Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rest in Peace - January 25, 2015

Proverbs 19:23 - The fear of the LORD leads to life, so that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil.

A good night's sleep seems to be a thing of the past for many Americans. According to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans slept on average two hours more a night 40 years ago. Dr. Jose Loredo at the University of California San Diego Sleep Medicine Center says that adults need about 8.5 hours of sleep per night. According to experts, "lack of sleep has been tied to increased heart attacks, hypertension, obesity, and decreased productivity". They further state that once folks finally do go to bed, around 20% of these don't fall asleep within the first few minutes on account of worry about finances and personal relationships. Instead of sleeping, most will resort to watching TV, which often stimulates the mind rather than allowing it to "wind down", making it more receptive to allow the body to rest. As a result, 19% of those surveyed said that "... they missed at least one family, leisure, or work event a month due to sleepiness or a sleeping problem". While lack of sleep can certainly be caused by problems such as anxiety or stress, many often dismiss a spiritual causation as possibly being the main culprit. Rather than fighting restlessness with our own feeble efforts, maybe it's time to look at the underlying reason for our lack of true rest.

Our lead verse is both a promise and an equation, of sorts, that can be leveraged in regard to the lack of rest in many of our lives. This scripture unequivocally suggests that true rest comes out of a relationship with God. First of all, it's important to understand that the premise to any true restfulness in this lifetime is to understand the fear of the Lord. I have written about the fear of the Lord in some detail in the past (see The Fear of the Lord, Part 1Part 2, and Part 3). However, as a quick review, let us qualify that the fear of the Lord is simply loving God so fully and completely that we would not consider disobeying Him in any regard. That, my friends, is the perfect ideal. Unfortunately, many of us have never quite attained to this total surrender. Nonetheless, those of us who desire to walk with God as His children continue to walk toward this goal day by day, even though we might stumble on the way. So, to possess the fear of the Lord, in whatever measure respective of our walk with the Lord, is the first addend in our equation. It is the baseline in which the sum of the other parts is dependent. From it, we are told in Proverbs 19:23 that our fear or reverence of God will lead to "life". This leads us to ask "What is life?" For believers in God, it can simply be stated that life is the opposite of the affects of death and destruction. (In truth, real life only exists in Jesus Christ.) Paul tells us that though our outer man or our physical life is decaying, our inner man is being renewed daily (II Corinthians 4:16). The tragedy for those who do not know Christ is that both their outward and inward persons are held in bondage by death and its consequences. They have no inner peace that allows them any control over their mind and body. Therefore, they are plagued by unrest, resulting in anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness. A New Testament example of someone who knew the fear of the Lord was the Apostle Peter. It is demonstrated in his ability to sleep between two guards in Herod's prison (Acts 12:5-6). Though he may have well-considered that his fate would be similar to the martyrdom of the Apostle James by the sword (Acts 12:1-2), Peter nonetheless had no trouble believing that his fate was in the hands of God. We are told in this account that an angel appeared with a "great light" in the cell where Peter slept. However, this wasn't enough to rouse the disciple. The heavenly messenger literally had to strike Peter on the side to wake him up (Acts 12:7). This, my friends, is an example of a man so controlled by God in his inner man that his body was at peace and at rest. Years later, the Apostle John undoubtedly understood the connection between the natural and the spiritual man when he addressed Gaius: Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers (III John 3). If a man is at peace within, he will obviously be at peace and at rest no matter the circumstances.

Unlike Peter, my incarcerations were much less noble. I remember stints in county or city jails where sleep was fleeting. The constant noises and stirrings were amplified by the concrete and heavy steel construction. The clanging of a door in a cell block two corridors away would echo throughout the entire building. A person could try to stuff toilet paper in their ears, but it would do little good. The magnification of sound was just too intense. What I would have given for a set of good earplugs to silence the din. Of course, even if I could have quieted what was going on around me, I would still have to silence the "committee" within my head. Many voices would tell me, "You've really messed up again! Look at you! In jail again! You said the last time this happened would truly be the last time!" The chatter of guilt and condemnation became almost unbearable. When periods of sleep did come, it seemed like the dreams and nightmares competed constantly with consciousness. I would lie there, half asleep and half awake, drifting in and out of a state of unsettled rest. While most will not experience loss of sleep to this extreme, the degree of restlessness can be equated to the lack of the fear of the Lord. Today, I know that I had no love or understanding of God when I foolishly got locked away. Now I know that in order to achieve any true rest in my life, that I must "lean on the Everlasting Arms". The consequences of not resting in God in His blessed fear, is to experience being touched by evil continually. That's why Solomon knew when he wrote this proverb that the fear of the Lord not only allowed us to rest peacefully, but it also afforded us unmolested sleep by the enemy.

Evil will often seek us out when we are most vulnerable. If we call ourselves Christian believers, yet walk in anxiety and fear throughout our day and not in the fear of the Lord, why should it surprise us if our sleep is also infested with the flesh and the devil? If we are not subjecting ourselves to the Lord, why wouldn't we believe we have left ourselves defenseless? The enemy of our soul desires that we have no rest, but that we would be constantly in turmoil and living in great angst whether awake or asleep. However, if we are walking in the Spirit throughout the day, it makes God-sense that we would be sleeping in the Spirit at night. After all, the Lord has promised that He would give to His beloved (that's me and you) even in our sleep (Psalm 127:2). As Spirit-led believers, we can also claim the promise from Psalm 4:8: In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety. If we call ourselves His beloved, do we lie down and rest in peace? Or, are we part of the restless statistics that characterize sleepless Americans? The antidote to the present-day plague of restlessness and sleeplessness is evident. If we will but give ourselves to God, surrendering our life during the day, we will know His sweet rest at night. It is part of our heritage as blood-bought believers. May we give ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, without reserve, that we may quiet both our hearts and minds and find our rest in Him. May we all rest well tonight in the arms of our Beloved!

Lord God Almighty, You are the One who gives us true rest. The flesh and the devil seek to kill, to steal, and to destroy. We resist the enemy, not allowing him to steal or destroy our rest in You, O Lord. We lean on Your blessed arms, knowing that You will give us rest if we will but "come". Thank you for the promise of rest while we sojourn upon earth, and thank you for the hope of rest eternal in You. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Almost Obedient - January 18, 2015

Genesis 33:18 - Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram, and camped before the city.

Noted author and Christian Missionary Alliance pastor A.W. Tozer once said: The true follower of Christ will not ask, "If I embrace this truth, what will it cost me?" Rather he will say, "This is truth. God help me to walk in it, let come what may!" How many believers do we know who have this sort of attitude toward the Lord? For these rare individuals, they do not hold the position that God needs to align Himself with the direction they would choose, but rather the one that God Almighty has laid out before them. They have come to a place of death to self, and come what may, they deliberately set their faces like flint to obey the Lord in all respects. While this is the "normal Christian life", many of us fall dismally short of this ideal. While it may be our desire to give our lives unreservedly to the Lord, there are too often those "hindrances" that would cause us to compromise our resolution. However, before we berate ourselves for not living a totally surrendered life, there are many biblical examples that would give us hope that almost obedient hearts can be changed to a steely resolve, not wavering in our belief. Jacob the patriarch was one of these "waverers". For years, he perfected deception, withholding complete truthfulness and honesty in his dealings with both God and man. However, things would begin to change for Jacob one day when he wrestled with God.

From the scripture, we know that Jacob's name literally means "deceiver". Jacob (with the help of his mother Rebekah) validates his namesake by deceiving his father Isaac into giving him the blessing rather than his brother, Esau (Genesis 27:12; Genesis 27). Having previously obtained his brother's birthright, and now his blessing, Jacob incurred the wrath of his older brother. So much so, that he felt it wise to relocate several hundred miles to the east to the land of his mother's relatives. However, one thing he didn't count on was finding the same less than honest dealings in his Uncle Laban as those within himself. (Laban is likewise translated "deceiver" in the Aramaic language.) For a total of 20 years, Jacob dealt with this unscrupulous fellow who tricked him regarding his marriage to Leah and Rachel, and then dealt deceptively regarding his payment to his son-in-law concerning his herds (Genesis 31:41). However, throughout these two decades that Jacob sojourned in the land of the east, this son of Isaac seemed to have learned little regarding complete honesty. We see this in his behavior as he multiplied his flocks through deception (Genesis 30:31-43). Furthermore, he obviously was not modeling stalwart behavior as his wife Rachel stole her father's idols before their hasty escape (Genesis 31:19). The stage had been set for a showdown between Laban and Jacob. Fortunately, for both sides, it did not result in hostilities. While Laban knew that Jacob had not been totally honest, and vice versa, they could not prove their cases. They simply concluded their relationship with a stalemate and parted ways (Genesis 31:43-55).

However, Jacob's perception of what would occur when he met his brother Esau was another story. Through years of deception and not totally trusting in God, Jacob's trust in his own trickery was now faltering. When he met and wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, he finally came to an understanding that he could no longer be a deceiver and prosper before God. Even though Jacob's name was changed from "deceiver" (Jacob) to "one who has striven with God and man and has prevailed" (Israel), he still had some of that old, deceptive nature to relinquish. His trust was not yet firmly grounded in the Lord. We are shown this by Jacob sending gifts ahead to appease his brother Esau rather than trusting that God indeed had sent him back to the land of his birth. Even after meeting with his brother Esau the next day, he lied to his brother, telling him he would join him in a few days. Rather than heading south into Seir, Jacob headed west to settle near the city of Shechem. Ironic to the Angel's proclamation regarding Jacob's new name, he did exactly the opposite. He broke faith with both his brother and God by his retreat to Shechem. First of all, he should have never told his brother that he would follow him to Seir since the Lord had commanded him to return to the land of his birth (Genesis 31:13). Jacob knew that this was a deception, even as he knew stopping in Shechem was a compromise to returning south to Mamre, the land of his father. Although technically in the land of Canaan, Jacob had not followed through and returned to the land of his birth and to his father, Isaac. This disobedience would cost his family dearly as his daughter Dinah was defiled and his sons are led into murder by deception (Genesis 34). Even when they finally do settle in the land of their fathers, the sons once again act shamefully by betraying their brother Joseph and deceiving their father about his supposed death. Indeed, deception had become a generational curse upon this family (Genesis 37).

Jacob truly became Israel in his latter years. No more was he the deceiver, yet his deceptive ways were still passed on to his sons which caused much trouble. Even so, God caused all these things to work for good. Even in the midst of deception and "almost obedience", we see a compassionate God always steering and leading these biblical examples into the way He desired. What would their lives have been like if Jacob, his wives and their sons had shown total obedience? Certainly, there would not have been much of the heartache created by their compromise and deception. However, God's hand was there to make good come out of their evil. While this does not justify compromise, it explains how God can use deceivers like Jacob and turn them into His vessel of honor. Through the heartache that compromise creates, God was able to lead a man like Jacob into the promised land and to create the man, Israel. It is the same for us, beloved. God will take our concessions to sin and turn them around for His glory. The key is to never give up and to not give in, much like Jacob refused to yield to the Angel of the Lord. We must continue to strive for complete obedience to the Lord, for with it is peace and security. The alternative, an "almost obedience", will only result in hearts that continue to be broken due to the situations our willfulness creates. May we look to the Lord and obey him unconditionally with no fear, trusting that He indeed will bring us to our respective promised land that is filled with God's abundance.

Heavenly Father, may we lay down our "almost obedience" and surrender our will to You for Your good pleasure. You will only lead us to a place of security in You if we will but obey. Take away our deception and our mistrust and fill us with Your love and faith. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Lamp of the Lord - January 11, 2015


Zephaniah 1:12 - And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will He do evil.

I have many fond memories of childhood. One of these was helping my father fix the family car. At best, my father was a “shade tree” mechanic. I can remember that no matter how much light we had in the garage, he invariably needed more as he was loosening spark plugs or setting points in one of his many “fixer-uppers.” I learned from an early age the importance of holding the light steady and secure for him to see what he was doing. I soon found out that it didn’t matter whether I could see what he was working on or not. What mattered is that the light shone in that dark area where he needed it most. Many of us can probably relate to a similar circumstance. If not, possibly there was that time when you needed a little extra light in an already well-lit room. There seemed to be just enough shadows that didn’t allow a “visual” of possibly a lost coin or a small piece of jewelry. In that case, a flashlight served well to illuminate those gray areas where the light didn’t shine bright enough.

Light is a wonderful thing and can illumine those dark crevices with a focus of the beam. Throughout the ages, mankind has used some type of luminary to make the seemingly invisible visible once again. Of course, before our modern use of electrical lighting, man had to rely on fire or possibly a refractory device to reflect either the sun or another luminary. Man has always had an innate compulsion to chase away the darkness by lighting his way however possible. In many instances in scripture, we find biblical authors using the metaphor of light as a method to reveal darkness that has either entered an individual’s life or that of a nation’s. We find this is the case through the words of Zephaniah the Prophet. In Zephaniah 1:12, we read the following in the King James Version (KJV):

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will He do evil.

What does this verse mean in context with the chapter and the rest of the Book of Zephaniah? Is the author talking about himself or someone else when he refers to searching Jerusalem with candles to punish men that are “settled on their lees?” What, if anything, does this peculiar set of aforementioned words mean in relation to this prophetic writing? To answer these questions is to define the theme of this oracle to the house of Judah. Let’s take a brief look at the background of the Book of Zephaniah and the prophet’s message to God’s chosen people.

Since the time of King David and his son Solomon, Judah experienced a number of successors to the throne. A minority of these were good kings who attempted to do the Lord’s bidding. However, the majority followed in the wickedness of the kings of the northern kingdom, Israel. One of these good kings, Hezekiah, bore a son named Manasseh who reigned 55 years in Jerusalem. Some speculate that Isaiah prophesied into Manasseh’s reign before the former was martyred by being sawn in two, as Jewish tradition suggests. Regardless, most scholars believe that Zephaniah was the prophet who broke a 50 year prophetic silence when he began his lament against the idolatrous atrocities of Manasseh’s reign. This son of Hezekiah corrupted the kingdom of Judah to a seemingly worse state than his father had restored and revived the kingdom during his rule. (We might also note here that Manasseh and Zephaniah were related since Zephaniah 1:1 provides us the prophet’s royal lineage back to Hezekiah.) So, when Zephaniah appeared on the scene in the middle of the 7th century, he became God’s emissary of the doom that would soon overtake Judah. Although we are told that Zephaniah spoke his oracles in the time of good king Josiah’s reign, the die had already been cast for all the evil that Manasseh and others had previously perpetrated.

The Book of Zephaniah centers around two themes. The first is an overarching threat of impending disaster through God’s judgments, and the second is the hope of ultimate deliverance. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the first theme of impending judgment which embodies the literary genre of prophetic oracle in Chapter One. Within this oracle genre is possibly one of the most descriptive sub-genre of God’s judgment or wrath within the entire Old Testament. Zephaniah wastes no time getting to the purpose of his pronouncement of wrath in the name of Yahweh. We see in the first few verses that he speaks judgment to both people and princes regarding their blatant worship of the false gods Baal, Milcom, and the host of heaven. These passages prepare us and lay the background for our study in verse 12.

As previously mentioned, I set forth the question regarding who was searching Jerusalem with “candles” to punish those who were “settled on their lees.” From the context, it is clear that God is speaking through the prophet and will search with candles until He finds all those who have wickedly turned to idols rather than giving Him their worship. First of all, let’s define what a “candle” was in the time of this writing. The root or the etymology of this word means “lamp” which is a more precise translation than what is offered in the KJV. Most newer translations, such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), translate this noun as “lamp.” We know from ancient history that these were olive oil pottery lamps that consisted of an opening for the oil reservoir and another at the other end of this elongated vessel for the wick. Lamps of this kind did not burn intensely bright because of the low volatility and flash-point of olive oil. For God to use this metaphor through the words of the prophet is striking indeed. It would take a great amount of patience and thoroughness to complete a search of all the darkness in Jerusalem by the Creator with a pottery lamp. Of course, this is merely a figure of speech for the metaphor used in this passage. It is clear, however, that the Lord’s intent was to do a complete search and purge the wickedness from His sight.

This leads us to our second question: What does “settled on their lees” have to do with God’s search for wickedness in His chosen city? This term actually hearkens back to ancient times. It is an old adage from winemaking that refers to wine settling and becoming stagnant rather than “living” which is what wine is supposed to characterize. Let me briefly explain. Lees are what would commonly be called particles of solid material from the wine itself. Winemakers would often allow wine to “settle” on the lees for a certain amount of time. This would give the wine a richer and more satisfying flavor. However, if it was left too long on the lees, the wine could become too thick and often syrupy. In short, it was ruined. That’s why winemakers would frequently “shake up” the wine in order for it to continue to remain palatable. This, in my opinion, provides a vivid word picture regarding what the Lord was trying to reveal to the Judeans. While newer versions portray the word “lamp” better than the King James “candle,” I believe the KJV provides a better description of what it means to become “settled” or “stagnant.” For instance, the NASB states the following in verse 12 of Zephaniah Chapter One:

It will come about at that time
That I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
I will punish the men
Who are stagnant in spirit,
Who say in their hearts,
'The LORD will not do good or evil!'
“Who are stagnant in spirit” does not seem to capture the imagination quite as well as solid waste actually settling at the bottom of the wine skin or wine vat. God has painted a vivid picture of what it means to become stagnant in spirit in the KJV. Having settled on their lees, God’s chosen people had become apathetic and uncaring. Yahweh was declaring that He was coming soon to “shake things up.”


This is further clarified by the prophetic word in the last two lines of this verse. In the 7th century Near East, a particular religion had become quite prevalent due to its Persian origins. Zoroastrianism was a cultic faith originating in present day Iran and was widely accepted in Medo-Persia and also in its subject provinces. In a nutshell, it basically taught that all men should show common respect and goodness for all. However, there were not true definitions regarding what “goodness” might be from one person to the next. Zoroastrianism, in general, was an ecumenical belief that taught as long as good was both the pursuit and the goal, then the relativity of what that meant was not deemed important, as long as good was progressed. The ultimate goal was to live in the right and to dispel the wrong. To put it simply, their belief was that mankind should pursue goodness as revealed to their own hearts. This non-absolutism had more than likely pervaded the Hebrew society, and now the prophet was making a pronouncement regarding the evil in simply doing good as man saw fit. Yahweh was pronouncing judgment on this attitude of relativity toward His goodness which was not arbitrary. He would no longer tolerate this blatant disrespect for His absolute law.

From the reading, and with this additional background information regarding the social and religious climate of the day, it is quite understandable why Jehovah was distraught with the Judeans. They had disregarded the laws that He had given them and substituted them with whatever they conceived of in their own hearts as being correct. Furthermore, they had become apathetic to the point where seeking the will of God was no longer the impetus of their religious existence. As long as they could rest on their proverbial laurels and pursue what they deemed right, they believed this should satisfy their own religious needs. However, God was quick to point out that indeed this sort of thinking would bring about their destruction. They had given themselves to worship wrong gods, such as the Baals, Milcom, and the host of heaven, having been steeped in a Zoroastrianistic mindset that was destroying them both morally and spiritually. The time, according to the prophetic message, was a time of retribution and judgment regarding this fallacious thinking.

In reading Zephaniah Chapter One and particularly verse 12, how might we apply this to our lives today? As stated in the beginning, the major theme in the first chapter of Zephaniah is judgment and impending doom. Can we relate this to our day and time? Let’s spend a few moments comparing our present day with that of the prophet’s. We should be able to ask ourselves particular questions from our main text in verse 12. Are God’s chosen people of today in an apathetic state? Do similar conditions exist which would imply that we are resting on our proverbial lees and that we are stagnant in our faith toward God? Have we sacrificed God’s word for relativism, seeking instruction that teaches morality, yet devoid of Yahweh’s spirituality? I believe to some degree the answers to these questions are “yes.” While we are seeing a great turning toward Jesus Christ in many churches, there are just as many or more that are on the brink of total apostasy. Here are just a few statistics from a 2008 study that may give us pause:

  • ... Christians spend seven times as much time on entertainment as they do on spiritual activities.

  • Although 2/3 of all teenagers say they know all the basic teachings of the Christian faith, 2/3 reject the existence of Satan, 3/5 reject the existence of the Holy Spirit, and 1/2 believe that Jesus sinned....

  • Desiring to have a close, personal relationship with God ranks just sixth among the 21 life goals tested, trailing such desires as "living a comfortable lifestyle".

  • A minority of born again adults (44%) and an even smaller proportion of born again teenagers (9%) are certain of the existence of absolute moral truth.

  • In a representative nationwide survey among born again adults, none of the individuals interviewed said that the single, most important goal in their life is to be a committed follower of Jesus Christ.

  • Large proportions of the lay leaders in Christian churches hold a range of unbiblical religious views regarding the holiness of Christ, the reality of Satan, the existence of the Holy Spirit, the reality of the resurrection, and the means to salvation.
My friends, while this seems alarming to many of us who desire to walk with the Lord, we are not without hope. Even as the main theme of Zephaniah Chapter One is judgment, the hope of redemption lies in further reading of this short book. Even today, the Lord is undoubtedly searching the Church of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, with His lamp, seeking out both the wicked and the righteous. With His searchlight of truth and justice, He is looking for those who are apathetic and those who would no longer define good and evil by His holy word. We must surely believe that God is searching out wickedness as faithfully today as He did in millennia past. May we not be those whom He would need to find in the dark places of His Son’s Church. May we live in the light of His glory and be witnesses of a revived Church that He desires to spread throughout the entire earth.

Heavenly Father, You indeed are the one who searches our hearts. You are the great omniscient one who knows our comings and our goings. May we give ourselves totally to You this night. May You search us and find that there is no wrong way within us. If there is, Lord, we ask that You would bring Your light to all areas of our heart that might be wrong before You. Remove our apathy, O Lord, and give us wisdom and understanding to know what is right in Your eyes, and not what we determine to be so. We ask You to empower us, helping others to come into the light of Your presence that we may be able to rejoice in their salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Pursuing Peace - January 4, 2015

Romans 12:18 - If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

It is a noble thing to wish for peace, it is quite another thing to obtain it. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. I understand this to mean that in order to achieve any type of peace from without, we must have a decided peace from within. In our lead verse, the Apostle Paul tells the church at Rome that they are capable of living in peace with most men under most circumstances. Undoubtedly, there will always be those exceptions. For example, we can certainly believe that Paul desired to be at peace with Demetrius the silversmith (Acts 19:23-41), or with Alexander the coppersmith (II Timothy 4:14), but that was not to be the case according to scripture. Certain situations or circumstances may warrant different responses. For instance, we certainly cannot compromise what God has revealed to us through His Holy Word. However, a peaceful resolution is generally possible and is what most reasonable parties seek. Often, it merely takes a little initiative on our part to create a bond of reconciliation. Those who might be antagonistic toward our offers of friendship might find themselves taken aback when we approach them with humility. As Paul concludes Romans chapter 12, he tells us that we may often shame those set against us by our acts of kindness. It quite literally embarrasses them into a surrendering of their pride which results in a peaceful resolve (Romans 12:20).

Within the context of this chapter, we see the apostle admonishing a church of predominately Gentile believers to love one another and to ultimately be at peace. "Predominately" is the keyword. For it was not always the case that the Gentiles were the majority. Most scholars believe that the church in Rome began as the direct result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in approximately 30 AD. Italian Jews were thought to have been visiting Jerusalem at the time of this momentous event. Some of these were possibly saved, taking their new-found Christian faith back to Rome. It is believed that Jewish Christians were the majority in the fledgling church for several years until Claudius expelled all Jews from the Roman capital because of supposed Jewish and Christian uprisings. (We know from scripture that Priscilla and Aquila were two Jews who were indeed expelled at this time [Acts 18:2].) With the vacuum of Jewish-Christian believers, the Gentiles grew in number where they soon became the majority. So much so that the historian Tacitus recorded several years after Paul's writing to the Romans (during Nero's rule) that the Christians in Rome were an "immense multitude". Therefore, when Paul wrote this letter in approximately 57 AD, there was possibly some wrong attitudes between the once majority Jewish believers who had trickled back into the Roman church, and the super-majority of Gentile believers. Although this book contains some of the most important doctrine in the Christian faith, there is also the constant undercurrent of Paul's admonition to these two groups to come together and heal their differences.

While Romans chapter 12 focuses on a "coming together" of the saints in Rome, the remainder of Paul's letter continues to reinforce this idea of equality amongst all believers. In chapter 14, the apostle addresses a problem with one group judging another group regarding holy days (Romans 14:5) and dietary concerns (Romans 14:12-16). In Paul's wisdom, he sees these as matters of conscience which shouldn't be forced on another as a rule or a law. The Gentiles apparently felt that they should not be restricted to the Jewish dietary laws, and the Jews were apparently appalled that the Gentiles did not follow in their conviction. Paul defends what was truly important in the following: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) He concludes his stance by stating in verse 19 that we should "pursue the things which make for peace, and the building up of one another". Paul's main ambition in speaking to the Roman Christians in this way was to get their eyes off their petty differences, and to get them back on the things that truly mattered, like building the Kingdom of God here on earth. The two group's beliefs, which strongly asserted their own convictions regarding their "rightness", were to be overlooked in view of working together for the important things. No wonder Paul ends his letter stating that Satan would soon be crushed under their feet, if they would simply come together in unity (Romans 16:20). The enemy's distractions were numerous yet the time is short, to paraphrase Paul's possible intention when dictating that verse.

What can we take from this lesson to the Roman church? Do we have petty differences in our relationships, whether at church or work or home? Can't we simply approach the person or the situation with a spirit of humility and speak mercy rather than judgment into those respective lives? If we can, then we are following Paul's admonition to the church of Rome that was badly fractured due to things that didn't really matter that much in the final score. While we may not be able to make peace with all men, it is still our responsibility to pursue it with vigor. Especially in those situations where it doesn't really matter that much who appears to win the confrontation. True, we must not compromise on truth, as Paul tells us. Laws of doctrine in the Christian faith are indisputable. However, whether or not someone eats pork, or observes the Sabbath with complete rest, or drinks a case of diet soda a day is not our concern. We must allow the Holy Spirit to deal with individuals as He desires and not allow the enemy an occasion to fragment the church any further. Is perfect peace possible in this age? That isn't the point. Nonetheless, we must pursue peace with all men. The attainment we must leave in God's hands as He will faithfully bring forth His glorious reign of peace in His own way and in His timing. May we all remain faithful to the pursuit.

Heavenly Father, may we pursue peace with all men. May we have hearts of humility to reconcile people concerning those things that really don't matter that much in light of the work You desire for us to all accomplish. May we allow Your Holy Spirit to be the Great Judge to convince those who might need correction. As we allow You to do what You do so well, allow us to birth peaceful resolutions in people, places, and situations and to bring the Body of Christ together. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Hand to the Plow - December 28, 2014

Luke 9:62 - But Jesus said to him, “ No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Some people might say that a new year is inconsequential. Many folks make and break resolutions with impunity. Like many, I haven't always considered a new year as significant. However, the longer I walk with the Lord, the more I see the importance for new beginnings. I like to think of a new year as an opportunity to turn over the soil of my heart and to prepare the ground for new seed. Often, this is a new area of my heart where God wants to do an expansive work. In other cases, this is possibly where He has produced a crop but now He wants to plant something different. And, sometimes there are areas that may have once yielded fruit, but have gone fallow due to indifference or disobedience. I have found the best thing to do is not argue with God, thinking I know what's best. Without fail, when He plants what He desires, it always bears forth the fruit He has ordained. That is, as long as I'm obedient and continue to till the land of my heart as He desires.

The use of the plow and fallow ground are simply metaphors for allowing God to use His word to instruct us. While some smaller plows may be pushed by manpower, God's plow can not be pushed by human strength. It is an impossibility to push a plow creating deep furrows in order to sow God's seed. For the sake of this analogy, God provides a mule or a team of oxen---servants to mankind in order to pull the plow through the unbroken earth. The strength of these animals are illustrated by the strength of God and how He empowers his word to accomplish what He sends it forth to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). However, without man's hand on the plow, God's word will often NOT be sent forth due to lack of faith to lead and guide it. By putting our hand to God's plow and obeying Him, we allow His word to go forth.

Once we put our hand to the plow, Jesus tells us we should never look back. We should understand that while our past has often shaped our present, we cannot allow it to dictate our future. Obedience that cuts a straight furrow through life would be terribly impeded if we were constantly looking back and worried about where he have been rather than where we are going. Paul, a confessed murderer and persecutor of the church tells us in Philippians 3:13 to forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead. We can do NOTHING about the past, but only make corrections for the future by the experiences acquired in our brief histories. While Jesus' admonition in Luke 17:22-37 refers to His second coming, it is still an important lesson for us to understand in regard to obedience. If we refuse to allow the anxieties of this life to pull us off course, then we will remain stalwart to keep looking ahead. In verse 32, Jesus says, "Remember Lot's wife," a sobering lesson on looking back once we have our put our hands to the proverbial plow (Genesis 19;26).

Time is significant, or God would not have created it. Therefore, it is important to regard new beginnings in time as God-ordained opportunities to start afresh. While man-made resolutions are to the most part useless, we can be assured that God patiently awaits for us to recommit to Him on our spiritual journey. Some of us have taken our hands off the plow and have allowed acres of "heartland" to become fallow. It is time to once again take hold of God's plow, the word of God, and walk steadily and determinably after Him. If we will follow the plow He has given us to guide, He will provide the strength to pull it along. Will we do this perfectly? None of us have, nor will any succeed except One. Jesus Christ will walk along side and coach us the entire length of God's field if we will but allow Him to do so. Before long, the soil of our hearts will be fertile once again to take the seed of God and bear fruit the way He desires. May we all put our hands to God's plow this year, never wavering as the Holy Spirit strengthens us and the Son of God guides our hands. May we all know the blessing of obeying Him in all things this coming year as we put our hands in His hands each and every day.

Heavenly Father, thank you for enabling us to obey You in all things. However, when we fail or take our hands off the plow You have ordained for each of us, may you patiently guide us once again to continue our journey, pressing on toward the goal of the upward call. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Longing for Messiah - December 21, 2014

Matthew 2:10 - When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Christmas was always a special time for me as a child. In my elementary years, I remember planning for the yuletide season weeks and months before the big day. I had some understanding that this was indeed the birth of Christ. However, as most children, I was consumed with the rapturous longing for the expectancy of Christmas Eve and the wonder of the next morning. Years past as did the charm of Christmas. In my teens and up into my 20s, I found the season I once embraced with much affection becoming something I almost dreaded. My cynicism with the commercialism turned me off as it has likewise done with many others. It took finding the Savior to help me find the correct balance---to respect the tradition of this day where we celebrate Christ's birth, along with the made-up, pretend aspect of this joyful season. While I am well aware of the arguments for and against Christians celebrating a supposed pagan holiday in reference to Christ's birth, I suppose I look more at how the Lord sometimes uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise (I Corinthians 1:27). Therefore, I don't believe anyone does this holiday perfectly, the way God intends. However, as long as both non-believers and believers are drawn to consider Jesus Christ's first advent on this 25th day in December, I see far more good than harm as a result. God has undoubtedly used this season to bring many souls into His kingdom. In this I rejoice! However, to those whom much is given, much is required. For those of us who understand the significance of Christ's first advent, we should invariably be drawn into an expectancy of His return. It is incompatible to divorce the significance of one from the other, both historically and contemporarily.

At this time of year, I invariably think about those three Magi who traveled hundreds of miles from the area of Babylon to celebrate our Savior's birth. These men may have known Yahweh. However, they might just have easily not, especially since they probably studied astronomy and astrology under the pagan Medo-Persian religious order of Zoroaster. All we know is that Daniel prophesied the coming of a Great King, the Messiah, in Daniel 9 and they ascertained his birth to be in their lifetimes. The prophet states:

Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. - Daniel 9:24-25

The 69 weeks mentioned in these scriptures are symbolic of 69 years times the number of days in a week, seven. From history, we know that Artaxerxes, King of Persia issued a decree on March 14th, 445 BC. The aforementioned 69 years times seven years would equal 476 years plus 24 days (on the Jewish lunar calendar consisting of 29.5 days per month) thereby culminating on the very day Jesus would make His triumphal entry into Jesus as "Messiah the Prince" (April 6, 32 AD). This is important to know in regard to the Magi. With the precision of Daniel's prophecy regarding the advent of the Messiah, the Wise Men knew his approximate time of birth by calculating the age of someone proclaiming Himself as the Messiah. This Person would need to be at least 30 years of age to comply with Jewish laws of manhood. Therefore, the Magi were expectant and overjoyed at the appearing of the star, knowing this was surely the sign of the Prince's appearing. Their journey to ancient Palestine resulted in the familiar story we all know so well in Matthew 2:1-12. We are told how they returned to their own country after visiting the child and his parents, thereby ending their story according to scripture. However, it is easy to imagine how they presumably understood the saga of this Messiah Prince had only begun. Just as they were able to figure out mathematically the time of Christ's first appearing, they knew that a future event yet to be revealed would mean Christ's return. They probably didn't understand all of the implications of His second coming. However, we can certainly believe they knew the final week, or the 70th week in Daniel's prophecy, was to be fulfilled at a later date. Their faith undoubtedly became strong by participating in His first advent, while they looked futuristically to His imminent return.

Ironically, the entire world has the same information today that these Zoroastrian Magi possessed nearly 2000 years ago. Unlike many today, these Wise Men of ancient times were expectantly waiting for the revelation of the Messiah. While many today look forward to what we call Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ, I wonder how many who call themselves Christians long for the second appearing of Jesus? When He comes again, He will not come as a babe, but as the KING OF KINGS and LORD OF LORDS. While many can look forward to a holiday celebrating His birth, how many long for Him and the revelation of what His birth means to us all? And, of equal or greater importance, how many of us desire to know the Man grown up from that manger who was once covered in swaddling clothes? Beloved, I suggest it is hypocritical to suggest how one can love Christ's first advent celebrating His birth, but not be expectantly waiting for His second coming. The two are inextricably linked. My mention earlier that more good is done than harm by celebrating Christmas, I should now further qualify. We cannot be content to just celebrate the Savior's birth. If that is all we do, then we have stopped short of God's intent and aborted the Christ child, not allowing Him to grow to full stature in our hearts. He is coming again, and if we are expecting a sweet baby we will be horrifically disappointed. The Christmas Child is meant to grow and become first our Savior and Lord and then our friend. If we refuse to give up the silly notion that Jesus came once only to give us a reason to celebrate the birth of the Savior, then we come woefully short of the mark. If, however, we embrace not only the Christ-child and the expectancy of His future return, then we fulfill His desire for men and women who celebrate His ENTIRE life. He is coming after a holy bride that anticipates His coming, purifying herself as she waits (I John 3:2-3). May we all be "wise men", calculating the impact on our lives by both his first and second advent. Otherwise, we may reveal our foolishness at His great appearing by our falling short of His wonderful intention for our lives.

Heavenly Father, thank You for revealing from Your word the first great advent of Your Son. While no man knows the day nor the hour of His second coming, may we all ready ourselves by loving his first appearing and longing for His most certain return. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fathers' Hands - December 14, 2014

Jeremiah 47:3 - ... The fathers have not turned back for their children, because of the limpness of their hands.

As a grandfather, there is nothing quite like my grandson reaching up to grab hold of my hand as we walk. It is a special connection that speaks of a child's trust toward someone that loves him deeply. I remember holding my children's hands when they were small, and that same childlike trust. Their adoring eyes would meet mine as I would pick often them up and hold them tight. Ideally, attachment to our children is not supposed to turn into emotional and spiritual detachment. Children will continue to love and trust through pubescence and into adulthood if they are not disappointed to do otherwise. What will frequently initiate a severing of paternal ties with our offspring is a lack of care and concern for them, and an overriding preoccupation with ourselves. Oftentimes, parents can become so detached from their children that their self-absorption is evident to all, especially to our children. While our offspring often look to mothers for comfort, they look to their fathers for protection. A child will rightly feel grossly violated when a father fails to keep them from harm and without a sense of security.

Paternal trust by our children is as old as mankind itself. In the book of Jeremiah, we see a breach of this trust nearly 2600 years ago amongst Israel's ancient rival. As our lead verse implies, a horrific theme of forsaking had occurred which continues throughout the chapter. The prophet is speaking a prophetic word against the Philistine nation regarding their devastation by the hand of Pharaoh. Jeremiah's inference in this futuristic foretelling is that the Philistine fathers would abandon their children, being terrorized while running away from the onslaught. Upon the fulfillment of this prophecy, some had undoubtedly escaped Gaza (a chief city of Philistia) without concern for the welfare of their offspring. He spoke judgment to these weak fathers for their self-centered preservation, who would sacrifice their own children to their ruthless conqueror. The prophet characterizes their lack of strength as both a man and as fathers by the "limpness of their hands".

A day of forsaking such as portrayed by Jeremiah did not happen because of this solitary event. In order for fathers to forsake their children in a time of distress, they undoubtedly had forsaken them days, weeks, months, or years before in their hearts. Their lives had become so busy with their own pursuits that their children became pushed down the priority list. We see other examples in scripture of fathers forsaking their children in much more demonstrative and horrific ways. The Old Testament mentions the Ammonite god Molech eight times and it is always in conjunction with child sacrifice. Twice in the book of Leviticus, the Lord warns the children of Israel of this detestable practice of the nations they are soon to dispossess from Canaan (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2-5). Sadly, in the book of Kings, we see its establishment by none other than King Solomon (I Kings 11:7). Whether Solomon himself sacrificed any of his own children to Molech is not revealed in scripture. However, we can surmise that this was an invitation to all who desired to do so to complete this ghastly form of idolatry. We are told that two later kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, did indeed "make their sons pass through the fire" (II Kings 16:3; II Kings 21:6). One might ask, "How could someone do such a thing? It would never even enter into my mind to do a crime such as this against children!" Before we cast judgment on these ancient idolaters, let us first establish the fact that idolatry of ANY kind is an abomination before God. The Lord stated in His first commandment, "You shall have no other gods besides Me" (Exodus 20:3). While child sacrifice is horrific, it is merely a progression of idolatrous behavior that had become socially acceptable. To give a more contemporary example, we might say that we would never have participated in the holocaust against the Jewish nation in World War II Germany. However, once something becomes acceptable, there is no telling what atrocities will be awakened in the human psyche.

While this is a horrific thing for us to contemplate -- fathers abandoning their children to idolatry -- it is indeed a reality happening around us every day. Fathers with "limp hands" are giving in to their own desires rather than sacrificing themselves for their children. (Indeed, there will be a sacrifice, whether it is the father or the child!) We see it happen as children are allowed to grow up much too fast, exposed to the overt sensuality of this world. Through paternal blindness, their innocence is sacrificed in the name of social acceptability. "After all," both fathers and children might reason, "Everyone else is doing it so I guess it's okay, huh?" What they fail to recognize is that it's not okay. These fathers with no moral compass have allowed their children to "pass through the fire" and to be sacrificed to the god of this world, all in the name of compliance to social norms. What they fail to recognize is that they have run away from the enemy much like the Philistines before Pharaoh, sacrificing their children rather than protecting them. By not sacrificing themselves, they have created an insufferable breach in relationship that can only be healed by the Lord God Almighty. For those of us who have sacrificed our children to our respective "Molechs" by our neglect and selfishness toward them, there is always opportunity for healing. If we confess our sin of idolatry to the Lord, He will begin the restoration. We must be willing to tear down the altars of selfishness and do whatever it takes to bring reconciliation. May God give us all strong hands and tender hearts to bring the children back to a father's heart of love and sacrifice.

Heavenly Father, teach us to be remarkable fathers. Allow us first to surrender our lives to Your Fatherhood. Then, give us tender hearts and strong hands for those You've called us to father. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick