The Difference Jesus Makes


Moses010When God chose Abraham, He entered into a unilateral agreement, promising to give him land, make him a father of nations, and yes, the father of His chosen people.

Later this agreement expanded into a conditional one–if Israel did certain things, then God would bless them and make them fruitful, but if Israel did the opposite, then God would bring their actions down on their heads.

In part the conditional agreement was based on Israel keeping the Ten Commandments and participating in the sacrificial system God launched when Moses finally led the people across the Red Sea, ready to be on their way to the land God had promised.

After escaping a confrontation with the Egyptians and surviving the crises of no water and not any food, Israel spend at least a year on hold, waiting as Moses received instructions from God and then as they carried them out. Through Moses, God transmitted the plans for a worship center and laws about their relationship with Him, with each other, with their stuff.

Over and over in all those laws, His call for them was to be holy because He is holy. But the problem was, they weren’t. He knew it and they knew it. When Moses was getting ready to meet with God to receive His instructions, the people were warned not to come near the mountain where God’s presence would be. The place was cordoned off, but God had Moses retrace his steps and warn the people again that if they tried to break through and come up to God, they would die.

Yes, die.

Later, God spoke to the people, and He so terrified them, that they begged Moses to act as their intermediary from then on rather than dealing directly with God.

I have to admit, I find all this stunning. I understand how great God is, how awesome His power, how far above any human He is in might and majesty. I even understand Peter’s command for believers who call God, Father, to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Peter 1:17b).

But understanding all this is purely head knowledge.

I know God to be a just Judge who will one day separate those who follow Him from those who reject Him and will mete out appropriate rewards for both. But my experience with Him is far removed from these things I know.

I shake my head and think, how can I be relating to God as one of the living stones who is being “built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices” when the people of Israel couldn’t even stand in His presence?

They wanted God to go with them, but in order for that to happen they had to abide by that elaborate system of sacrifices and purification. In contrast, I offer no sacrifices, undergo no purification rites, and have the Holy Spirit of God make His dwelling in me. Not with me. In me.

I know Him as a child knows her father, as a sheep knows its shepherd, as a friend knows his best friend. How can this be???

It’s Christ.

He makes all the difference. God is still awesome in power, but I never have to fear that He will turn His vengeance on me because He turned it on Christ. I never have to fear God’s just judgment for my failures to obey Him because He already judged Jesus.

As a result, I can enjoy God’s presence–not as one trembling on the outside of a boundary line staring up at the top of a mountain in the hope of catching a glimpse of His glory. Rather, I have the Holy Spirit with me, guiding me in all truth, comforting me in sorrow and grief, producing His fruit when I feel inadequate and fruitless.

It’s such a dramatic difference, I can hardly comprehend what life must have been like for those who lived without the Holy Spirit in their lives day after day. Even during those times when I quench the Spirit or grieve Him, it’s not the same as not having Him in my life. It’s more like a fight with someone I love who I know I still love and who will still love me. It’s ugly and painful and sometimes costly, but it’s not permanent and it’s never complete separation.

What a difference Jesus makes!

This post originally appeared here in September, 2013.

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Published in: on September 26, 2017 at 6:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Patience Of God


Manasseh repented002There are two kings, one of Judah and one of Israel, who were despicable. The Bible doesn’t mince words about them—they built idol temples and instituted idol worship and for one of these kings that turned into child sacrifice.

The thing is, that latter king, Manasseh, reigned the longest of any in both kingdoms—fifty-five years. The other, Ahab, wasn’t some brief footnote in history himself, holding his throne for twenty-two years.

They shed innocent blood, worshiped gods who were no gods, “seduced” the people to do evil, and in Manasseh’s case, involved himself in the occult.

But other kings who didn’t do half the horrific acts these two did, had short reigns: Jeroboam, the first ruler of the divided northern kingdom, Israel, was succeeded by his son Nadab who reigned two years. Omri, Ahab’s father, reigned twelve. Manasseh’s son Amon was on the throne for just two years.

Then there were the final four—the last kings of Judah who reigned for three months, eleven years, three months, and eleven years, respectively. All short in comparison to Ahab and Manasseh. Why did those evil kings stay in power so long?

Scripture spends a little more time on Ahab and his reign than many of the kings. Remarkably, despite Ahab’s waywardness, God sent prophets to him time and again, unbidden apparently, to help him in what appeared to be impossible circumstances.

The great threat of his day came from the north. The group of city-states known as Aram—the area we identify as Syria—came together under one powerful king and mustered a huge army to go against Ahab.

Israel’s forces were in decline. They’d had wars against Judah and were greatly weakened, so they were no match for the 100,000 Aramean troops that surrounded them. Enter the prophet of God. His message to Ahab was, God will get you out of this:

Behold, I will deliver them into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD. (1 Kings 20:13b)

Ahab asked one question: by whom? God answered, By the hand of the young men of the rulers of the provinces. Turns out that was a group of 232 young men—a smaller force than Gideon lead in an earlier generation.

Nevertheless, as the prophet said, God delivered this huge army into Israel’s hands.

The powerful Aramean king who’d apparently expected a pretty easy victory, raised another army as big as the first and he put military men in charge. Further, he changed the location of the battle since his advisers told him the God of Israel was a God of the mountains and not the plains.

Again the prophet came to Ahab:

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Because the Arameans have said, “The LORD is a god of the mountains, but He is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” (1 Kings 20:28)

Israel did, in fact, reap a miraculous victory again, but Ahab let the Aramean king escape God’s retribution. God rebuked him for that. Ahab responded by allowing his wife to steal land he coveted from a neighbor and have the man killed. This time Elijah confronted Ahab and pronounced judgment on his house.

Up to that point Ahab’s legacy was abominable:

Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel. (1 Kings 21:25-26)

And yet, when he heard Elijah proclaim God’s judgment for his sins, he repented. He tore his clothes—the Middle East way of mourning—put on sackcloth, and fasted. There was a change in his demeanor, too.

God explained it to Elijah: “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me?” (1 Kings 21:29a) The attitude change had to be genuine and deep. After all, God sees the heart. He wouldn’t be fooled by a hypocritical outward display that held no real change.

So as near as I can determine, God allowed Ahab to remain on the throne all those years, sending him prophets to help him and rebuke him, to give him opportunity to humble himself. What a display of God’s patience and mercy!

Same thing with Manasseh. We don’t know as many details about the events that turned him to God after all those years of evil, but here’s what 2 Chronicles says:

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon. When he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. (33:10-13)

God patiently waited for this man so many of us would have written off as hopelessly, despicably evil and beyond God’s reach, to humble himself and know that the LORD is God.

I wonder what Ahab or Manasseh might be sitting in some Senate seat or governor’s mansion or state office today. Perhaps we should be praying that God will demonstrate His loving patience so that they can humble themselves and know that the LORD is God. Perhaps we should thank Him for His patience that extends to us that we too might humble ourselves and know Him.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in November 2014.

The Angel and the Donkey


The Bible story of Balaam and his talking donkey recorded in the book of Numbers has always mystified me, and it seems like the more I think about it, the more I find mystifying.

My initial problem comes in what appears to be God changing His mind. Here’s the background. The king of Moab wants Balaam, evidently a prophet of God, to come and curse Israel, the people of God, as they are making their way to the Promised Land.

OK, we can overlook the king’s ignorance, I guess, assuming instead that he hadn’t put two and two together—that the God who was protecting and blessing these people was the same one Balaam consulted for his prophetic words.

But on to the story. When the envoy from the king arrived, Balaam said, Let me see what God has to say about this. He came back to them and faithfully reported God’s word—No, I’m not to go with you, I’m not to curse them.

Perhaps the king had been spoiled as a child because he didn’t take no for an answer. He sent his representatives to Balaam a second time. The prophet said he’d check with God to see what else He had to say. And this time God told Balaam to go with the men but to speak only that which He told him to.

Off they go, accompanied by two of Balaam’s servants. And Balaam’s faithful donkey which he’d ridden all his life.

Along the way, an angel of the Lord lies in wait for Balaam with drawn sword in hand. The donkey sees the angel and avoids him. Three times.

Balaam, apparently frustrated by his wayward donkey, beats the animal. And then the second miracle—the donkey asks Balaam what he did to deserve the beatings. Balaam says he would have killed the donkey if he’d had a sword because the animal was mocking him.

The donkey asks if Balaam has ever known him to act this way before, and when the prophet admits he has not, his eyes are opened and he sees the angel.

The angel says to Balaam, why did you beat your donkey seeing as he saved your life?

Balaam then repents, says he sinned, and that he’ll return home if that’s what the Lord wants. The answer? No, go ahead and go, but speak only what God tells you.

Besides the God-changing-His-mind issue, I saw for the first time the God-versus-God aspect of the story. The angel of God stood with a sword to kill the prophet of God, but a miraculous talking donkey saved him. Who but God opened the eyes and the mouth of the donkey? So God saved His prophet from His angel.

Now I have to admit, I decided to post these questions because often times in writing things down, I see more clearly. And I think that might be true here.

Apparently there is something Scripture doesn’t give us in these verses—Balaam’s decision to say something he wasn’t supposed to say.

Consequently, in the same way he viewed his donkey as wayward and beat the animal and would have killed it, God stood against Balaam with sword in hand as the prophet went, apparently wayward in his heart, to meet with the king.

Except God had mercy on Balaam and gave him a second chance—well, actually three chances, as it turns out, because that’s how many times the king took Balaam to a place where he could overlook Israel and where he offered sacrifices as a way of seeking God’s curse.

Three times. The same number of times the donkey saved Balaam’s life. Coincidence?

Now, about that God-changing-His-mind issue … 🙄

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September 2009.

Published in: on March 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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What Is Judgment?


_Judges_GavelWhen I ask, What is judgment? I’m not referring to the Final Judgment or our judicial system, but rather one person judging another. Today Christians use the notion of one judging another as a club to buffet the Intolerant One into submission. After all, we’re told over and over, we’re not supposed to judge each other.

Or are we?

Often the “no judging” position is supported with what Jesus said in Matthew 7, concluding with verse 5:

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

In a radio sermon some time ago, one pastor pointed out that the conclusion of this process is still one Christian taking the speck from his brother’s eye.

Just ten verses later, Jesus had this to say:

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Mat 7:15-16a)

So apparently the “no judging” rule has conditions. Otherwise how would we ever arrive at the understanding that a false prophet is false?

That idea of conditional judgment seems consistent with the Apostle Paul’s confrontation of Peter when he changed how he treated Gentile Christians, and with his confrontation of the church in Corinth for accepting into their fellowship a man living in immorality. Not only did Paul confront the church but he expected them to do the same with the sinful man.

Earlier, in I Corinthians he makes the statement that he has already judged the immoral man. Then this:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (I Cor. 5:9-13; emphasis in the original)

From this process, groups like the Amish and the Catholics practiced shunning and excommunication. Perhaps because of abuses and/or subjective interpretation, those conventions have been discredited. Church discipline seemed to decline.

In its place, we have tolerance. No judging.

But what happened to knowing false teachers by their fruits? What happened to going to a brother who has offended you, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 18? How can we ever forgive if we don’t acknowledge offense?

On an ever increasing level, it seems the love we talk about is a brand that actually nullifies justice. But God is a God of love and justice.

His Word teaches correction and reproof along side love and forgiveness.

So maybe we Christians have gone overboard, tolerantly stepping around each other in an effort to avoid boat rocking. Instead, perhaps we should hold onto the sides of the boat and confront sins head on.

It’s not comfortable. It requires soul searching (or log-in-the-eye searching. Search me, oh God, try me, and see if there is any wicked way in me.) It requires confession. It requires letting go of my right to be right, to defend myself, to prove my point. It requires confronting and forgiving. But how true is the latter without the former?

This post originally appeared here in April 2010.

Published in: on July 28, 2016 at 6:43 pm  Comments Off on What Is Judgment?  
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Is God Listening?


A week from today, May 5, is designated as the US National Day of Prayer. I suspect there will be any number of events on the local level throughout the country. Prayer breakfasts, perhaps, with the mayor and the city council. Or gatherings of businessmen, led by a prominent pastor.

It sounds so good, like the Senate chaplain opening in prayer or the prayer in schools we wish we could enjoy.

Except … I wonder. Does God hear the prayers of those who don’t believe in Him? When President after President, for example, ends a speech, “God bless America,” does He hear and answer, even when the President invoking His name doesn’t know Him?

These thoughts came to mind when I was reading Hosea. During a relatively peaceful time in Judah’s history, Hosea, prompted by God’s Spirit, prophesied of God’s coming judgment against them and against Israel.

He said their sin had affected their relationship with God.

When I would heal Israel,
The iniquity of Ephraim is uncovered…
And they do not consider in their hearts
That I remember all their wickedness.

Woe to them, for they have strayed from Me! Destruction is theirs, for they have rebelled against Me! I would redeem them, but they speak lies against Me. (Hosea 7:1-2, 13)

The key verse is the next one, I think. Apparently when trouble would come, then the people turned to God, but it wasn’t Him they wanted. It was the stuff He could provide.

And they do not cry to Me from their heart
When they wail on their beds;
For the sake of grain and new wine they assemble themselves,
They turn away from Me. (Hosea 7:14)

“Fake praying.” Saying the words, sounding religious, maybe even spiritual. But that’s not talking to God. There’s more:

Though I wrote for him ten thousand precepts of My law,
They are regarded as a strange thing.
As for My sacrificial gifts,
They sacrifice the flesh and eat it,
But the LORD has taken no delight in them.
Now He will remember their iniquity,
And punish them for their sins (Hosea 8:12-13a)

Their religious exercise didn’t bring God delight or them forgiveness. They were going through the motions, and God turned His back on them.

Indeed, I came to hate them there!
Because of the wickedness of their deeds
I will drive them out of My house!
I will love them no more;
All their princes are rebels. (Hosea 9:15b)

I’m stunned by that verse. God, who loved Israel for Abraham’s sake, said He had come to hate the northern kingdom because of their sin.

So, was He listening to their prayers?

As the enemy swoops upon them like an eagle, this was what Hosea said:

They cry out to Me,
“My God, we of Israel know You!”
Israel has rejected the good;
The enemy will pursue him. (Hosea 8:2-3)

In short, God doesn’t listen to the selfish prayer or the insincere prayer, not even from the religious. Here’s the prayer He wants:

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God,
For you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you and return to the LORD.
Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity
And receive us graciously,
That we may present the fruit of our lips.” (Hosea 14:1-2)

God’s listening, yes, but He doesn’t always hear. He won’t be manipulated or used, but He gladly responds to our repentance.

I will heal their apostasy,
I will love them freely,
For My anger has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:4)

This post, minus the opening edit, appeared here in May 2012.

Published in: on April 28, 2016 at 6:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Thing About Hard Things


rock climberI haven’t read it yet, but I suspect I’ll find much to cheer in fellow blogger InsanityBytes’s post “God Can Even Make The Bad Things Fun.” I saw that title as I was rushing from my email in-box to WordPress to write my own post, this after reading a client’s Tweet, in which she said the planning part of novel writing is “both exciting and a bit torturous.”

Then there is the friend whose family member has made some bad choices and is undoubtedly destined to reap difficult consequences.

Of course I’ve got my own set of difficult things—mostly still learning what it means to love my neighbor. I’ve been frustrated of late (some might call it angry) about some things that have been happening in a place I love. I’ve wanted to confront, to meet with those in positions to make changes, to send emails.

I’ve prayed, and that’s when the anger seems to well up inside me. But I’m also memorizing a passage of Scripture—I Corinthians 13, also known as the Love Chapter. So I start to recite, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love …” That’s when the Holy Spirit grabs me by the throat and says, Do you see yourself in My mirror? I can barely choke out the next part, “. . . I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Believe me, the rest of the chapter is no easier.

But it’s a hard thing for me to love in this circumstance. I want to love nice people who are doing the right things with the right motives. Is it really necessary to love the pompous, the intractable, the selfish?

So for me, loving my neighbor is hard.

It’s hard for me to get out of my comfort zone, walk across the street, and talk to my real-life neighbors who I don’t know and have only recently had any contact with. Loving my neighbors also takes time and money, and that’s hard when work eats up so much time and yet the need to earn a living requires work.

But the thing about hard things is this: they force me to acknowledge my weaknesses, my need for God and His strength. They force me to depend on Him and not on my own understanding, my own skill, my own power, ability, or control over my circumstances.

Sometimes hard things are consequences of the sinful things I’ve done. But the thing about those hard things is that God uses them to bring me back to Himself. The Bible says the same about the judgments God brought on the nations. Time and time He said He judged the nations so that “they will know that I am the LORD.”

Ezekiel was one who said this with some frequency. Here’s one example:

“Then they will know that I am the LORD; I have not said in vain that I would inflict this disaster on them.” (Ez. 6:10

I could quote a dozen verses that are similar, but Ezekiel also prophesied about nations other than Judah. Take what he said to Moab for instance:

Thus I will execute judgments on Moab, and they will know that I am the LORD (Ex. 25:11

God’s purpose and God’s care for the nations are clear.

The thing about the hard things is also equally clear: God uses them to accomplish what He wants.

One more thing that’s important about the hard things: they are never out of God’s control. They don’t catch Him by surprise, they don’t foil His previous plans, they don’t slip in without His notice.

You might even say God does His best work with the hard things. Think about the cross of Christ, the ultimate hard thing. And what did God accomplish through that one hard thing? Simply the redemption of all who believe.

There are examples in Scripture of people who experienced God’s best as a result of enduring hard things. Think, Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his friends, Stephen and Lazarus. Think also of examples of believers who lived after Bible times—martyrs of the faith down through the centuries, and others living closer to home, like the Christians in South Carolina who forgave the racist shooter who killed their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Hard things.

Peter said in his first letter, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” After you have suffered. After the hard things. Maybe because of the hard things.

Suffering isn’t the end. Consequences for sin aren’t the end. God’s purposes are greater, His plans bigger. He wants us to know that He is LORD, and to know Him is the highest, greatest good we could ever hope for.

Published in: on April 7, 2016 at 6:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Refusing To Listen


Evils_of_the_cities_-_a_series_of_practical_and_popular_discourses_delivered_in_the_Brooklyn_Tabernacle_(1896)_(14591198780)

For this is a rebellious people, false sons,
Sons who refuse to listen
To the instruction of the LORD;
Who say to the seers, “You must not see visions”;
And to the prophets, “You must not prophesy to us what is right,
Speak to us pleasant words,
Prophesy illusions.

So said Isaiah to the people of Israel when their nation was facing a crisis (30:9-10). But his assessment of God’s chosen people sounds uncomfortably similar to the things people are saying today about and to pastors and teachers:

Don’t talk about sin and especially don’t go on about hell, that imaginary place a bunch of sadistic legalists invented. No one wants to hear that outmoded “fire and brimstone” preaching. After all, people shouldn’t be scared into accepting Jesus. That’s a horrible tactic. Cruel. Kids will have nightmares. Why, it borders on abuse. They should outlaw such preaching.

Tell us instead how God wants us to be healthy and wealthy and how everyone is going to heaven. That’s what we want to hear. Tell us how good we are to try so hard to be good. Tell us how we’re all winners. Tell us that we can do it, we can do it, we can, we can. That if we just look inside ourselves, we’ll find we’ve had the strength all along to be the best we, we can be.

Sadly, that kind of false teaching is becoming the basis of our culture’s belief system, and religious leaders—pastors, priests, evangelists, itinerant preachers seminary profs, authors—have smoothed the road, if they haven’t marched at the front of the line.

The truth is, we don’t want to hear the hard things of Scripture. We don’t like the verses that tell us God is wrathful, even vengeful. Or jealous. Our culture has told us that tolerance and love are the highest values, so of course we expect God to exhibit those qualities too, all the time. He’s patient; he’s kind. He teaches love for your enemies.

So don’t go on about punishment, about judgment, about God separating goats from sheep and wheat from weeds. God is a uniter, not a divider.

Uh, not according to the Bible.

Of course Scripture does say God is love; but it also says He is a just Judge who brings people under his judgment

Behold, the name of the LORD comes from a remote place;
Burning is His anger and dense is His smoke;
His lips are filled with indignation
And His tongue is like a consuming fire;
His breath is like an overflowing torrent,
Which reaches to the neck,
To shake the nations back and forth in a sieve,
And to put in the jaws of the peoples the bridle which leads to ruin. (Isaiah 30:27-28)

In the same way that the people in Isaiah’s day wanted to hear only pleasant words, people today don’t want to hear such harsh words about God’s indignation and burning anger. The result is, people have built an idol they worship—a caricature of God, not the Holy God whose ways are not our ways.

With idols firmly in place, people today have no need of a Savior. They have no need of forgiveness. They’ve been told all their lives that they are extraordinary, that they can do whatever they set their minds to, that they are winners. They’ve been schooled in tolerance and politically correct speech. So certainly they don’t want to be told that the wages of sin is death, that no one is righteous, not even one, that Jesus is the way, the Truth (what is truth anyway?), and the life.

Hear no evil_gargoyle_06Stop with the negative gobbledygook. We don’t want to hear recriminations and accusations. We’re okay and they’re okay, so why aren’t you religious freaks okay? And if you MUST believe your nonsense, just don’t shove it down our throats.

So no more of this hate preaching—telling people they’re destined for hell. You all are haters and you believe in a hateful god-God, but we don’t have to listen to your list of what’s right and what’s wrong. In fact, why don’t you just stop speaking! That’s what we really want.

Yes, Isaiah tends to say it like it is, and that makes some people want to cut his book out of the Bible. It’s already been deconstructed and discredited by scholars who dismiss the idea of God inspiring the prophets. Which makes it easier to ignore.

For this is a rebellious people, false sons,
Sons who refuse to listen
To the instruction of the LORD;

Who say to the seers, “You must not see visions”;
And to the prophets, “You must not prophesy to us what is right,
Speak to us pleasant words,
Prophesy illusions.

Published in: on March 10, 2016 at 6:47 pm  Comments Off on Refusing To Listen  
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God’s Judgment Misunderstood


The book of Isaiah portrays the truth of God’s judgment.

Yet some people reject the God of the Old Testament for this very reason—He brings judgment.

In reality, however, He first brings warning.

It’s something I was taught to do as a teacher. I had one principal in particular who required that we reduce our classroom rules to a basic group, then post them along with consequences for breaking them. In other words, no surprises. We were not to expect kids to abide by some standard they didn’t know existed.

My principal didn’t invent that process. Instead, by proceeding in that fashion, we were mirroring the way God works. He clearly set the standards for Adam and Eve, for instance, and spelled out the consequences. No surprises.

He did the same for the nation of Israel. First the directive — obey these laws, which He wrote down for them. Then the consequences, this time accompanied with a list of benefits for obedience.

In the same way, He worked with individuals such as Saul, David, Solomon, even Nebuchadnezzar.

His approach was the same for a city like Nineveh, to whom He sent the prophet Jonah, and for a nation like Moab, to whom He sent the prophet Balaam.

In other instances, God sent affliction as a warning:

So they forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. (Judges 2:13-14)

When Israel cried to God for help, He raised up judges to deliver them.

Ultimately He brought about the exile of His people — the fulfillment of His judgment which He’d warned Israel about from the beginning — and still He brought back a remnant.

So here’s the first think people mistakenly think about God’s judgment: He acts out of uncontrolled rage against people He perceives to have messed up, however slight the offense might be. Such a characterization of God is not consistent with Scripture.

Another thing I learned about God’s judgment from Isaiah is that lots of people will be cheering for Him because His judgment frees those who are being oppressed.

The afflicted also will increase their gladness in the LORD,
And the needy of mankind will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
For the ruthless will come to an end and the scorner will be finished,
Indeed all who are intent on doing evil will be cut off;
Who cause a person to be indicted by a word,
And ensnare him who adjudicates at the gate,
And defraud the one in the right with meaningless arguments. (Isaiah 29:19-21 – emphasis mine)

People who misunderstand God’s judgment believe He brings wrath down on innocent people, not guilty people.

Society agrees that those who harm children should be stopped, that someone gunning down people in their homes should be held accountable, that drunk drivers putting others at risk ought to be taken off the road. In other words, we believe in justice. We believe that authorities should stop and should punish those who do harm.

Consequently, if we understood that God’s judgment is and has always been upon guilty people, we would be like those Isaiah talked about — rejoicing in Him.

Instead, we take to ourselves the right to judge God — to determine if, in fact, He is only bringing down judgment on the guilty, or if He might be bringing down judgment on the innocent.

The most popular view today is that of course the people God judged were innocent — by reason of the fact that we are all innocent until proven guilty. Apparently that legal guarantee of the US Constitution has become our operating principle — Man is innocent, Man is good. Consequently, God has to prove to our satisfaction that Man deserves to die, and quite frankly, simply eating a piece of fruit does not qualify.

The truth is, since Adam, Man has not been innocent.

For this is a rebellious people, false sons,
Sons who refuse to listen
To the instruction of the LORD
;
Who say to the seers, “You must not see visions”;
And to the prophets, “You must not prophesy to us what is right,
Speak to us pleasant words,
Prophesy illusions.
Get out of the way, turn aside from the path,
Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,
“Since you have rejected this word
And have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them,
Therefore this iniquity will be to you
Like a breach about to fall…”
For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said,
“In repentance and rest you will be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength.”
But you were not willing
Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him. (Isaiah 30:9-18)

What’s the truth about God’s judgment? It is handed down to guilty people after He has given clear commandments and warned of the dire consequences of rejecting or neglecting God’s word, God’s way. In the end, some choose not to listen to God who in His goodness and mercy has reached out to them.

Any other characterization of God’s judgment comes from the father of lies, that serpent of old who first said to Eve, Has God really said …

This post was first published here in March 2012.

Published in: on February 9, 2016 at 5:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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Do Nice People Go To Hell?


gas_craterIn the Facebook atheist/Christian group I’ve mentioned, one person asked, “Who here is going to hell?” The question was glib and the answers ranged from a Christian’s bemoaning the message in a picture of someone holding a sign that said “Going to hell and PROUD,” to a couple people who either echoed the sentiment or said they weren’t going because there was no such place. One person who embraced the idea that he’d be going to hell said, “The company will be amazing.”

In light of those comments and some of the questions that arose in another post here this week, I decided to revisit an article that originally appeared here in March 2011.
– – – –
What a question: Do nice people go to hell? There are a couple things we have to define, the first being “hell.”

In the New Testament, Jesus used the word we translate as “hell,” more than anyone else, which kind of shoots the ideas that some professing Christians have—that Jesus is loving and the Father, as the Old Testament reveals Him, is wrathful.

Even a casual reading of the gospels shows that Jesus made a clear statement about the judgment of those who reject Him. But how does He characterize this judgment? Sometimes as a place of darkness. Other times as a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In one parable, Jesus says the evil servant will be assigned a place with the hypocrites. In Luke’s account of Jesus sending away those who claimed to know Him (“I never knew you”), He said they would be put out of the kingdom of God. And, yes, sometimes He made reference to a furnace or a place where there will be fire and brimstone.

Interesting that we camp on the image of fire, when all these other descriptions are also in Scripture. One pastor I recently heard believes we have formed our opinion of hell more from classic literature than from Scripture. For example, he pointed out that hell is the place created for Satan and his demons—spiritual beings. Consequently physical fire, it would seem, would have no effect on them.

What we know for sure about hell is that it is the just judgment God will assign to the wicked. “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous” (Matt. 13:39).

So that brings up the question: Can nice people be “wicked”?

We know that there is none righteous, no not one. If we aren’t righteous—and what makes us “unrighteous” is that our own righteousness is nothing but contaminated tatters—then we are all, at our best, sinners.

Can sinners be nice people? Actually, yes. Before we were sinners we were made in God’s image. We have that about us still, though His glory is marred by our love of and commitment to ourselves. We are still a nice bunch … as long as I can be nice and receive credit for it. Or as long as I can be nice without going out of my way too much. Or as long as I can be nice and receive the same in return.

In short, we might look nice, but we come back to what Scripture says about our very best—it’s not pretty. And it most certainly is not efficacious for that which we need most—an answer to our sin condition.

Published in: on January 29, 2016 at 7:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Pre-Flood World


NoahLast year Noah, supposedly an epic film inspired by the Biblical story of Noah, turned the spotlight, though not particularly brightly, on events recorded in the Bible. Like Exodus that followed it months later, the movie deviated from the historical account—understandable since most atheists such as the film maker don’t look at the Bible as history and would have a hard time showing God as the Bible reveals Him.

I didn’t see the movie, but I saw trailers and clips. One of the more memorable had a mob of people clamoring to get on board the ark, only to have Noah hold them off at gun point under threat of violence.

Interesting since the small amount of information we have about the pre-flood world mentions violence as one cause for God’s judgment. Of course there was the whole Sons-of-God-copulating-with-the-daughters-of-men issue. Nobody really understands what that was all about, of course. Some scholars insist the “sons of God” refer to angels, but then there’s not a good explanation why God would judge Mankind for what angels were clearly responsible for.

Be that as it may, we can put down as fact that something immoral, of a sexual nature, was taking place. My theory, which I may have shared in this space before, is that Adam and Eve had children before they sinned. These would have been “sons of God” in the sense that they didn’t have a sin nature. Daughters of men would have been born in Adam’s likeness, with a sin nature.

But that’s a theory.

The bottom line is that humankind didn’t just sin occasionally:

the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)

A few verses down, God references their violence:

Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. (v 11)

We don’t have details here, but we know that Cain killed his brother—2nd degree murder, or premeditated murder, we don’t know for sure. Either way, God didn’t respond with capital punishment. Instead he protected Cain from those who might want to kill him by branding him with a special mark. This was not a curse as some have suggested or a mark he passed on to his descendents as others have said.

There’s no indication it was anything more than a way people could identify Cain as a man under God’s protection. God’s promise was that if anyone killed Cain, they’d pay sevenfold.

Perhaps the people of the day took this to be a license to kill. We know in fact that one of Cain’s descendents, Lamech, also committed murder. In fact he confessed to two murders:

For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me (4:23b)

Lamech then claimed the right of seventy-sevenfold retribution against anyone who would seek to kill him.

One more thing Lamech is famous for: he’s also the first recorded bigamist.

Apparently he was a trend-setter because few men from that point on until the first century were monogamous.

So here are the facts: God said to Adam and Eve, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Their descendents were killing each other.

God established marriage as a one man-one woman union that made them one flesh. Adam and Eve’s descendents were partnering inappropriately—in the wrong way (multiple partners), with the wrong people (sons of God with daughters of men).

So apparently humankind was 0 for 2—they failed to obey the only two commandments God had given them. And things were only getting worse:

God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.

As we know from Romans, humankind’s corruption affected the rest of creation.

The point I want to make here is that God judged Lamech and his sons and their sons, not because they were good people and God just had a temper tantrum. He judged them because they were mass murderers and rapists and adulterers and bigamists. They rejected God’s right to rule their lives in the simplest, most basic aspects.

Noah alone was righteous.

And still, after God passed judgment, after He gave Noah the command to build the ark, it took a hundred years to get it finished.

Yes, these were the days when humans still lived long lives. Scripture intimates in a number of places that humans didn’t lose their faculties as they aged at the same rate we do today. So at 75, for example, Sarai, Abram’s wife, is still referred to as very beautiful.

But to the point, God didn’t strike down all the corrupt of the earth in a fit of anger. And Noah wasn’t off in some corner happily preparing his escape from the coming judgment while other “good people” were unaware of the coming catastrophe.

Scripture refers to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness,” suggesting that he was splitting his time between building the ark and telling everyone else about God, His expectations, and His righteous judgment.

The people who died in the flood were “ungodly” according to 2 Peter. They’re listed along with the angels God judged and the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which God also judged and destroyed.

God does not whack innocent people like some gangland kingpin who’s having a bad day and wants to take it out on whoever is in his way.

God is a righteous judge.

He’s sovereign, but He’s good; his judgments are pure and right, every one of them.

I’m convinced we don’t have to fret over the people who died in the flood. God says He takes no delight in the death of the wicked, and yet He carries out the judgment against them. I have no doubt that he made the right call. Am I happy many people died? Of course not. But God knew each one of those people by name. I’m confident He wanted more than I ever could, for them to do an about face so that He didn’t have to carry out the judgment upon them.

How do I know this? Because of the prophets and the ways God worked to spare Israel and Judah—the extent He went to in the effort to induce His people to turn back to Him. And ultimately, the fact that He Himself went to a cross to die in my place.

Would a God who loves that much, have done less to win and woo the pre-flood people? It’s not consistent with His character to think He was uncaring in His judgment. But His judgment is a fact and a warning to us that God’s patience is long-suffering but not endless. There is a day of judgment for our world that is also coming.

Would that people today will learn the lesson the pre-flood people failed to grasp.

Published in: on July 30, 2015 at 5:52 pm  Comments (7)  
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