Fear Gone Viral

For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence (Ps 91:3).

The fear that Covid-19 has caused around the world is (pardon the pun) at fever-pitch! Reactions in every quarter are over the top. Instead of determining the national championship in college basketball by letting the players play and televising the games for the fans (minimizing social contact) the NCAA canceled all sports! Other sports organizations did the same. Fear dominates the scene, even though we have the best medical care in the world and few will contract the virus and far fewer will have any serious complications. The situation reminds me of Proverbs 28:1 where people “flee when no one is pursuing.” (Dare I say that the subject in this verse is “the wicked”?) But, for many, the fear is real.

Since the news is dominated by the reactions to this virus, we are beginning to see people questioning the source as a new angle for reporting. Is it just a flu-like virus gone rogue, just as we experience every year? Some are starting to theorize that it could be a biological attack from the Chinese who were angry over the sanctions that have been imposed upon them by the United States. What I have not heard is that this is a judgment from God Himself. Of course, that would be immediately dismissed by the politically correct who deny that a God of love is capable of judgment. 

I looked up the word “pestilence” in the Scripture. I found there the comforting passage quoted above in Psalm 91, but I also found that well more than half of the references in Scripture are in Jeremiah and Ezekiel where they refer to pestilence as a judgment. Neither Jeremiah nor Ezekiel were concerned about the pagan nations of their world. The judgment of pestilence was upon Judah and Israel that had been given God’s Truth in the many prophets that God had sent to them, but who had been summarily ignored. Pestilence also was part of the judgment for those who prophesied (preached) falsely, preachers that gave their hearers ideas that they had dreamed up but which the LORD had not sanctioned.

If it has done nothing else, the fear that has gripped the world over this virus has demonstrated how frail and vulnerable human beings really are. There ARE things that are beyond us, outside of our control. And, even when this virus has been fully contained, another is destined to come. We need the perspective of CS Lewis who wrote, “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty” (On Living in an Atomic Age). If this scare awakens us to the certainty of our mortality, it will have done mankind a real SERVICE.

The confidence of the Psalmist is conditioned upon “dwelling in the presence of the Most High” and “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty.” That Psalmist saw the LORD as his “refuge.” The confidence of this generation in the midst of this virus-scare will also be conditioned upon our individual response to trusting in the LORD. Whether the origin of this is natural or man-made; whether we view this as a judgment of God or not, the proper response — in addition to discretion and good hygiene — is to begin or deepen one’s relationship to Christ. Since many are asked to self-quarantine, this is a good opportunity to find a quiet place to meet Him. 

If we, in faith, will turn back to Him, trusting Him when others are fearful, the LORD makes this promise to us at the end of this psalm: “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him. I will set him securely on high because he has known My name. He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and honor him. With a long life I will satisfy him and let him behold My salvation” (Ps. 91:14-16, NASB).

Don’t Be Deceived

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” (1 Kgs 22:6-7, emphasis added).

Jesus told us that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). Even the smallest observation can be important for it is in the Scripture that we find Truth.

The king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was a man named Ahab. He openly worshiped the idols of the nations surrounding him rather than the God of Israel (his wife was the infamous, Jezebel). When he was going out to battle it was his custom to call upon his “prophets” to advise him about the probabilities of success in his fight. They told him the “Lord” was on his side and would give him success as he was about to fight the Syrians.

The king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah was Jehoshaphat and he was to join Ahab in this battle. But Jehoshaphat recognized that these prophets did not worship the same God that he did, so he asked, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?”  Notice each reference to deity in these two verses.

The Hebrew language has at least three words to refer to deity. Two are used here. When the word “LORD” is capitalized in this way, it is an English convention that means that the Hebrew word is the personal name of God — the name He gave to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. It is a sacred name and refers only to the God of Israel. The other word used here is spelled “Lord” and is a generic reference. Jehoshaphat recognized that the statements of Ahab’s prophets referred to a god other than the God of Israel. 

Ahab wasn’t concerned about which god was on his side, as long as he would get his victory. In our day the Western Church largely is not concerned about pleasing the God of Israel. Like Ahab, we are more concerned with the appearance of success. Which god we address is immaterial.

It has become a conventional practice in this era of the Church to address “God” in our prayers — even though our God has revealed Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. We typically hear, “God, bless this person or that…God, comfort and heal so-in-so…” Less often do we hear people address in prayer, “Lord Jesus…” or “Our Father…”

I do not suggest that everyone who addresses Him as “God” is worshiping a false god, but I have to wonder why we are reluctant to speak to Him as He has revealed Himself, especially when Jesus specifically told us to “pray like this, ‘Our Father…’” (Matt 6:9). Jehoshaphat recognized that Ahab’s prophets were not true prophets, perhaps by their mode of address.

Later in the story of Ahab and Jehoshaphat in 1 Kings 22, a true prophet of the LORD explained that deception from false prophets was how Ahab would be destroyed. I daresay that it is how this generation will also be destroyed (see Jeremiah 23).

So how do we avoid that deception if we cannot always say that the way we identify our God is the key to the Truth? By keeping our minds focused upon what we know to be true — the Scripture. By measuring everything we hear from the standard that Scripture sets. By recognizing that deception can come through people who are genuinely sincere and have been trustworthy in times past. Even their words must be compared with Scripture.

The psalmist writes, “The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts” (Ps 119:110).

Now All Is Well

Now All is Well

Every year as I enter the Christmas season, I find myself mindlessly singing or humming the familiar carols without paying attention to the words of the song.  I suspect that I am not alone. One such carol is “The First Noel,” a song that simply re-tells the Christmas story. But what does the term “Noel” mean?

I used to think that it was of French origin, but older hymnals and books of carols say that it is English instead. In fact, those same older hymnals spell it differently – “Nowell.” Here is my understanding of how we came to have this carol in the present form.

The English people are notorious for abbreviating words and phrases. When a friend would depart from them, it was customary to extend a blessing of “God be with you,” but as time went on that phrase was abbreviated into our present, “goodbye.” Another example is the word “bedlam” which is an abbreviation of the term “Bethlehem.” In England many years ago there was an insane asylum that was notorious for its noise and riotous nature, named St. Mary’s of Bethlehem. Associating any riotous events with the reputation of this asylum led to coining a new word, “bedlam” meaning “riotous.”

A similar abbreviation probably occurred leading to “noel.” This spelling would be a shortened form of “nowell” which itself probably is an abbreviated form of “now…well” or “now it is well” or possibly, “now all is well.” And this phrase is a fitting response to each part of the Christmas story that is related in the song.

“The first now-all-is-well, the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…” One can only imagine their sense of despair. They were Jews who knew that God had promised them His presence and provision, but rather than seeing the fruit of that promise they were under the rule of the cruel Roman Empire. As lowly shepherds, without any influence and without any legitimate opportunity to change their station in life even for the generations to come, they would likely be characterized by a deep sense of helplessness. The knowledge that there were factions within the Jewish community that couldn’t agree about how to shake off the Roman oppression only increased their despair.

It was to these oppressed and depressed people that the news first came that “Now-all-is-well” – the promised Messiah is born. Certainly we could not expect them to anticipate the future ministry of this Baby, but hope doesn’t always have to understand. It was enough that an angel with a mighty host of heaven visited them that wonderful night with the news that Messiah had come. Now all is well.

The song goes on to suggest that the wise men were looking for a king when they followed the star to Bethlehem. History has understood these mysterious men to be Eastern astrologers who discovered in the stars that the Jewish Messiah was born. They came from an area that had been the home for many Jews who had been carried into captivity only 500 years earlier and it would not be unlikely that some Jewish people remained, or that their influence remained. These men would not be concerned about the ethnic differences because the Jewish people anticipated that Messiah would be the King over all. 

If they were frustrated over the political decline of the Persian Empire to Greece and later to Rome, it would be natural for them to look for a king to arise that would right all wrongs and establish justice again in the world. This news that the promised Jewish Messiah was come would indeed be a welcome encouragement. Now all is well.

Oppressed and depressed people today can also find hope in the Promised Messiah, just as they did in ancient times. The simple truth that God has heard us and has entered again into human experience should be enough to elicit a “Now all is well!” from us, but there’s more. As the carol goes on to explain, the redemptive work of the Messiah has been completed and peace is now possible between us and the Living God. That’s the best “Now all is well” of all!

Those of us who have bowed in obedience to Jesus Christ recognize that the world in which we live desperately needs a “Now all is well!” The world is on the brink of war, fears of terrorism are all around us while rampant drug and alcohol abuse impact most families in one way or another. It is a humanly hopeless setting with no solution unless God steps in. Gloriously, He has. We invite you to meet Him this season so that you can also say, “Now all is well!”

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:12, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.

Tried in the Court of Public Opinion

“The worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones” (1 Kings 21:13, ESV)

The long-awaited report has been filed with the Attorney General. Unless you have avoided all media for the past two years, you have heard that President Trump has been tried in the court of public opinion for collusion with the Russians to rig the 2016 election by the Mueller Investigation. The official verdict of the investigation is that neither he nor any of his team worked with the Russians to undermine our elective process. Stated positively — he won the election fair and square, and is the rightfully installed POTUS.

The tactic that was used to try to unseat Mr. Trump was right out of Scripture. It had been tried about 850 years before the common era (BCE). The king of Israel was Ahab and his wife was Jezebel. Ahab approached a man named Naboth to purchase his vineyard, but Naboth refused because Naboth was determined to preserve the family property/inheritance that had been established by the God of Israel after Joshua conquered the land of Canaan. This frustrated Ahab, so Jezebel took matters in her own hands and convened a special public event at which a couple of “worthless men” falsely accused Naboth of “[cursing] God and the king.” The public outrage led to Naboth’s execution.

The attempt to engage public opinion to condemn an innocent man (in this case, a man duly elected to public office) employed virtually every media outlet in America for the past two years. But it failed — so far. Mr. Mueller included the statement in his report that although there was no evidence of collusion, it did not exonerate Mr. Trump. Just as Naboth was guilty without<span class=”Apple-converted-space”>  </span>any corroborating evidence, it appears that Mr. Trump will continue to be tried outside our courts until he is destroyed. One of the principal principles of American jurisprudence is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Mr. Mueller spent (reportedly) in excess of $25,000,000 over a two year period to establish a violation of the law, could not find one, yet declares that Mr. Trump is not exonerated. This statement is in violation of the American legal system and in violation of the the normal definition of “exonerated.” Mr. Trump has every right to feel like Naboth.

The Scripture doesn’t speak about Naboth’s family in this story, so we can only speculate (but with great sympathy). After being blind-sided by false accusations against their family member, they lost him and their property to the elite and powerful people of their day. (And the desire to retain power has been behind the Mueller Investigation from the beginning.) Mr. Trump’s family likely will celebrate a major victory, but the “not exonerated” line (however irrational it is) will signal to them that they will still have to endure more attacks upon their family. In reality, this family is experiencing the pressure of the larger war of our culture over the ascendancy of a conservative, if not a Christian, worldview versus a liberal one.

Happily for God-fearing people, the story did not end with Ahab rejoicing over his spoils of victory. While he gloated over the property he acquired by deceit and slander, he was met by the prophet Elijah who informed him that the God of Israel that created this world, that will execute true justice, Who provided the very air he breathed and food he ate, by Whose will Ahab retained a position of power in his world, had seen what Jezebel had done for Ahab’s benefit. There would be judgment.

Happily for those who perpetrated the crime, the Lord commends Ahab’s sincere repentance. In His judgment, He remembered mercy. And those in our day that have slandered and deceived to manipulate their political will can find that same mercy if they also will repent.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us. Everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

The Anchor

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Rev 1:3).

Theologians and Bible teachers have debated for centuries what “this prophecy” refers to. Does John promise blessing for reading the twenty-two chapters of the Book of Revelation or is the blessing for those who read the whole of the Scripture? We won’t resolve this debate in this blog, but we will testify to the blessing that reading either this book or the whole of the Scripture brings.

For more than 30 years I have been committed to reading the Bible, cover to cover, each year. It started with merely reading five minutes a day. My reasoning went something like this, “If God created me and has a purpose for my life, should I not set apart – at a minimum – five minutes each day to listen to Him?” Certainly He deserves much more than a mere five minutes, but since I could not predict how my life would go and what demands would be placed upon it over the course of time, I vowed only to this small amount. Still, that vow has kept me in the Scripture daily – usually for more than five minutes. On the rare occasion when I have failed, I have been conscious that the Holy Spirit has awakened me – sometimes from a very deep sleep – and has prompted me to fulfill my vow.

This vow to read the Word has created stability in my life like nothing else could. It has comforted me in trying times; it has reminded me of the Source of every blessing when times have been good, keeping me from thinking too highly of myself. When the world around me has been uncertain, whether due to politics, economics or personal loss, the Word has brought assurance that it will remain and that He is my refuge.

This vow has also brought real direction to me over the years. It has been – in the words of David – “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). There have been many times when my daily reading schedule has brought me to a passage of Scripture that was clear direction for that moment, if not that day. Most of these have not been profound, out-of-body experiences, but the quiet confidence that I had heard from God.

Whether you regularly read all sixty-six books or just the last one, John’s promise is true – you will be blessed. Nothing can be an anchor to our lives like reading this Book.

The Trust Fund

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you (Ps 31:19).

Unanswered prayer is the grief of many Christians today. There are usually no answers to the questions of “Why does He delay to answer me? Doesn’t He see how much I am suffering?”

As one who has wrestled with these questions many times, I have taken great comfort in Psalm 31:19. It seems that the Lord has a “savings account” of His goodness toward me that I will one day be able to cash in. Perhaps a better illustration would be a “trust fund,” because it is an account that cannot be drawn from whenever I would like. Someone else determines when I will receive it.

To access this “trust fund” of God’s goodness to me I must exercise the same kind of faith that a child with a financial trust fund would exercise. It is only a matter of time before I will receive my store of God’s blessing. I must trust that the Word of the One that is managing this fund is true. The only difference is that the time for me is uncertain while the child will know when his inheritance will be given to him.

While I am waiting for the display of His goodness the verse tells me the two things I must continue to do: fear Him and take refuge in Him. These are not passive, but active verbs. “Fear” carries the idea of seeking Him wholeheartedly, rather than in just a perfunctory way. “Taking refuge in Him” is an admission of our own weakness and inadequacy.

Some believe that this verse suggests that the display of God’s goodness to us will be apparent to all at the Judgment, but my opinion is that the phrase, “in the sight of men,” is that it will be here on earth, not just at a later time. David had earlier stated, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13).

The Lord has His goodness in store for those who trust Him. We don’t always understand why He tells us that we must wait, and it sometimes distresses us when people around us are looking for external evidence of His reality, but He has His purposes, and those purposes are perfect.

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart. Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear:
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh, Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

(George Croly, 1780-1860)

The Unseen World

In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house (Mark 3:27).

Though most of us don’t understand much of it, the Bible makes it clear that there is an unseen world around us that somehow influences this world. This is Jesus’ subject in this passage of Scripture in Mark 3.

The New Testament suggests a cosmology of angelic beings that exercise their power over various entities within our world. There seems to be a distinction in Paul’s mind between the various angelic beings that he describes in Colossians 1:16, “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” What exactly the various beings influence is unclear, but there is ample evidence to suggest that some of these beings influence individuals (for good or for bad) and some influence nations or perhaps, ethnic groups. In a vision the prophet Daniel describes one of these angelic beings as “the prince of Persia” (10:13), suggesting that his influence was over that whole nation or people.

When Jesus was speaking in Mark 3, it appears that He was referring to this unseen cosmology because it was in the context of a discussion about Satan’s influence in this world. Satan is described as “the god of this world” in 2 Cor. 4:4, and the metaphor is changed to a house in Mark 3. But in both pictures Satan and his angelic majesties are in view and the reference to “the strong man” that must be bound is a reference to Satan or one of his demons. Jesus (and His body, the Church) are seeking to “carry off his possessions,” the people that are still under his dominion.

The exact meaning of this statement, then, hinges on what it means to “bind the strong man.” Not only, it would appear, does the unseen world have influence over ours, but we in this world can exert some influence over that world as well, probably through prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines. In my opinion these disciplines are the means by which we become partners with Him in the work of the kingdom.

I suggest that one of the ways we are to “bind the strong man” is by prayer for the people groups that are still unreached in our world. Satan is the one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (see again 2 Cor. 4:4). By “binding” him, then, we would release these people from the blindness so that they can see Christ and turn to Him.

The Bible is clear in Matthew 24:14 that Jesus will return when the last person is reached with the Gospel. By binding Satan through prayer, we are partnering with Him in the great cause of world evangelization, and hastening His return.