Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Isaiah 25:4-5: The shelter of the Most High

You have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat;
for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall,
like heat in a dry place.
You subdue the noise of the foreigners;
as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.

I don't feel that I am in any spot of trouble at this moment, whether of circumstances or relationship. Nonetheless, I hope to remember that God is the stronghold of the poor and needy in their distress, shielding them well from the blast of evil. The wicked will trumpet their boast but God will mute it as a cloud shames the brightness of the proud sun and seals off its searing heat from the helpless face of the earth.

My hope must rest in God who is invincible. Under his protection, I can do his will, even for my enemies and so pour hot coals on their heads.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Church's Business and its Programmes

I'm reading T Desmond Alexander's "From Eden to the New Jerusalem". In it he maps out what he thinks is the biblical meta-narrative from Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22. In a nutshell, the Bible is all about God creating a temple world for him to dwell with his people who are created to be royal priests, at once ruling over the other living creatures in the world by their numbers and giving worship to God. Despite the Fall in Genesis 3, God will accomplish his goal by the end of Revelation.

The church's business is therefore to work towards the building of such a temple world or the Kingdom of God. This requires people to be holy as God is holy, to obey God's word as an expression of love to him, to love God supremely and people as we love ourselves and Christians as Jesus has loved us, to trust God at all times and under all circumstances, to make disciples of all nations, and to resist the devil.

But we are often much better at the church's programmes than its main business. We have successful ministries but not godly ministers. We proliferate activity but not build godly lives.

  • Who do we know that we we can regard as an example for holy living?
  • Who do we know that is quick to obey God's revealed will?
  • Who do we know demonstrates his supreme love for God by selfless love for people?
  • Who do we know trusts God firmly and unshakeably?
  • Who do we know actively evangelises and sets a good example for others to follow?
  • Who do we know resists the devil and avoids every kind of evil?
Not many, perhaps not even one.

How then can a church truly succeed in its business?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Isaiah 14:14 - Becoming like God

Isn't there similarity in these verses:

Isaiah 14:14: "I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High."

Genesis 3:5: "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God."

Ezekiel 28:2: "yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god"

Ezekiel 28:6: "Because you make your heart like the heart of a god"

Ezekiel 28:9: "Will you still say, 'I am a god,' in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but a man, and no god"

Here are statements made by or about one who is not God who desires to be like God: the king of Babylon in the first case (Satan personified); Satan in the second case, and the prince of Tyre in the third case (Satan personified probably). God will not share his glory because it belongs only to him. Mark the following:

Exodus 8:10: "Moses said, "Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God.""

1 Samuel 2:2: "There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God."

Psalm 89:6: "For who is the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD?"

Psalm 113:5: "Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high?"

No creature in God's universe is like him or can aspire to be like him without his help or permission. See the following:

Exodus 7:1: "And the Lord said to Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh."

Zechariah 12:8: "the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, going before them."

Ephesians 4:24: "to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

Indeed, in wanting to be like God, man or angel will only end up fit for wrath and destruction because we pursue divinity without the attendant righteousness and holiness befitting the divine. Such ambition corrupts and cannot be permitted to continue. Rather, God provides a way for man to be like him. Before, he has created man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27). Now, he has opened the way for redemption of our sinful selves in Jesus Christ that we might be renewed in his likeness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Only then can we share in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Only then can we become like God.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Isaiah 10:5-19 - How Not to be an Assyrian

The Assyrians were to be Yahweh's rod against Israel, his own people. They were called upon to inflict punishment for Israel's waywardness and rebellion against God's rule over their lives. Yet, the Assyrians thought themselves masters of their own destiny, powers in their own hands, to invade, conquer and destroy Israel. For that, the Assyrians would also be punished for their arrogant excesses.

God uses people as his instruments unto others, whether his instruments are good or wicked, and whether the objects of his work are good or wicked. As for me, I must be careful to be a useful instrument in his hand, fit for noble purposes (2 Timothy 2:20-21). God might use me to strengthen the discouraged or to rebuke the complacent. Either way, unlike the Assyrians, I must understand what his will is for me in those roles to which I have been appointed so that I do not overstep my delegated authority and do that which is not his will.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Isaiah 7:1-25: Sheer grace

Ahaz, that wicked king of Judah, that disgraceful son of David who stooped at nothing to promote idolatry in the land and who sacrificed his own son in fire (2 Kings 16:3), deserved the panic and anxiety that he got when Syria and Israel banded together in warfare against him. Yet, God in his mercy sent Isaiah and his son to meet Ahaz with a word of assurance to Ahaz: Syria and Israel would not prevail. Instead, they would be destroyed.

Would Ahaz take heed in that hour of desperation? Would he repent and turn from his evil?

No, the silly man disbelieved Isaiah (v.9b). He was unable to take God at his word. Further, in declining God's invitation to ask for a sign out of false, misplaced and misguided piety, he rejected God's protection for Assyria's and God showed him what Assyria, whose very help he sought, would do.

What grace for a man who deserved none. What a God who would leave us with nothing to accuse you with by his act of mercy.

Help me, Lord, to stay true to you. As you have shown grace to Ahaz, you have also shown to me. Help me to trust you and take you at your word. Keep me focused so that I hear only your voice, especially in my hour of need.

Attention is the only faculty of the soul which gives us access to God.
Simone Weil (from Berne)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Isaiah 6:9 - the commission to speak judgment

Upon Isaiah's acceptance of the call to ministry, God assigns him to speak judgment to the people of Judah. This ministry was to go on until Jerusalem was laid waste by exile. God intends for them to keep on hearing and seeing but not understanding or perceiving. Somehow, he doesn't intend for them to get understanding and repent. Is this unfair? Perhaps not. In many ways, God expects his people to obey, even when they do not understand. The basis of faith is that God can be trusted and his word is trustworthy, even when we don't understand it, because he is trustworthy. When we do not obey God, we show our distrust of him, we think that either God is unreliable or God will not carry out his word. But God would not be slighted in this way. So if his people refused to obey him, he blocks their understanding as a way of punishment. In Romans 1, in respect of those who did not honour God despite knowing him, he "gave them over" to greater and greater depths of depravity, thereby blocking their ability to understand him.

Lord, I pray never to treat you or your word with contempt. Forgive my past sins and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mnemonic for the Books of the Bible

Here's my take on the matter:

Old Testament (39)

Law (5): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Goats Eat Like Nobody Does

History (12): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Jumping Joe Rarely SwimS, KeepS ChaSing Everyone No End

Poetry (Wisdom) (5): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
Joe's Piano Plays Every Song

Major Prophets (5): Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
Itchy Joe Laughs Every Day

Minor Prophets (12): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Handsome Joe Always Owes Jonah Money, Now He Zaps Helpless Zulu Mothers

New Testament (27)

Gospels and History (5): Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
My Mother Likes Juicy Apples

Pauline Epistles (13): Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
Red CatS Give Every Pink Cat ThoSe ThingS That Pop

General Epistles (8): Hebrews, James, 1&2 Peter, 1&2&3 John, Jude
Helpful Joe PickleS JoSe'S Jelly

Apocalypse (1): Revelation
None, we're supposed to remember that Revelation is the last book of all.

Some notes:
  1. I picked the name "Joe" because many of the guys in the Bible have a J-O start in their names, and not because of any Joe I know.
  2. Words with capital "S" signify a multiplicity, e.g. "CatS" would mean "1&2 Corinthians" while "JoSe'S" would mean "1&2&3 John."
  3. By referring to Zulu, I don't mean to deprecate Zulus. Rather the emphasis is on the wickedness of "Handsome Joe."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

1 John 5:2-3: Loving People God's Way

The only way to love God's people is by obeying his commands concerning how to relate with them. We may want so badly to prove everyone wrong and ourselves right because we want what is BEST (so we say) for God but if we don't get to this by obeying God's commands, we fall short.
This is how we know that we love the children of God: by
loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.

God's Word is not recorded for nothing. When we choose our own way instead of the way of God's explicit commands, we sin as much as Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit, because they trusted themselves to be smarter than God. We will fail and be frustrated.

God's commands are not burdensome. It can be done! So let me get down to it!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Luke 6:27-36 - The Call to Show Divine Mercy

In relation to one's enemies, Jesus gave the following commands:
  1. Love them;
  2. Do good to them;
  3. Bless them;
  4. Pray for them;
  5. Willingly suffer a greater disadvantage for their benefit if put to the task.

He explained that disciples should exceed sinners in their manner of loving. He gave two incentives and one reason for so doing: first, our reward would be great; second, we would be sons of the Most High; and third and most importantly, for our Father is kind and merciful to the ungrateful and evil and we are to emulate him. The words are "Be merciful even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:34). These words rings with familiarity with the following:

  • Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48);
  • Be holy, for I am holy (1 Peter 1:16).

The context of the Matthean text is similar to this passage of Luke - to exceed sinners in their manner of loving. The Petrine text urges its readers to set themselves apart from their former sinfulness.

It will hurt everything in me to love enemies, especially those who hate me. I will experience vulnerability to hurt. Yet, there are things that I can do first to mitigate those fears. I can purpose to bless and to pray. I hope that in a meeting, I will not be thought hypocritical. I guess I should quit worrying about what people will think of me and just trust God enough to do exactly what he says and leave to him to deal with all my insecurities.

Christ has called us to be merciful. This actually puts us in a position of strength that we can absorb and accommodate those in a position of weakness. So my enemies are in fact weak and I am commanded to pity them. Give me grace, Lord, to dare to take you at your word here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Genesis 44:14-34 - Judah's Transformation

Judah, the fourth born of Jacob, eventually gained ascendency in Jacob's family, exceeding Reuben the firstborn and Joseph the beloved, to become the one through whom the Messiah would come. It was he who incited his brothers to sell Joseph away to the Midianites (Genesis 37:26). They all (save Reuben who was not present) listened to him (Genesis 37:27, 29), suggesting that he had some amount of leadership and influence over his brothers. He must have been a rugged shepherd and hardened man, perhaps frustrated with a weak-minded older brother, Reuben, who slept with his father's concubine (Genesis 35:22), and with rash-spirited Numbers 2 and 3, Simeon and Levi, who killed the Hivites in revenge for Shechem's rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:26-31). But his hardness of heart and spirit caused him to live for himself. He left his family to marry a Canaanite woman and have three sons by her (Genesis 38:1-5). His first two sons died under the hand of God because of their wickedness (Genesis 38:7, 10), suggesting poor fathering on Judah's part. But he only blames Tamar as the accursed woman on whose account every one of her husbands dies, completely blind to his own sins. He would not give Shelah, his youngest son, to her, despite his promise, for fear that he too might die while married to her. In the words of Waltke, the biblical account showed that only two things mattered for Judah: sex and offspring.

In the end, he was deceived by Tamar. When he realised that it was he by whom Tamar was pregnant, he recognised his own sinfulness. Presumably, he repented for he did not continue with Tamar (Genesis 38:26). In time, when Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain, it was Judah who guaranteed Benjamin's safety (Genesis 43:8-9) and Jacob accepted that pledge (cf. Reuben's in Genesis 42:37). It was Judah who pleaded with Joseph to spare Benjamin and therefore Jacob's life at his own expense (Genesis 44:33-34). Judah came round.

God works in mighty, mysterious ways. He would make his children face their own sins and humble them, in order that they might arise unto greatness, not of their own doing but of the Lord's. Why did Reuben, Simeon and Levi not repent? But what does it matter for us who have the benefit of hindsight - who do we want to emulate?

Lord, the chastening is painful and wearying to the soul but I guess you are also deepening me where I have been shallow. Grant me the perseverance to follow you through and emerge a better, stronger, meeker person.

Conflict is a curious gift because it sharpens us, demanding grace and forgiveness... Someone without frictional relationships is indeed a poor soul, for we are best formed in the crucible of conflict.
~ Glenn T Stanton, 'Up for Debate,' in CT, January 2009, p.41.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hebrews 1:1-2:4 - God Has Spoken Through His Son

I preached on this passage yesterday. These were my findings:

  1. Hebrews is a sermon, not a letter. In this passage alone, there are at least two significant clues why it is: (a) it lacks the usual details about author's name, identity of audience and salutation that are found in practically all of the other epistles in the New Testament; (b) it refers to recent divine revelation having been transmitted "en huio" ("by a son" or "by one who is Son") and then goes on to give seven credentials of such a person, as if intending that the audience necessarily should conclude that this person is the Son of God, the mark of public speaking. If the identity of this person had been specific and definite, then listing his seven credentials would have been redundant and purposeless.
  2. The point of this passage has less to do with Jesus being superior to angels than with our duty to pay more careful attention to what we have heard lest we drift away - the angels references are a distraction to this main message. Hence, I wish the NIV Bible's chapter heading for Hebrews 1 was different. It's not inspired writing anyway but it distracts no less.
  3. The audience probably comprised Jewish Christians of ancient Rome who struggled with remaining faithful to Christ in the light of the prevailing prejudice and persecution and being tempted with reverting to Judaism. The haunting question that is asked is: Is Jesus worth betting everything that we have on to follow him?
  4. In this day and age, we may not face death for being Christians but we face compromise, temptation and fear of being marginalised by popular opinion. What has God said to us through his Son?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Acts 26:18, 20b - content of discipling

Paul has recounted his conversion story several times in the book of Acts. In the version in chapter 26, he makes especial mention of what his Christ-given mandate was:
  1. to open the eyes of the Gentiles so that they might turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, in order that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who would be sanctified by faith in Christ
  2. to declare to the Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with their repentance.

In other words, he was called to reveal and help Gentiles recognise sin so that they might turn to God in repentance, seeking his forgiveness, bearing the fruit of repentance as they were sanctified by faith in Christ.

This is instructive for my evangelism. Often, I am too afraid to deal with sin. I only ask my contact to turn to God. But turn from what? Even indifference to God is sin but I don't let them recognise it as such because I don't talk about it as such. So they either don't know or don't care. Could it be that when a person is confronted with sin in his life, he will never choose to remain in it by rejecting the divine grace of salvation - and so John Calvin, rather than Josef Arminius, is right about irresistible grace?

My evangelism has also been to target at intellectual integrity rather than moral uprightness. I myself became a Christian because it made intellectual sense to believe that Christ is the Saviour of the world but I guess, I never really felt I needed to be saved from my sins; I was just awed by Christ's reality. No wonder I struggled with sin through so much of my supposedly Christian life. People tell me it's a process of sanctification but I was never really sure why it had to be so acute. I guess because my conversion was not particularly dramatic that this full appreciation that repentance from sin is at the root of Christian conversion had come and grown very, very slowly in my life. I am very slow to see the ugliness of my own sinfulness in all its starkness that I should want to flee from it, beg to be rid of it, and cry to be freed from it.

My prayer is that even as I am realising the centrality of the gospel in the preaching ministry my life should be marked more and more by the growing fruit of repentance, to demonstrate a Christ-ward transformation, to the glory of the grace of God. I want to be complete. Perhaps this is where the missing part had been all this time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Acts 20:18-35 - Paul's ministry testimony

In Paul's farewell speech to the Ephesian church elders, he said twice that "I did not shrink from declaring to you" the gospel and the whole counsel of God. His experience in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19 suggests that he faced opposition to his ministry from time to time, culminating in the great commotion that was instigated by Demetrius the silversmith. Under all that threat, his purpose for ministry and life remained clear and unflinching. He said, "I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God" (v.24).

Wrapping up his work among them, he said, "I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (v.32). The Christian is sustained by God and his word.

I am encouraged by his testimony. Will I be faithful in and not shrink from preaching the gospel and teaching the whole counsel of God? Will I consider my life as nothing except the fuel and vehicle and instrument for testifying to the gospel of the grace of God? Help me, Lord, to stand firm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Acts so far - the content of preaching

The disciples were clear about one thing when it came to preaching or teaching or sharing about the faith: the Word of God must be the mainstay of their proclamation. Specifically, it was the Word of God about the Word of God himself: Jesus Christ (vv. 4:2, 12, 33; 5:42; 8:5, 12, 35;9:20, 22; 10:42-43; 11:14 (implied), 20; 13:26 (implied), 38; 14:7, 21). They proclaimed boldly (vv. 4:13, 31; 9:27, 28) and would not be constrained by injunctions to stop preaching.

A few lessons for preachers:
  1. Our sermons must be Christological if it is to be apostolic. This means that we must relate the text of Scripture to Christ and his grace of salvation.
  2. The Word of God must govern the content of our sermon, not only in its substance but also in its parameters. This means that we must treat fairly and deal honestly with the text of Scripture to be expounded, whether preaching systematically or topically. If not, the sermon is only a pep talk and not a life-giving message. A pep talk may energise for a season but it offers no hope for the long haul.
  3. We should not need to apologise for the Word of God if it creates offence for we are only its ambassador, not its originator. At the same time, we should not have to bend the Word of God to suit the ears of the hearers. We offer the Word of God freely - nobody should presume that because he pays the piper, he has the prerogative to call the tune. We own no such and deny all such loyalty, obligation or debt.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Acts 10:42-43 - what to SAY when sharing the gospel

When you read the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 or its equivalents in Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; John 20:21; and Acts 1:8, do you ever wonder what it is exactly that God wants us to SAY when we share the gospel? Fret no more: the answer is in Acts 10:42-43:

"And he ordered us to preach to the people and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (NASB)

This sums up what Peter said in Acts 2:22-36 on Pentecost Day; in 3:13-26 in the temple near the Beautiful gate; in 4:10-12 and in 5:30-32 to the Jewish religious leaders in council; explains what the scattered Christians preached in Acts 8:4 and what Philip said in Acts 8:5 in Samaria, in 8:35 to the Ethiopian eunuch, and in 8:40 in Azotus and other cities en route to Caesarea; and what Saul preached in Acts 9:22, 28. Indeed as Paul later wrote: "For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord.." (2 Corinthians 4:5) - what exactly did he mean? Acts 10:42-43 gives the answer.

Indeed, if in our conversation with non-Christians, we do not talk about the work of salvation that Jesus has wrought for us, we are not sharing/preaching/telling the gospel. We must not become too concerned with the mechanics of how to "get" a non-Christian to "accept" Christ. All that is not part of the gospel but merely a means to help the non-Christian engage with what he hears. In Acts 10, Peter had not even gone to issue an invitation or challenge before the Holy Spirit fell upon his Gentile listeners and brought them to faith.

Acts 10:42 also makes clear that sharing the gospel is an imperatival activity. It has been commanded of Christians by God himself and hence a duty that we must not neglect. May the Lord help me to be faithful in proclaiming his good news.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Matthew 10 - The disciples' mission

Jesus sent his twelve disciples out on a mission. They were entrusted with two duties. First, they were to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Second, they were to cast out demons and heal every disease and affliction. In the rest of the chapter, Jesus taught his disciples what to do if and when they were opposed. It seems that Jesus anticipated opposition not so much to the acts of healing but to the proclamation:
  • the disciples could encounter people who would "not...listen to your words," v.14
  • the disciples would be "dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles," v.18

Three times, Jesus instructed the disciples to quell their fears:

  • "When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say," v.19
  • "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master...So have no fear of them," vv.24-26
  • "Fear not, therefore...So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven," vv.21-23.

Jesus said that he came not to bring peace to the earth but a sword. A house would be divided because of him. Clearly, it is not his healing that would divide a house but his call to loyalty and submission to his lordship - proclamation. He issues the following challenge:

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" vv. 37-39.

It is proclamation that will get Christ's disciples into trouble more than anything. In the same way, it will be my preaching ministry that would carry the greatest risk of offence than anything that I can do in church. A few lessons:

  1. The offence must be wholly in the message and not me. This calls for careful exegesis, contextualisation and application (v.7)
  2. Once convinced that I have done my homework properly, I must harbour no fear or doubt about offending anyone (v.14-15).
  3. I must not and will not deny Christ and his word (vv.31-33).
  4. His truth must matter more than my life (v.28).
  5. I must entrust myself into the protection of God (v.39).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ezra 7 - the man and his renown

In this chapter, Ezra was introduced for the first time in the Bible:
  • a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses, v.6;
  • the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel, v.11;
  • the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, vv.12, 21.
Ezra also went to Jerusalem for he "had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel," v.10.
It seems unlikely that Ezra could have written these ascriptions about himself (quaere, what does this question do for the authorship of the book of Ezra?) so Ezra must have truly earned the reputation that even the king of Persia wrote about.
How might I aspire to be like him, not in order to be praised by people, but to be accountable as a Bible student?