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The Kindlers of Strife

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Most of us don’t like causing controversy and stirring up trouble.  However, some do.  In Proverbs 25:21, Solomon warns, “As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.”  To use a more modern metaphor, people like this are a spark to gunpowder.  With seemingly little effort, they cause an explosion.

Certainly, Christians should not be quarrelsome.  Especially in our dealings with brethren, but also in our dealings with everyone, we should seek to unite and reconcile.  If that means keeping our lips clamped down on personal opinions that others find offensive, so be it!  Romans 12:18 urges us to live peaceably with everyone so far as it is possible with us, and even if limiting our self-expression may not be pleasant, it is certainly possible.

Indeed, the only inflammatory views that Christians should express are those that come from the law of God.  Like Paul, we are to declare the whole counsel of God, even knowing that it will prove divisive. 

Too often, though, brethren shy away from proclaiming the gospel while freely expressing their provocative personal views on any number of topics.  They get the Biblical pattern exactly backwards. 

The sources of this problem are obvious.  There are many in our society, of every political and philosophical persuasion imaginable, who do not honor the Bible’s teachings on the importance of peace.  Instead, their goal in life is to stir up strife. 

This is often quite calculated.  They know that if they take a loud, obnoxious stand on some contentious issue, they will get lots of attention.  Half the people will hear them, get infuriated, and start screaming back.  The other half will hear them, applaud them for “telling it like it is”, and scream in the opposite direction. 

Page views and video clicks skyrocket.  Blood-pressure readings elevate.  Our poor, divided country becomes even more divided, as suspicion of the other increases.  People become more cynical, more embittered, less warm and loving. 

Incalculable spiritual damage is done, but the instigators don’t care because they got money and attention out of the deal.  Next week, they will try to do the same thing again and recklessly cause even more damage.  Only God knows where it will end, but the outcome won’t be good.

As Christians, we need to be very, very suspicious of the professional disturbers of the peace.  They want to manipulate us too.  They want to use fear and anger to enroll us in their hateful little tribes.  Even though it’s true that fear and anger leave no room in our hearts for the love of Christ, they’re not concerned about that. 

We need to be concerned.  Paul points out in Romans 13:8 that love is something we owe to everybody.  To Christians, there is no “them”, other than the devil and his angels.  We are on everybody’s side, even the side of the people who aren’t on our side.  When we stop listening to Christ’s call to service and self-sacrifice, we become less than the disciples He wants us to be.

Watch out for the strife-kindlers.   Watch out for the people who want us to look at others with anything less than love.  When they provoke enmity in our hearts, it is not the work of God that they are doing.  It’s the work of someone else.

The Virtuous Man, Part 3

Friday, August 16, 2019

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul tells Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season.  As every preacher knows, this can be a difficult act to follow.  It’s one thing to tell people what they’re eager to hear; it’s quite another to tell them what you know they don’t want to hear!  However, a faithful gospel preacher cannot be deterred by circumstances from preaching the word.

In Job 31, Job wants us to understand that being a man of God is the same way.  Sometimes, being righteous is in season.  It’s what all your friends want you to do.  It’s what you want to do.  It’s easy.  Sometimes, though, righteousness is out of season.  We don’t have people encouraging us.  Maybe we’re entirely alone.  Even then, though, the right thing to do is still the right thing.  Let’s see how this works out in the final portion of our study of the virtuous man.

First, being a virtuous man means having COMPASSION.  In this, let’s turn our attention to Job 31:29-30.  Really, there are two issues here.  The first is in v. 30—it’s the problem of actively cursing your enemy before God.  The second is in v. 29.  Even if you haven’t cursed the one who hates you, are you happy when bad things happen to him?

As Christians, we generally don’t have much trouble with the first of these.  We know that “Pray for those who persecute you,” doesn’t mean praying for God to strike them down!  About that second one, though, let’s be honest.  Let’s say that somebody has been dumping bucketloads of grief on you, and then their life gets sunk.  Isn’t there some part inside each one of us that smirks a little bit and says, “Boy, he sure had that coming”?

Job wants us to understand that that part isn’t godly.  We shouldn’t take pleasure in anyone’s suffering, even the suffering of those who quite frankly deserve it.  Sure, if something bad happened to us, folks like that would be laughing it up, but we have a higher calling than that.  It’s easy to be like the world.  It’s hard to be like Jesus.

This must be our spirit even when we’re pretty sure that we’re witnessing divine judgment for sin.  God certainly will destroy the wicked, but He has told us that He takes no pleasure in it.  Even as we acknowledge that the judgments of the Lord are right, we must mourn their necessity.  Otherwise, we’re no better than the people who hate us.

Second, the virtuous man shows MERCY.  Let’s continue in Job 31:31-32.  We’ve seen similar statements to this in Job 31 already, but this text makes it clear how universal the mercy of the man of God is.  We’ve got a neat picture of this in v. 31.  It’s like Job’s servants are standing around gossiping about him, and they’re saying to each other, “Man!  Is there anybody this guy won’t help???”

After this, the text singles out two particular recipients of the man of God’s mercy.  The second is the traveler, people who are just passing through.  The righteous man will be compassionate to people like that and offer them the opportunity to stay in his home.

The first, though, is the sojourner.  Other translations call this character the stranger, the alien, or the foreigner.  We might call him the immigrant.  This is somebody who is from another country who has been driven by economic need to relocate to a foreign land and try to provide for himself there.  In the early part of the book of Ruth, Naomi and her family are sojourners.

The man of God offers a place to sojourners too, and he does that for the same reason we’ve seen all along.  God loves all weak, vulnerable people, the no-counters that the world despises, and that applies to the immigrant too.  More than anyone else, children of the heavenly Father ought to welcome and help the foreigner.  After all, our citizenship isn’t from around here either.

Third, the virtuous man is a man of INTEGRITY.  Our reading continues in Job 31:33-37.  Probably all of us have heard the saying that character is what we do when no one is watching, and that’s the point that Job is making.  There are all too many people out there who don’t really want to do right, but they do right because they’re afraid of the disapproval of others.  As a result, they either sin when no one is watching or simply conceal their evil desires in their hearts. 

Today, of course, opportunities for secret sin are legion.  Many of us live lives in which the various pieces are disconnected from each other.  We can be churchy at church and worldly in the world and hope to get away with it because our churchy friends don’t know our worldly friends.  Additionally, all of us have plenty of opportunities to sin when no one else is around.  The Internet certainly offers us enough porn to destroy our souls a hundred times over, but it also gives us the opportunity to log onto a message board with an anonymous screen name and spew all sorts of anger and hatred and meanness.  Online, you can be the real you and get away with it!

Except, of course, that no one actually does get away with it.  Job expresses his willingness to stand before the Almighty, but he feels that way only because he knows that his secret life and even his heart are righteous.  If ours aren’t, we need to get to work on that while we still have the chance.

Finally, the life of the virtuous man reveals RIGHTEOUSNESS.  Let’s conclude our reading with Job 31:38-40.  I have to admit that I had some trouble with this one.  What on earth does agriculture have to do with godliness?  And why does Job put his spiel about agriculture in such an important place?  This is, after all, the end of Job’s last speech in the whole book. 

When I thought about it, though, I realized that agriculture was a stand-in for the way that Job lived his entire life.  Thousands of years ago, everybody was a farmer, and if their farming wasn’t going well, their lives weren’t going well.  Somebody who is righteous in his dealings with the land is righteous in his whole life. 

On the other hand, Job says, if he has been unjust, then may his land produce weeds instead of crops.  Basically, he’s calling the curse of Adam back down on himself.  From this, we have valuable lessons to learn about the nature of righteousness.  We’ve been talking about its various aspects, but when you get right down to it, righteousness is of a piece.  To be righteous, you have to be righteous in every area of your life. 

So too for us.  If we want to be men of God, we can’t have part of our life belong to God while allowing these enclaves of Satan to persist elsewhere.  It all has to be His, and only if it does do we measure up to Job’s, and God’s, standard.

The Work of the Devil Today

Thursday, August 15, 2019

These past several weeks, we’ve looked at a number of very encouraging Scriptures that set out the ways that God is not merely active, but powerfully active, in our lives today.  How comforting it is to know that God is personally involved with each one of us!

Sadly, God is not the only spiritual being who is involved in our lives.  The devil is too, and in every way, His work is the opposite of God’s.  God wants to bless us, but the devil wants to ruin and destroy us.  God wants us to know about His good works so that we will seek Him, but the devil wants us to forget that he even exists.

Sadly, his diabolical campaign is all too effective.  People forget about the devil, even if they don’t outright deny his existence, so they stumble right into his traps and are destroyed.  This doesn’t happen merely to people in the world.  It happens to Christians too, and if we don’t pay attention, it will happen to us.  Let’s spend this morning, then, considering the unpleasant subject of the work of the devil today.

First, we must recognize that the devil SCHEMES.  Look at Ephesians 5:11.  Sometimes, we get so caught up in thinking of the devil as mean and evil that we forget that he’s smart.  The devil’s not like the Joker.  He doesn’t run around chaotically smashing things for fun.  He’s much more calculating than that.  Indeed, he has a plan right now for how he is going to do his level best to get each one of us into hell. 

Just like the devil’s not dumb, he’s not lazy either.  He will work on us for years, decades, if he has to, luring us away from the path of righteousness step by step, bit by bit, until finally we end up where he wants us.  He is industrious and patient.

Obviously, all of us would be dead meat if we were left to face such a cunning, malevolent being on our own.  Our only hope for victory is through Jesus.  However, even though we must rely on the Lord, neither should we go skipping merrily off into spiritual danger without a clue.  We ourselves must be watchful for the ways that the devil is working in our lives.

Seriously.  Stop right now.  Ask yourself, “What is the devil’s plan for leading me away from the Lord?”  I guarantee you that there is a plan, and if you pay careful attention to the temptations and spiritual dangers in your life, you can figure out what it is.  The more we see the devil’s designs, the less vulnerable we are to them.  Let’s all be watchful and wise!

Second, the devil LIES.  Consider the words of our Lord in John 8:44.  You know, there are few times in the gospels when we hear as much anger and contempt in Jesus’ voice as we do right here.  He and the devil are ancient adversaries.  Even when Jesus said this, they had been fighting against each other for millennia, and Jesus recognizes in the devil the very opposite of His holy nature.  Jesus said of Himself that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  The devil, by contrast, is the father of lies.

When we are tempted, we must remember this.  Somewhere, in every temptation, there is a lie.  Every single one of them.  Sometimes the lie is that we won’t be happy without this sin.  Sometimes it’s that people won’t like us unless we sin.  Sometimes, it’s that the consequences of righteousness are too hard to bear.  Sometimes, it’s that sin won’t have any consequences.  Sometimes, it’s several or even all of the above.  Regardless, there is always a lie.

Just like a smart fish learns to see the hook behind the worm, we need to learn to see the lie behind the temptation.  Where is it that Satan is twisting the truth in order to lead us into evil?  Once we spot the lie, the temptation will become less powerful.  Once we see that it is possible to be righteous and happy, or possible to be righteous and still have people love us, the pull of the flesh will become much weaker.  Sometimes, people walk into sin without being deceived, but usually not, and if we defeat self-deception, Satan will have a much harder time with us.

Third, the devil HINDERS.  Paul speaks of this in his life in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18.  This is subtle, but it’s important.  Sometimes, the devil isn’t trying directly to get us to quit running the race.  Sometimes, he’s only trying to make running the race harder.  He’s trying to tangle our feet up to get us to stumble a little bit.  He’s trying to weigh us down so that each stride takes more effort.  He figures that if he can get us tired out, we’re not likely to try as hard in the cause of righteousness.

Let’s take a poll.  I’m not going to ask for a show of hands.  I just want you to answer in your own head.  Right now, is it true that you have all the time and energy you want to devote to serving God?  Or instead, is it true that there are things you’d love to be doing for the Lord, but you’re so busy that you don’t ever get around to doing them?  If the latter is where you find yourself, guess what?  The hindering work of the devil is evident in your life.

The only way to keep the devil from hindering us is to be absolutely ruthless in managing our time.  Distractions in our lives are like weeds in a flowerbed.  We don’t have to work to seek them out.  Instead, they show up on their own, and before we know it, we have a schedule filled with 1257 different things, none of which are related to godliness.  When our schedules look like that, the devil is happy.  As far as he is concerned, a distracted and neutralized Christian is the next best thing to an out-of-duty Christian.  If we want to maximize our usefulness to the Lord, we have to clear those schedules, and we have to spend the rest of our lives saying “No” to everything but Him.

Finally, the devil DEVOURS.  Here, let’s read from the famous text of 1 Peter 5:8.  He’ll hinder us if he must, but what he’d really like to do is consume us.  As Jesus said in John 8, the devil has been a murderer from the beginning.

One of the most heartbreaking things about being a preacher is having to watch as the devil devours people, especially young people.  It gives me no joy to tell this story, but right now, one of the kids I taught in Bible class in Joliet, a kid I had in my home, is on trial for first-degree murder.  He was a smart kid, his mom took him to church three times a week, he had all the potential in the world, but he started running with the wrong crowd, and look how he ended up.  This is to say nothing of all the Christians I’ve seen end up as drug addicts and single moms and atheists.

It’s tough to say, but from the outside looking in, none of those people seem very happy.  That’s the handiwork of Satan too.  He wants to ruin our lives and then wreck our eternities along with that.  Whatever the path that the devil wants us to walk, that is the path we don’t want to go down!

Are Hymn Recordings Entertainment?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, the most recent Sumphonia recording session wrapped up.  As the Sumphonites often do, they released video of one of the songs they recorded (“Before the Throne of God Above”), which you can find here.

I have many friends who participated in the recording, so I watched as the video made its way around social media, generally to appreciative commentary. 

However, there was one exception.  Someone whom I do not know (I’m withholding his name for reasons that will become obvious) asked, “Is this singing for entertainment?”  When others responded, he added, “My final post in this string. You sing, you record, you sell, even have venues, people buy... That's singing hymns of worship for entertainment.” 

This is certainly a serious charge.  It is tantamount to accusing the Sumphonia organizers and singers of taking the things of God and commercializing them for the sake of material gain.  For that matter, it is tantamount to accusing everyone who listens to worship recordings of reducing sacred song to an avenue for fleshly pleasure.

Now, doing so is certainly possible.  I suppose there could be someone associated with song worship in the churches of Christ who does it for the money.  I think it’s even more likely that people might listen to hymn recordings for aesthetic rather than spiritual reasons.

However, to argue that this necessarily _is_ what is happening, without knowing anything about the people involved, far exceeds the evidence.  It’s impossible when it comes to Sumphonia.  Sumphonia is a nonprofit, its board members are unpaid (indeed, the cashflow arrow tends to point in the other direction!), and the equally unpaid singers travel to the recording venue and find lodging there at their own expense.

Even if that were not true, is it somehow less legitimate for someone who produces worship recordings to be paid than it is for someone who preaches gospel sermons to be paid?  Does getting income from some godly activity automatically render it ungodly?  If so, lots of brethren are in trouble, from the apostle Paul on down!  It seems wise to me, then, to refrain from judging hearts without very, very good evidence.

The same holds true for those who listen to hymn recordings.  In fact, that’s about all I listen to these days.  I have no interest in giving the sin merchants in the secular entertainment industry more space in my head than they’ve already got.

I don’t know what goes on in anyone else’s head when they listen to worship recordings, but I know what goes on in mine.  It is true that I enjoy the beauty of the singing (though to say that I am “entertained” by it is a stretch).  I believe, though, that such enjoyment is part of God’s plan for worship.  Why would He command us to engage in that which is beautiful if we are not supposed to find joy in it?

Even more than that, though, I enjoy the beauty of the message.  For instance, in the car yesterday morning, I was listening to Psalom’s recording of “My God and King” (which you can find here).  Lovely to listen to?  Sure!  Those Russian brethren really can sing!

Nonetheless, what has stuck with me all day was not the harmony, but the meaning.  For those who haven’t spotted it, “My God and King” is a paraphrase of Psalm 84, built around the opening line, “How beautiful are Your dwelling places, O God!”  I meditated on that all morning:  how much I enjoy moments of fellowship with God, and how much I long to spend eternity where He dwells.

If that’s about entertainment, then Christianity itself is about entertainment too.

Obviously, anything, no matter how good, can be misused.  That holds true for sacred song.  However, those who are quick to level accusations of misuse are probably saying more about themselves than they are about anybody else.

Summaries, Psalms 79-81

Monday, August 12, 2019

Psalm 79 laments the destruction of Jerusalem.  The psalmist begins by enumerating several woes:  the temple has been defiled, the city has been ruined, its inhabitants have been slaughtered, and the survivors are being mocked by their neighbors.  He asks God to reveal how long this horrible state will continue and encourages Him instead to punish the heathen kingdoms that are responsible for Jerusalem’s destruction. 

The psalmist then implores God to forget their sins and rescue them for three reasons:  because of the magnitude of their suffering, for the glory of His name, and to rebut the nations who doubt His power.  He encourages God to hear the cries of the captives and punish Judah’s enemies instead so that they can glorify Him.

Psalm 80 expresses similar sentiments.  It opens with an appeal to God to save His people.  V. 3 contains a refrain that is repeated in vs. 7 and 19.  In the second “verse”, the psalmist observes that God has made His people suffer, figuratively feeding them their tears. 

The third “verse”  (which is considerably longer than the others) begins by contrasting God’s past behavior to current conditions.  He established Israel in Canaan like a vine in a vineyard, but now the vineyard wall has been broken down and Israel’s enemies are ravaging it.  Then, the psalmist appeals to God to have compassion for His vine, and particularly for “the son of man”, who is probably the king.  If God will rescue His people, they will praise Him.

Psalm 81 is a contrasting psalm of praise.  It encourages God’s people to praise Him with various instruments during a feast day.  Then, the psalmist looks back to the historical origins of that feast day.  It stretches all the way back to God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.

After this, the psalmist considers God’s words to His people at Meribah.  In exchange for their rejection of idolatry, He promises to bless them.  However, they ignored Him.  God then laments their decision, because if they were to listen to Him, He would defend them from their enemies and feed them with the best food.

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