Monday, February 28, 2011

It's a Great Deal but Only If You Act Now

There are a lot of things on my heart this week.  I hope to be able to address them in my posts as we learn together about things that I am sure we all face from time to time.  Today, we will be talking about the Gibeonites.  Sometimes in our lives we make decisions that seem like a good idea at the time, but end up costing us in the end.  The dealings of Israel with the Gibeonites is a beautiful illustration of such a situation.  I hope that we will learn today what happens in those "it seemed like a good idea at the time" situations is that we do not take the time to really inquire of the Lord.  With that in mind, let's get into today's text.
And it came to pass when all the kings who were on this side of the Jordan, in the hills and in the lowland and in all the coasts of the Great Sea toward Lebanon— the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite—heard about it, that they gathered together to fight with Joshua and Israel with one accord. Joshua 9:1-2 NKJV
We are at a point in time after Israel destroyed Jericho and Ai.  The people of the land knew they had a formidable enemy and decided to join together to make a stand against the advancing Israel.  Unfortunately for them, no size army can stop the advancement of the Lord.  If the whole world were to stand against God with arms drawn and ready, it would take but a breath for God to utterly destroy each and every one of us.
But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and AI, hey worked craftily, and went and pretended to be ambassadors. And they took old sacks on their donkeys, old wineskins torn and mended, old and patched sandals on their feet, and old garments on themselves; and all the bread of their provision was dry and moldy.  Joshua 9:3-5 NKJV
The Gibeonites, on the other hand, decided to take a different approach.  They knew they could not beat them.  They were not sure they could join them.  So they decided to trick them.  They pretended to be ambassadors from a far away land and not inhabitants of the land given to Israel.  To complete their con, they took old sacks, wineskins that were torn and patched, and old sandals and clothes.  The goal was to make it look like they were on a long journey proven by how their equipment was worn out.  To make things even more believable, the took old moldy food. 
And they went to Joshua, to the camp at Gilgal, and said to him and to the men of Israel, "We have come from a far country; now therefore, make a covenant with us." Then the men of Israel said to the Hivites, "Perhaps you dwell among us; so how can we make a covenant with you?" But they said to Joshua, "We are your servants." And Joshua said to them, "Who are you, and where do you come from?" So they said to him: "From a very far country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God; for we have heard of His fame, and all that He did in Egypt, and all that He did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan—to Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who was at Ashtaroth. Therefore our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spoke to us, saying, 'Take provisions with you for the journey, and go to meet them, and say to them, 'We are your servants; now therefore, make a covenant with us.'" This bread of ours we took hot for our provision from our houses on the day we departed to come to you. But now look, it is dry and moldy. And these wineskins which we filled were new, and see, they are torn; and these our garments and our sandals have become old because of the very long journey."  Joshua 9:6-13 NKJV
We need to put ourselves in Joshua's shoes now.  We have the benefit of God's word and knowing how they set up their con.  Joshua does not.  From his point of view, some well-worn weary strangers approached him.  They jumped the gun a bit on their con in leading with the request for a treaty.  The men of Israel were immediately suspicious, but that is where the rest of their con came in.  They pointed out their well worn clothes and said they were worn because of the long trip.  To make matters even better, the said that the moldy bread was fresh from the oven when they left and the wineksins were and full and new.  They had every appearance of being from a far off land.  They even buttered up the Israelites by glorifying God and how they heard of all that He did even from afar.  They made themselves out to be people from a foreign land sent to pay tribute and make a treaty to Israel and their God.  A clever scheme, indeed.
Then the men of Israel took some of their provisions; but they did not ask counsel of the LORD.  Joshua 9:14 NKJV
This verse should stand out in your mind.  They did not ask the counsel of the Lord.  They made a decision based on what looked good to them.  They made a decision on their own wisdom.  They made a decision that they felt would be best for them.  We should never do anything without asking the counsel of the Lord.  We can never know the whole picture from our limited viewpoint.  We need the wisdom of the One who knows the beginning from the end.  We need the wisdom from the One who prepared good works for us before the foundations of the world.  We need the One who searches the hearts of men.  Making decision in our own wisdom, even if it seems like a good decision, can have tragic consequences.  Let us see how this all worked out for Israel.
So Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to let them live; and the rulers of the congregation swore to them.  Joshua 9:15 NKJV
And Joshua made his rash decision without the counsel of the Lord.  It was a terribly wrong decision as we will come to see.  He made a covenant to let them live.  His choice to not take the time to inquire of the Lord kept alive a group marked by God for destruction.  Joshua's decision undermined God's pronounced judgment upon this people and Israel was now going to have to live with the consequences of that action.
And it happened at the end of three days, after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors who dwelt near them.  Joshua 9:16 NKJV
Oops.  Joshua just learned that he had been tricked. 
Then the children of Israel journeyed and came to their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath Jearim. But the children of Israel did not attack them, because the rulers of the congregation had sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel. And all the congregation complained against the rulers. Then all the rulers said to all the congregation, "We have sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel; now therefore, we may not touch them. This we will do to them: We will let them live, lest wrath be upon us because of the oath which we swore to them."  Joshua 9:17-20 NKJV
Israel's hands were tied.  They made a covenant to the Lord to not kill these people.  These people, who were set for judgment and given in the hands of Israel, were now allowed to live.  Israel was now between a rock and a hard place. They made a promise to a people who had no business having that promise and now they were under God's chastisement for making that covenant and if they broke that promise they would again be under God's chastisement.  Israel was bound to live with an enemy in their land all because they made a rash decision and did not take the time to inquire of the Lord.
And the rulers said to them, "Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for all the congregation, as the rulers had promised them." Then Joshua called for them, and he spoke to them, saying, "Why have you deceived us, saying, 'We are very far from you,' when you dwell near us? Now therefore, you are cursed, and none of you shall be freed from being slaves—woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God."  Joshua 9:21-23NKJV
Joshua, understanding he had to let them remain, decided to give them a different punishment for their trickery.  They could live, but they had to live as slaves. 
So they answered Joshua and said, "Because your servants were clearly told that the LORD your God commanded His servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you; therefore we were very much afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing. And now, here we are, in your hands; do with us as it seems good and right to do to us." So he did to them, and delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, so that they did not kill them. And that day Joshua made them woodcutters and water carriers for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, in the place which He would choose, even to this day.  Joshua 9:24-27 NKJV
Joshua questioned why they had deceived him and they said that they knew that God had given Israel all the land.  They knew they could not stand up to Israel in a fight, so they tricked them out of that fight.  They were more than happy to accept Joshua's terms.  They were happy that they were alive and now under Israel's protection.  Israel's poor judgment has now bound Israel to the Gibeonites in perpetuity. 

Right away, they were trouble.  The other kings that joined forces to fight Israel had decided to attack Gibeon as traitors.  Israel, by their oath, was forced to come to their defense.  Later in history, Saul attempted to correct the issue of the Gibeonites by attacking them himself leading God to punish Israel with a drought for going against their covenant.  The problem is that once you make a promise, you are bound to that promise whether you should have made it or not.  

That is why we have the lesson of the Gibeonites.  We often make rash commitments without first seeking the counsel of the Lord.  God does not allow us to back out of those commitments whether we should have made them or not.  If you marry the wrong person, it is the wrong person you are to remain married to.  If you sign the wrong contract, you are bound to the wrong contract you signed.  If you get into a partnership with someone who should not be your partner, you are bound to that partner.  If you are tricked into making a commitment, you are still bound to that commitment.  The consequence of our failure to seek after the Lord is to live with the ramifications of whatever decisions or commitments we made.  I know sometimes we are faced with decisions that almost seem to need immediate answers.  Never fall for that as it is a trick meant to deceive you into acting rashly.  If you were ever involved with purchasing a car and told the salesman you wanted to sleep on it, you know full well the slick sales trick of creating artificial urgency to get you to make a commitment you may not make if you had time to think about it.  God tells us to inquire of Him and so we will never be hurt by taking time to seek after God's will for any decision we need to make.  The consequences, however, of making rash decisions can be rather difficult.  You may be on the hook for a loan you can not pay for, you may be married to a person that will never be the spouse God had for you, you may get involved with a business that ruins you financially, and you may even sustain a false gospel God had set for destruction.  Israel thought they had a good deal in that the Gibeonites were their slaves, but as we see from history it was Israel who were the slaves to their foolish decision.  Always take the time to seek after God, there is no such thing as a decision so immediate that it can not be brought to God in prayer.  When faced with decisions in life, the first and only choice you should make is to pray and God will decide the rest.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.  Proverbs 3:5-6 NKJV

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Celebrating What We Should Not Be Celebrating

We all get invited to many celebrations that we should probably not be a part of of.  I am not talking so much of parties where the kind of celebrating done is wrong as even Jesus went to a wedding that involved drinking.  What I am talking about is going to events that celebrate things that should not be celebrated. 

By celebrating something, you are endorsing it and as Christians we need to be careful what we endorse.  I know people who would not go to a wedding when someone was marrying a divorcee because they saw it an offense.  Yet these same people will go to a wedding celebrating a Christian marrying outside the faith.  While they may be differently wrong, are you not still celebrating, rewarding, and endorsing sin by attending a wedding where someone is going directly and defiantly against God's will?  How about a homosexual "marriage"?  Is there any circumstance where a Christian should join in that celebration? And this is not just about weddings, but even celebrations for false gods or celebrations that reward sin.  For example, would you go to an abortion party?  Would you drive someone to get an abortion?  Of course we would do neither.  But would you help a couple move in together before they are married?  Would you go to their housewarming party?  They are still sin, so why is it ok to celebrate one sin and not to celebrate another.  In God's eyes, sin and sin and one sin and not discerned from another.  If God does not discern, how can we? 

This is something God has been speaking to me about lately.  If I represent Christ on earth and if I am the temple of the Holy Spirit, I take God and His witness wherever I go.  As His ambassador, whatever I celebrate, I celebrate also on His behalf.  Would God celebrate a union against His will?  Would God celebrate a relationship founded in unrepentant sin?  Would God join in a celebration that lifts up a false god?  Would God celebrate and reward sin?  Think about that the next time you receive an invitation.  Ask yourself if God would celebrate that.  Sometimes our greatest witness is by our absence.
Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 NKJV

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book of Judge Series - Othniel

Happy Friday everyone.  Today we will get into our study of the judges, and not wasting any time, let us jump right into today's text.
Now these are the nations which the LORD left, that He might test Israel by them, that is, all who had not known any of the wars in Canaan (this was only so that the generations of the children of Israel might be taught to know war, at least those who had not formerly known it), namely, five lords of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath. And they were left, that He might test Israel by them, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the LORD, which He had commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.  Judges 3:1-4 NKJV
Here we pick up where we left off last week.  In light of the sins of Israel, God allowed some nations to remain.  At first, the reason was to give the Israelites who knew no war some experience at war.  It was a way to keep them vigilant.  However, instead of removing those nations over time, God kept them there to keep the sin of Israel in check.  Remember, what we read about what happened to the nation Israel is meant to be an example to us.  These things happened not just for their own sake, but to teach us the lessons in how God deals with His people.  Perhaps there are certain perpetual "thorns" in your own life.  Sometimes we wonder why God does not just remove every obstacle and temptation from our lives.  We learn the answer here.  All that we deal with in life is to teach us to keep our faith in God and to keep us close to Him.  If it were possible for anyone to understand that he needs God even if life was absolutely perfect, perhaps then life would be absolutely perfect.  Unfortunately, our own stubbornness and times of rebellion make it so that God must keep us humble and in the knowledge that we do, in fact, need Him.  This is also true for America.  Remember after the first Gulf War started how full the churches were?   Remember how they were even more full after 9/11.  God allows calamity personally and nationally so that we know just how much we need Him.  Even when times are easy, we need God because it is God who gives us those times of great blessing as well.  When we forget the source of the blessing and begin to worship the blessing or ourselves thinking we provided it, then God must act to keep us humble.  And if in those good times, we forget God and begin to fall into sin, God must chastise us.
Thus the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And they took their daughters to be their wives, and gave their daughters to their sons; and they served their gods. So the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God, and served the Baals and Asherahs.  Judges 3:5-7 NKJV
And so the cycle of sin begins for Israel.  They lived among those other nations and instead of being a beacon of the true and living God, they decided to be just like everyone else.  They rebelled in that they intermarried with the heathen nations around them and even went so far as to serve their gods.  They gave up the true and living God for the false and served the Baals and Asherahs.  Not only did they serve these gods, but in doing so they sinned even more as the service to those other gods was steeped in sexual and other kinds of sin. 
Therefore the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and He sold them into the hand of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia; and the children of Israel served Cushan-Rishathaim eight years.  Judges 3:8 NKJV
The cycle continues.  Israel falls into sin and God sends an enemy to overtake them.  In this case, God allows them to come under control of the king of Mesopotamia.  The children of Israel were slaves to this king for some eight years.  Their sin brought this upon themselves and now they are suffering under the chastisement of God. 
When the children of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them: Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother.  Judges 3:9 NKJV
After eight years, Israel finally got the hint and cried out to the God they had forsaken.  This is what God was looking for from the start.  Well, He was looking for them to never have turned from Him in the first place, but once they had, this calamity was sent to draw their attention back to the God who delivered them in the past.  God, hearing their cries, raises up the first judge over Israel.  This being Othniel.  Othniel was the son-in-law of Caleb.  Othniel was no stranger to heroics.  It was he who in Judges 1 attacked Kirjath Sepher and took it for Caleb, winning his daughter Achsah in marriage.  Othniel had the witness of Caleb when he married into his family and probably remembered how the Lord delivered his enemies into his hand in the past.  Othniel, while not really being sure what he has been up to, was at this point a man of faith and was so raised up by God for this purpose.
The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD delivered Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-Rishathaim.  Judges 3:10 NKJV
And so the Lord raised him up and delivered the king of Mesopotamia into his hand.  He was raised up by God and led Israel to victory over her oppressors.  Once again, God had delivered Israel out of oppression. 
So the land had rest for forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.  Judges 3:11 NKJV
The deliverance of God led to a revival in Israel and so long as Othniel judged Israel, they followed the Lord and had rest from their enemies.  We will see next week that once Othniel died, Israel again turned to sin.  It is the cycle I spoke of last week.  Israel sins, God chastises, the people cry out, God deliverers, the people have a revival, and after a time they once again rebel.  Forty years is about enough time for the generation who witnessed the deliverance of Israel to have died off and the next generation was in charge.  Again, note how this revival only lasted for the generation that had it.  It was not passed to their children.  Once again, we see the importance of bringing up our children in the knowledge of the Lord.

We do not have much detail on Othniel or how God delivered the enemy into his hand.  What we can see this week from this first judge, is a good blueprint for the structure of Judges.  It follows along Israel's revivals and ultimate returns to sin.  We see a clear picture of sin leading to chastisement and how that chastisement was meant to draw the people back to God.  We also see that chastisement does not last forever.  It lasts as long as it needs to in order to complete its purpose, but it does not last forever. 

Let that be the lesson for today.  We all are chastised by God from time to time and sometimes those chastisements seem to last forever.  What we learn here is that the length of our chastisement is largely dependent on us and how stubborn we are to learn the lesson God is trying to show us and to turn our attention back to Him.  God is no sadist and His chastisement is not something He delights in.  No parent delights in chastising their child.  It is something they must do to bring up their children correctly.  A child that is never chastised for wrongdoing becomes wild, disrespectful, and disobedient.  Just like a good parent, God must chastise us as we grow in the Lord.  It may not be something we enjoy, but it is something we need to be thankful for. 
And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives." If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  Hebrews 12:5-11 NKJV

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Obedience Is More Than Saying Yes

I did not mean for this to be a series this week, but it appears as through it has become one.  Today's message is related to the previous two.  Yesterday we talked about the comparison between those who serve God all their lives and those who come to Jesus in their last moments.  Today we will be comparing those who seemed to live around Christ but never really in Christ versus those who come to Christ in their last moments.  For this, we will go through a parable and an encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee. 
But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went. Matthew 21:28-29 NKJV
We have a tale of two sons.  The first son was sent to the vineyard to work, but he refused.  Later, he repented of his refusal and went to work anyway.  For today's purposes, this is the example of one who comes to Jesus later in life. He rejected God at first, but later repented of that rejection and came to the Lord.  The only "work" required of us for salvation is to accept Jesus as Lord and so this man while living in rebellion for a part of his life, submitted himself to God.  In that submission and out of his love for the Father, he went to work.  Obviously, coming to Christ later in life prevented him from (or in the case of this parable going into the vineyard later) doing as much work as he would have otherwise done. 
Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go.  Matthew 21:30 NKJV
And here we have the second son.  He started out great.  His father asked him to do something, he said he would do it, then nothing.  I liken this to someone who grew up in church.  They probably spent their entire childhood talking about how good Jesus was and had dreams of a life of serving him, but then something went wrong.  They turned away and sought their own way.  The promises made earlier in life proved empty as the ended up living for themselves. So many of these tend to fall away in college or as their careers begin when those pesky Christian virtues get in the way of their own desires. 

This verse also applies to many still in the church.  Jesus here was likening the second son to the so-called religious leaders of His day.  They grew up learning the law, they prayed as they were supposed to, they served in how they thought they should serve, they tithed exactly ten percent of all they had, and yet they rejected the Lord.  None of these works matter when you disobey the one command that matters.  We are saved by grace, but you have to accept that grace.  There are so many in church today who go through the motions.  They may be involved in ministry, they may teach, they may serve communion, and they probably even tithe.  They do all that but ignore the one thing God told them to do.  They never give their lives to Jesus.  All the works in the world do not matter if you disobey that one command.  We do not know what that second son did instead of going to the vineyard nor do we know if he was otherwise friendly with his father.  It does not matter what else he did, he was asked to do something and even said he would do it, but then refused.  No matter what else he may have done, he did not do the will of the father.  Such is the same for us.  No matter what we do in church or for church, it does not matter if we do not the one thing the Father wills us to do, and that is to submit ourselves to Jesus Christ. 
Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said to Him, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.  Matthew 21:31-32 NKJV
Jesus brings the message home here.  He asks which of the two did the will of his father and of course he answered correctly in that the first one did.  That was a bad answer for that Pharisee.  Jesus set a trap and he fell into it.  John the Baptist came and taught the message of repentance to prepare the way for Jesus, and the Pharisees did not hear.  There are many in church today who ignore that same call to repentance and what we have is a powerless cheap gospel.  Note who Jesus likens the first son to, they are the tax collectors and harlots.  In other words, they were the ones who lived a life of sin as opposed to the ones who lived a life of self righteousness.  It is those who lived a sinful life who hear the call of Jesus to grace and repentance through His strength that are likened to the obedient son.  It is the ones who were part of the church community but who never accepted that gift of salvation from Jesus are likened to the disobedient son.  Jesus makes this even clearer in another well known parable.
Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner."  Luke 7:36-39 NKJV
A Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner.  He was probably looking for something to trip him up on.  While at the table, a sinful woman came to Jesus and anointed His feet with oil and washed his feet with her tears and hair.  In other words, she was face down head at his feet weeping and worshiping Him.  The Pharisee thought he had his chance to find fault in Jesus.  He could not imagine that someone so "holy" as Jesus would allow a filthy woman like that anywhere near him.  The Pharisee certainly wouldn't.  He figures that if Jesus were a prophet he would know just how wicked that woman was and reject her. 
And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it." "There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged."  Luke 7:40-43 NKJV
Jesus shares a short parable with Simon.  It was about two debtors who owed different amounts both being forgiven.  The obvious point that the one who is forgiven more would have more love for the debtor than the one forgiven less.  Generally speaking, that is how it would be.  The larger the debt you are forgiven, the more you love the one who held the debt.  The Pharisee just fell into the trap of Jesus.
Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little."  Luke 7:44-47 NKJV
This is very much like the first parable we spoke of today.  This woman did not live her life for God.  She lived for herself and drenched herself in sin, but she came face to face with Jesus and all that stopped.  She did not start her life well, but she ended it clean and forgiven, destined for eternal life with our Lord.  The Pharisee was self-righteous.  He probably grew up in the temple, learning the law and probably thought he was doing right by God.  It was that very attitude that was his downfall.  I am blessed that when I came to Christ, I became part of a church that was filled with people more like this sinful woman than it was by Pharisees.  I know so many who grew up in the church and so many who came to Christ later in life and the difference between the two is amazing.  Now I am making a generalization, but please do not think that everyone who grew up in church is like a Pharisee and that everyone who came to Christ later is like this woman.  There are many exceptions on both ends.  But, from much of what I have seen, I fear for many who grew up in church.  They sort of become Christian by absorption and not by commitment.  They show no changed life because they never really felt they had a life to change from.  They live selfishly, they are lazy in terms of any kind of ministry, they almost never share Jesus, but they show up to church each and every week.  They gossip worse than anyone in the world, they drink and get drunk, they are not leaders of their wives or submissive to their husbands.  They look no different than the world, except they go to church.  Not only that, many times they look down upon those who come in from the world.  I experienced this myself in that when I came to Christ, I was rough around the edges as God worked on my heart.  I was not versed in the Bible and I did not understand everything.  I had a naive child-like faith like any newborn in the Lord and instead of embracing that, it was generally looked down upon.  My enthusiasm was seem as immaturity and my Scriptural naivety was seen as a nuisance.  They take on the attitude of the Pharisee in that they do not even realize what wretches they were if they are saved or what wretches they are if they are not.  I fear many are not.  I fear that many of these never made that personal commitment to the Lord.  Their faith is assumed by their upbringing, but assumed faith is not faith at all.  If you never made that personal deliberate choice for Jesus, then you do not have Jesus.  Unfortunately, many of these do not even know that they need Jesus.  The Gospel message is something they assume applies to them when they never really even made that choice to follow Him.  Even with the saved, for the most part, words like "sinner" or "wretch" are theological terms they never really grasp or understand.  They know they are saved but never really understand from what and other than an intellectual assent that they need a savior, but then never really grasp the sin they are saved from.  Their faith becomes lukewarm and they never really grow.  

On the other hand, there are Christians who came from a life of sin.  The second church I was a part of was populated with Christians such as these.  That church was filled with people who did not grow up in church.  They lived sinful lives before coming to the Lord, sometimes very sinful lives.  They saw that they needed Jesus and invited Him into their lives and that made all the difference.  They cling to the Lord for protection from falling back into the miserable lives they once lived and live as though (because they are) truly grateful for the forgiveness of their many sins.  Their dedication to the Lord is so much more solid because they were able to recognize that they needed Jesus.   They were the first son who after a time of rebellion, answered the call of their Father.  They were the Prodigal sons who came to the end of themselves and came back to their Father pleading for His grace and mercy.  It is for these, that when they sing Amazing Grace, they know full well what a wretch they were that was saved by the grace of God. 

We see today a story of two sons and a related story of a Pharisee and a sinful woman.  May our faith never just be assumed.   May we never be lukewarm.  May we not love our God in word, but not back up that love with deed.  In the end, it is not about how many church services we went to nor is it about how self righteous we are.  It is not about our upbringing or lack thereof.  It is not about what our parents believed and not even about that they taught us to believe.  Grace is not something we absorb, but a decision we must make each for ourselves.  So the question we all need to ask is not whether or not we go to church or grew up in the church, but whether or not we gave ourselves to Jesus Christ, accepting Him as Lord and Savior and if we did, are we truly living for Him and in His example.

Before I close, I would be remiss if I did not address one other lesson from the parable of the two sons.  This parable has much meaning for those in the church as many of us are called into different ministries.  So many of us are reluctant when first called.  We are like Moses in that we are unsure of ourselves, but as we grow in our faith we accept that role God has for us and we see Him working through us.  If God has called you to some ministry and you are holding back, please repent of that and fulfill that ministry that God has called you to.  No matter if you think you are not skilled for it or that it will not be a good experience for you, God would not call you to it if He would not equip you Himself to achieve it nor would He call you to it if it would not lead to joy in the Lord.  There are others, though, who are like the second son. God calls them, they say yes, then they do not do it.  Saying yes to God is not obedience.  Doing what God asks of you is obedience.  If God calls you to be a pastor, then you must be a pastor and lead and teach the church God has given you.  If God calls you to be a teacher and you answer that call, you have to actually teach.  Being a pastor who does not lead or is not there for his church or being a teacher who never teaches is about as useful as someone hired to be a principal who never shows up to school.  It's also kind of like someone who calls himself a Christian, but does not strive to be like Christ.  Titles our pointless without fulfilling its purpose.  Just like the first son, accepting a title and doing nothing with it is like agreeing to do something and not doing it.  Teachers much teach.  Leaders must lead.   You can not call yourself what you are not being, and God will not allow you to betray His trust forever and there will come a time when that ministry will be taken from you. 
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.  Revelation 3:15-20 NKJV

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

God's Own Fairness Doctrine

Today will sort of be an extension of yesterday's post.  Well, actually, yesterday's post is sort of an illustration of today's post.  We all know of people who lived terrible lives who came to Christ on their deathbeds.  We also know others who lived their whole lives for Christ never turning from that childhood faith that marked their lives from beginning to end.  We all know that those who are in Christ all receive eternal life, whether it is someone who comes to him on their deathbeds or whether it is someone who lives their whole lives for Christ.  It almost seems unfair that some can live a horrible life but (like the thief) come to Christ in their last moments and receive the same eternal reward as someone who has lived for Christ their entire lives.  I want to explore what the Bible says about this and I hope that we will see that the perception of unfairness comes from a misunderstanding of the Gospel and a failure to deny ourselves.  Today we will be going through another parable of Jesus.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  Matthew 20:1 NKJV
Jesus begins as he begins many of his parables telling us what is about to say is an illustration of the kingdom of Heaven.  Sometimes it is hard to us to understand things without an illustration and so Jesus provides these glimpses of eternity through everyday scenarios we all can understand.  In this case, we have a landowner who needs laborers for his vineyard, just as God seeks laborers for His harvest. 
Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. "Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. Matthew 20:2-5 NKJV
So this landowner has a lot of work that needs to be done.  He finds some workers at the beginning of the day who agree to work the whole day for one denarius.  He sees that there is a greater need than there are workers so he again goes out at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to find more workers only for the subsequent workers he makes no such deal.  For the rest, he says he will pay them what seems fair at the end of the day.  They all agree to their respective terms of payment.
And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.'  Matthew 20:6-7 NKJV
This man at the last hour went out again.  I am not sure if he had more work of if he just went out, but he saw some workers standing idly by.  He asked them why they were not working and they replied that no one would hire them.  He sent them into the vineyard as well and receive a fair wage to be determined later.  Note that he specifically went out and sought those who spent no time working.  Note that he specifically sent them in for little if any time to work and yet still get paid. His desire was not for the labor of these few, but to see if they would be faithful enough to just show up for work.  They agreed and went into the vineyard.
So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.' And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  Matthew 20:8-10 NKJV
Interesting that the landowner instructed his steward to pay first those who arrived last and to pay each the same wage.  Remember, the landowner only made a promise of a specific amount to the first group that were there all day.  Those who came in for the last hour received what was an average day's pay at that time.  That was not a bad deal at all.  Being that they were paid first, those who were there all day saw that everyone else received the same denarius they were promised irregardless of how long they have been there.  Those who have been there all day did the math.  They figured that if the landowner was giving a denarius to someone who worked less, they must be receiving more.  Those hopes probably faded as that same denarius was given to those who worked three, six, and nine hours.  Their hopes were crushed then they were finally paid and received that same denarius. 
And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  Matthew 20:11-12 NKJV
Those who worked all day were upset.  They worked all day long and received the same pay as those who worked only an hour.  They felt like they were treated unfairly and let the landowner know it.  The response from the landowner is the crux of today's lesson.
But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.' Matthew 20:13-14 NKJV
First of all, the landowner says, you were paid in accordance with what you agreed.  That same denarius seemed like a good deal at the time. The only reason it does not seem good now is because those who worked less received the same.  They were envious of those who labored little, forgetting that they were paid exactly what they agreed to.  The landowner is not done.  
'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." Matthew 20:15-16 NKJV
The heart of the envious first workers is exposed.  They feel they are entitled to more because of their own labor.  They feel they deserve more from the landowner than what they agreed upon.  The landowner decided to be generous to the last workers and that generosity exposed the evil envy of those who worked all day.  It was the landowner's money and it was up to him in how he would spend it.  He decided to use his own money to bless some workers who could not find a job for the day.  The first workers, instead of rejoicing in the generosity of the landowner, they were angry and envious of those who were blessed.  May we never have that heart. 

There are several important messages in this story.  First, we see the wicked heart of those workers who felt they deserved more payment then those who came last.  They were envious.  They were selfish.  Instead of being happy  that they earned their day's pay, they wanted more.  They wanted what they felt they deserved.  Having that kind of heart in our service is evil.  Think about it, if we truly got what we deserved from God, we would be sent to Hell for all eternity, but through the work of Jesus Christ we have eternal life.  The Bible is clear that no work we can do can outweigh the wrong we have done.  In fact, the best of our best work is but filthy rags before God.  We can not be upset that someone coming to Christ in the last moments of their life is receiving the same eternal reward that we are because we did not earn our eternal reward either.  Furthermore, if we see our service to God as some kind of "labor" instead of the honor and blessing that it is, then we have something terribly wrong with our hearts. We do not serve God because we have to, we serve God because we get to.  If you lived your whole life in service to God, then you should be thankful for that chance or would you rather have lived your life in slavery to the filth of sin?  The answer to that question shows just where your heart really is.  Do not feel any bit of envy in the person who came to Christ in his last moments because I can tell you as someone who lived into early adulthood as a slave to sin that there is nothing better than serving the Lord.  That person did not have a "good" life, but missed out on the countless blessings we all receive in our service to God.  Our eternity may hold the same rewards, but our life on earth was so much better than theirs ever could have been without Christ.  If you think differently, then you need to examine yourself. 

Another message is that none of these workers came to the vineyard of their own volition.  The landowner went out and sought them and sent them.  Many were called with the opportunity of serving, but few were chosen to go into the vineyard.  Considering each time the landowner went out he found more workers, there was no shortage of men looking for work.  He did not choose all of them, though, but chose certain ones at certain times, all for work, and all for the same pay.  We can not enter our service of God on our own volition.  We are all called when we answer the call of the Holy Spirit working on our hearts to receive that free gift of salvation from the Lord.  Some of us  receive that call when we are very young.  Some when we are at our last breath.  But it is up to us to answer that call and go where the Landowners sends us. 

One more message is that we must understand that we do not control God's gift of salvation by grace.  We do not choose who receives that gift and who does not.  We do not choose who gets what mansion in Heaven among those that do.  It is not for us to complain that this so-called wicked person is receiving the same gift as us, but to rejoice that God has given us that gift.  We are no better than the sinner who comes to God at his last breath.  It is by the grace of God that we were called with much time to serve.  You did not earn your salvation any more than the person who comes to Jesus on his deathbed.  We are all saved by grace through faith. 

And, finally and most importantly, we see the message of grace.  We see it in all it's wonderful glorious goodness.  These men at the end were specifically invited when it was impossible for them to do much, if any, work.  They were not called for their labors.   They were not called because they did something good.  If they were any good, someone would have hired them.  But these were the problem workers, the lazy workers, the rejected workers who probably never put in a fair and honest day's work.  Again, no one would hire these men so they must have had some kind of reputation.  Despite all of that,  they were called and not called for their abilities but out of the grace and generosity of the landowner.  This grace and goodness of the landowner is the same grace of goodness of our God.  We should rejoice that the offer of salvation is just as real to those who lived wickedly with one last breath to breathe as it was for one who came to Christ at a very young age.  There is still hope for your loved ones who have not received that gift.  There is still hope for friends you have who do not know the Lord.  Whenever you share the Gospel message, there is the hope that anyone who hears it can be saved.  If anyone reading this does not know the Lord, no matter how old you are, no matter how close to death you are, and no matter what wrong you have ever done, this message is especially for you.  God is calling you in your last hour.  God is calling you not because of the great works you can do for Him, but out of His love for you.  He is calling you because despite your life of rebellion, He sent His son to die for your sins.  He is calling you not because of anything you did or can do, but because of what He has done.  That, my friends, is grace.  And once you have it, whether you work for twelve hours or one hour, it makes it all worth while. 
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV