Thursday, July 20, 2017

For Weak and Weary Pilgrims


One of my favorite Christian books is Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. I first read an abridged version when I was young, and I was enthralled by Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It was an exciting adventure complete with hair-raising escapes and evil villains. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I began to appreciate how much Bunyan drew from the Scriptures as he laid out the believer's journey from the moment of conversion to the final destination of heaven.

I was naturally drawn to the main characters of Christian, Faithful who dies a martyr's death in Vanity Fair, and Hopeful who became Christian's new companion. These are heroic figures who persevere through affliction until they cross the river and are welcomed by the King of the city. But lately I've been encouraged by several of the minor pilgrims in Part II: Mr. Ready-to-Halt, Mr. Feeble-Mind, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Much-Afraid. Yes, their names don't sound brave at all, but I can relate to these characters in more ways than one.

It's easy to get the idea that "good" Christians experience nothing but victory after victory with nary a temptation or struggle until they cross the finish line in a blaze of glory. But I wonder if the race looks less like a sprint and more like a marathon where the runners are exhausted with just enough strength to drag themselves across the finish line or are carried over by their comrades. It's in these moments of weakness that we realize how much we need the family of the faith to be arms of support when it's hard to take the next step. Whether we are the givers or receivers of this help, we aren't meant to go it alone, and Bunyan gives a moving example of this.

After being rescued by Mr. Great-Heart, Mr. Feeble-Mind confesses that he is a burden to himself and to the rest. However, Mr. Great-Heart responds in this way:
But, brother, said. Mr. Great-heart, I have it in commission to “comfort the feeble-minded,” and to “support the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). You must needs go along with us; we will wait for you; we will lend you our help (Rom. 14:1); we will deny ourselves of some things, both opinionative and practical, for your sake (1 Cor. 8), we will not enter into doubtful disputations before you; we will be made all things to you, rather than you shall be left behind  (1 Cor. 9:22).1

What is also beautiful is that these weak and weary saints are still pilgrims who finish the race, only leaving their infirmities when they take the last stretch across the river. They are welcomed by the King just as much as Mr. Great-Heart and Mr. Valiant. Why is that?
When Jesus Christ counts up His Jewels at the last day He will take to Himself the little pearls as well as the great ones. If a diamond be never so small yet it is precious because it is a diamond. So will faith, be it never so little, if it be true faith, Christ will never lose even the smallest jewel of His crown. Little-faith is always sure of heaven, because the name of Little-faith is in the book of eternal life. Life-faith was chosen of God before the foundation of the world. Little-faith was bought with the blood of Christ; ay, and he cost as much as Great-faith.2

Regardless of whether we feel strong or weak, the former does not add to our salvation, and the latter does not disqualify us. We are saved in the same way - by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NASB)

1. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, pp. 229-230.
2. Mr. Ready-to-Halt and His Companions, Charles Spurgeon.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Difficult Passages Series: Judges 19 and The Gospel

Identity & the Gospel in Judges 19
Difficult Passages for Women Series



Whenever speakers or expositors read the passage in Judges 19:1-30, they invariably take great care to caution their listeners about the horrific events contained therein. Such is the depth of the concubine’s suffering, degradation, and circumstances of depravity. At the end of the chapter, even the author declares:
All who saw it said, “Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel and speak up!” (Judges 19:30, New American Standard Bible).

Placing the Judges 19 account within the larger context of the book of Judges brings out the doctrine of the depravity of man and the wretched state of the culture in those days, whereby everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes, because there was no king to rule (Judges 17:6, 19-1, 21-25). 


The story of the Judges 19 woman begins with a magnifying glass on her own sinful condition (v. 2), but quickly turns to the sinfulness of those around her and the culture at large. By the end of Judges 19, the concubine's story graphically depicts the reality that in a culture, given over to autonomous self-gratification, the death wages of sin typically pour out on its weakest members.

With that backdrop, I also hope that women will come to see how the truth of the Gospel of Christ can speak into even the dark, hopeless state of the Judges 19 woman. We can and should bring the Gospel message to bear even in these utterly hard passages.


Covenantal Nature of Identity.

First, let’s consider the covenantal nature of our identity. Contrary to covenant, none of the characters in Judges 19 account are named. Each of the participants is essentially an anonymous entity, likely intended to convey meaning on several levels. For instance, the Levite, the stranger, the father, and the concubine are representatives, like the literary “everyman,” who in this case ties us back to the point at the time of the Judges, when everyone was doing what they saw as right in their own eyes. The collective identity of Israel was indistinguishable from the depraved, Gentile surrounding culture. In those days, Israel's depravity had become as bad -- or worse -- than that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29)

In this way, the concubine represents the people of Israel as a whole, individually enslaved by sin, and collectively abandoned to wickedness by the very leaders (represented by the father and the Levite) who were responsible for their well-being. But other layers of meaning concerning the anonymity of the concubine apply here as well. For instance, concubines who were barren or who did not provide a male heir to their masters were not named in the Hebrew Scriptures. A concubine derived her identity in the covenant community from fulfilling the particular role of heir-bearing. Otherwise, she would typically not be remembered by name within the historical covenant narratives.

Individual Nature of Identity.

Similarly, today, women associated with the dehumanizing acts of sexual abuse, or perhaps enslaved to sexual sin, suffer greatly with identity struggles, due to inherent objectification in society, along with perhaps finding themselves defined by past sexual relations. The shame they bear, both spiritually and culturally, often causes women to become silent, hidden, or even go underground. They, like the Judges 19 concubine, become anonymous entities whose lives matter little to their depraved masters, or the culture around them.


But…. these deep issues of identity as women in societies where illicit sexual circumstances anonymize and silence its victims are redeemable by our Lord Jesus, who is our true King.

True Identity.

Yes, even in a land where people are selfishly and murderously doing only what they want to do, Jesus really is the true and better Israel. He steps up as King, taking the place of the priest — and the concubine. He became the true Everyman, for those who believe on him.

He is the perfect Husband who protects his bride. He doesn’t treat her as a concubine, but rather as his cherished possession. Jesus, unlike the Levite, doesn't give his bride over to the enemy to have his way with her and abuse her. Instead, our King, Jesus, leaves his Father's house to reverse the curse. He comes to his Bride and offers his own body to go out in the bride’s stead — to be torn apart for the twelve tribes of Israel.

Instead of allowing her to be given over, without hope or any possibility for rescue and to forever have her name forgotten, Jesus gave himself up on the Cross for her. Now, her name is written on his hands (Isaiah 49:16) and she is his eternally. His body, battered and bloodied, serves as a reminder to the Church, that we are his people, and that he is our true King, Redeemer, and Husband.
 Jesus's broken body calls us to assemble together in unity and piece because of his blood sacrifice, much like the oxen Saul cut to pieces to call the Israelites together for war (1 Samuel 11:7).

Remembering and Reminding.

Likewise he sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a corporate reminder of the reality of Christ’s rescue. We, too, need to individually remind one another of this Gospel truth. The prophet Hosea in chapter 9 and 10 looks back to the days of the Judges in order to warn Ephraim that they are behaving as those in Gibeah (Judges 19:15) by going after false gods and idols (Hosea 9:9). They had forgetten who they are; Whose they are; to Whom they belong. They were forgetting their husband, over and over and over.

Do we remind each other that we are his bride and that he has redeemed us as the prophet Hosea was called to redeem his bride, Gomer? That at one time we were not a people (Hosea 1:10), but we too were delivered out of bondage and slavery (Exodus 20:2) -- out of the kingdom of death and darkness (Col. 1:13) -- by the One who took our place and has called us by name? 


We are all prone to wander and forget our True King and Redeemer. Our savior Jesus, who has written our names on his hands, has rescued us from the kingdom darkness described in Judges 19 and elsewhere, and has called us, as His cherished bride, unto himself. He calls us to seek refuge in his Father's house; unlike the Levite and the father in Judges 19, our Lord will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).


To be continued...

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Letting Go and Letting God

My children are all grown now, and there are many joys that come with this. There have been wonderful sons and daughters-in-law added to the family, and grandchildren, too. I am reaping welcome rewards for the many years I spent rearing my children.

But I will also admit that this is the hardest stage of parenting for me. Rebellious teenagers were still ultimately under my control. But now? I can give advice when asked, but I really don’t have a say in how my adult children lead their lives. I no longer have control over them.

My sons and daughters are, for the most part, sensible and hard-working. There is much to be proud of, and no good reason for me to be anxious, but I am. Each one of my children was my responsibility for eighteen years, and it is hard to let go. It is difficult to see them making decisions I wouldn’t make, taking risks I wouldn’t take, doing things I wouldn’t do. And I still want to protect them. Truth be told, I still want to control them.

My youngest son, who is in his twenties, likes to camp in the wilderness—the kind of wilderness with no cell coverage—alone with his dog. His truck is old, and although it’s been trustworthy so far, let’s be honest: An old vehicle can break down any time. And then there are bears. The bears in the north have been behaving badly this year. Logically, I know that if my son’s truck broke down, he’d be able to hike out. And despite a few publicized bear incidents, it is still unlikely that one will bother him. Yet every time he goes camping, I am anxious until he returns safely.

I have a friend who tells me he was a risk-loving, wild teenager. He once asked his father how he survived his son's daring teenaged years.

“On my knees,” his father answered. “On my knees.”

I’m learning this lesson, too. Persistent pleas to our faithful God are as crucial to parents of grown or nearly-grown sons and daughters as they are to parents of babies and toddlers. Our children leave our care, but they never leave his. They may be beyond our control, but they are never beyond his.

Our good and faithful God is always with us, and he is always with our children, too. He hears our pleas when we can’t voice them to our kids. He can be trusted when our sons and daughters can’t.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God . . . casting your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” — and your adult children, too (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Expendable


I recently finished J.I. Packer's excellent book Re-discovering Holiness. It was convicting. There were many occasions when I was forced to point a finger at myself. One such moment was while reading the chapter "Growing Strong: The Empowered Christian Life."

Packer discusses things we should be doing as we seek to manifest God's power in our own lives. One of those things is meeting the needs of others. He says: "It is right to be a channel of divine power into other people's lives at their point of need." Who doesn't like to feel needed? As he often does, however, he cautions the reader. All good principles can be abused.

We are to find our personal worth in God's redeeming love, not in the feeling of being needed. While we should meet the needs of those around us, deriving our sense of worth from being needed is not wise. Serving others to make ourselves feel good is not love, either.

Packer says:
If I am using my neighbours to bolster my sense of self-worth, I am using them, which is something different from loving them.
How do I react to the truth that God doesn't really need me? Do I believe it? Do I doubt that God can achieve his purposes without me? Do I meet the needs of someone from a heart of gratitude and and love, or am I seeking validation?

Packer then goes on to present a scenario that I found very convicting:
Imagine, now, a devoted and gifted Christian woman, whose ministry has been precious to her, finding that for quite a long period the Lord sidelines her so that her potential is not being used. What is going on? Is this spiritual failure? It is probably not spiritual failure at all, but a lesson in Christ's school of holiness. The Lord is reminding her that her life does not depend on finding that people need her. The prime source of her joy must always be the knowledge of God's love for her -- the knowledge that though he did not need her, he has chosen to love her freely and gloriously so that she may have the eternal joy of fellowship with him.*
How am I at being unnoticed? Being sidelined? About two years ago, my local church lost a sister in Christ who was serving the Lord faithfully. She had been doing so for many years, and the impact she'd had was noticeable. She was sidelined by illness. She was no longer able to do what she had done formerly, and ultimately, she succumbed to the illness. Fortunately, she was a woman who did not find her worth in being needed, but rather in who she was in Christ. How would I react if suddenly I was sidelined from serving? Do I secretly think that a particular ministry or task cannot be done without me? Do I really see that we are all expendable?

We serve the Lord because he allows us to. He works through us despite our weakness and despite our sin. He redeemed us despite what we deserve. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world because of his gracious love, not because he needed to. He works in us based on his love, not because he cannot do without us.

When my kids lived at home, they needed me, and I took joy in nurturing them. Now that the kids are older, they don't need me, but when they come home, I like to do things for them as if they do need me. But if I am looking for validation in being needed by my children -- or anyone else for that matter -- I'm looking in the wrong place. Far better to serve because of what God has done for me than for what I think I can do for him.

* I suspect these words could possibly generate cries of "Why is he picking on women?! Why doesn't he use a negative example of men?" I don't know, and I'm not going to make any assumptions.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Begun in grace and perfected in glory

The coming of Christ has been on my mind of late. Part of it is because my pastor has just finished preaching a series on Revelation. The other part is the lingering sorrow that has been weighing on my heart. I am not a melancholy person by nature, but I can't seem to shake this undercurrent of sadness. Don't get me wrong, there are many moments of joy and laughter. There are many times of encouragement in God's Word and with his people, but there is lament mixed with praise.

What is going on? Am I getting inundated with too much news? Has the optimism of youth been replaced with the pessimism of middle-age? Am I feeling helpless in the face of so much suffering that is not just out there but close to home? Christ's second coming is looking better and better, and yet his return isn't meant to be just an escape hatch from this broken and sin-cursed world.

In my weariness, I turned to the passage that everyone knows and loves - Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28 NASB) Too often I would pluck this verse out of its context. This time I read the whole chapter. I had never noticed Jesus' declaration that the Father had given all things to him right before his call for the weary to come to him. What is the connection between the two? Well, here is what Matthew Henry has to say:

All things are delivered unto me of my Father. Christ, as God, is equal in power and glory with the Father; but as Mediator he receives his power and glory from the Father; has all judgment committed to him. He is authorized to settle a new covenant between God and man, and to offer peace and happiness to the apostate world, upon such terms as he should think fit: he was sanctified and sealed to be the sole Plenipotentiary, to concert and establish this great affair. In order to this, he has all power both in heaven and in earth, ch. 28:18 ); power over all flesh (Jn. 17:2); authority to execute judgment, Jn. 5:22Jn. 5:27 . This encourages us to come to Christ, that he is commissioned to receive us, and to give us what we come for, and has all things delivered to him for that purpose, by him who is Lord of all. All powers, all treasures are in his hand....
Note, It is the duty and interest of weary and heavy laden sinners to come to Jesus Christ. Renouncing all those things which stand in opposition to him, or in competition with him, we must accept of him, as our Physician and Advocate, and give up ourselves to his conduct and government; freely willing to be saved by him, in his own way, and upon his own terms. Come and cast that burden upon him, under which thou art heavy laden. This is the gospel call, The Spirit saith, Come; and the bride saith, Come; let him that is athirst come; Whoever will, let him come. [3.] The blessing promised to those that do come: I will give you rest. Christ is our Noah, whose name signifies rest, for this same shall give us rest. Gen. 5:29 Gen. 8:9 . Truly rest is good (Gen. 49:15 ), especially to those that labour and are heavy laden, Eccl. 5:12 . Note, Jesus Christ will give assured rest to those weary souls, that by a lively faith come to him for it; rest from the terror of sin, in a well-grounded peace of conscience; rest from the power of sin, in a regular order of the soul, and its due government of itself; a rest in God, and a complacency of soul, in his love. Ps. 11:6Ps. 11:7. This is that rest which remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9 ), begun in grace, and perfected in glory.

I so appreciate what this brother has written. I can still long for Christ's return, but I don't have to wait until then to find rest. This Jesus who calls us to come to him isn't a small, weak savior. All authority has been given to him to fulfill the plan of redemption, and his resurrection testifies to that success. After his ascension, Jesus did not leave us to fend for ourselves like a deist deity who is not actively involved with creation. Rather, the fact that you and I are saved and that people continue to hear the gospel unhindered is proof that God is at work in the affairs of men. He carries the government on his shoulders. I just don't have the eyes to see it sometimes. And it is from a position of present omnipotence that he offers a rest that is better than earthly safety and security. He has given us freedom from condemnation, peace of conscience, and a love that casts out all fear. Do I always remember this? No, but thank God it does not depend on me but on him. Totally unearned and undeserved on my part. Freely given on his part. It's no wonder Matthew Henry writes, "This is that rest which remains for the people of God, begun in grace, and perfected in glory." Yes, and amen!