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When music aficionados shop for high-end equipment, they are not only looking for a powerful or smooth-sounding amplifier. The most expensive amp in the world is useless if quality speakers are not connected to it. The retail store has these speakers out and in use so they will be available to produce the best sounding music possible for their customers. They are the speakers to which all other speakers are compared, or referred to, for quality of sound, and therefore are called reference speakers. The point I will attempt to make in this article is that the Christian God is the ultimate referent in the earth for power and love.

In the last two posts, we have seen that all of the works and ways of the Christian God are perfect, without flaw or error. He is perfect in everything He does. There are several passages that have been noted, but for this post, what Jesus stated is sufficient: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). We could stop there, I suppose, in our proof of His perfection, since everything the Lord does is perfect; but it is exciting to delve into the nature of the most amazing Being that is possible for us to know.

First, let’s look at the truth that our Father is perfectly powerful. Although all of our examples of power are found in what He has created, such as lions, bears, tigers, elephants, wind, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, electricity, nuclear power, super novas, and all the rest, these are only His creations and therefore pale in comparison to the power He Himself possesses and wields. Absolutely nothing is outside the realm of His ability. He Himself affirmed this when Sarah laughed at the possibility of becoming pregnant in her old age: “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:14).1 And again in Jeremiah: “Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying, ‘Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?’” (Jeremiah 32:26–27). The implications of this wonderful truth are simple. Without question or dispute, no matter what is happening in the world or one’s life, God possesses the powerless to intervene, save, heal, or conquer. However, He does not always choose do so, after the purpose of His own will. In such circumstances, our faith is tested, perhaps severely. Regardless of our doubts, however, the Father God is perfect in power. There is nothing He cannot do. It is impossible that He does not have the power to act. He is the referent for power. All that we know about what is powerful flows from Him.

However, although we may not doubt His power—His ability to come to our aid or the aid of others—we may doubt His love in difficult times. “Why would God allow such a terrible thing if He loves me?” we may ask. In spite of our questions, the truth is that the Lord God is perfect in His love, and there is nothing absent from it. He is love, in fact. “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). To know God is to know what love is. There is no referent for genuine love without Him. His love is without flaw or error. What we know of steadfast love, mercy, and forgiveness, we know from Him. Certainly brotherly love and erotic love exist among all people, but there is no knowledge of a love that does not fail—a love that cannot fail—without Him. Therefore, when circumstances and situations spiral out of control or downward, we must endeavor not to doubt His love. He cannot make a mistake in His love. He does not forget us. He once asked His people, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The Lord is not inattentive to our plight. How could I think that the Father has forgotten me when He knows about every sparrow that falls and the number of hairs on my head? “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29–30). It is ludicrous for me to believe that the Lord God Almighty, who knew my name before the worlds were formed, would somehow forget me (Revelation 13:8, 17:8).

I have been comforted many times by these words from Lamentations: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23 ESV).

God’s love never stops. His mercies are inexhaustible; cannot be exhausted. Our God is perfect in love and power. “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).

1Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

Many years ago, Adelaide Pollard and George Stebbins penned a song entitled, Have Thine Own Way, Lord. The first stanza reads,

“Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!

Thou art the potter, I am the clay.

Mold me and make me after thy will,

While I am waiting, yielded and still.”

I liked this song when we sang it back in the day, but looking back, I think it is somewhat misleading. The scripture from which this song was taken is Isaiah 64:8:

“But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”1

However, let’s read the context in which this sentence appears.

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem desolation” (Isaiah 64:6–10). (A related scripture in Jeremiah 18 describes a potter who destroys the vessel that was marred in his hand which he must re-work into a new one.)

Does this sound like a quiet prayer time, when the one seeking the Lord is “yielded and still”? No, rather, Isaiah and Judah are in a desperate situation. The Lord God is dealing harshly with a people who have turned away from Him. He exacts this discipline because He loves His people as a father loves his children. We are told in Deuteronomy 8:5, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.” We find this idea repeated in Hebrews 12:5–6: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Before we proceed further about God’s discipline, however, let’s consider the One who does this refining work.

The God we see in both the Old and New Testaments, is perfect. (For the previous post on this topic, see here: http://jlthomson.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/does-it-matter-that-god-is-perfect/). Let’s look at a couple of characteristics that indicate God’s perfection. The Christian God is perfect in knowledge. He has no need to look outside of Himself for knowledge—He knows everything that is possible to know, both now and in the future. This knowledge is so complete that it includes even our thoughts. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). In addition, He is perfectly powerful. He does not need to call upon another power for strength in order to accomplish His purposes. No entity exists on the earth or in the universe that is more powerful than He, since He created all the powers that are. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created “(Revelation 4:11).

We could go on, undoubtedly, about God’s perfection, but let’s return to where we started: God disciplines His people. The point I want to make is this: Because the Lord is perfect, He disciplines His people perfectly.

As we read earlier, every child of God is chastised and disciplined by the Father. Every one. No exceptions.

Yes, that includes you, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ.

As Hebrews 12:10 tells us, our fathers disciplined us, and they did the best they could, although their discipline was imperfect. However, unlike the discipline of our fathers, the Lord’s discipline is perfect. He makes no mistakes. There are no miscues or misunderstandings. Here are the implications of this truth: Whatever has come your way, whatever suffering, trial, or trouble, the Lord God has either allowed or caused it. If this were not true, He would not be perfectly sovereign, and therefore the possibility would exist that some other power on the earth has power superior to His. This cannot be true.

The Lord God does not toss out discipline at random, as if He were scattering seed willy nilly, and therefore some of it landed on you. He knows your thoughts, after all, as well as your actions, and therefore what is needed to further your growth in godliness. The trouble you are experiencing has been perfectly crafted by Him in order to bring some future good to you—sharing in His holiness. One of the problems we have, however, is that when we read, “that we may share his holiness,” we don’t really know or perhaps even care what that means.

Holiness has to do with separation. God is perfectly set apart from His creation, and He wants us to move in that direction. Although you are holy in Him by virtue of His sacrifice, His desire is to bring the reality of that holiness in your life, which means continuing separation from the world. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Holiness also has to do with moral purity. The Lord is perfectly morally pure. He has purified those who believe in Him with His blood. However, He also wants us to earnestly desire that we fight the good fight in our battle against our sinful nature. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep” (James 4:8–9).

So, to sum up, God loves us so intensely that He sacrificed Himself to redeem us to Himself. But this God of love is also a God of whom it is written, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). This extraordinary God will judge believers someday. “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12–15).

Our perfect God is a consuming fire, and He will discipline us perfectly. He will make us uncomfortable. He will try us, for His glory and our eternal good.

1All scriptures from the English Standard Version.

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When we are pleased with the efforts of a family member, a co-worker, friend, or even ourselves, we often exclaim, “Perfect!” When we give a gift to someone, he or she might say, “This is a perfect gift. Thank you very much.” When we say such things, we mean that what has been offered could not be any better by our standards of perfection. However, our definition of perfection is insufficient when we consider the way in which God is perfect. His criteria for perfection are different from ours. For instance, let’s look at this verse from the song that God Himself wrote, which He instructed Moses to teach to the people of Israel:

“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).

Now, when we are told that God’s work is perfect, it means something quite different from the work of an employee on the job. If God’s work is perfect, there is absolutely no flaw in it whatsoever. It is not only perfect now, it will be perfect tomorrow, and will be perfect throughout eternity. This is not how we humans judge perfection. In fact, we are incapable of making such an evaluation. For example, an automobile manufactured in 1922 may have been built perfectly by early 20th century standards. However, compared to contemporary vehicles, it was dreadfully unsafe and unstable. In addition, do we know today, with the many improvements made to automobiles in the last century, what a “perfect” car would look like, or how it would operate? I think you’ll agree that we are simply unable to answer that question, because we understand the nature of technology. Were the best computers built in 1980 perfect? Perhaps no one would have said at that time they were perfect, but there wasn’t anything better available. However, they were in no way “perfect.” And again, what is a “perfect” computer? We are unable to say.

However, regardless of what century it is, God’s works are perfect, and they are perfect forever. What a wondrous, perception-challenging thought this is. If I may use words from technology, there will never be any upgrades, updates, or improvements. In contrast to our way of thinking, the works of God cannot be improved upon. The most important example of this is His work on the cross. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, offered the perfect sacrifice for sin. This is enormously important because if Jesus and thus His sacrifice were not perfect, the possibility would remain that some sin, perhaps yours, was not included in that sacrifice. Thankfully, every sin that had ever been committed or ever will be has been cleansed forever for those who believe. If that were not true, Jesus’ sacrifice would not be perfect.

Not only are His works perfect, all of His words are true or prove true.

“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5–6 ESV).

A Handbook on Proverbs says, “The Hebrew term translated proves true is literally ‘smelted’ or ‘refined’; here it is used in a figurative sense meaning ‘pure,’ ‘purified,’ or ‘tried.’”1 When God’s words are put to the test, like smelting ore in a refining fire, they come through that testing fire without any imperfections. To put it another way, what God said thousands of years ago is still flawlessly true today. It proves true. There are two very important examples of how God’s words have proved to be true through the centuries. Here are God’s words spoken to Satan in the Garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15 ESV). This is a prophecy about Jesus who would come thousands of years later to be bruised slightly—His death was actually a victory—but who would inflict major damage to the devil, because Satan’s power has been ultimately vanquished. The other example of the eternally true words of God is from Genesis, as well. It is another prophecy about Jesus: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3 ESV). These words have proved true after millennia have passed. All the families of the earth have been blessed by the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ.

Whenever God speaks, only eternally truthful words come out of His mouth. Therefore, when He tells us if we are re-birthed sons and daughters of God who are greatly loved by Him, it will always be true. The Father will love us and provide for us as sons and daughters for eternity. When He states that if we do not know the Son we are condemned, that is eternally true as well, as unpleasant as that may be to the ears of some. When Jesus proclaims that He will return for His people and judge the earth, although that event may transpire thousands of years later, His words will prove true. We could go on at length declaring the truth claims He makes throughout Scripture, but we’ll end with this one: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). I will wither and fade. You will, as well. But God’s words will never, ever wither or fade. All of His words are all true in the deepest, most meaningful, eternal way possible.

1Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (2000). A handbook on Proverbs (p. 623). New York: United Bible Societies.

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Does anything about the Last Days upset me?

Yep. Plenty.

You may respond by saying, “Don’t worry, Jim! We win in the end!”

True, but here is a question Jesus asked that gives me serious pause, and it’s not about earthquakes or rumors of wars:

“And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7–8 ESV, emphasis added).

Keep in mind that this is God Himself talking, and He is expressing concern that there may be very little or no faith when He returns.

Yes, if you’re here at that time, that means you.

You may reply, “I won’t be here for any of that. I’m going up in the rapture.”

However, here is a portion from Revelation that should bother you, whether you think you will be here or not.

“And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:5–10 ESV, emphasis added).

Why should this trouble you? Because the saints will be conquered. Whether you think you will be present for this terrible time or not, these are your brothers and sisters. When Jesus says, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints,” this should concern you. A very difficult time for believers lies ahead.

In addition, these verses cause me no small measure of unease:

“Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:16–17).

It no longer seems far-fetched to envision a cashless society, even in very poor countries. Almost everyone has a cell phone now, including those we consider destitute. These verses upset me, not only because it would be probable, since Laurie and I would reject the mark, that we would die of starvation. Watching my wife die like this would be unbearable in the extreme. However, our kids or grandkids might also die in this way. And lots of parents and their children would. Witnessing this would be a grief and a horror from which no one would fully recover. Thankfully, we would all be with Jesus soon, who would wipe away our tears.

Here’s the last one. People who are warning about the Last Days often talk about earthquakes, and wars and rumors of wars based on this scripture portion from Matthew:

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:3–6).

True enough. Jesus continues to speak about famines, earthquakes, tribulation, deaths of believers, lawlessness, betrayal, hatred, and apostasy in His answer.

Doesn’t sound too pretty, does it?

Thankfully, Jesus gives us hope. He says in verse 14:

“But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). (This sounds a lot like “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” from Revelation 13:10 we read earlier.)

And the end of all the last-day trouble is this:

“And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31–32 ESV).

Yes. Those who say we will “win in the end” are correct.

However, while acknowledging Jesus’ ultimate victory, let’s return to where He begins His answer to the disciples’ question, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”

You would expect His answer to include a list of signs, which Jesus does eventually provide. However, the very next thing that Jesus says is, “See that no one leads you astray.”

Now, you may say, “I would never be led astray.” To this, I would respond, “Then why would Jesus be so concerned that this statement would be at the top of His warnings?” And, “You say you will not be led astray, but have you ever watched your children, any children, anyone die from lack of food? Have you ever experienced being on the brink of starvation yourself? Have you ever been subject to utter lawlessness—or any of the things Jesus listed? If you haven’t, don’t be so proud to think that you would not be crying out for a savior—any savior—for rescue, even a false one.”

When I pray for the kingdom to come as Jesus instructed us to, I often add, “Father, be merciful.” The time of the end will be difficult in the extreme.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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From time to time, I pray that the Lord will bring down the hierarchical structure of the Church, wherever it exists. Does this sound radical? Well, after studying the concept of leadership in the New Testament, I’ve come to very oppositional conclusions about what we so easily today call “leadership.”

The concept of leadership is found in different manifestations in the New Testament. The word “leader,” which is how the ESV translates “hegeomai”—one who goes before or leads the way—is found in only four scriptures:

In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is exhorting the readers to:

Remember their leaders and imitate them (vs. 7)

Obey their leaders and submit to them because they keep watch over their souls (17).

To greet them (vs. 24).

However, the fourth place this word appears is the most significant, in Luke 22. Here is the context in which the word “hegeomai” or “leader” is used.

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25–27 ESV).

So, it seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it, that a leader is to be a servant and yet have people submit to and obey him? Apparently, leaders are to “lead the way” while being servants.

However, the idea of a leader in the Church becomes a bit clearer when we consider the biblical offices of elder, deacon, overseer, and pastor.

The first place the word “elder” occurs in the New Testament concerning the church is in Acts 11:29-30: “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (ESV). The word “elder” here is “prebyteros,” which literally means “old man.” This word is used for church leaders in many, many verses in the context of church leadership. I won’t list them all, but if you study this word, you will find that old men were leaders in the New Testament church.

Another word used for church leaders is “diakonos,” the word from which we get “deacon.” BDAG defines “diakonos” as “one who is busy with someth. in a manner that is of assistance to someone.”1 This word means “servant,” but it is clear that in the New Testament church, the “diakonos” were leaders. The ESV translates “diakonos” as minister, deacon, and servant, and it is used multiple times. Paul called Apollos and himself “diakonos”: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ESV). He also wrote that Jesus was a “diakonos.” “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” (Romans 15:8–9 ESV).

Another word for leader in the New Testament is, “overseer,” which is “episkopos” in Greek. An episkopos is “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that someth. is done in the correct way, guardian,” according to the definition in BDAG.2 This word is used only four times in the New Testament for someone who has what we would call a leadership role in the Church. Here is one example: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV). Once, it refers to Jesus. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25 ESV). In each instance, it describes the work of someone we would call a pastor today.

The word “doulos” also means servant, but such a person is also a leader in the New Testament. All of the New Testament writers referred to themselves as “doulos,” and it goes without saying that they were leaders. This word is used multiple times in the New Testament. Here is an example. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 ESV). However, Jesus is also called a “doulos”: “…but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7 ESV).

Pastors or shepherds are also leaders. Surprisingly, this word only occurs twice in regards to human leadership in the church, in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Peter 5:2. (It is used once concerning evil human leadership in Jude 12.) The other times refer to Jesus. Here is an example: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4 ESV).

In addition, a leader would be a person who is included in one or more of these ministries:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV).

Finally, a leader would, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).

So, to sum up, leaders in the church are:

Those who lead the way.

One who is an older person, most likely a man.

One who is an overseer, a guardian, keeping watch over peoples’ souls.

One who is a servant. The use of the words for servant—diakonos and doulos—are used many times more in the context of leadership than any other word.

One who shepherds people.

He would teach, preach, reprove, rebuke, and exhort. He may also be a prophet, an apostle, or an evangelist.

Therefore, the New Testament idea of leadership is an older person who cares for others, guards and oversees them, leads the way, and serves them. He would lovingly teach, rebuke, and exhort. Should one obey such a person, as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to? Certainly. However, that obedience is in terms of spiritual authority, not hierarchical authority. This must be true because servants do not “exercise authority” like the “Gentiles” do (Luke 22:25–27). They serve them as wise and loving shepherds, leading the way to…Jesus

            1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

            2 Ibid.

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Yesterday, after church at Marco’s, we decided we would go pray for a street beggar. We’d been talking about it for several days, but things kept coming up that prevented us. This beggar is a fixture in town. He sits, day after day, in the same spot on the sidewalk of one of the main streets. Laurie and I have given him food from time to time. He’s missing half of his right leg, and the ankle of his left foot is messed up. I’ve noticed that recently, a half-moon blood-blister-looking boil has developed under his right eye.

However, before we continue, a little back story. I’ve been making a biblical case for a while that what attracted people to Jesus in the Gospels and the Book of Acts were acts of supernatural power along with Jesus’ and the disciples’ authoritative teaching (See the chapter “What Attracted People to Jesus?” in The Wrong Road Taken). It’s not a difficult case to make. If we read the first few chapters of each of the synoptic Gospels, this method of drawing a crowd to Jesus is glaringly apparent, just as it is in Acts. Supernatural healings and deliverances gave Jesus and the disciples opportunities to preach the good news. Knowing this, we have started praying that the Lord would do that here, since this is a very religious place but one without spiritual power. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to maintain that whatever religious power is operative here is from darkness. A person can argue all day with unbelievers or religious people about Jesus, but everything changes in a community when someone is healed or delivered in Jesus’ name. Again, we discover this when we read the Gospels and Acts.

A little more back story. Shortly before we came to Mexico, I had a dream so disturbing that it woke me up, heart pounding. I was in a kitchen, and a big, bald, intimidating brown man was on the counter, looking down at me. He didn’t say a word, but the message was, “I am in charge here. Nothing will ever change. There’s nothing you can do. Nobody cares.” No, he didn’t say, “Resistance is futile,” but the meaning was much the same. I’m not an advocate of what is going on in the church concerning dealing with evil spirits over geographical places. I don’t think it’s wise to take one verse from Daniel and make up from almost nothing a detailed, systematic method of dealing with evil spiritual powers over geographical areas. Like most of the stuff available in books about demonic powers, it is created out of whole cloth with a lot of experiential evidence thrown in. That is dangerous. So, I’m not suggesting that you should go out and find out about the nature of the spiritual power over your town. Daniel didn’t ask for information about this, and I didn’t ask either; if the Lord wants you to know about these things, you’ll know. Our God is not difficult to hear when He speaks.

Back to the story. I asked Gloria, our Spanish-speaking sister, to go with Laurie and me to pray for this unfortunate man. We approached him, and I told Gloria to ask him if he believed Jesus could heal him. He answered, “Yes.”

I then told Gloria to ask him if we could pray for him. He asked, “How long would it take?” I thought this was a little peculiar, but okay.

“Thirty seconds. A minute.”

He responded by saying that, if we prayed for him, it would interrupt his ability to receive money from his “clients”—that’s how Gloria translated it.

Laurie and I walked away. Gloria asked me, “Is that all you want to say to him?”

“Yes,” I said. “He doesn’t want to be healed.”

Our wonderful evangelistic sister turned back and told him something like, “Hey—so you don’t want us to pray for you because of your clients. When you die, see Jesus, and want to enter heaven, you will go to hell. You are going to tell Jesus I want to come in, but He will say, ‘Sorry. Wait thirty seconds and I will tell you.” In other words, it will be too late.

The beggar’s response? He shrugged his shoulders as if it didn’t matter.

Hmm. Nobody cares.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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I hope that in the first post about marriage counseling, we came to see that marriage is, for want of a better expression, a flesh grinder. By that, I mean that your flesh—your old nature, your selfish pride—is ground into a pulp by the Lord. A married person will either climb out of that divine grinder and admit defeat (get a divorce, leave, commit a crime of violence, etc.) or remain in it so that his or her flesh is, well, smashed, to a significant extent. Pride will never disappear entirely; we just learn more quickly how to notice its ugly head rising and back off from the fight. That God-ordained pulverizing process moves us to admit that we’re not always right, that we don’t know everything, and that, yes, we really probably are jerks. We acknowledge that our hearts are hard, like Jesus said they were. We confess that our sinful passions are at war within us, like James said they were. This is difficult, this admission of how sinful we are. Many years ago, a friend humorously told me that after he’d messed up (again) in his marriage, he told his wife, “I’m a sewer. I’m a cesspool.” I’ve used that line many times since. Sometimes that little bit of humor has helped me admit I’m wrong, move past my defense mechanisms, and put to rest the altercation, alleviating the tension.

Thus, after we have admitted that our hearts are hard and our sinful passions are at war within us, we can move on to the verses below, which pretty much sum up the New Testament’s advice on being married:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:22–33).

I’ve spent a lot of time in counseling rooms with troubled and angry couples, trying to help them reasonably work out their conflicts. I’ve concluded that much of what I did was mostly worthless. The primary problem in marriages is addressed in the verses above, and in one, overarching truth: It is the responsibility of both spouses to walk in a sacrificial life with Jesus. The man must go before the Lord, repent, and ask for help to love his wife, whether she deserves it or not from his point of view. The woman must go before the Lord, repent, and ask for help to respect her husband, whether he deserves it or not from her point of view. Both must forgive. It is impossible for a Christian to remove him/herself from that godly requirement. Both must put away anger (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8), which Paul lists as a work of the flesh, along with several other odious sins, in Galatians 5:19-21.

I’ve learned that marriage counseling is about much more than solving marital problems or saving a marriage on the brink of disaster. It is about the individuals involved sacrificially giving up their lives to and for Jesus Christ. I am extremely grateful that the Lord has caused me to circle around to the simplicity of where my spiritual life began—with Him. I always thought that’s the way it should have been, but I mistakenly allowed myself to be swept up in a multitude of books and a wave of evangelical counselling techniques. Yes, there are tips and helps—learn how to “fight nice,” don’t use “You’re just like your Mom/Dad” statements, avoid using the words “always” and “never,” and, of course, the famous “I’m a sewer. I’m a cesspool” technique, among others—but the greatest truth is dying to your pride, selfishness, and anger, and asking for help in obeying the Lord’s truths that we must forgive, love, and respect. In the process, our sinful nature will take a hit, and we will become more mature believers.

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Is it difficult to be married?

Let me think for a microsecond.

Yes.

Over the years, I have told couples many times that marriage is a committed relationship in which two people join together so the Lord can grind them up with His mortar and pestle. Disagreements pop up, selfishness shows its ugly face, our pride is made manifest and then crushed. This is what happens, that is, if we want to have a lasting relationship with our spouse. It is a good thing, this pride-crushing, since the Lord hates pride. The Lord uses marriage as part of His process of bringing forth His godliness in our lives. I am skeptical when people tell me their marriage is free of arguments. To me, that means that one partner is dominant and the other remains passive in order to eliminate confrontation. Married couples need those sometimes ugly confrontations, those tumultuous laboratories, to help us learn how to love as the Lord does.

For those of you who are married, welcome to the jungle.

Raising children has much the same effect. When our children grow up and reject the values with which we have raised them, it takes a great toll on the parents’ emotions as well as our perception concerning how well we raised our kids. We learn how to love our children—our own blood—who have rejected us. Once again, our selfishness and pride are crushed. After raising our kids to adulthood, we are much more gracious to others about child rearing.

People in the United States have a romanticized idea of what love is. My experience is limited, but this seems true of any Western or Western influenced culture. However, romantic love is not the love that God tells us is necessary for marriage. It is not the love that He knows. His love is a steadfast love. It is a love that keeps its promise of fidelity.

We find it very difficult to love like this. Our shallow Western idea of love results in attachments that are easily picked up and just as easily discarded. I may have the “love bug bite me” while I’m at a party or at the store. I may fall in love with someone in aisle three. The music plays, zing goes the strings of my heart, flowers and pink hearts bloom in the sky, and it’s not long before we’re trying to figure out how to get in bed with each other.

Love, true love.

The word “love” doesn’t really mean a whole lot in our culture any more. I can love Doritos. Paint colors. Socks.

One of the symptoms of our shallow perception of love is the relative ease with which one can divorce one’s spouse. (By “ease,” I mean that there will be no cultural or societal scorn directed at you. The reality that divorced couples and their children face by inheriting multiple in-laws, however, is not easy.) I have found Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees concerning divorce to be challenging.

“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’” (Matthew 19:3–8 ESV).

The part of the section I’d like to draw our attention to is the last verse: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

Oh, so the reason people get divorces, except for adultery, is the hardness of their hearts.

So, here is what happens during the first marital counseling session. We admit that our hearts our hard.

And where do our arguments come from? James has the answer:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1 ESV). The word “passion” here is the Greek word “hedone´” which is where our word hedonistic comes from. BDAG gives this definition: “state or condition of experiencing pleasure for any reason, pleasure, delight, enjoyment, pleasantness.”1 This word is translated in other versions of the Bible as desires, lusts, cravings, and pleasures. In other words, I am fighting my spouse because I have one passion, desire, lust or craving for something and she has another—and I want my way for my own selfish pleasure.

Therefore, the second occurrence during marriage counseling is we admit that our sinful passions are at war within us.

Marriage counseling just got easier.

1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Confession time. For most of my Christian life, I had very little understanding about the nature of fasting. I never bothered to investigate the topic in Scripture. I could blame my teachers for not cluing me in, but no; it’s on me. I am ashamed to admit for years—many years—I just accepted the traditional Evangelical understanding of this practice. I just swam along in the ill-informed stream like the rest of my peers. I am ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed that I did not take the time to find out the truth. And to help insure that I don’t become “high-minded, but fear,” let me hastily add that surely there is more to learn.

We all knew we should fast because Jesus said, “When you fast…” The thinking was, “It’s not if you fast, it’s when you fast. So, we should fast.” Ok, but why? The predominant idea was of getting alone with and close to God, perhaps retreating to a quiet, isolated place and hearing His voice. Getting direction.

The New Testament offers very little instruction about fasting. Jesus addressed it, but He only taught about what not to do when fasting: Don’t make a religious show of it (Matthew 6:16-18). The only other time in the Gospels that Jesus took up this topic was when people asked Him why His disciples weren’t fasting. His response should help us understand the Jewish attitude about this practice. “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14–15). Please note that Jesus asked, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long at the bridegroom is with them?”

Mourning. This is what my teachers and I did not consider. Yes, seeking God is a piece of it, as well as seeking direction due to confusion about one’s distressed condition; but people in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ time as well, fasted primarily because they were grieving or in trouble.

Time and space don’t permit us to go through every Old Testament passage about fasting. I encourage you to do a study on your own. However, let’s start with the first place the word appears: “And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord” (Judges 20:25–26).

Why did Israel fast that day? They had just lost 18,000 men fighting against one of their own tribes, the tribe of Benjamin. 22,000 had died the day before. They were mourning. Confused.

Here is the second time Israel fasted. “So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah” (1 Samuel 7:4–6).

Could one say in this instance that God’s people were fasting in order to draw close to the Lord and hear His voice? Well, they’d already heard His voice—they were to put away their foreign gods. They were repenting of their sin. They knew their sinful behavior was abhorrent to the Lord. However, yes, one could say they wanted to draw close after having worshiped Baal.

Here is the third time: “But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days” (1 Samuel 31:11–13).

Why were the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead fasting? Saul had been killed.

Now, let’s return to what Jesus said in response to those who asked why His disciples weren’t fasting. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Fasting and mourning. Fasting and distress.

This all came together for me one day when I remembered what happened when my mom died when I was sixteen. I was so grief stricken that I didn’t want to eat. Food was not important to me in the least.

When Jesus told John’s disciples that His disciples would fast when He was taken from them, He was countering the practice of fasting as a religious tradition and exercise. Jesus taught that fasting should have a purpose, a reason—sorrow and difficulty.

However, this is where it gets even more uncomfortable. Because it is true that Jesus said, “When you fast…” However, what am I to mourn over? Whhy should I grieve to the point where food becomes so unimportant to me that I don’t want to eat? Clearly, it may be because someone I love has died. However, it also may be, as when Israel was defeated by the tribe of Benjamin, that God’s people have been defeated or there is tragedy and debilitating confusion in the Church. It may be, as when Samuel rebuked Israel for worshiping false gods, that I am repenting over my sin.

What else should I mourn for? A world that is perishing, lost in darkness and bondage? A world that is suffering without God? This view of fasting brings greater understanding to what the Lord said through Isaiah:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6–7).

The uncomfortable truth is that I do not mourn. The embarrassing truth is that the condition of the world and the Church does not move me to lose my appetite in grief. I have been asking the Lord to cause me to mourn. This must be a response from my heart, not from guilt or religious tradition. I am remarkably insensitive to a world that is perishing and a Church that is causing Jesus Himself to weep.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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I’m still befuddled by Jesus’ stunning statement that if we do not humble ourselves and become like children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). It has helped me a bit to understand that He Himself did that very thing—became like a child. It is not only that our great, magnificent God came as a helpless baby, He also laid aside all powers when He grew into a man that would enable Him to rule over people as a king. It is true that He didn’t disallow Himself all His powers. Clearly, He still possessed the ability to heal, forgive, cast out demons, and exercise authority over nature. However, He did nothing that earthly kings and potentates do when they reign over others. He purposefully chose to deny Himself that power. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53 ESV). From heaven’s point of view, our great Creator God became as helpless as a child when He dwelt on the earth.

It has also helped me somewhat to understand that He became the least in the kingdom of heaven. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 18:4: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). It helped me because I finally understood—please forgive my ignorance—that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is…Him. Therefore, our powerful Jesus humbled himself like a child and thus became the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. You will not be able to humble yourself lower than He did.

My church and theological world has been turned topsy-turvy by such biblical truths. Here is one more. Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven was like many things. Two of them are addressed here: “He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened’” (Matthew 13:31–33 ESV).

The kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds.

The kingdom of God is like yeast.

The kingdom of God starts in the smallest way possible.

The kingdom of God grows all by itself.

Do we believe this? No, I don’t think we do. No, we must establish some strategy, some systemization; employ wealth, real estate, and talented people to grow in order to “grow God’s kingdom.” Where do we get these ideas?

True, as Paul said, some plant and some water: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7 ESV). Are you a planter? Great. Do you water what has been planted? Wonderful. Do you work hard? Good for you. However, read all of what Paul says here. “…he who plants nor he who waters is anything…” The amazing apostle Paul said that both he and Apollos were…nothing. Are you willing to bring that assessment to you and your ministry? And why should we bring that assessment? Because “only God gives the growth.” No, you are not “growing God’s kingdom.” Only He can cause seeds to sprout and grow. Only He can cause yeast to rise. You can’t do those things, and you will never be able to. This is a good and right thing to come to this understanding. It is good and right because then only He gets the glory for what He does. Oh, how quick we are to broadcast our successes, accomplishments, and numbers! When you plant a tomato seed, a grass seed, any kind of seed, do you say, “Look at how I made that tomato come up out the ground! Look how tall I’m making it grow!” Do you say, “I spread grass seed all over the lawn. You won’t believe how I made so many of them sprout! I’ve counted them! There are over two thousand of them!” But that is exactly what the Church does after it broadcasts the seeds of God’s Word and it sprouts.

Lord, please forgive us for taking the glory to ourselves for what You alone have done.

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