God is Faithful to His Promise

Esther, Chapter 9

I recently delivered a message from the book of Esther about the faithfulness of God, who is sovereignly at work in our lives, sometimes in ways that are obvious, and sometimes from behind the scenes. If you know the story of Esther and Mordechai (see Esther Part 1and Esther Part 2), you will remember that it is an example of God at work from behind the scenes. It did not just happen that, when the king of Persia made an impulsive decision to divorce his wife, he selected a Jewish girl as his Queen. It did not just happen that Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, overheard a plot to assassinate the king and was able to get word to him through Esther to save his life. It did not just happen that the king was favorably disposed to Esther and welcomed her, uninvited, into his presence and granted her wish for two banquets. It did not just happen that the king couldn’t sleep one night – and it did not just happen that he turned to the account of Mordechai’s loyalty when he read the official records to make him drowsy. It did not just happen that there was a grand reversal of the future of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, and Mordechai, the advocate for the Jews. And, it did not just happen that the king was favorably disposed to Esther and Mordechai in granting a reprieve to the edict that encouraged people to massacre the Jews. In all of these events, God was at work behind the scenes.

There is one more act of God’s sovereignty from behind the scenes that brings final resolution to the story of Mordechai and Esther, and that drives home the truth of the faithfulness of God. In Chapter 9 of Esther, the King of Persia grants Mordechai and Esther the ability to make an edict that counters another edict that gave the citizens of Persia permission to attack and potentially annihilate the Jews who lived anywhere in the empire. This new edict gave the Jews permission to defend themselves, and even take the offensive against their enemies.

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them. The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples. (Est 9:1-2 ESV)

As the story unfolds, the Jews killed over 75,000 of their enemies over a two-day period. Now, this action has often been criticized by those who suggest that it was a heinous act of the Jews that was carried out at the command of the powerful Mordechai and his niece, the Queen. But I would like to suggest that it was really an act of God from behind the scenes to demonstrate his faithfulness to his word. Let me set this up for you.

This circumstance grew out of the conflict between Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, a distant relative of Kish, whose son was Saul, first King of Israel (2:5). Haman was an Agagite – a descendent of Agag, an ancient king of the Amalekites (3:1). Saul and Agag  had a history of unfinished business. The first army to attack the new Hebrew nation after the Exodus was the Amalekites. They became the arch enemy of the Jews. As a result, Israel was instructed to blot out their name from under the sun.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exo 17:14 ESV) – Ex 17:16.

To utterly blot out the memory of a nation is called holy war, when God’s judgment on a people who were so vile and godless that his sentence was total annihilation. God decreed that the Amalekites were under that sentence. In 1 Sam 15, Saul was given the opportunity to accomplish this sentence, but he failed. You will remember that instead of total annihilation, Saul spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and he took some of the spoils of war. He even spared some of the people (1 Chron 4:43). That failure cost Saul the throne, and the tribe of Benjamin the honor of the throne. Generations later – Mordechai and Haman – descendants of Saul and Agag, continue the ancient conflict. But this time, there is no failure. When the day of the conflict arrives, the Jews accomplish a great victory.

The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.  In Susa the citadel itself the Jews killed and destroyed 500 men, and also killed Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews, but they laid no hand on the plunder.(Est 9:5-10 ESV)

This last phrase is very important. Later in the story, this same phrase is repeated in vs. 15 and again in vs. 16. Here is the suggestion.  The terms of holy war specifically state that there is to be no plundering of the victims. You will remember this is the reason Achin and his family were judged following the annihilation of the people of Jericho (Jos 6). Even though the king gave them permission to plunder their enemies (8:11) when the day came, the Jews did not plunder their enemies. The suggestion is that Mordechai instructed the Jews that this was holy war. It is possible that those that the Jews killed were descendents of the Amalekites and that with this action, God’s declaration of holy war against the Amalekites in Ex 17:14-16 is fulfilled.

How faithful God is to his promises!!!

But lest we conclude that God is a tyrant, let’s reflect on the grand truth of the Bible. God provided for our welfare by carrying out holy war – not on us who are his enemies (Eph 2:1-3), but on himself through the sacrifice of his Son.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Co 5:21 ESV)

Instead of wiping out his enemies, he made them his friends.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph 2:13-16 ESV)

The grand His-Story of the Bible is a marvelous unfolding of the truth of God’s faithfulness to his word.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Joh 3:16 ESV)

If you have not already, won’t you bow and receive the gift of God’s grace extended to you? When you do, He will be faithful to his word. You will not perish but you will have eternal life.

The Presence of God, Part 2

Last time, I suggested that the experience of the presence of God is a thread that runs through the entire Bible. In the Garden of Eden and in the New Heavens and New Earth, his people have unhindered access. In between, access is available, but only through sacrifice, beginning with the sacrifice of the animal for Adam and Eve, and continuing with the sacrificial system in the Tabernacle and Temple, and culminating with the sacrifice of Jesus, which opened the opportunity for us to experience God’s presence both individually and corporately in the local church. Today I want to elaborate on how the presence of God is manifested in the local church.

As Paul says in Eph 2:18-22, the church gathered is a temple of God in which his presence is visible.

For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.(Eph 2:18-22 ESV)

How can this be? How can God’s presence be visible in the local church in a way that is even similar to the way his presence was manifest in the Tabernacle and Temple? I suggest that the answer is in the way he lives in believers by his Spirit and how he lives through believers through his gifts. When believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit come together, God is present and when these believers use their gifts, others experience his presence. When a gifted teacher teaches, students experience the presence of God. When a gifted worship leader leads worship, the congregation experiences God’s presence. When a person with the gift of encouragement encourages someone, that person experiences the presence of God. How many times have you heard someone say, “When he speaks, God speaks to me,” or “When she prays, I am taken into the presence of God?” This is how God’s presence fills the church gathered.

There are two questions that I pose that relate to this suggestion. First – why do you go to worship services or small group studies or leadership team meetings? If you go to make friends, you may find some, but what happens if and when they move? If you go to hear great music, what happens when the worship team has an off day? If you go to send your children to Christian Education, what is there when they graduate from high school and go to college or get married? If you go to hear the pastor answer your questions about the Bible, realize that while he may have some answers, you can always find better answers in Bible commentaries or online or on the radio. All these reasons for attending church have a potential let down. But if you go to church to meet God through others, you will never have the same experience twice and you will always be refreshed and inspired. With that expectation, we should be excited to go to church!!! Second – what if you go to church and never use your gift? If you go to church and are a sour puss, people will meet a sour puss. If you go to small group with a critical spirit, people will meet a critical spirit. But if you go to church or small group and you use your gift, people will meet God!!! This is a huge motivation for discovering and nurturing your spiritual gift!

This is how God fills the church gathered. God reveals his presence through the gifts of his people as they meet together. People are hungry to meet God.  Let’s take the assignment to nurture a healthy church seriously. I can’t wait to go to church this week!!!

The Presence of God, Part 1

I have been captivated with the idea of experiencing the presence of God this week. It all started when I was dealing with the reality of undeserved or innocent suffering and how God does not give us his explanation for allowing it, but he does give us the experience of his presence in it (see Job 38-41 and 42:1-5). For the Christian, the highest privilege in life is experiencing the presence of God. To know the reality of walking with God – having him speak to us, having him give us his strength in times of difficulty, to know him personally, to be intimate with him, so we know what it is like for him to guide us, to lead us, to comfort us. Our faith is not a cerebral faith, it is not a mystical faith, it is not a faith where God is distant from us, where he is some otherworld deity who is not involved with us. Our faith is a relationship with the living and personal God where we experience his presence. Today I want to trace this thread through the Bible – noting how the presence of God is one connection that helps us understand that the Bible is one story, His-Story.

God’s presence is the experience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They walked with him in the cool of the evening, with uninterrupted fellowship. That experience will once again be ours in the New Heaven and New Earth.  But because of the sin introduced when our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit, the presence of God is ours only through sacrifice, but it is ours nonetheless. When Adam and Eve sinned, God sacrificed an animal and covered their nakedness with its skin. That initiative from God enabled Adam and Eve once again to commune with God. Following the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, God manifested his presence to the Hebrew people in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. Then he instructed them to construct the Tabernacle, a central location for sacrifice. When they did, these pillars filled the Holy of Holies and assured the people of God’s presence. When the permanent structure that replaced the Tabernacle was built by Solomon – the Temple – the Holy of Holies likewise was filled with an expression of God’s presence. But with the incarnation of Jesus, God’s presence took a new dimension. As Jesus walked among us, we beheld the glory of God, and the very presence of God was there. But there was still a reference to sacrifice as he taught that his body was the Temple of God. Further, after the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross, the presence of God was not just with his people, it was in them, as the Holy Spirit of God fills those who are born of the Spirit, making our bodies the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the necessity of a central location for the presence of God, prominent in the OT, is discontinued even though the image of the Temple remained. However, there is some continuity with the OT in that there is a special presence of God in the central location of the church gathered, which is called the Temple of God. Notice Paul’s statement in Eph 2:19-22

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22 ESV)

This is a curious statement. We all know that the church is not a building, yet Paul says that God’s presence fills the church when it is gathered. How is this possible? I suggest that the answer lies in Ex 35:30-36:7, a passage that describes the construction of the Tabernacle.

Bazalel and Oholiab were the overseers of this project. Notice how the text describes them. First they were called (35:30). Then God gave them special gifts to construct all the elements of the Tabernacle (35:31-33). Then God enabled them to teach others (35:34). Then the congregation contributed all the resources needed for the project (36:3). Do you see the parallel to the NT church? God calls us to salvation, he gives us gifts, he instructs us to reproduce and teach others, and then he calls the congregation to either be or provide the resources (see Eph 4:11-12). The result of the ministry of Bazelel and Oholiab was the presence of God in the Tabernacle. The result of the ministry of NT believers is the presence of God in the church. But just how does this look in the NT church? I’ll describe that in my next post.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 4

When a person is in the midst of a period of suffering, the most helpful role of a friend is to simply be there. Solutions, anecdotes, personal testimonies of how we have persevered, or even Bible verses about suffering all have limited ability to lift the downtrodden heart. A sympathetic ear or a gracious act of kindness will accomplish much to help someone who is suffering. The principles I will be sharing today are meant for the person who is not in the midst of a season of suffering, in hope that they will prepare you for the storm that may be ahead. I am convinced that they will be of greater blessing than any of the things I shared in previous posts because they come not from the realm of ideas, but from the truth of God’s Word! It is even possible that if God is gracious, they may even help those who are currently wrestling with undeserved or innocent suffering. They come from a speech from one of Job’s friends, named Elihu, and they are based on the following proposition, taken from Job 35:9-16.

When we are overwhelmed with the realities of pain and suffering there is no comfort in God. When we are overwhelmed with God there is comfort in the realities of pain and suffering.

When faced with undeserved or innocent suffering:

Seek God’s Presence – Vs. 9-10

Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out; they call for help because of the arm of the mighty. But none says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night,(Job 35:9-10 ESV)

Our first impulse is to seek relief from pain instead of the presence of God. But the truth is that sometimes the only way we will get to the point of seeking God is when suffering makes us desperate for him. Elihu reminds us that prayer for God’s presence is neglected because all we pray for is relief from pain. But remember that even though the pain may continue, in the midst of it there is comfort in God’s presence. God gives us songs in the night. In our darkest hours, he meets us in our desperation.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psa 23:4-5 ESV)

Learn about God’s World – Vs. 11

Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens? 

This is a profound thought. The beasts of the earth and the birds of the air all live by a mathematical principle that is so cold and calculated: 1 + 1 = 2. They have instincts, they have cut and dried lives – survival of the fittest. But God teaches us to live differently than the animals. God teaches us to live in fellowship with him, to nurture intimacy with him, to love him, receive his power, to live as his children, and to rejoice in being in his family. There is a supernatural dynamic in God’s world that is especially comforting during times of suffering. When we suffer, it is easy to desire commentary on our world instead of insights into God’s world. God offers a supernatural overcoming power by his indwelling Spirit. That’s faith.

Marvel at God’s Mercy and Grace – Vs. 13-16

Vs. 12-14 – God does not respond to cries that are focused on self.

There they cry out, but he does not answer, because of the pride of evil men. Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it. How much less when you say that you do not see him, that the case is before him, and you are waiting for him!

Vs. 15 – Yet God in his mercy and grace just keeps reaching out to us, inviting us to experience his presence

And now, because his anger does not punish, and he does not take much note of transgression, Job opens his mouth in empty talk; he multiplies words without knowledge.” (Job 35:13-16 ESV)

The truth is – if we all got the justice we deserve we would all instantly become toast!! Instead – God offers mercy and grace. We want to justify ourselves. We even judge God. But when we recognize the mercy and grace of his patience toward us when we deserve otherwise – that’s faith.

Elihu’s speech prepared Job to finally hear from God. He does not defend himself, and he does not explain the secret agreement he made with Satan. The mystery of providence remains. Rather, for four chapters, God reveals himself to Job. Finally Job finds his comfort in God.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 ESV)

Here is God’s message to all who suffer with undeserved or innocent suffering. Instead of giving us answers, God gives us himself. And isn’t this the only way it could be? If we had all the answers, God would be reduced to some explainable deity, fully understood by those he rules, which would mean that he really didn’t rule them at all. If God was explainable, we would simply put him in a three-ring binder, slip it among our other religious books on our shelf, and pursue another conquest in life. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews says:

 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb 11:6 ESV)

May I encourage you, in the midst of your suffering to take steps to practice being overwhelmed with God. Meditate on God’s Word, or rehearse the texts of some of the great hymns and worship songs that extol the sovereignty and love of God. There is undeserved and innocent suffering in this world. But God will never lead you where his grace will not sustain you.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 3

For believers, suffering can have profound purpose and meaning.  Here are a few examples:

Suffering for discipline and growth – Heb 12:6-10. Parents discipline their children, but from the child’s perspective, it is not at all pleasant!.

Suffering to build perseverance and faith – James 1:2-5. Every serious athlete knows well the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Suffering to purify character – 1 Peter 1:6-7, Rom 5:3-5. With heat, the impurities in a precious metal rise to the top and can be sifted off by the metallurgist.

Suffering that, when observed, motivates others to be bold in their faith – Phil 1:14, John 12:24. Believers are motivated to live for Christ when they observe each other persevere under trial and suffering.

Suffering and persecution that becomes the seed of the gospel – Acts 8:4, 11:19. Many times God uses the suffering of believers to reach the hearts of unbelievers.

All of these examples make sense and have purpose and meaning. But it is time to delve into the reality of suffering that has no apparent purpose or meaning. We all know of times, if not in our own lives, in the lives of people around us, when serious pain seems arbitrary. What do we do with an absolutely sovereign and good God who allows suffering? Let me set the context from the story of Job.

In Job chapters 1-3, the narrator tells of a secret agreement between God and Satan that allows Satan to afflict Job with unimaginable suffering. It is obvious that he did nothing to deserve his plight, yet clearly it falls under the passive and permissive sovereign will of God (see Part 1 of this series). Clearly, if we take this story at face value, undeserved and innocent suffering is a reality in this fallen world. Therefore, I believe that one of the purposes of this book is to illustrate what to do when undeserved and innocent suffering enters the life of a believer. The key is found in the speech of one of Job’s friends, named Elihu, found in chapter 35:9-16. I summarize it this way.

When we are overwhelmed with the realities of pain and suffering, there is no comfort in God. When we are overwhelmed with God, there is comfort in the realities of pain and suffering.

When Job was overwhelmed with his suffering, he was left to suffer with little or no comfort from God. This is not surprising because he was convinced that God was doing him wrong and he even accused God of injustice (see 31:35-37). But this would violate everything we just suggested about God being sovereign over both good and evil, yet not the originator of evil but only good, and about man being given the ability to make free decision, but those decisions not making God in any way contingent. Elihu opens the door for Job, not to receive answers or a rationale for undeserved and innocent suffering (the mystery of providence still applies to Job) but rather comfort from God in the midst of undeserved or innocent suffering. After all, God remains good and loving and he is always there to give us comfort even when his passive and permissive will leads us to undeserved and innocent pain and suffering.

Perhaps you are feeling like Job today and the realities of your circumstances trump any of the explanations from the realm of ideas that I have presented. In fact, perhaps you’re overwhelmed with your suffering. Elihu gives us three ways to find comfort by becoming overwhelmed with God. I will share them next time.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 2

In my last post I introduced a concept that D. A. Carson calls asymmetry, (How Long O Lord, pg 213) a suggestion that reconciles the apparent contradiction that God is sovereign over both good and evil. I further introduced a theological context for his suggestion that is as follows:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized or mitigated.

Human beings are morally responsible creatures–they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.  (pg 201)

Far from being a simple, convenient way to answer the unanswerable predicament of innocent suffering, these thoughts are clearly biblical in their origin. Today I share a few illustrations.

The fact that God is absolutely sovereign is clearly portrayed in Psalm 115:2-3

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.  (Psa 115:2-3 ESV)

In the NT the Apostle Paul declares,

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (Eph 1:11 ESV)

Proverbs 21:1 tells of God’s rule over the heart of a king. Proverbs 16:9 also describes God’s sway over every human decision. God is the one who turned the hearts of the Egyptians favorably toward the Hebrews during the Exodus. In Isa 45:6-7 God declares his sovereignty over prosperity and disaster. Yet in all of his absolute control, human responsibility (culpability) for sin remains. For example, God motivates David to take a census, and then judges him for this act of disobedience (2 Sam 24:1ff). God intends to punish Eli’s sons, so he somehow stands behind their disobedience but it is nonetheless their own responsibility to bear the consequences. So, the first statement is clearly presented in the Bible. God is absolutely sovereign, but humanity is responsible for sinful actions.

The second statement is also clearly presented in Scripture. Over and over, we are commanded to obey the Law given by God and we are given the freedom to obey or disobey.

 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”  (Jos 24:14-15 ESV)

The Ten Commandments and the many invitations to believe the Gospel all point to the freedom of humanity in choices.   But never is God dependent on these choices (contingent), or obligated to humanity for the maintenance of his own character or governance over his creation.  At the same time, however, God is loving, just and good in all that he does.

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

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”  (Rev 15:3-4 ESV

One of the most revealing passages that illustrates how both of these statements are true and not contradictory is the conclusion of the Joseph saga that is told in Gen 37-50.  Summarizing the egregious act of Joseph’s brothers and the sovereign oversight of our good God, Joseph declares:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20 ESV)

With this statement, Joseph acknowledged that God was behind every dastardly deed of his brothers, yet he was doing more than merely turning a bad situation into something good. It was God’s intention (“…God intended it…” ) for his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. But there is never any indication that God was the author of evil; in fact, all along he was only accomplishing good. Joseph’s brothers, and only they, are held responsible for Joseph’s suffering.

If this seems too convenient for God – allowing him to be absolutely sovereign but not responsible for evil and never beholding to the free decisions of man – understand that this describes, exactly, the God of the Bible. Now we understand the term, ”the Mystery of Providence.” (Carson, pg. 199ff)

I hope you have a place in your thinking for mystery, because we clearly see it at work in the life of Job, the ultimate illustration of undeserved or innocent suffering, but suffering that is under the loving and sovereign hand of God.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 1

It doesn’t take much effort to observe that there is suffering in this world that is not the result of personal decisions. Some people suffer illness because of lifestyle decisions (smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse, etc.). Some people suffer because of unwise relational practices (anger, lying, adultery, cause marital dysfunction). Other people suffer because of selfishness (debt, gambling, risky investments). All of these instances of suffering make sense. There is much suffering in this world simply because we are sinners and sinners live lives that often produce suffering. We take risks, we neglect safety precautions, we make mistakes. Much of the world’s suffering is our own fault. Paul tells us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7 ESV)

But there is a category of suffering that causes those who follow Jesus Christ considerable angst. We call it innocent suffering, or undeserved suffering. This is suffering that has no apparent cause or reason. It is suffering that appears arbitrary. Examples might include disease that just appears (cancer, MS, arthritis), sexual abuse of children, children playing on a school playground caught in the crossfire of a gang gun fight, loss of life and property due to hurricanes or tornadoes. The litany of undeserved suffering could grow quite substantial. Atheists and critics of biblical Christianity use this category of suffering as a major assault on our faith. How could a loving and all-powerful God allow this type of suffering? Either he is not loving, he is not all-powerful, or he doesn’t exist. What is our response? I want to share some thoughts from the realm of ideas and then from an example from the Bible. First, from the realm of ideas.

It is possible (I would say that what I am about to say is in fact true, but for the sake of not being dogmatic, I’ll say possible) that God can be loving and all-powerful and govern a world where undeserved or innocent suffering exists. Now, I am not a trained philosopher, but I do have some mileage under my belt in theology, so here goes. It is possible that God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. He is sovereign over good in a way that is active and causative. He is active over good in that he initiates it. He causes it because he is the source of all that is good. When God created, the Bible says that he declared creation “very good.” But when sin entered the world, his very good world became broken and infected with sin, which produced suffering. Creation cries out in agony, longing to be released from the bondage of sin (Rom 8:22-23). Therefore, undeserved and innocent suffering is a reality. However, this does not require that God initiated and caused evil. I maintain that the Bible clearly teaches that God  can be sovereign over evil but that he did not initiate it nor did he cause it. Rather he is sovereign over evil passively and permissively. Passive means that he did not initiate it. It was initiated by someone other than himself (Satan in heaven and Adam and Eve on earth). Permissively means that before it could come into existence, it had to go through him, which keeps him firmly in control, but not culpable for the havoc it creates. In summary, God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. A word to describe this is asymmetry. Symmetry requires a point-by-point parallelism. Asymmetry maintains a comparison, but not an exact comparison. Another way to describe this is in the phrase, “the mystery of providence.” Providence means that God is in control, but the way he can be in control over both good and evil is a mystery. So here we have it, the providential mystery of asymmetry! That is a door wide enough for a critic of our faith to drive a truck filled with explosives right into our biblical storehouse and blow it to smithereens. But maybe not. If God is who the Bible portrays him to be, it is possible that this scenario of life is actually reality. Why can’t there be a category that is unknown but possible, especially if that is the world that is presented in the Bible? I am quite taken by the suggestion of D.A. Carson in his book, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil,where he introduces readers to two propositions:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized or mitigated.

Human beings are morally responsible creatures–they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.  (pg 201)

These two statements fall within the bounds of the Bible’s storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and recreation. Over and over, material is given that presents these two statements as fact. While they may appear convenient for the argument I am presenting, the truth is that, taken at face value, this is exactly how God presents His-story!

I’ll present some of the evidence in my next post.

The Kingdom of God on Earth

I am convinced that there is a unifying theme that holds the entire Bible together, introduced in Genesis 1 and fully developed in Rev 22. That theme is the Kingdom of God. To support this idea, we need only examine the first proclamation of Jesus following his baptism and wilderness testing.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Mat 4:17 ESV)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mar 1:15 ESV)

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luk 4:43 ESV)

I suggest that there is not much meaning to this message if those who were listening had no idea what the Kingdom of God was. The Jews knew that Messiah would be the king, that they were his people and that he would rule them on the earth. The prophets frequently teach these truths. The masses were convinced that Jesus was that king, as indicated when they hailed him Son of David (the fulfillment of the promise to David that one of his descendants would rule on God’s throne forever (2 Sam 7:12-13). But I want to take a moment to put this truth in the context of the entire storyline of the Bible, beginning with its inauguration in the lives of Jesus’ first disciples.

First – the Kingdom of God is not of this world.

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (Joh 18:33-36 ESV)

There must be a spiritual dimension to the Kingdom of God.

Second – There will be a time when the Kingdom of God will physically envelop this world.

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:6 ESV)

Jesus, the Christ (anointed King), will reign on earth for a thousand years, a period known as the Millennium.

Third – Meanwhile, the Kingdom of God is present in the lives of those who believe.

According to George Ladd, Theology of The New Testament, the Kingdom of God is not the church, but the church (those who believe) enter into it. As such, the church (believers) is the instrument of the Kingdom of God as it carries on the ministry of Jesus (Matt 10:8; Luke 10:17). The church is also the custodian of the Kingdom of God, since Jesus gave Peter, and all who confess Christ (as he did), its keys. Therefore, the future reign of Christ during the Millennium breaks into the present through the followers of Jesus. It is already here (Matt 12:28; Rom 14:7), but it is not yet here in all of its fullness (Matt 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9-10). Therefore, as Wayne Grudem says in hisSystematic Theology (pg 864), believers “will know some measures of victory over sin (Rom 6:14; 14:17), over demonic opposition (Luke 10:17), over disease (Luke 10:9). They will live in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:28; Rom 8:4-17) who is the dynamic power of the coming kingdom.” But we can look forward to a time when the Kingdom of God will indeed reign over all of creation in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

This is certainly Good News worth proclaiming in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the outermost parts of the earth.

The Reality of the Resurrection, Part 2

Last time, I introduced the idea of push-back from critics of Christianity regarding the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Today I will present what I suggest is the strongest counter argument to these critics, and that is the testimony of individuals whose saw him alive and then the transformation of people whose lives have been changed by the living Jesus.

I wonder how many of us remember who won the World Series in 2011, or in 2012? How about who won the Super Bowl in 2009? I suspect that most of us cannot answer these questions but some of us who are sports trivia experts most certainly can. But how can those of us who can’t, be sure about the truthfulness of those who contend that they can? The answer is that there are so many people still alive who watched each of these championship games that any suggestion of the wrong champion would be quickly corrected. All one would need to do is ask someone who saw the games. In the time following the crucifixion of Jesus, there were many individuals who saw him alive. The Bible records many who are specifically mentioned:

Mary Magdalene – John 20:14; Mark 16:9
The women who went to the tomb – Matt 28:9-10
Peter – Luke 24:24; 1 Cor 15:5
The disciples on the road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-33
The Apostles, Thomas absent – Luke 24:36:43; John 20:19-24
The disciples, Thomas present – John 20:26-29
The seven disciples by the Lake of Tiberius – John 21:1-23
500 followers on a Galilean mountain – 1 Cor 15:6

The reason that the story of the resurrection spread and was not able to be silenced is that there were people who were there and who saw the risen Jesus. It is very difficult to simply call so many people flat-out liars – especially, as we noted last time, since critics could not produce any evidence to the contrary.

But I suggest that there is an even stronger reason to believe the truth of the resurrection, and that is the transformation of the lives of those who believe. The Bible tells us that when a person places his/her faith in Jesus, they are united with him not only in his death for the forgiveness of sins, but also in his resurrection for the empowerment of their lives (Rom 6:5). The living Christ actually comes to live in them and he then empowers them to live to the glory of God. The disciples were transformed from fearful deserters to bold and courageous defenders of Jesus (Acts 4:13) who were willing to sacrifice their very lives for the truth of the resurrection. I suggest that this is one of the strongest evidences of the validity of the resurrection. People will go a long way to scheme and plot to promote something false that is to their own advantage. But promoting the truth of the resurrection did nothing but jeopardize their lives. Who would actually die for a cause they knew was founded on a lie? But let’s think about those who were not contemporaries of Jesus. Let’s think about the millions – yes, billions – of people whose lives have been transformed over the last 2000 years, many of whom met the same fate of martyrdom as did Jesus’ original followers. I realize that there are religious martyrs who are not Christians, but the numbers of Christian martyrs dwarfs those of other faiths. Then there is the modern testimony of people who live in countries where Christianity is outlawed and who testify that Jesus appeared to them and offered them personal evidence of the resurrection (see also Acts 7:54-60; Acts 9:1-6).

Yes, Jesus rose from the dead and, yes, he lives in us who believe, and his living presence is available to all who will receive him. I close with the prayer of the Apostle Paul that many will experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:16-23 ESV)

Reality of the Resurrection

I trust that you had an inspiring worship experience with your local church family last Sunday and that the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is still ringing in your mind. We all know that this biblical truth is a reality every day of the year, but this is the season to give ourselves to special reflection on it. It is also the season for Christian critics to attempt to convince us that it is all a religious fairy tale. I have observed that the History Channel promotes many programs that attack the integrity of the Bible and its version of history, although there are also at the same time programs that seem to defend it. I guess that is the role of historians. My own observation, though, is that the HC slants toward skepticism. One of the latest attacks on the historicity of the Bible is a work by author Bart Ehrman in his book, How Jesus Became God. World Magazine published a very helpful article by New Testament scholar Michael Bird and some of his colleagues that addresses Ehrman’s suggestions in their work, How God Became Jesus. (I haven’t read either of these books yet, but plan to get them as soon as I can.) My point is this: the debate on the historicity and reality of the resurrection of Jesus goes on. I bring up this debate in order to introduce the topic of my posts this week. I would like to share some of the most common attacks on the resurrection and give a short suggestion on how we might respond.

Let’s start with the original spin on the empty tomb: the disciples stole the body during the night.

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Mat 28:11-15 ESV)

Let’s examine the practical reality of this possibility.

Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Mat 27:65-66 ESV)

Roman guards were the most disciplined soldiers in history. Falling asleep on the job was punishable by death. That is why the Jews had to assure them that if word got to the governors, they would be their advocates.

Further, the Gospels record how Peter denied Jesus and how the other disciples (except John) fled in fear of the Romans. Are we to believe that they would risk their lives by attacking Roman soldiers and pulling off the robbery of the body of the most publicized “criminal” in the land? Virtually impossible!!

There are two variations of this idea. One is that the Romans and Jews removed the body. The second is that the women disciples went to the wrong tomb. But both of these suggestions are absurd, given the upheaval that the preaching of the disciples caused to the country. A simple way to squelch this new religion would be to produce the body!

Another proposed explanation, known as “the Swoon Theory,” is that Jesus was not really dead, but when he was placed in a cool tomb, he became revived, freed himself from the burial cloths, rolled away the tomb, overpowered the Roman guard and escaped. This explanation is almost more impossible than the first. Notice the evidence that Jesus was actually dead by crucifixion.

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (Joh 19:31-34 ESV)

Two facts attest that Jesus was dead. First, the soldiers verified it. These men were vocational executioners. There is no way that they would ever pronounce one of their prisoners dead if there was any doubt. Second, but just to make sure, they thrust a spear in Jesus’ side and out came blood and water, the separation of which is a medical proof of death. John, not having pathology training, would have no idea of this medical phenomenon, which gives confirmation that it was an accurate testimony and not a fabricated spin in order to promote a hoax.

Now, notice a detail about Jesus’ burial.

Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (Joh 19:39-40 ESV)

Seventy-five pounds of burial spices. That’s a lot of burial spices. To suggest that Jesus could free himself from this cocoon is incredibly naïve.

Finally, historians tell us that when a victim is crucified, many of his bones are dislodged from their joints (see Psalm 22:14). Have you ever had a bone go out of joint – a shoulder, an elbow, a knee? Even if he would somehow be revived – he would be virtually immobile!

In my next post, I will share one more theory and then draw some practical applications related to the truth of the resurrection.

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