two possibilities for the cause of the blindness: either the man sinned or his parents sinned. Jesus said it was neither of those things, but rather that it had happened “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). So, although sickness is not voluntary, healing from sickness can bring glory to God, and so can have the same outcome as suffering for Christ. God is in the business of redeeming and restoring, and healing from sickness and disease is part of that restoration.
When we choose to suffer for Christ, it is a redeemed version of suffering, because it directly results in glory for God. The church has a rich tradition of this kind of voluntary suffering, one that has been lost in modern western society. We can think of it as intentionally limiting ourselves in some way, usually in terms of our own comfort, to bring about something that’s honoring to the Kingdom of God. It may involve risking a friendship or acceptance by family because of our testimony as a Christian; or choosing to fast, or occupying our time with prayer rather than something else; or choosing to live and minister in places that most people would avoid. Paul chose to endure all manner of suffering, as he details in 2 Corinthians 11: imprisonment, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, potential danger both from people and circumstances, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst and exposure.
Today, we do everything as a society to avoid suffering or loss or deprivation, and we certainly never willingly bring it upon ourselves. This is to our detriment as believers in Jesus Christ. Consider the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and what and who Jesus calls “blessed”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Jesus calls us not to avoid these things, but to voluntarily enter into them, because there are blessings associated with each. As the 1 Peter passage noted earlier says, we participate in the sufferings of Christ so that we may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.
We’re aware of the imagery in Scripture of the church as the Bride and Jesus as the Bridegroom. Jesus made a key observation in Matthew 9:15 about the significance of this relationship as it pertains to voluntary suffering: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Contrast this with the 1 Peter verse that says we will be overjoyed when Jesus’ glory is revealed, that is, when He returns to earth. Simply put, we choose to suffer for the sake of Christ because He is not with us, as a way of remembering Him while He’s gone, and as a way of preparing for His return.
In Revelation 19:8, we’re told that the Bride (us, the church) will be dressed in clothes that are bright and clean, and that this beautiful wedding dress represents the righteous acts of the saints. We are also told in Revelation 21:2 that when the New Jerusalem descends to earth, it is prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. It is no coincidence that this city is composed of precious stones, pearls and gold, all of which require pressure, irritation or a refining fire to achieve their maximum brilliance and value. This is the church, prepared for Jesus.
We do not choose to suffer simply to be obedient; rather, we choose to suffer to be prepared, to be ready for the return of the Bridegroom. This is intensely personal and intimate, like an engaged couple making the decision to deny their physical desires and put off getting into bed with each other until they are married. Why do people do that, especially in this day and age? It’s not only because it’s the right thing to do, or “the Bible tells me so.” It is because they believe that what is coming is better than whatever they are denying themselves now. Our voluntary suffering, our denial of our own comfort, is a witness that things are not yet the way God intends. We are expressing longing for restoration and redemption, and in some mysterious way, we are helping to bring about that restoration. We are aligning our choices (Moral will) with God’s desire for us (Thelema) in order to bring about His sovereign plan (Boulema). This is a very powerful thing. At bottom, this was the power of the Apostle Paul’s life. Beyond the legacy of his writings, beyond the many church plants, he chose to agree with Jesus when He said about Paul in Acts 9:16, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
The most difficult thing I have to tell you is that sometimes, despite our desire to humble ourselves and be broken and obedient, we are crushed anyway, because it is what God has chosen to bring Him maximum glory. We have many examples of those who were clearly walking in the will of God, but who were singled out for crushing: Job, Peter (who Jesus prophesied would be sifted like wheat), Jesus, and of course Paul. In the short-term, each of these crushings could only be viewed as tragedy: Job losing his possessions, his family, his health and his reputation; Peter denying not only his relationship with Jesus but also everything he had said about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, essentially throwing away the previous three years of his life; Jesus taking on the scorn and shame of dying a criminal’s death; and Paul suffering one setback after another as he gamely attempted to be faithful to his calling.
Seen in isolation these crushings seem unfair and purposeless. These individuals did not need to be taught a lesson, or to turn from their rebellion. They were each part of God’s inner circle, the devout. But in each case, the issue was not simply one of obedience – something much deeper was going on. Somehow, in the cosmic struggle between good and evil, God had decided to stake His claim for the Kingdom on these individuals.
We call God our Redeemer, and so He is. But whereas we think of this as one aspect of His character, I have come to understand that this is in fact who He is. He is not like us, trying to figure out how He might redeem a person or situation after tragedy has struck, but instead He is setting the stage for the tragedy, the crushing, in order to be the Redeemer. We saw this clearly in God pointing out Job to Satan: “Have you considered my servant Job?” The same was true for Jesus, as prophesied in Isaiah 53:10, “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer….” I believe He did this not only with Job, Peter, Jesus and Paul, but He does this today, with us. We are involved in all-out spiritual warfare, and we are the prize and the battlefield, as well as the means by which the Kingdom of God is advancing.
At the same time, we know from Psalm 34:18 that, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” How else could Paul write in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”?
God may allow the rock to fall on us, but this is not the end of the story. We have a champion! It is Jesus, who said of Himself at the beginning of His ministry that He had been sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoner, recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed. Jesus makes this offer to you today – He is still the one who can set us free and restore us. Many in Jesus’ day rejected Him and chose to remain in the prison of their own lives. But some chose to cry out like blind Bartimeus, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” And those who were set free and restored by Jesus went on to change the world.
Where are you today? Are your enemies all around you? Then fall on the rock. Choose to be broken before your God. Cry out for His help and His mercy. Don’t seek so much to overcome your circumstances as to be purified by them. As Paul wrote out of his own hard-won experience in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
But perhaps you have chosen to go your own way despite God’s warnings in your life. And now the rock has fallen on you. Or perhaps you have been singled out for sifting. Are you crushed today? I have good news for you: the Lord Jesus saves those who are crushed in spirit. That’s why He died on the cross 2,000 years ago, that’s why He was resurrected on the third day, and that’s why He is sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven interceding for us. Be assured, as my pastor, KT Terry says, “Your pain has purpose.” Choose to be faithful in suffering, but also to look beyond the suffering, as the Apostle Paul did, to the glory produced by that suffering.
(Note: This is the next installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the beginning chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
Many times in the Bible, those chosen by God for a particular calling or ministry were also anointed. It was a way to call attention to individuals and set them apart, resulting in a change in direction for their lives. The primary references to anointing are in the Old Testament, most often referring to prophets, priests and kings God had chosen for His service. Nevertheless, because of who were are in Christ, the concept of being anointed still has weight and significance for our lives, precisely because we are now considered to be priests of God. We see this connection in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
What does anointing mean in the context of being set apart by God for ministry? It is obviously not merely being physically anointed with oil. What is our anointing as God’s royal priesthood? Simply put, it is the power of the Holy Spirit, the outward expression of God’s plan and purpose being carried out in the world. The power of the Holy Spirit is a sign to the world of our special relationship with Jesus and the authority we have through His shed blood. First Peter 4:14 says, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” As Jack Taylor once said, “The Holy Spirit is in me for my sake, but He is upon me for your sake.”
We do not have an account of the prophets Elijah or Elisha being anointed for service, though that may have been done. Despite this, the concept of anointing and the resulting demonstration of the Spirit’s power in their lives are undeniable. Anointing for these men took the form of a cloak or mantle that was worn by each of them. The power of anointing to change the course of a life is evident in the story of the call of Elisha by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:19-21:
So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”
“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”
So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.
It’s clear that the Lord had prepared Elisha ahead of time for His calling. Perhaps a prophecy had been spoken over him, perhaps the Lord Himself had spoken to Elisha. Has the Lord spoken to you about the calling on your life? Have you received a Scripture or prophecy, and now you’re waiting to see the fulfillment? Be ready to respond, just like Elisha. When he was called, Elisha quickly said goodbye to his parents, but he did something else significant. He sacrificed the oxen he had been using to plow the field. The oxen represented his old life and the old way of doing things. It has been said that in times of change, we must decide what is dead and must be left behind, and what is alive and should be retained. What has God called you to sacrifice? What has He called you to leave behind for the sake of His Kingdom? Are you willing to do what Elisha did?
By sacrificing the oxen, Elisha was saying not only that God was doing a new thing in him, but also that he would not return to his former life. Consider the words of Ps. 44:11 and 17, “Listen, O daughter, consider and give ear: Forget your people and your father’s house…Your sons will take the place of your fathers; you will make them princes throughout the land.” Meditate on these words: “If we forget our fathers, God will give us sons.” My view is this: if we are willing to forget our fathers, which represents our former life, God will give us spiritual sons, a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a fruitful ministry. This is your inheritance and your reward for obedience.
What is it that God called Elisha to do? Eventually, Elisha would be Elijah’s successor. But at first, he was simply a servant to Elijah. Second Kings 3:11 describes Elisha as the man who would pour water on Elijah’s hands. Could there be any simpler calling? Elisha’s call was to provide Elijah with his basic needs. But what was really going on during this time? Through his obedience as a servant, Elisha was learning what the life of a prophet was all about. He was learning about Elijah’s giftings, his heart, and his relationship with God. Every great anointing of God begins with a simple act of obedience. We learn a little, and God teaches us more. We serve a little, and God opens more doors of opportunity to us. We submit to authority, and God gives us greater authority.
And, as often happens, God will test us in our submission to Him, to determine the extent of our devotion and perseverance. This happened with Elisha. We read about it in 2 Kings 2:1-6:
When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”
But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “but do not speak of it.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.
The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” he replied, “but do not speak of it.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.
Three times Elijah offers for Elisha to stay behind and become part of the company of the prophets. Have you heard that testing comes in three’s? This is normal in the Bible. Jesus was tempted three times by satan in the wilderness. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. And Jesus required Peter to respond to the question, “Do you love me?” three times following Jesus’ resurrection, once for each time Peter denied Jesus. This is a biblical pattern. Each time Elisha was tested, he could have taken the easy way out. He could have moved in with the other prophets of that town and probably had a good life. But for Elisha, this was not enough. He had not given up his old life and spent all that time serving Elijah to miss out on the blessing God had for him. He knew what he wanted, it was in his mind during the whole trip with Elijah, and he would not settle for anything less. Are you willing to settle for something less than God’s best? Or, will you stick with God, no matter what, and make the choice for anointing?
There is something very honoring to God about repeated obedience, which often requires great patience. The Bible is full of examples of this kind of obedience: the Israelites marching around Jericho six days, and then seven times on the seventh day; Naaman washing himself seven times in the Jordan River; the disciples waiting ten days in Jerusalem before Pentecost. David says in Psalm 63:8, “My soul clings to you.” Are you clinging to God? Is His calling a matter of life and death to you? This is exactly where God wants us.
In 2 Kings 2:9-10, we see what it is that Elisha has had in mind the whole time:
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
“You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise not.”
Here we see the connection between anointing and the power of the Spirit. Elisha makes a very bold request. Are you willing to be that bold with God? Just imagine, Elisha had left his former life and his family behind, he had faithfully served Elijah, probably for years, then he had refused to leave Elijah’s side during their final journey together. Yet, when Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elijah says he has asked for a “difficult thing.” Is it really difficult for God to grant this request? Of course it isn’t. What’s difficult is bearing the responsibility of that calling, the awesome weight of having the Holy Spirit rest upon him. This should make us stop and consider. We want God’s power in our life, but are we willing to live the life that goes with that anointing? Elisha was willing. Are you willing? Will you boldly ask for God’s anointing, as Elisha did?
In 2 Kings 2:13-15, we see that God granted Elisha’s request, and we also see the symbol of the cloak representing the anointing passing from Elijah to Elisha:
[Elisha] picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.
Elisha sees Elijah’s mantle lying on the ground after Elijah was taken up to heaven. He knows it is for him. So, he picks it up and tries it out. Sure enough, he does exactly what Elijah did – he parts the Jordan River. This is a sign to the prophets standing on the other side of the river. Elisha then puts the mantle of Elijah on his own shoulders. Elisha is now literally wearing the Spirit. The Spirit is resting upon him, and he would go on to do even greater things for the Kingdom of God than Elijah had done.
This same anointing is available today. We have a wonderful promise about this from Jesus Himself in John 14:12: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus said about Himself that the Spirit was upon Him. Consider what Jesus did while He was on earth and the kind of authority he exercised, to teach, to heal, to set the prisoner free. You will do these works and more because of the Spirit who lives inside of you, because of the Spirit who rests upon you.
Perhaps you are you plowing a field, just working day-to-day. Maybe all you have from God is a promise. This is a good place to be. You’re ready for ministry, you’re hungry for a fresh touch from God. This is where Elisha was when Elijah found him. He expected a blessing from God, and he was not disappointed. Let me encourage you with the words of 2 Peter 3:9: “God is not slow in keeping his promise…” Believe that God has called you and wants to use you mightily for His Kingdom.
Maybe you are standing today at the Jordan River, and the mantle of the Spirit is lying at your feet. You have an overwhelming desire to pick that mantle up and put it on. God has been preparing you for this moment, and now He asks a simple but profound question: How much do you want that mantle? How much do you want to wear the Spirit? Are you willing to leave everything else behind? Are you willing to live the life of sacrifice that goes with the anointing? I encourage you to say yes to God, and then buckle up for the ride of your life.
(Note: This is the sixth installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the beginning chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
The Choice for Worship: The Life of David
David was one of God’s “deep selects.” Because of his birth order and his vocation he should have lived his life in obscurity and died unknown by the world. But God had other plans. Psalm 78:70-71 says, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance.”
Long before David came on the scene, God was orchestrating his birth and planning his blood line. He chose a foreigner, Ruth, to marry into a Jewish family from Bethlehem, lose her husband early, pilgrimage from her homeland to Bethlehem, meet and marry the kinsman-redeemer Boaz, and ultimately become David’s great grandmother. Clearly, if God chose to bring about the confluence of all of those events, He could have easily also caused David to be the firstborn among his brothers. But as with all deep selects, God chose to make a point about His sovereignty, and about who and what He values. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” a musical shepherd boy with the ferocity of a lion, a warrior in the making, the archetype of the King of kings. Psalm 78 concludes with the verse, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Psalm 78:72).
Scholars categorize the psalms of David different ways: by theme, by literary form, by chronology, and so on. There are psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of repentance, psalms of youth, psalms of old age. No matter the kind of psalm, the thread running through all of David’s songs is worship. Irrespective of the stage of life or circumstances David found himself in, he was a worshipper first and foremost. First Samuel 16 tells the story of David’s initial anointing as king by the prophet Samuel. This took place when David was only about 17 years old. Up to that point, David had been a shepherd tending sheep out in the open field. His early psalms, and his worship of God, reflect his surroundings:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:3-9)
His situation was not unlike that of the shepherds who first heard about the birth of Jesus: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). The shepherd’s life was simple, yet it required great diligence. There were always predators on the prowl, looking to take advantage of the flock. Those who have been in the military and had to stand watch in the middle of the night know that 99% of the time there is absolutely nothing going on. Despite this, because of that other 1%, there is no place for inattention. In that situation, your senses are heightened and you take in more of your surroundings than normal. It follows, then, that David would be overwhelmed with the night sky and what it says about the choices God makes. That consideration led him naturally to worship.
Did you know that we humans were created to praise God? He gives us an insight into His choice through the prophet Isaiah:
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise. (Is. 43:20-21)
Let there be no doubt that when David worshipped thousands of years ago, and when we worship today, it is a direct result of God’s choice to place the need to worship in our DNA. We have to worship someone or something. It may be possessions, it may be family and friends, it may be ourselves, it may even be God, but we will worship. We just can’t help it. David decided early in his life that his worship would be devoted to God, and God honored that decision throughout his life. As another psalmist wrote, “Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord” (Psalm 89:15).
However, sometimes that blessing takes a while to work itself out in our lives. It was many years between David’s anointing as king and when he actually took the throne. By some estimates he had to wait upwards of 25 years to finally have the crown placed on his head. During this time of waiting Saul, the king on the throne, chased David through the wilderness trying to kill him, primarily because he saw him as a threat to his reign. This time of trial was David’s preparation and sanctification for being king. Over and over, he threw himself on God’s mercies, which we hear in the words of the psalms he wrote during this time:
Save me, O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Strangers are attacking me;
ruthless men seek my life—
men without regard for God. Selah
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me. (Psalm 54:1-4)
As a result of being in extremis on an almost continual basis, David came to the conclusion that the Lord God was his only source of help. This is exactly where God wants us and exactly why he allows trials in our lives. God was literally his only hope, and David clung to him for all he was worth.
It was in this time that he made one of the greatest theological statements of his life, Psalm 23. It is a sweeping narrative in which David makes the connection between his boyhood spent tending sheep and his own need for a shepherd. In a flash of Spirit-given inspiration, he realized that what he provided for his sheep is what he needed for his own life: to rest, to be refreshed, to be guided, to be comforted. He looked at the walls of the canyons surrounding him in the wilderness, “the valley of the shadow of death,” and he understood that his Shepherd was able to deliver him from fear. And most amazing of all, he was able to look ahead to a time in his life when he would be safe, he would have all of his needs met, and he would be able to do the thing his heart longed to do, to worship for all eternity. So, in the midst of great uncertainty, David chose to worship in his circumstances and thereby gain solace: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
When David became king, the worship did not stop. In fact, he made certain that worship would go on in and around the tabernacle 24/7 (1 Chronicles 16). And he didn’t stop writing his psalms, but now David writes from a different perspective:
O Lord, the king rejoices in your strength.
How great is his joy in the victories you give!
You have granted him the desire of his heart
and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
You welcomed him with rich blessings
and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Surely you have granted him eternal blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord;
through the unfailing love of the Most High
he will not be shaken. (Psalm 21:1-7)
It is crucial for us today to understand that the choice to be a worshipper is not a one-time decision; it is an ongoing commitment. If you would ask my wife and me the key to our success as missionaries, we would tell you without hesitation that it was the power of worship. However, we would also readily admit that some days it was difficult to sing or lift our hands, because life in Ukraine was hard and people we encountered could be cruel. It was a choice, and yet oddly, we felt we had no choice. It was worship or die on the field of battle. So we chose to live, just like David.
For most of his life, David had chosen to humble himself and submit himself to God’s plan and depend on His provision. There was at least one time in his life, however, when David’s hubris overtook him and he chose to worship himself and his desires rather than God. David was an established king who could have anything he wanted, and what he wanted was Bathsheba. As a result, the worshipper became an adulterer and a murderer. For a brief moment, David was blinded to his sin, until the prophet Nathan confronted him (2 Samuel 12). From the descriptions we have, David was crushed. He was told by Nathan that the sword would not depart from his house, and in fact there was great bloodshed in his family; he was told that God would bring calamity to his house, including sexual sin; and he was told that the son who had been born to Bathsheba would die. The psalm he wrote during this time sounds different from the others, because he is pleading with God for mercy:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge. (Psalm 51:1-4)
It’s important to note that the choice to worship David had made throughout his life shapes his response to the rock falling on him. He is broken, he doesn’t feel like worshipping, but he knows from experience that this is the thing he needs to do:
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God area broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:15-17)
An important lesson from this story is that God can redeem even those whose lives have been crushed. It was from Bathsheba that the heir to the throne, Solomon, came. God can take our disobedience and the evil satan produces from it and through repentance give us back something good that glorifies Him. This is God’s miracle in our lives. He did it 3,000 years ago, and he can do it today.
Years later, when David was an old man, he continued to worship God with the perspective of time and trial. In Psalm 37, he comments, “I was young and now I am old,” (vs. 25) and then goes on:
The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him. (vss. 39-40)
Who would know these things better than David? He was delivered from the lion and the bear as a shepherd, he was delivered from Goliath as a young warrior, he was delivered from Saul over and over again as a seasoned veteran, and he was delivered from prideful sin as an established king. David’s life was fueled, filled, and feted by worship. David summed up his lifelong approach to worship in Psalm 34:1: “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” That was David’s choice. Can we say the same?
The Book of Job contains this interesting little vignette from chapter 1:
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)
What about this pesky opening scene from the Book of Job? What are we supposed to make of this peek behind the curtain, so to speak, of this conversation between God and satan? Job was not privileged to know about this conversation before his trials, nor did God inform him at the end of the story. It is only for the readers’ eyes. What are we supposed to think about the fact that God actually draws satan’s attention to Job, almost saying, “Make sure you don’t miss this one!”
Surely, God knows that satan will bring everything to bear in attacking Job, without mercy. Yet not once, but twice in the course of two chapters, God makes it a point to elevate Job so that satan can’t possibly miss him. If we only see Job as the suffering saint, then we might be tempted to feel sorry for him. We might even imagine Job as a defenseless pawn on the chessboard of the universe – not a high-value piece, but something that is sacrificed in the course of playing for the real prize.
And that raises an even more personal question: What about me? What about you? Could the same thing happen to us? What if God points us out to satan? The little drama in chapters 1 and 2 has also been called The Wager by Philip Yancey. It’s as if God is saying to satan, “I bet you can’t bring Job down, no matter how hard you try.” If we are to believe this is a wager, God is betting that Job’s righteousness will save him and that God’s cause will be advanced as a result, whereas satan is betting that Job’s righteousness will never make it past the loss of his possessions, his family and his health.
But none of these scenarios makes much sense to me. First, I can’t really imagine my heavenly Father regarding any of us as just a pawn – I think He loves us too much to do that. We are not something to be sacrificed in order to win the prize, because we are the prize. Otherwise Father God never would have sent His Son Jesus into the world to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. Second, I don’t believe the notion of The Wager, because I’ve never known a time in my life when God was out of control or when He played the odds with me. Even when I felt like my life was out of control, God always had a plan, and His plan was always accomplished, sometimes despite me. In the familiar verse from Jeremiah 29:11, God Himself says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
No, as Philip Yancey points out in his book Disappointment with God, Job was neither poker chip nor pawn. However, there was a pawn in the story. There was someone in the story of the Book of Job who understood even less than Job, and in the end was ruined as a result of his pride. It was satan, the one who thought he was in control and understood everything, but who did not understand the verse just mentioned from Jeremiah: God has a plan, and He’s been carrying out that plan since before the creation of the world, and God will see His plan to completion, and He, not satan, will be glorified. When God pointed Job out to satan, he wasn’t inviting satan to take advantage of Job; instead, I believe He was inviting satan to be taken advantage of, so that God would receive maximum glory. It has been said that Job was a type of Christ, foreshadowing the suffering and ultimate triumph of Jesus through His death and resurrection. And as it says in 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” It’s important to understand that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we as believers have the same mission: destroy the work of satan and bring maximum glory to God.
There are many times in my life when I’ve felt like God’s been saying to satan, “Have you considered my servant Paul?” I’ve learned a lot of lessons, but one of the most life-changing is fairly simple: we are the army of God, and from time to time God chooses to send us on a dangerous mission, much like Job’s. But the key insight from the Book of Job is that God is not picking on us. Instead, it means our heavenly Father is proud of us, He trusts us, and He knows that we have what we need to defeat satan through our lives. This truth is echoed in 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” In other words, we were chosen for this mission because He knows that we will be victorious in His strength. That is total affirmation from our heavenly Papa, and I desire it. What about you? Are you ready to live with God’s choices? Are you ready for God to choose you, to point you out in a crowd and say to satan, “Have you considered my servant, (fill in your name)?” Are you ready for God to send you on a mission of cosmic importance, a mission that will bring maximum glory to our Lord while dealing yet another blow to satan’s schemes?
Sometimes, when believers talk about end times or tribulation or the persecuted church in the world, someone will inevitably comment, “I just don’t know what I would do in that situation; I don’t know if I would be able to remain obedient to God.” The truth is that we don’t decide to be obedient in that moment of trial. That choice was made long before: God’s choice to save and empower us, and our choice to pursue righteousness. What made Job ready for God to point him out? Simple things, really. He was a generous man who loved his family and the people around him, demonstrated through his care for them physically and spiritually. We hear this throughout the Book of Job. Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends” says of him: “Think how you instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees” (Job 4:3-4).
Later, Job fleshes out Eliphaz’ account with some details of his life and priorities:
Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to assist him.
The man who was dying blessed me;
I made the widow’s heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:11-17)
Job made a powerful choice for righteousness. It is what allows him to persist despite daunting circumstances. In the middle of his trials, berated by his companions, Job boldly proclaims to them, “I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live” (Job 27:5-6).
Many hundreds of years later, the Apostle Paul writes about the importance of the choice for righteousness in Philippians 1:9-11:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.
Ultimately, God validates Job’s choice for righteousness when He has Job pray for his so-called friends at the end of the story. Despite the intervening doubts and angry words Job has spoken about his life, God puts Job in the place of a priest or intercessor. This is yet another way in which Job’s experience foreshadows that of Jesus, our “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14). Job, like Jesus, lived a righteous life, which eventually resulted in him being exalted before God. The importance of intercession was not an abstraction for Job. At different times, he makes reference to his advocate in heaven, though he never names this intercessor: “Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high” (Job 16:19) and, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).” Job possesses an insight regarding Christ’s intercessory role that predates Jesus’ advent on earth by as many as two thousand years, and it is a rock solid assurance to him in the midst of the worst suffering of his life. In a remarkable turn of events, by the end of Job’s story, the suffering one in the greatest need of an intercessor himself becomes an intercessor who is able to influence God’s heart.
I don’t believe, as Job’s companions did, that Job had to go through some sort of exorcism in order to fulfill his calling on earth. Nonetheless, despite his choice for righteousness, it’s probably fair to say that before his trials Job judged his blessings (like all of us do) based on what he could see. We hear this in his words concerning his children at the beginning of the story: “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5, emphasis added). Job saw God’s blessings all around him, but feared that what he could not see would bring everything to ruin. Isn’t that true of all of us? For me personally, I think this is what God’s trying to break me of, and it seems to be a process, something like Job’s. Fear, at its essence, is a lack of faith and I have, and have had for much of my Christian life, a profound lack of faith. That was brought into sharp relief when I was a missionary in Ukraine, where so much of the Christian life must be lived in faith because of a repressive government and the moral depravity stemming from 70 years of Communist rule. The plain truth is, like Job, I need more faith; and apparently, like Job, God will stop at nothing to bring about that change in my life. That is His gracious choice. At the beginning of the story, Job acts obediently, but he does it out of fear of what will happen if he doesn’t. In Job 3:25, Job says, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” But by the end of the story Job has been forced to face his fears (in his trials, in the whirlwind) and he repents. So, the result of his tribulation was kind of a three for one deal: satan loses, God wins, and Job is delivered from his fears.
We get to peek behind the curtain in the first two chapters of Job, to understand how important Job’s suffering was to God. Job never got that chance. But Job got what he really needed to live his life here on earth, the thing we all need: deliverance from fear. Job went from “seeing is believing” to “believing is seeing,” all because of his choice to be righteous and God’s choice to be proud of him.
(Note: This is the fourth installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the beginning chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
Joseph is one of the classic “deep selects” from the biblical account. So many brothers ahead of him in the pecking order, such an unlikely candidate to receive favor from the God of the universe. But as with all of the biblical characters we’re looking at, Joseph’s strength was his agreement with God’s plan, as unlikely as it seemed. In fact, it was this initial agreement that got him in trouble with his family. Genesis 37:5-11 recounts:
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Many have said that Joseph was full of pride when he told his family about the dreams he had in which they were worshipping him, but I don’t believe pride was the issue. I don’t believe pride was ever an issue with Joseph. In fact, Joseph is one of my heroes precisely because his obedience was so pure and so enduring. I believe that when Joseph retold his dreams, he was simply agreeing with what God had shown him, though almost certainly not understanding the full implications of his agreement.
One of the greatest tests of obedience we see in Scripture is the faithful retelling of God’s revelation by His prophets, primarily because it usually meant trouble for the teller. This was an early test for Joseph, who in adulthood would be called on to relay hard words to people. From the beginning, there was a fidelity to Joseph’s faith, a commitment to truth, a fundamental agreement with God’s purposes. His father Jacob, who as a younger man had a dream about a ladder extending to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it, culturally felt obligated to rebuke Joseph after hearing about his dreams, but spiritually held onto the mystery as a potential clue to his son’s own chosen-ness. For Joseph’s part, it is unlikely that he understood everything of what the dream meant, but he knew it was from God and that it was intended for him.
Before I ever came to Ukraine as a missionary, God had to prepare me – calling me, cleaning me out, filling me up with His presence. During that time of preparation, He gave me a very special verse, which was just for me. It is Isaiah 55:5: “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” I received this verse as God’s promise to me, but because it came before my calling to Ukraine, I had no idea of the significance of it for my life. A year or so later, I was already living in Ukraine and I was preaching to a room full of people from the different countries of the former Soviet Union. In that moment the Isaiah verse flashed across my mind, and I realized I was seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise to me. This kind of dream is something that can keep us going even in the darkest hour of trial and temptation.
One reason Joseph could choose to obey and remain faithful in his obedience was the depth of his character. We do not simply choose one day to obey God and suddenly find that we are full of faith, perseverance and hope. It is true that character is borne out of suffering, as Paul says in Romans 5, but it is also true that there must be some foundation of character for obedience to take root. Though the basis for God’s choices are not always obvious, I would venture to say that most of the time it has to do with character and the capacity for obedience. How do we know that Joseph was a man of integrity, even prior to his trials? I would note that the sharing of the dreams God had given him with his entire family took place when he was only seventeen years old.
The narrative of Joseph’s life contained in the Book of Genesis is sweeping and takes up many chapters. But let’s focus on three principles of obedience that resulted from godly character as we find them in Genesis chapter 39.
Principle 1 — Joseph stood firm, whether the test was as a result of prosperity or adversity. Genesis 39:1-10 tells us:
Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.
The Apostle Paul frames Joseph’s perspective this way in Philippians 4:11-13, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Despite Joseph growing up as Jacob’s favorite son, wearing the coat of many colors that announced to everyone his favored status, Joseph never took advantage of that position. And that pattern of living continued in Egypt. Joseph was apparently not swayed by possessions or people’s esteem of him. Further, he knew the limit of his authority, and he determined not to overstep that authority. We often take our chosen-ness too far; we presume on God and His beneficence. For many, it is like winning the lottery. We have nothing of our own, we become rich, and then we spend our wealth until it is gone. Joseph, on the other hand, when he was blessed, took great care to cultivate that blessing. He measured out the faithfulness and obedience needed for the situation, being ever-mindful of the limit of his anointing. Galatians 6:3-5 says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.” This way of living is rare in our day, even among Christians, and I believe it needs to be recaptured by people of faith.
Principle 2 — Joseph did what was right even when no one was looking. The story continues in Genesis 39:11-18:
One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house. When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.” She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
Jesus had a lot to say about this particular aspect of obedience. It is not obedience for obedience’ sake, or obedience for my own sake, but obedience for God’s sake. Jesus’ primary counter-example of this principle was the Pharisees: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). Joseph understood that the reward standing in front of him, Potiphar’s wife, could hardly compare with the reward of the authority and respect he commanded under Potiphar. Yet, this was not the end of the comparisons. Joseph also had his dreams in his back pocket, something God had placed in him at a young age to help him weather exactly these kinds of storms. His calling was “out there” in the future, and nothing would deter him from seeing its fulfillment. He had chosen a level of obedience that few believers do: the understanding and the lived-reality that the right thing, done in secret, is seen and rewarded by the One who matters most. We might say that at this point his obedience was almost “mindless.” Not that it was automatic, but rather that his soul (mind, will and emotions) was not the obstacle it so often is for us. This kind of obedience is only possible when we are Spirit-led, and in particular, when our own spirit, which agrees with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16), takes the lead in our life. Of course, it is completely counter-cultural to deny ourselves anything in this modern age of ours. We are constantly encouraged to feed our bodies, our minds, our emotions. But do we feed our spirits? If we do not, we shouldn’t be surprised that our capacity for obedience, especially when no one is looking, is different from that of Joseph’s.
Principle 3 — Joseph’s character was best displayed through times of crisis. Joseph’s trifecta of tribulation concludes with Genesis 39:19-23:
When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger.Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.
It’s hard to keep a good person down, yet, it’s hard to be that good person. It’s easy when you know the end of the story, but difficult when you’re in the midst of it. Joseph was convinced that his own lack of understanding of what was happening said absolutely nothing about either God’s care or concern for him. He understood that the crisis wasn’t the most important thing, as we often think, but rather his response to the crisis. Call it a test, call it whatever you want. Our lives are full of these moments when we have a choice for or against obedience, for or against God’s purpose. Is our main goal to relieve the suffering, or to find where the suffering is leading? Do we have sufficient character to fall back on in difficult circumstances, or does our character collapse like a two-legged stool?
Joseph endured a remarkable series of negative circumstances in his life that was completely out of his control: being thrown into a pit and left for dead by his brothers, being sold into slavery and sent to another country, being wrongly imprisoned in that country, being forgotten in prison for two years by a man Joseph had helped. But somehow God used these horrible circumstances to save an entire region of the world from starvation. As Joseph said to his brothers at the end of the story, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). The greatest disappointments can be transformed by God into blessing, but we must follow the model of Joseph: he never complained and he never blamed God for his circumstances. He simply believed that the promises he had already received would come true. And he maintained this belief through his time in slavery and through two years of being wrongly imprisoned. The title of a Eugene Peterson book, taken from a Nietzsche quote, refers to “a long obedience in the same direction.” I believe it is this kind of perseverance in trial that brings maximum glory to God. It’s the very reason why He chooses us in the first place.
(Note: This is the third installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the first chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
Is there any more stark example of the choices God makes than the life of Jacob? At the beginning of the Book of Malachi, God is speaking to the nation of Israel and He says:
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the LORD says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2-3)
These words are quoted by the Apostle Paul under the New Covenant in Romans 9:13. As I mentioned in the first chapter, we like to dwell on the winners of the Bible, without fully taking into account the fact that often, in the process of one person winning, inevitably someone else loses. Yet we see in this the silver lining of God’s grace, as Paul continues in Romans 9:22-24:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…
As we will see, there is a redemptive aspect of Jacob’s story for both Jacob and Esau, but it was a long road for both of them, and for Jacob it required a complete transformation of his identity. Jacob was so named by his parents, but toward the end of his life he was known by the name Israel, the name God gave him. This name change, and what it has to do with choices, is the focus of this chapter.
Do you like your name? Have you ever wanted to change your name? I like the name Paul because I was named for the Apostle Paul, but I don’t like that it means “small.” Until about a week before our son was born, we were going to name him Michael, but at the last minute we changed it to Carl, more for the way it sounds than what it means (Carl never cared for the fact that his name means “farmer”). Though many times parents will choose a name for a child without knowing what it means, God seems to put a premium on names and their meanings, and it is a major event in the Bible when someone’s name is changed.
It is worthwhile to consider the lives of those people in the Bible who had their names changed by God. The before and after picture of their lives and the change that took place is often very vivid: Abram who became Abraham, Sarai who became Sarah, Jacob who became Israel, Simon who became Peter, Saul who became Paul. One of the greatest promises given in the Book of Revelation is, as a reward for overcoming evil, Jesus would give the churches a new name or write a new name on them. Names are so important to God that at times He steps in and gives the name of a new baby to the parents even before the baby’s birth – names such as John for John the Baptist, and Jesus.
Joyce Meyer has come up with many wonderful one-liners in her books. One of my favorites is, “be careful who you let name you,” speaking specifically about Jacob and the meaning of his name. Genesis 25:24-26 tells us:
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
The name Jacob literally means “one who grasps the heel,” which is a reference to him having hold of the heel of his twin brother Esau when the two of them were born. But the name also has a figurative meaning, referring to somebody who deceives others. Can you imagine having been given a name like this, with all of the baggage associated with it in the Hebrew language? It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, then, that Jacob’s life was dominated by deception and grasping for what belonged to others.
But we need to understand the name “deceiver” as more than just a label or representing more than some character flaw. What it actually represented was, I believe, a generations-old curse, which was finally broken by God when He gave Jacob his new name of Israel. Understood in this way, Jacob and Israel become more than just names, and Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel becomes more than just an oddity of Scripture.
When Jacob met the angel, he was returning to Bethel, which is a key location in the promised land. Bethel means House of God, and the name was given by Jacob because God appeared to him there and promised to bless his descendents in that land. But consider that it was also at Bethel that Abram, Jacob’s grandfather, first pitched his tent in the promised land. It was at Bethel that Abram made the decision to go with Sarai to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:8), and therefore it was at Bethel that deception was conceived in Abram’s mind, to lie to the king of Egypt and say that Sarai was Abram’s sister, not his wife, as we read in Genesis 12:10-13:
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Deception of any kind is generally conceived out of a desire for self-protection. Abram was trying to keep from being killed; however, most of us are simply trying to keep ourselves from being embarrassed or humiliated. So we just change a few facts – add one in, leave one out. A white lie, we might call it. It’s designed to make us look better, or at least different, from reality. And everything went well for Abram, until God blew the whistle on him by sending diseases into Pharaoh’s house, where Sarai had been taken, and the king kicked Abram and his family out of the country (note especially that this is the first of two times Abram lied about his wife).
Seen in isolation, this story may appear insignificant. But when viewed in light of God’s words about the sins of the fathers being visited on following generations, we understand that Abram’s deception opened a door to heartache and disappointment in his family for generations to come, as is clearly taught in Numbers 14:18: “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” We can’t help but notice that Isaac, Abram’s son, repeated the sin of his father almost exactly (Genesis 26:1,7). And then came Jacob, the master deceiver.
One of the fruits of the deception tree is mistrust and division. These fruits were in full bloom by the time Jacob came along. Apparently, Isaac and Rebekah each had their favorite among the twins: Isaac chose Esau and Rebekah chose Jacob. Thus, there was not merely sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, but literally the whole house was divided, and they were divided primarily over the issue of birthright and blessing. As a result, this became an obsession for Jacob, and he began looking for any means by which he might obtain these things from Esau, even though Rebekah had been told before the twins were born that the older would serve the younger.
Deception is always looking for an opportunity, an open door. Jacob found the open door to Esau’s birthright through Esau’s physical hunger (Genesis 25), and the chance at Esau’s blessing came through Isaac’s physical blindness (with Rebekah’s assistance, Genesis 27). But both of these physical doors had spiritual parallels: Esau’s hunger caused him to despise his birthright (Genesis 25:34), and Isaac’s physical blindness caused him to be spiritually short-sighted, forgetting (or choosing not to remember) that God had said the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Essentially, everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes, another fruit of deception. Rebekah became a manipulative shrew (Genesis 27:41-28:2), Esau went into full rebellion (Genesis 28:6-9), and Jacob would himself become a victim of deception at the hands of his father-in-law Laban, when he was forced to marry a woman he did not love (Genesis 29). The family of promise was being ripped apart and was in great danger of collapse.
Eventually, Jacob ran from Laban, even as he was already running from Esau. When it looked like Esau would catch up with and kill Jacob, Jacob finally turned to God and repented, calling himself “unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness” God had shown him, and asking God to save him (Genesis 32:10-11).
I believe that what Jacob accomplished with this act of repentance is similar to the words spoken by the prophet in Isaiah 52:1-2 many centuries after Jacob died:
Awake, awake, O Zion,
clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your garments of splendor,
O Jerusalem, the holy city.
The uncircumcised and defiled
will not enter you again.
Shake off your dust;
rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem.
Free yourself from the chains on your neck,
O captive Daughter of Zion.
In the case of Jacob, the chains he wore were the curse on his family, and on the way to Bethel he finally understood that he didn’t have to live with those chains any longer. The wrestling match with the angel is still a bit of a mystery, but I think it has something to do with Jacob finally taking responsibility for the condition of his life and his family. This is why Jacob says to the angel that he will not let him go until he is blessed. It was not Jacob grasping for someone else’s blessing, like before; he was choosing what God had for him. For Jacob it was a matter of life and death. Somehow he knew that with the blessing there would also be deliverance, both physical and spiritual, but without it the curse would continue to plague his children and their children as it had plagued him.
The immediate outcome of the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel was a blessing and a new name. But as we study the life of Israel after the wrestling match, we see the fruit that came from breaking the curse: Jacob got rid of all idols and foreign gods in his household (Genesis 35), he reconciled and stood side-by-side with Esau when they buried Isaac (Genesis 35), and ultimately Jacob blessed each of his children with unique and God-inspired blessings before his death (Genesis 49). His “grasping” days were over, and as a result the nation of Israel was blessed. Jacob had chosen to break away from the label that had been placed on him at birth and chose instead the calling God had for his life. The blessing of Joseph’s children recounted for us in Genesis 48:15-16 is especially sweet when we think about Jacob’s name change:
Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm –may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.”
I asked you earlier if you would change your name if you had the chance. But really, we have many names, not just the name given to us by our parents. There is a song that says:
I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Lonely or afraid
I would say this is an apt description of Jacob when the angel found him. But it is also appropriate for some of us today. These are just some of the names that we acquire as we live our lives. And as Joyce Meyer said, “be careful who you let name you.” These names are obviously not from God. Perhaps some of them are due to decisions we ourselves have made, but some of them are also due to things beyond our control, as with Jacob. No matter the source, God desires to change these names. The song continues:
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face
One time I was asking God in prayer how I could read the Gospels in a new way, to gain some kind of fresh understanding from these books that I had read all my life. And I was reminded of when Jesus said to His disciples that He no longer called them servants but rather friends. I felt like God was saying to me, “Jesus already knows everything about you as His friend. Read the Gospels to find out more about your friend Jesus.” It’s amazing what you can learn from the Gospels when you ask the question, “What is my friend Jesus trying to tell me about Himself?” In this way, I felt like God was changing my name from spiritually “lonely” to “friend of God.” God is our Redeemer – He loves to bring about change in our lives, if we choose to let him. What name of yours would you like God to change? Don’t let go of Him until He blesses you.
(Note; This is the second installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the first chapter in the July archives of this blog.)
For this chapter, I will lean heavily on John Stott’s sweeping missional narrative, The Living God is a Missionary God. I first heard these amazing ideas at the Urbana missions conference in 1976 where Stott served as the opening speaker. These insights, captured later as a chapter in the book Perspectives, changed the course of my life, and I hope they will prove every bit as meaningful for you. Perhaps the biggest revelation for me when I first heard John Stott’s words was the idea that missions pre-dated the New Testament church. We see evidence of God’s choice for missions as far back as Genesis 10. There we are given a table of nations that came from Noah’s family following the flood. It does not single out the Jewish people, or any people for that matter. All nations are included, demonstrating that ethnic and cultural diversity are part of God’s creative design.
Then, in Genesis 11, we read that human beings made the bold statement, “…let us make a name for ourselves,” and in doing so, declared their independence from God. So, God confused them by giving every people group their own language, and this resulted in their dispersion throughout the world. Although judgment is a very negative thing, we must understand that dispersion is one way in which God works His will in the world: dispersion of the nations at Babel, dispersion of the people of Israel into exile, dispersion of the apostles and other believers after the fall of Jerusalem. In particular, the dispersion at Babel set the stage for God’s declaration of promise concerning all future generations, including ours.
It is in this context that we encounter the first four verses of Genesis chapter 12, the true beginning of missions in the Bible:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”
So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.
This is the proclamation of God’s plan to bless the nations. As Stott says, “These are perhaps the most unifying verses in the Bible,” encapsulating God’s entire plan for the world. It was (and is) His intention to bless all the families of the earth through Abram and his spiritual descendents. But still, Abram (soon to be Abraham) had to choose whether or not to take God up on His offer of blessing, to leave his home, to become the first missionary.
We have to be convinced that it is God who knows the beginning from the end, not us. It is God who knows the plans He has for our lives, not us. It is a sign of maturity in our relationship with God when we can ask the question “What’s next?” without fear, but instead with assurance and even excitement. In fact, probably even better than asking the question “What’s next?” is to simply say to God, “show Your glory.” That’s a choice we make. Transitions in our lives then become less about us and our feelings of helplessness and more about anticipating how God’s plan will unfold and how He will demonstrate His love and care for us.
The promise of God to Abram is actually three promises in one. It was first of all a promise of heritage. God states His intention to make from Abram a “great nation.” The name Abram means “exalted father.” Although this is an honorable name, God had something even more significant in mind. He would change Abram’s name to Abraham, a forward-looking name meaning “father of a multitude.” How big is a multitude? Abram wouldn’t have understood it if God merely told him – God had to show him the stars in the sky to help him grasp the idea.
Secondly, it was a promise of land. Abram was to leave his homeland and in return, God would show him another country. Everyone with a missional calling has been required to exchange their present life and goals for God’s promises. Abram graciously allowed his nephew Lot to choose where he wanted to settle, and Lot chose the fertile Jordan valley. This, then, defined the land that God would give Abram – essentially, it was everything else.
Third, it was a promise of blessing. The words “bless,” “blessing,” or “blessed” are mentioned five times in verses 2 and 3 of chapter 12. From the beginning, this blessing was intended for all humankind. At its heart is the covenant that God makes between Himself and Abram. Ultimately, this blessing is the gift of faith and the justification that comes by faith (as Paul says in Romans). Once God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he identified Himself with Abraham and his descendants, saying, “I will be their God.” This is the greatest blessing that any of us can ever receive.
What do these promises have to do with missions and missional calling? There are two parts to every calling: God’s choice and our choice. God chose Abraham, and Abraham chose to go. God also chose to fulfill each of the promises, the rewards for obedience. God reveals Himself as a missional God because He blessed not just Abraham, not just his descendants, but all the nations of the world. God was not just choosing a people to bless, but rather a people through whom He could bless the entire human race. From the beginning, God intended to bring His Kingdom to earth, and He designed missions to be the vehicle for that blessing. The psalmist understood this. Psalm 67:1-2 proclaims:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine upon us, Selah
that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.
God says in Exodus 19:6 that the nation of Israel was designed to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and that priestly role was to represent God among the nations. Now, even as I relay the words “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” you may actually be thinking of a different verse, 1 Peter 2:9, which states, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” To whom is Peter referring? Well, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, he is referring to you. Here is the revelation for us today: the promise given to Abraham by God lives on today, in us. Paul puts it this way in Galatians 3:17-18, 22, 26-29:
What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise…But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe…You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed,and heirs according to the promise.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers have a direct connection to Abraham and his promise. Therefore, we have a vested interest in seeing the promise fulfilled in the world. Now, you might say, “Yes, but then what heritage was God talking about? What land? What blessing? What does that mean for me today?” This is where things get exciting for us as believers. First, what about heritage? Listen to the words of the Apostle John in Revelation 7:9:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
This will be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham about the stars of heaven. It’s us – you and me – standing alongside people from every nation, tribe, and people group. I believe God’s promise of family has never been more significant than today, a time in which families are being torn apart and people, especially young people, are feeling more isolated than ever. Stunningly, those who we never knew in this life will be our family for all eternity.
What about the land that was promised? Hebrews 4:1-3 describes this spiritual land God’s people enter by faith:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world.
Moses and the Israelites could not enter this “rest,” yet such a rest is opened to us now through faith in Jesus. In this busy world of ours, where we frantically move from one activity to the next, is there anything our spirits crave more than rest? Not simply inactivity, but deep, peaceful abidance in God’s presence. This is not something simply to be anticipated, but we are told we can “enter that rest” right now, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And what about the blessing of Abraham? In a word, it is the blessing of salvation and God’s identification with us. Christ bore our curse that we might inherit Abraham’s blessing, the blessing of justification and the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is the reason we have eternity and our new family to look forward to, and it is the reason we can rest now. God has us, and He won’t let go. This is the starting place for any missional calling.
One final point: these blessings are not just for us – those who are chosen by God – but they are intended for everyone. Jesus makes the connection between the preaching of the Gospel to the nations and His eventual return when He says in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Today, we need to come to a new understanding of our God as the God of “all peoples on earth.” There are no off-limits areas to God, only to our natural way of thinking. There are no walls with God, only with our human way of doing things. No individual, people, or nation exists beyond God’s love, even though our upbringing might lead us to believe otherwise. The God of Abraham is the God of us all, and He intends to bring the blessing of Abraham to all peoples through us, His followers. It is inescapable: We all possess a missional calling. The question is simply whether we will choose to fulfill that calling and walk in the blessing of Abraham.
God’s natural laws that He has established, the physical laws that govern the universe, help us understand theologically how and when God intervenes in the affairs of men. I am a mathematician, so I will use probability as an example, but I promise not to test the reader’s patience with this analogy. I have no reason to doubt that the laws of probability were established at creation, much as gravity and any other physical law. God set this amazing system in place as background for our lives, parameters if you will for living on earth. Like it or not, these laws exist and cannot be broken by us. Further, these systems are connected to each other; results in one system are confirmed in another, such as the connection between mathematical laws and scientific laws. It’s all quite complex and beautiful and, above all for the mathematician, it produces consistent results.
Now, consider the question: if God put this complex and beautiful system in place to govern life on this earth, does it make sense that God would then oversee and in fact determine every roll of the dice, every card pulled from a deck, every twirl of some spinner? What’s the point? The system ensures predictable outcomes for large numbers of events. In other words, the system works. Why would God need to be in every event or experiment? He wouldn’t, unless of course He had some specific purpose for that intervention; unless for some reason He wanted to circumvent the laws He Himself had established in order to serve some greater purpose.
The most direct example of this principle would be when lots were cast in the Old and New Testament. For instance, we are told in 1 Samuel 10 that Samuel the priest had already anointed Saul as the first king of Israel, but then in front of the entire nation he chooses lots from all of the tribes, and through this random-seeming selection process winds up identifying Saul from among all the people. The odds of this happening would have been astronomical but for God’s choice to intervene. We can also think about times when God countermanded the physical laws of the universe to accomplish His purposes. The two most obvious examples are when the Sun stood still in the sky for Joshua (Joshua 10) and when the shadow on the steps moved backward for Hezekiah (Isaiah 38). In these cases, there was an intervention into the system of the motion of the Earth around the Sun (and many other related laws) in order to create a specific sign for God’s people. Likewise, If we think of weather as a system that God established at creation, which has predictable outcomes over long periods of time, God chose to intervene during a storm on the Sea of Galilee as a sign for the disciples of Jesus (Mark 4:35-41).
Can God circumvent the laws He Himself has established in order to accomplish His purposes? Yes, of course. Does He do it on a regular basis? It seems not. Are some events in God’s universe pre-determined? It seems so. We see this in Acts 4:27-28, where the believers pray, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Well then, are all events pre-determined? We can answer that question with another question: Why would they be? Why would God establish these incredibly complex, powerful, and consistent systems if He only ever intended to determine the outcomes, event by event? It really doesn’t make much sense.
Now, here’s the theological application: just as God has established physical laws for governing the universe, He has also established spiritual laws. Perhaps the most pervasive biblical law is the principle of sowing and reaping. God expects us to sow righteousness, and when we do we reap spiritual blessing. When we do not, we suffer. This was the basis of God’s covenant with Israel. Biblically, it’s a very straight-forward principle with few exceptions. Yet, there are exceptions. There are those whose lives were anything but models of sowing in righteousness, and yet God’s blessing was upon their lives. How else can we explain the outcome of Jacob’s life? God simply chose, for His own reasons and purposes, to set aside the law of sowing and reaping and bless Jacob and his family. God did this in order to establish the nation of Israel and eventually lead them into the Promised Land. In other words, God had a higher purpose than even the spiritual law He Himself had established.
I believe God’s system of blessing people (e.g., through salvation), which we understand from the Bible, applies at all times and in every case. In other words, the system works. There is no need to pre-determine each outcome, similar to the roll of the dice in probability. But I also believe that God does, from time to time, choose to intervene in the system, to change some particular outcome for His purpose and glory. It’s hard to read the Bible any other way. It seems, in fact, that God delights in doing this, in making the last first and the first last, because it directly points to Him as the source of all blessing. I call these interventions God’s “deep selects.” In the military, there is a pecking order for promotion, an established order of rank and priority among officers. When a position of authority comes open, higher-ups go to the list and it is immediately obvious who is next in line for the job. The system works and there are few exceptions. However, there are exceptions. In specific circumstances and for specific reasons, it will be decided to pass over those at the top of the list for someone farther down. This happened at the beginning of World War II when Chester Nimitz was chosen to be Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. He was not only a more junior choice, he was also a submariner — a highly unlikely choice for CINCPAC. And yet, the choice was made and the United States’ military effort in the Pacific profited as a result.
We see God involved in this “deep select” process at very strategic points in the biblical account, choosing Joseph over his brothers, David over his brothers, Gideon the nobody farmer from the nothing family, the teenager Mary from the tiny village of Nazareth, fishermen, a tax collector and a zealot from the Galilee region, the Christian-hater Saul. Though some had questions for God about why they were chosen, we get the sense that their acceptance of God’s proposal was never in doubt. In other words, God pre-determined the outcome. In spite of having a system in place for blessing individuals, God chose to lay aside the system in order to bless beyond the individual, to bless the nations.
Though we might be able to talk ourselves into accepting this aspect of God’s sovereignty, unfortunately it only opens the door for more theological difficulties. The hard reality of the way in which God chooses to bless is that, as with games based on probability, if someone wins that invariably means that someone else loses. Biblically, we might say that where there is choosing there is also losing. The choice of Jacob resulted in the loss of birthright and blessing on Esau’s part; the choice of Joseph resulted in his brothers bowing down to him in homage; the honoring of Job resulted in the humiliation of his friends. As difficult as the outcome was for those that lost in these situations, we are comforted by the fact that ultimately there was redemption available for the “losers.” In each of the above cases, God had made provision for those on the short end of the stick through the one that was blessed.
But this was not the case for all of those in the Bible that lost out on God’s blessing. For some, redemption never came. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to bless His people, and as far as we know that condition didn’t changed. Esther won the king’s favor and salvation for her people, but as a direct result Haman swung on the gallows. Jesus called Judas Iscariot the “son of perdition” (or as the New International Version says, “the one doomed to destruction”) and Judas committed suicide having never rid himself of that label. These figures, Pharaoh, Haman and Judas Iscariot, were pivotal in God’s plan of blessing for the nations. In each case, God intervened in the affairs of men to bring about a particular outcome that would glorify Himself, which is completely within His purview as maker of the universe. And though we cheer for the winners (which includes us) in each of these situations, we are sobered by the tragedy that resulted for the losers. We hear echoes of this reality in God’s promise to the nation of Israel recorded in Isaiah 43:4, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”
Why does God do this sort of thing? Why would He establish a perfectly good system and then simply set it aside to intervene in the affairs of men? Further, when does He choose to do such a thing? Under what circumstances? The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11 is instructive here. What more pervasive and enduring physical system can we imagine on this earth than the birth and death cycle? We are born, we live, we get sick, we die. However, even though this was the reality for the vast majority of those whose stories are written about in the Bible, it was not true for everyone — time to time, the story would continue. This happened in both the Old Testament and New Testament. But among those stories, the account of Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus stands out because of the deliberate choices Jesus, God Himself, made.
The key decision made by Jesus was the one to stay on where he was for an additional two days after receiving the news of Lazarus’ sickness. Jesus’ choice resulted in two pivotal events: the death of Lazarus prior to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, and Lazarus having been in the tomb four days before Jesus comes on the scene. For Lazarus’ friends and family, it was game, set and match. When Jesus finally arrives at their little town, both Martha and Mary express their understanding of God’s system by saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This statement says, essentially, “I understand the system: people who are sick can get better, but not people who have died. You should have gotten here earlier.” However, Martha adds a note of hope that Mary does not: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” In other words, God still makes His choices. A theological debate ensues between Jesus and Martha during which they discuss weighty topics like the resurrection of the dead and who Jesus really is. It seems clear from Martha’s answers to Jesus’ questions that her thoughts are on the hereafter, rather than the moment. This contrasts with Mary’s mindset, which is totally focused on the present.
When we ask why God chooses to intervene in His own system, we have to be mindful of this particular story from the Bible. God has His reasons, and God makes His choices, but those choices are made with us in mind. This is a remarkable but undeniable fact of Scripture. Somehow, God’s higher purposes are molded around our fragile existence. How else can we explain Jesus’ response to Mary? Whereas Martha made her statement to Jesus concerning her brother while standing at eye level in front of Him, Mary makes the same statement from the dirt at Jesus’ feet. Jesus went to Bethany with the express purpose of raising Lazarus from the dead, primarily because it would bring maximum glory to His Father. When He arrived at that town, He was the only one who knew that in just a few minutes Lazarus would be alive once again. Yet, with Mary at His feet, He began to cry. The crowd around Him said, “Look how he loved him,” and that was certainly true. But clearly Jesus was not grieving.
I believe Jesus’ tears are unexplainable apart from the fact that Mary had found a way to touch Jesus’ heart. She was someone who had spent time at Jesus’ feet before, while He was teaching, and she was affirmed by Jesus as having chosen the “better” way. She would be at His feet again when she anointed them with perfume prior to His death, a deeply significant act that Jesus said was His preparation for burial. We must always remember that God’s choices are not made in an eternal vacuum, devoid of any concern for His people. This is as true of the Old Testament as the New. How else can we understand the strange conversation between Abraham and God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33)? Or Moses pleading with God to spare the Israelites after the debacle of the golden calf, which resulted in the unimaginable: God altering a decision He had made (Exodus 32:9-14). Or God’s accolades for Moses and Samuel in Jeremiah 15:1, and Noah, Daniel and Job in Ezekiel 14:14 — those who could touch His heart with their intercession. God’s pre-eminent concern is for His glory, but it seems in choosing that which will glorify Him, He leaves the door of intercession ajar for those righteous ones who are also His glory.
This brings us to the ultimate choice: salvation. Is there a theological debate that has divided more Christians, churches and denominations throughout church history? Whose choice is it? Is it God’s or the individual’s? Of course, in one sense, it’s all God’s choice, because He set up the system of salvation in the first place. If we apply the principles from the preceding discussion, we conclude that God established a system that works wherein individuals, without the need for some kind of prior approval, are free to come to God through Christ Jesus and receive forgiveness for their sins and reconciliation with God. However, God reserves the right to intervene in this system, from time to time, to produce a salvation that goes far beyond the individual. If we give it a minute’s thought, all of us can come up with an example of a salvation story we are familiar with (perhaps even our own) that is so unlikely that it defies human logic. The person was not “on the road to salvation.” In fact, it was quite the opposite — the person actually was an active condemner of God and of His followers. Yet, God in His mercy and for His glory “deep selected” that individual to be a part of His Kingdom.
Let’s consider a less controversial but equally mysterious choice, one we are called on to make every day as Christians: being led by the Spirit. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul writes extensively on this subject, presenting us with a choice for living. We are either led by the Spirit or we are led by our sinful nature, he says. It is our choice, but there are only two options, much as when Moses presented the Israelites with the choice of life or death, encouraging them to choose life. What exactly does Paul mean by being “led by the Spirit”? Interpretations abound, but here’s my best effort at a definition: we are led by the Spirit when we do the right thing for the right reason at the right time. It is not simply a matter of doing the right thing, or even doing the right thing for the right reason.
Many philosophers extol the virtues of acting morally, based on moral principles, but most of them do not care a bit about being obedient to God. Following the Spirit’s leading means going with His timing, trusting His order and purpose and outcome are the best we could hope for in this life. We are not simply reasoning our way through life, trying to choose from the best that our human nature has to offer. According to the Apostle Paul, our human nature is in direct opposition to the way of the Holy Spirit because our human nature is by definition sinful. This sinful nature of ours is prone to skepticism and motivated by self-protection, and so the last thing we (on our own) would choose for ourselves would be to be completely dependent on someone else, even if that Someone was infinitely wise and loving. Our human nature can convince us that God is not interested in our personal needs, that it’s all about Kingdom work, and we are expected to sacrifice everything we feel and all of our needs for that work.
When we give ourselves over to being led by the Spirit, however, we discover that God is intensely interested in us, personally, and He is more than willing to take care of our needs. But He also knows the time to meet those needs – and timing in the Kingdom of God is everything. The ideal of living a moral life is then subsumed into the reality of being Spirit-led. Is it possible to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time and not have it be moral? I’m not sure I could come up with an example of that. The difference between being led by the Spirit and trying to live a moral life is that instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all approach to life that is based solely on principle, we flexibly following the Spirit who is infinitely good and yet also infinitely creative. That is a life worth living.
What about God’s choice in all of this? Similar to salvation, God has established a system whereby we can be led by His Spirit. He has made His choice; the question is simply whether we will choose the way He has made for us. Further, once we decide to be Spirit-led — a decision that takes place daily — from that point until we decide otherwise, we are giving God free reign to make the choices for us. A spiritual Venturi Effect takes over and we are drawn into God’s amazing plan for bringing His Kingdom to this earth. Our choice is consumed by, and becomes indistinguishable from, His choice.
What happens when we do not opt for the Spirit’s leading, in particular, the Spirit’s timing? We become like the woman in Song of Songs chapter 5 who initially refused to open the door to her lover, complaining of having to get out of bed and get her feet dirty all over again. Eventually, she pulls herself out of the bed, but when she goes to the door he is no longer there. This is a tragic story that hits close to home for most Christians. Many times we know the right thing to do, but we believe that we can respond to God at our convenience. As a result, we miss out on the God-encounter that was intended for us.
And this brings me to the subject of the significance of our choices. Whether it is salvation, or being led by the Spirit, or any other choice that we make, what is it that we are choosing? And why do our choices matter to God? Some would say that we have no choices, that everything is pre-determined because God is sovereign — He H Hknows what He’s doing and we don’t. Some think that every choice God gives us is a test of some kind. Put in negative terms, every choice is an opportunity for God to teach us a lesson, to show us just how short of the mark we fall, to remind us who’s boss. Some think life is really all about our choices, that God has somehow limited Himself in such a way that He can’t intervene in the affairs of men. So, He sits up in heaven wringing His hands, hoping we make the right decisions. It should be apparent from the preceding arguments that I don’t find any of these explanations very satisfying.
As with most spiritual principles, I tend to choose the simplest, most straight-forward explanation possible, one that I believe reflects the heart of the Creator while not denying reality. So, here’s why I think God values our choices: because He wants to bless us. Yes, he puts (at least) two options in front of us and asks us to choose, but what He’s really looking for is an excuse to bless us. In fact, I believe that life is just a series of offers from God for blessing. It is a sign of our depravity as sinful humans that we can interpret God’s offer of blessing as some sort of test or trial or burden to endure. God places someone in our path who needs to hear the Gospel, or He invites us to the mission field, or He…fill in the blank. He intends to bless us, but we see it as an inconvenience. We respond like the woman in Song of Songs 5:3, “I have taken off my robe—must I put it on again? I have washed my feet—must I soil them again?” How profoundly sad. The Lover of our soul is just a few steps away, one simple choice on our part, but we miss Him and His offer of blessing.
One of the most astounding things to me about God is that, despite our poor choices and our rudeness toward Him, He just keeps coming back with more offers of blessing. Why? Because He chooses to. He chooses to love the unlovely. He chooses to shepherd the blind and the lame. He chooses to bless those who would curse Him. This is perhaps the starkest example of the all-out conflict between the way of the Spirit and our way of doing things. As Paul says in Romans 8:7-8, “the sinful mindis hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” God wants to bless us, and He will pursue us to accomplish that purpose, but at some point we have to get out of bed and answer the door. A verse that is often quoted from Revelation as a salvation verse was originally intended for a Christian audience: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). This sounds very similar to the situation presented poetically in Song of Songs 5. God does not change; He continually offers the opportunity for blessing. The question for us, every day, is whether we will “choose life.”
The chapters in the remainder of this book put some meat on the skeletal bones outlined here. The characters who are the focus of each chapter have been deliberately chosen to illustrate both the complementary nature of and the tension that exists between God’s choices and our own. One decision enhances the other, yet the road to that agreement can sometimes be a rocky one: the choice for missions we see in the life of Abraham, the choice for calling exemplified in the life of Jacob, the choice for obedience found throughout the life of Joseph, the choice for righteousness that marked Job’s life, the choice for worship signified in David’s life, the choice for anointing Elisha pursued in his life, and the choice for suffering that characterized Paul’s life. These men were called on to make difficult choices, however, those choices were facilitated by the fact that God had already made His choice and His blessing was on their lives. What choices has God made in your life? What choices is he asking you to make? I hope the chapters that follow will help you answer those questions.
In the next days/weeks/months I hope to regularly post chapters of books I’m working on in order to get your feedback. It’ll kind of be like the old serials, and though there won’t be a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, I hope you’ll still stay tuned for the next installment!
To begin, I’ll post, chapter by chapter, a book of mine called The Choices God Makes. It’s a bit of practical theology on the intersection between the sovereignty of God and our moral will, focusing on what that intersection looked like in the lives of different characters from the Bible.
Remember, the whole point of this blog is to get your opinion. So, if you’ve had the intestinal fortitude to actually read an entire chapter, you are encouraged to leave behind a comment, either positively encouraging or constructively critical.