The Night of Power

Perhaps you do not know that tonight (May 19 this year) is regarded by Muslims around the world as one of the most highly spiritual times of the year. It is called “The Night of Power” and it is believed that Allah hears prayers, forgives sin, and is more merciful than at any other time of the year. Surah 97:3 states that “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” The spiritual benefits that flow from Allah on this special night exceed 83.3 yrs. of normal worship!

Let us be mindful of this today as our Muslim friends and neighbors will be earnestly engaged in prayers for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us also be in prayer that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts to Jesus and to find in him the forgiveness and salvation for which their longing souls seek.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

The Progression of Spiritual Digression… part 3

We have already seen that the first step in this Spiritual Digression (Hebrews 1-6) consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptibly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

We have also seen that the second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they became afraid, rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt.

The final and ultimate step in this digression is the scariest of all; it consists in falling away from God’s grace. “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (6:4-6) Wow! Arguably one of the more difficult passages to interpret.

Let’s look at our options. The NIV Application Commentary by George Guthrie (pp 226-230) is helpful here by listing some of the main interpretive theories.

The Pre-Christian Theory. Some believe that the text speaks of those coming out of Judaism (seekers within the Christian Community) who fall away before they are fully committed; like the seed falling on the path is snatched away before it can take root. The difficulty with this view is that the writer uses the language of full inclusion and participation, not just seeking.

The Hypothetical Theory. Some believe that the writer is using such graphic language to warn his readers of the danger that awaits them if they fall away. (6:6) In other words, the message is motivational and the writer is convinced they would never do such a thing. “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better thing in your case.” (6:9) This theory has merit and is a legitimate option.

The Lost Salvation Theory. There are some who feel that the proper interpretation is the simplest one—that the people being described are those who were genuine Christians, but who apostatized and lost their precious salvation, thereby becoming enemies of the gospel. Thus, they were Christians at one time and now they are no longer, and can never again be restored to the faith. While this option seems to fit the reality of the textual language, it fails to satisfy the test of compatibility with other Scriptures; “And this is the will of him who sent me that I should lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:39) Also, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-30) Other passages to consider are Romans 5:9; 8:1; 8:29, 30: 8:37-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Hebrews 10:14.

The They Were Not of Us Theory. The final theory to consider is one that claims the people being described were never Christ-followers in the first place. In spite of outward appearances, they demonstrated a lack of saving faith by their failure to hold firm to their confession in Christ to the end. They were like those who left Egypt with Moses (both Israelite and Egyptian); covered by the blood at Passover, shared in the Red Sea Crossing, who appeared to be a part of the covenant community at Sinai—until they showed their true colors in the wilderness, ultimately refusing to trust God’s authority and hold fast to his Promises about the Land. The Apostle John called these people “antichrists” and described them like this: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2:19)

This last interpretation is one that I think best captures the reality of the writer’s thought, while at the same time passing the test of compatibility with Scripture that teaches the perseverance of those who having saving faith. In other words, continuing in the faith (continuing to remain in the believing community) is a sign of saving faith. It is the theme of the very book of Hebrews itself. “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) This reflects the very words of Jesus, “But the one who perseveres (endures, holds out) to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13)

I would like to make one last point. This passage about falling away from the faith should never be used as a tool of judgment to determine who is a true believer and who isn’t. Remember the parable Jesus told of the wheat and the tares growing together in the same field, and that they should be weeded out only by God in the day of Judgment? The reason is that we will usually get it wrong, because only the Lord knows those who are his. Not only that, but there will be occasions when true believers will drift away or turn away for a time, before the God of mercy who has begun a good work in them will bring them back to himself. In those intervening moments/months/years, these wandering ones do not need our judgment, as much as they need our prayers, our challenges, and our encouragement. Therefore, for anyone who claims to be a Christ-follower, Hebrews 6:1-6 should motivate us to make our calling and election sure and challenge us to persevere in the faith, knowing that it is those who continue to the end who will be saved.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…part 2

In review: Woven into the fabric of a beautiful tapestry portraying the superiority of Jesus Christ, is a progression of spiritual digression which the writer of Hebrews needed to confront in chapters 1-6 —a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step in this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

The second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt. Thus, the writer of Hebrews applied this lesson from history to his contemporaries by warning them against failing to trust God and slipping back into Judaism in order to escape the “giant” of persecution. Failure to hold fast to their profession of faith in Jesus Christ would be tantamount to refusing to take the promised land.

Life is filled with giants. My dad used to tell me, “Every David has his Goliath.” So do you, even if your name isn’t David. And every giant comes with its own set of fears and threats and harassment. This pandemic has provided enough giants for a life-time of fear: the fear of catching the disease or of a loved one catching it; the fear of an uncertain future; the fear of economic ruin; the fear of God not caring; the fear of not seeing your kids or grandkids again…on and on we could go. Just remember, it is at the point where we are most afraid that often shows us the point at which we are not trusting God; the same point where we risk turning away from him because of an unbelieving heart.

What is the author’s antidote to turning away? “But encourage one another daily, as long as it called Today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (3:13) Just as drifting away is a process over time so is the hardening of heart because of the deceitfulness of sin. When we do not trust God because of a certain giant, it starts a hardening process in our hearts by deceiving us into believing lies about God—does he really love me, why did he let this happen, is he punishing me? When not dealt with properly, these lies make it easier to mistrust God for the next giant. If you look at that unfaithful generation that failed to enter the land, they didn’t become unfaithful overnight. They left a trail of unbelief all over the wilderness that culminated with the catastrophe at Kadesh Barnea.

Thus, the daily encouragement of one another to help us turn toward God is the antidote for the deceitfulness of sin and the sclerotic process of unbelief. John Piper has said, “God has appointed a means by which he will enable us to hold our confidence firm to the end….Develop the kind of Christian relationships in which you help each other hold fast to the promises of God.” Richard Phillips adds, “Like climbers roped together on a steep mountain, like soldiers teamed together on the battlefield, we must keep track of one another. We must work together if we are to reach our objective safely.” And so, the Body of Christ has been designed to protect, encourage, warn, and restore us on our spiritual journey, so that we do not becomes self-deceived and hardened by indwelling sin.

In one of the episodes in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his friend Hopeful, on the way to the Heavenly City, passed through an area on the King’s Path called “Enchanted Ground.” The wicked prince had placed this there in order to make pilgrim’s sleepy and stop to rest so his soldiers would capture these sleeping pilgrims and take them all the way back to the City of Destruction. And so, Christian and Hopeful began to get very sleepy (yawn!). What did they do? They encouraged each other about God’s goodness in their lives and how he proved himself faithful to each of them in spite of their unfaithfulness. The more they talked the wider awake they became, and soon they were passed the Enchanted Ground. What an apt illustration for the power of encouragement.

Social distancing should not be a hindrance to Christian encouraging. A phone call, a text, an email; WhatsApp, FaceTime, Messenger; even snail mail cards and letters are all means of being/keeping in touch and encouraging one another while it is called Today! You may never know whether your encouragement kept one pilgrim from drifting away and other from turning away.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…

We are not sure that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews— some have suggested Barnabas, Priscilla, Clement of Rome, and my theory, Apollos. Anyway, the book was most likely written to Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem in the latter part of the first- century AD, who were seriously considering turning back to Judaism in order to escape being persecuted as Christians. The author sets forth a view of Jesus Christ which hallmarks his superiority over the law of Moses, over the Aaronic priesthood, and over the old sacrificial system. Why would anyone want to go back to the lesser after experiencing the better by comparison: A better Covenant; a better Priesthood; and better Sacrifice? We are not sure whether there had been a wholesale defection at that point or whether the letter was sent early enough to nip it in the bud. I believe it was the latter.

In addition to the beautiful portrait portraying the supremacy of Jesus Christ (comparable to Colossians 1), the author sets forth a progression of spiritual digression which needed to be confronted. In Hebrews 1-6, the author outlines this subtle and dangerous process—a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step of this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality. The brakes don’t suddenly fail on your car, but slowly, over time, due to inattention. Our bodies do not fail us, typically, all at once, but after warning signs that we have ignored. That is why we schedule regular maintenance checks on our vehicles and annual physicals for our bodies. If I had not gone for my annual physical a few years ago that uncovered my early stage pancreatic cancer, I would most likely be dead by now!

And so it is with the life of the Spirit. The drift begins by a lack of intentionality and regularity in the practices of faith formation and spiritual development that are needed at every point of our lives. Sometimes this inattentiveness is due to pure apathy, but sometimes it is due to paying attention to the wrong things, like fear, bitterness, disappointment, guilt and unrepentance.

I have held onto my precious faith in the Lord Jesus for over 60 yrs, but I will easily run the danger of drifting away from him if I do not keep my eyes fixed daily upon Jesus; in his Word and in repentant prayer. Age does not make you faithful; faithfulness makes you faithful!

So what do you have in place in order to prevent or deal with the drift? It is really important that you consider this, especially during this time of social isolation and, for many people, a lack of schedule. Make one; work the program; practice the disciplines; pay attention! Stop drifting away!

Next blog we will look at the next step in the digression…

(Coming soon to this blog site… the story of Pilgrim’s Progress for kids in 6 episodes)

God’s Comfort in Your Affliction…

What does it mean to experience the comfort of God when we are facing trouble or affliction? Think about that before we move on…. What does God’s comfort feel like to you? For me, as I have faced some dark times in my wrestling match with pancreatic cancer, God’s comfort has often come in the form of a freedom from fear through trusting in his providential care. God’s comfort has also shown itself by an awareness of his presence and the overwhelming sense of peace that such an awareness brings. It’s like my soul says, “God’s got this bro, go have a good meal.”

The Lord has also comforted me through the care and encouragement of others—their prayers, cards, letters, emails, texts, just letting me know they were thinking about me or praying for me. I remember when I was guest preaching at a church (back in the day when you could do that sort of thing) and a group of about 20 people gathered around me after the service to pray for me—guess my sermon was really bad (just kidding). They laid hands on me and prayed for my healing and spiritual well-being.

In another church, a smaller one, the entire congregation prayed for me just before I gave the benediction. I could give you example after example of how God has used others to comfort and encourage me—like many of you reading this post. Thus, when Paul in 2 Cor 1:4 calls God “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles,” I understand what that means, because he has comforted me and continues to do so.

However, that is not all Paul says about God’s comfort. In v. 4, he continues “who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” This reminds me of Psalm 67, where the psalmist asks that God would bless and be gracious to him and his people, “so that your ways may be known on the earth and your salvation among all he nations.” God blesses us so that we can bring the blessings of the gospel to others.

And so it is with all of God’s gifts; they do not stop with us. We are to love others “as I have loved you;” we are to forgive one another as “God in Christ has forgiven you;” we are to be generous in the use of our wealth, because we “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Therefore, God’s comfort is not designed to make us comfortable, but to make us a comfort to others, like some of the examples I gave above.

There is one more thing that Paul says about comfort in v. 6, “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same suffering we suffer.” It seems like Paul is saying that whatever trouble or affliction he suffered, it would have an impact upon others in whom God was working to develop their faith. It all sounds very theoretical until you go through it and then it makes sense.

I remember that not too long after my diagnosis (which, by the way, was 3 years this past Good Friday) when I didn’t want a lot of people to know I had cancer. It was humbling to admit and it made me feel weak and vulnerable. It was my oldest daughter who sensed my hesitation and challenged me to let people know, so they could be praying for me. Then she said (at least this is what I remember), “Dad, we are going to be watching you, because how you handle all of this is going to set a pattern for your children and grandchildren.” The same thought was expressed to me by two other unrelated people in my church; the fact that they were watching how I was handling all this.

Wow! What a powerful thing to recognize that our afflictions do not take place in a vacuum. Other people are drawn in and are effected directly or indirectly by what we suffer. To personalize this—I know that I do not suffer alone (although sometimes I feel that way when I’m having a pity-party). There are more people than I can imagine who have been pulled into my world through kinship and friendship, and who are impacted by my affliction. And that is true for you as well. How you deal with your troubles can bring tremendous comfort to others whose faith is untested in certain areas.

It can be a great encouragement to their faith to see an example of someone who is not embittered against the Lord or constantly whinging about the hand they’ve been dealt. Instead, they see on display a very ordinary human being, simply trusting, hoping, and enduring because s/he believes that God is good, in control, and will never leave nor forsake. I guarantee that such an example will be of inestimable value in their spiritual development and will strengthen the muscles of their faith especially to have the privilege of praying for you during your affliction. Don’t be afraid of letting people know of your need, which is very humbling at first, but after awhile it becomes very freeing. Not only that, but God will bring you comfort and healing through those prayers. God’s comfort comes full circles back to you.

So, if you are suffering affliction today, may you experience the comfort that only the God of All-Comfort can give to you. May you also look for those within your sphere of influence whom you can comfort in some way, with the comfort you have received from God. Finally, may you recognize that though you wish for anonymity in your suffering, you are on display before family and friends, who will be greatly influenced by your simple faith and trust in the Father. Let them know how they can be praying for you and allow yourself to receive the comfort and blessing that it will bring.

Why would Jesus ever want my love ?

I was reading the account of Jesus’ public reinstatement of Peter (John 21:15-18) after his three-time denial. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times came the sad but earnest reply, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Gone, however, was Peter’s loud bravado and proud comparisons. When Jesus used the word for love, it was agapao (full, unconditional love). James Boice called it 100% love. However, when Peter answered Jesus, he used the word phileo, meaning the love of friendship or fond affection. Boice called this 60% love. Perhaps Peter was not so sure that his love would not fail again.

After each question and response about love, Jesus commissioned Peter to the task of feeding and caring for those who would become followers under his ministry. I learn from this that ministry to others flows out of our love for Jesus. How can we help people grow to love Jesus if we do not? As important as this lesson is, I am amazed and baffled about something else in this interchange with Peter; that Jesus would want our love in the first place.

Thomas Watson weaves these two themes of love and service together, writing:

Love makes all our services acceptable, it is the musk that perfumes them. It is not so much duty, as a loving-duty, God delights in; therefore serving and loving God are put together. Isa 56: 6. It is better to love Him than to serve Him; obedience without love, is like wine without the spirits. O then, be persuaded to love God with all your heart and might.

It is nothing but your love that God desires. The Lord might have demanded your children to be offered in sacrifice; he might have bid you cut and lance yourselves, or lie in hell awhile; but he only desires your love, he would only have this flower. Is it a hard request, to love God? Was ever any debt easier paid than this? Is it any labour for the wife to love her husband? Love is delightful. Love must by definition be sweet — Bernard. What is there in our love that God should desire it? Why should a king desire the love of a woman that is in debt and diseased? God does not need our love. There are angels enough in heaven to adore and love Him. What is God the better for our love? It adds not the least cubit to His essential blessedness. He does not need our love, and yet He seeks it. Why does He desire us to give Him our heart? Pr 23:26. Not that He needs our heart, but that He may make it better…

Our love to God is a sign of His love to us. We love him because he first loved us.’ 1John 4: 19. By nature we have no love to God; we have hearts of stone. Ezek 36: 26. And how can any love be in hearts of stone? Our loving Him is from his loving us. If the glass burn, it is because the sun has shone on it; so if our hearts burn in love, it is a sign the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us. (Thomas Watson – The Ten Commandments 2. Introduction Love)

Jesus took a repentant Peter and accepted the love he had to offer—then put him to work. And as Peter continued to live for Jesus, his love grew to 100%. We know that because many years later he was able to die for Jesus and not deny him. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding his death. Tradition says that he was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero, and that he asked to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. Apocryphal? Perhaps . . . but it sounds like something 100% love would do.

Jesus says to you, “Do you love me”? What is your response?

And the Rooster Crowed…

All four gospels record the three-fold denial of Christ by Peter. Mark claims that the rooster crowed twice, while Matthew, Luke, and John imply once. When you deny the Lord Jesus, who really cares how many times the stupid rooster crows, just as long as it crows!

Lord, what is the purpose of all this horrible evil taking place in your world? Why don’t you step in and stop it? The Jews asked the same question during the Holocaust? What was your answer then? I don’t remember. I know that Satan is the prince of this world and that he comes to plunder, steal, and destroy. But you, Lord Jesus, have come to give us life—life more abundant. But why are you allowing all of this death? Are people really turning to you or are they learning to trust in science?

Even your church is struggling with this, along with all the other hardships connected with this pandemic. Our family members have gotten sick from the virus; some of them have died and we are grieving; some are locked away in nursing homes or hospitals and we can’t even visit them; some have personal and emotional issues and are without personal support; some have lost their jobs and can’t pay for the mortgage or rent. Some of us are among the most vulnerable and may not have long to live; we cannot even hug our children and grandchildren. The future is so uncertain. Will we ever see the light of day?

I know there are no answers for these complaints, Lord—I’m just venting and lamenting. But I do know this: you want us to trust you. I remember (not that I was there) when you heard that your friend Lazarus was sick and you stayed where you were 2 more days. It looked like you actually waited for him to die before you went him. After all, you told your disciples “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:15) That is hard to understand and your delay sure must have been tough on Mary and Martha, not to mention Lazarus. But looking back on it, you knew that raising your friend from the dead would have more impact on building the faith of your followers than (merely) healing him—they had seen that before.

And so, I guess you are doing the same thing with us— desiring to increase our faith in all that is happening around us which we have never before seen. But Lord, please, you have to help us in this. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by things that our faith fails us, like it did our brother Peter. We move away from you instead of toward you; we act in ways that cast doubt on whether we even know you. Then the rooster crows once or twice and we are abruptly reminded of our frailty and brokenness; of our empty boasting about how faithful we have been in following you. And at that moment, when we’ve let you down, we see you looking at us, as you looked at Peter. That look which sends us running into the night to be alone and to weep bitterly.

Perhaps the rooster (and the look) is the Holy Spirit calling us back to you and your mercy; preventing us from becoming like Judas who was filled with suicidal remorse, but did not repent. No, Lord, in spite of the evil that is so invasive in the word today and the overwhelming nature of related situations which cause me to act so erratic and squirrely, I will not run away from you into the night! I will cling to you in the middle of what I do not understand, and I will hope in you even though the mountains seem to be sliding into the midst of the sea. I really have no one else to turn to, Lord—you alone have the words of eternal life. Please help me—please help your Church—please help our world! Amen.