God of the Hard Thing

Death of Ezekiel's wife

I’ve read through the entire Bible each year for over a decade now. That’s not to impress anyone. When Jesus quotes the Old Testament while under Satan’s temptation that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4), I figure that behooves me to make a priority of reading all the word of God on a regular basis. One of the benefits of this discipline among others is that you come across otherwise obscure passages you might never read and that you rarely hear preached.

A prime example for me, which never ceases to astonish me as a smitten, taken, covenant-bound married man, shows up each year in Ezekiel 24:15-18.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

Good grief. Really? Apparently Ezekiel felt the same away about his bride as I do mine. And God knew it. The Lord referred to her as the delight of his eyes. Just like that. All it takes is a sovereign stroke and she’s gone. On top of such a blow comes the prohibition of grief. No mourning. No weeping. No tears. OK, you can sigh, but under your breath only. Customarily an Israelite mourning a loved one would have put on sackcloth, lain on the ground, tosses ashes on his head, and so on. No emotion allowed whatsoever. I can hardly begin to imagine how excruciating the prophet would have found the Lord’s will in this instance.

Tell me God doesn’t require hard things of His servants! This sobers me when I think about what makes men faithful pastors of their people. It sobers me when I think about what makes faithful servants of God’s people period. This week a colleague of mine in the gospel lost his son to suicide. A month ago dear friends of mine lost their twenty-year old daughter after weeks watching her languish on life support. When people ask me if such things are God will, all I can do is point them to texts like this in Ezekiel and words like Job’s after he suffered the loss of all his children – “Naked I cam from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). There are more examples of course, but you get the point.

Take away? God’s ultimate purposes trump anyone’s personal agenda. End of story. Ligonier Ministries explains the big picture well:

Such a death seems to be a drastic, almost “desperate” step for the Lord to take to get His point across. Of course, in reality, God never finds Himself in a desperate situation. But from a human perspective, the covenant community’s refusal to believe that the Lord would let Jerusalem fall was a desperate situation, and desperate times required desperate measures. The death of Ezekiel’s wife prefigured the loss of the temple, which was “the delight of [the Jews’] eyes.” God strove to make His intent clear so that the people would have no excuse. Despite the hardship in the loss of Ezekiel’s wife and temple, however, all would be for the good of Israel (vv. 19–27). Through the trouble, the people would come to know that He is the Lord.

Of course, I hope the Lord never requires such a thing or anything near it of me or you as his servant. He has asked me in the past, or at least I have interpreted things this way, to do hard things and I have sought to do them however imperfectly. But I would like to think, God have mercy, that if so required, I would take my cue from the prophet and do as commanded.

Would you?

A Faith that Responds to the Word

One could rightly summarize the Epistle of James in two words: “Faith works.” James argues for a kind of Christianity that acts on what it knows in terms of right speech and behavior.

An important transition occurs in vv. 19-27 of the first chapter. It revolves around the word of God. Just as God uses His word to regenerate us – he brought us forth by the word of truth (1:18) He continually affects our salvation by implanting the word in our hearts through effective teaching (1:21). True faith responds eagerly to the word of God. Such a response has three characteristics.

First, it humbly receives the word in the heart (19-21). Rather than react with anger, which rarely works the righteousness of God, James says to receive with meekness the implanted word. We are to have a receptive, humble, broken-hearted disposition when the word comes to us in any variety of formats. That will look like a quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger kind of reaction (v. 19).

Second, it faithfully applies the word in the life (22-25). Be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Yes, you need to hear and be attentive to the word, but if you stop there you are, as James puts it, deceiving yourself (v. 22). He uses a word picture in the rest of the paragraph to drive home his point. Hearing only and not doing is like gazing in a mirror only to walk away and not attend to the problems you saw with your face in that mirror! On the contrary, those who gaze into the word like a mirror for their lives and persevere in their obedience are blessed (v. 25). Blessed is far better than self-deceived!

Third, it zealously infuses the word in the religion (26-27). The word for religious refers to the outward ceremonies of the Christian life. Liturgy and its components are a meaningful part of the faith. But if that’s all there is to your experience as a Christian, you have a problem. James proposes a very different litmus test as to what comprises what he calls pure and undefiled religion before God (v. 27). It bridles the tongue. If it doesn’t, it’s worthless (v. 26). That hurts! You can’t get more basic than that. If your anger gives way to an out-of-control tongue as a rule, you don’t grasp true religion in the biblical sense. Furthermore, true religion visits widows and orphans and keeps oneself unstained by the world. It requires charity to the needy and purity in the world.

Now there’s a checklist by which to measure the validity of our Christian experience.

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 7)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here is how I tied together the entire passage in our last look at this section of the farewell discourse:

Genuine faith that knows the Father and the Son who is in the Father demonstrates itself through obedience to Christ’s commandments. There is no love for Christ, no genuine belief in God, apart from a treasuring of Christ’s commandments. This alone will suffice for the measuring rod of your faith as to it genuineness. Do you evaluate it in these terms? Christ alone can give you this kind of faith. If you admit your rebellion against him and failure to keep all His commandments and put your trust in His death on the cross for your sins, He will forgive you and He will send you His Holy Spirit to indwell and empower you and He Himself and the Father will indwell you and strengthen you and aid you in every way as well.

Do you wonder if you ever will overcome that besetting sin? There is a Niagara of help in the Godhead. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Here is where we must focus in our battle against the flesh. Greater is He who is in you than He who is in the world (1 John 4:4). The good news of the gospel is that because of Christ’s finished work on the cross and His going to the Father, all the resources of the gospel now envelop our hearts and lives. No wonder R. A. Torrey said: I can think of no thought more humbling or more overwhelming that the thought that a person of Divine majesty and glory dwells in my heart and is ready to use even me. He does indeed. One God. Three persons. More than enough for our every need.

On this Palm Sunday may we praise God for the Triune provision that is mutual indwelling and the promise for all we need for a life of treasuring Christ’s commands and walking in obedience to Him.

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 4)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I attempted to capture the gist of the section:

Now in campaigning for their correct understanding of saving faith as issuing in devoted obedience and no easy-believism, I mentioned in part three that Jesus further shows His care by outlining for the disciples the stunning provision made for them/us to enable that obedience. Indeed I called it a Trinitarian provision for Jesus goes on here to describe how all three members of the Godhead come into play in what we might call operation saving faith resulting in treasuring obedience. They are the giving of the Spirit (15-17), the coming of the Son (18-21), and the abiding of the Father (22-24).

Praise God that the Helper, Jesus, remains our advocate before the Father’s throne in heaven ANd another Helper, the Spirit, perpetually adds His aid as our advocate, friend, counselor, and comforter as well.

My thanks to Greg Willson for his poignant testimony about advocacy from his recent experience in federal court!

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 3)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I brought the message home:

If you believe you do possess this priceless gift, then understand that the acid test of ownership comes with “owning” His commandments and keeping/obeying His words. Jesus put it this way in an exchange with the crowd on the Via Dolorosa in Luke 11:27-28 –

As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

Are you hearing the word of God and keeping it? Where must you repent today? Understand this. If you are blatantly and wantonly disregarding some command of Jesus that you know He requires of your in your ethics of life, you have no reason to be assured of a saving knowledge of Him. What idolatry or disobedience must you bring to the cross for pardon and plead to Jesus for gospel power based on your true identity as a beloved son or daughter of God. Don’t delay. Do business with God now. That is evidence of true saving faith for sure, no matter how many times you must do so.

For more information about human trafficking click here.

For more information on the movie Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce click here.

For more information on John Piper’s book The Roots of Endurance click here.

A Tale of Four Households

By tale I don’t mean fiction. Each family referenced in this post once existed or does now actually exist. These tales relate fact, some of it hard-to-swallow, down right mind blowing truth.

Household #1 – Ezekiel the prophet’s.

Every year as I read through the entirety of the Bible I always come up short when I reach Ezekiel 24:15-18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

God employed His prophet during unique times of judgment ministering among His people during exile in Babylon. The Lord put numerous difficult requirements upon Ezekiel in the object-lesson-like way He spoke to rebellious Israel through the prophet, but none more staggering in its implications than this one. He slew His servant’s wife, none other than the delight of his eyes. The sovereign Lord of the universe, at a stroke, struck down the man’s bride. Additionally, to suit His purposes of pressing home conviction for Israel’s hardness of heart in the face of judgment, God prohibited Ezekiel from demonstrating any grief (Ezek. 24:19-24).

Remarkably, Ezekiel treasured the Lord more than the delight of his eyes and did as he was commanded. This man did not worship at the altar of his marriage. His wife was no idol. God’s purposes trumped everything, even long life with his beloved, in this servant’s journey toward a better country (Heb. 11:16).

Household #2 – Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr.’s

Dr. Sproul, a teaching fellow at Ligonier Ministries, lost his wife, Denise, at the tender age of 46 this past Sunday morning after three different battles with cancer. She left behind not just her bereaved husband, but eight children as well, ages 2 to 18. I represented the OGC leadership at the memorial service the morning of this writing, extending our condolences and assuring of our prayers.

Not surprisingly, given the affinity for Reformed theology in the Ligonier and St. Andrew’s families, all who spoke waved high the banner of God’s sovereignty over the hard providence of loss, not at all unlike the account of Ezekiel 24. “The Lord took her home” and phrases like it were spoken without reservation as if this were something God had done. The Lord gave and He has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). Fortunately for Dr. Sproul Jr. and all in attendance, no prohibition of grieving held sway over the sorrowful yet rejoicing occasion (2 Cor. 6:10).

I am told our dear sister went home to her reward to take up residence in the suite Jesus had prepared especially for her (John 14:2) around 6 AM that Sunday. I am further told that the St. Andrews family gathered for worship as usual later that morning and that Dr. Sproul, Jr. attended. I count him among that brave and happy band of brothers who, even in the grip of staggering loss, resolves to do as God commands.

Household #3 – Mine

Today Nancy and I mark our 37th anniversary. This morning I went to a colleague in the gospel’s memorial service for his bride. Tonight I will take my bride to a restaurant and celebrate nearly four decades of covenant marriage and ministry partnership. The irony of the confluence of these things on the same day was not lost on me, especially as a cancer survivor enjoying over six years cancer free after my life-and-death battle with the disease in 2005.

As I drove to the memorial service, I asked. Why me, Lord? Why do I get to dine with the delight of my eyes while this man with a far greater stewardship of ministry and breadth of impact than I will ever have buries the delight of his eyes this Christmas?

Only one answer suffices – the sovereignty of God. The same banner flies over all three households. “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Cor. 4:7). “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me (John 21:22)!”

Whatever the providence, bitter or sweet, hard or soft, good or bad, in life and death, for the follower of Jesus who loves Christ more than life and wife and breadth, there can be only one response at ever turn. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15). By His grace and through His power we will do as He commands as High King of heaven, God the Father over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:6).

Household #4 – Yours

Providence shapes your experience this Christmas season and into 2012 and beyond. All your circumstances, past, present, and future come through the hand of the One whose counsel stands accomplishing all His purpose (Isaiah 46:10) and works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

In all those providences, one question remains. Will you do as He commands for His glory and your greater joy?

Giving Thanks – Not Optional

Our confession of faith makes it clear. The giving of thanks comprises an essential component of true worship. Under the heading of Religious Worship, and the Lord’s Day paragraph 3 begins, God requires all men to pray to Him, and to give thanks, this being one part of natural worship.

Psalm 65:2 states Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion. Psalm 95:1-2 commands Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! Psalm 118 starts Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

Jesus modeled thanksgiving in his prayers. I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth; that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will (Matt. 11:25-26). Paul directed prayer as a first priority for the worshiping church and included thanksgiving as part of its character. First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people (1 Tim. 2:1). Indeed, the filling of the Spirit manifests itself in our lives by a relentless penchant for giving thanks (Eph. 5:18-20).

If I pause to consider, it amazes me just how much I have to thank God for as another Thanksgiving holiday comes around. So great a salvation. Relative sanctification (I have so far to go!). The Spirit’s voice. The precious word of God. Length of days. A loving, forbearing (if you only knew) wife. Kids, grand kids, and extended family. Shelter and provision in abundance. Ministry opportunities galore. Faithful friends. Keeping providence. Grace that abounds in the face of my sin. The covenant community at OGC. Making friends for eternity among the Digo and other people groups. Great co-workers. I could go on and on!

As this Thursday approaches and our country heeds the call of our forefathers to give thanks, how do you find your gratitude quotient? Perhaps you might make a list like the one above, recounting the many ways in which God has blessed you. Maybe you could include a sharing time around your table on Thursday as to why you are thankful. How about writing a friend and let him/her know why you are grateful. Be sure to include a note in the note about your gratitude for that friend! That will be a great encouragement. If you need help with this, you might want to read Scotty Smith’s post concerning prayer about being a gratitude-geyser.

It is not optional for the Christian, this discipline of thanksgiving. But if we give it some thought, we will find that it doesn’t take much to get the gratitude juices going. God has given us so much. If you don’t think so, just read Ephesians 1:3. If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will.

How To Tell the True Shepherd from the False (6)

The last in the series of messages from the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10:11-18 is now on the web.

You can listen to the message here.

I summarized the sermon this way:

How then should we respond to such sovereign goodness that lays down its life for the sheep in a loving, substitutionary, particular, global, voluntary, and designed sacrifice? Don’t take your cue from Captain Miller in that scene on the bridge where, mortally wounded, he grabs hold of Private Ryan and gasps his final words. Do you remember what he said? Earn this. In other words, show yourself worthy of this by making something good out of the rest of your life. Don’t let these soldiers have died in vain. Indeed the movie ends with the aged Ryan along with his family visiting the Miller’s grave in the allied cemetery and France. It’s a gripping scene. The man is torn up with angst over whether or not he has indeed earned it. He pleads with his wife, Tell me I’m a good man.

Jesus never once said from the cross, Earn this. He did say, Father, forgive them. So what are we to do with so herculean a sacrifice by so very good a shepherd. Receive it for the priceless gift it is. You CAN’T earn it. You must believe it and trust in it as your only hope for deliverance from sin and death. Believe in Jesus as the Messiah, if you have yet to do so. Receive the gift of abundant life that only Jesus the good shepherd can give because of His death on the cross for you and His resurrection from the dead.