…And God separated the light from the darkness. —Genesis 1:4 (ESV)

During creation God is continually separating: light from darkness, water from land, life from the inanimate earth. It seems that separation is a necessary part of creating. Ultimately man is separated from the animals by being made in His image. And God continues this by choosing for himself a people, continually calling them to separate themselves from sin and to pursue righteousness.

Am I “in the world but not of it?” The life that God is creating in us separates us from the world and calls us away from unclean things. And we need to be doing this continually. Am I slipping in some area of my life? Recommit that area to the Lord.

Father, separate me from sin. Purify my heart so that I can resist evil desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

Thoughts on Jonah, Chapter 1 (part 3)

(In case you’re wondering, our family is going through a detailed study of Jonah for the National Bible Bee.)

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Jonah 1:7–10 (ESV)

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33) I wonder if Jonah thought that perhaps the lot would point at somebody else. But if God wants to call you out, there’s no escaping it.

Interesting that Jonah answers all of the sailors’ questions except for his occupation. Chances are that Jonah didn’t want the shame of admitting he was a prophet that wasn’t delivering the message. On the other hand, the stories of the earlier prophets like Elijah and Elisha were probably famous, even among non-believers like these sailors. And if there’s one thing those stories say, it’s that you don’t mess with a prophet of God. If Jonah had told them he was a prophet, would they have been afraid of him, instead of God? Would they have been to afraid to throw Jonah into the sea, thus losing their chance to be saved?

Both the lot and Jonah’s partial confession show how God can work even things that don’t acknowledge Him to do His will.

“Deliver Us From Evil”

As he passed by, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1–2 ESV

That’s a deep question. The way the disciples saw it, either God punished his parents for something that had already happened, or He punished the man for something that hadn’t happened yet. If God only deals out consequences after the fact, then at least (they thought) we have a chance of avoiding them. But if God is going punish actions before we even do them, there’s nothing we can do, so why try?

It’s easy to see why the disciples wanted this question settled.

Now think about the blind man’s perspective. I’m sure the disciples’ way of thinking wasn’t unique. All his life the man probably heard variations on that story: Somebody sinned, and now your purpose in life is just to serve as a warning to others.

But I don’t think he bought it. Look at the way he responded when he was called in before the Pharisees:

The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

John 9:30–33 ESV

The confidence this man shows before some of the most powerful men in Judea is not the confidence of a man who believes he’s just a walking warning sign. Sitting by the side of the road he had come to the conclusion that God, somehow, would deliver him. He let his blindness make his faith strong. And his deliverance did come, through Jesus.

So back to the disciple’s question. Jesus, as he often does, rejects both options in favor of the right answer: God allowed this man to be blind so that He could show his power and mercy through the man.

At first this still seems unfair. Couldn’t God have displayed his power and mercy some other way?

Power, sure: there are lots of ways God could show power that don’t involve blindness. But to receive mercy, we need to be stuck in a bad situation that we can’t do anything about. if there wasn’t anything wrong, we wouldn’t need mercy.

Now the blind man’s case was an extreme one (those tend to make good examples), and God doesn’t always heal people physically. (He said no to Paul.) Sometimes God wants us to remain in our circumstances. But there is one thing that everyone struggles with, none of us can cure, and that God promises to always take away: our temptation to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Holy Spirit will always help us do the right thing; it doesn’t cross his mind to do anything else.

This idea can change our whole way of thinking about ourselves. What if we viewed our weaknesses and temptations not as just bad things about us, but as ways for God to show his power and mercy? What if we believed God’s promise that He will always come through for us when we are tempted? Jesus put it right in his model prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (And that’s all we have to say, by the way: “Deliver me from {fill in the blank}.” We don’t have to suggest ways for God to do it, because he’s already come up with a way.)

Have we given up in any area in our life, just assuming that we’re helpless and hopeless? Do we think we will always be angry, or undisciplined, or gluttonous (all weaknesses of mine)? Let’s get out of the mindset that we are just disappointments to God, or that he has punished us by making us a certain way. Can we go so far as to boast about our weaknesses like Paul? Because what we are really boasting about is God’s deliverance. “Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God.” He is faithful to deliver.

Thoughts on Jonah, Chapter 1 (part 2)

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:4-6 ESV

This passage captures three bad ways to handle a problem just in verse 5!

1. Ignoring God’s Word and wisdom. Each of the sailors cried out to his god. All of the gods except the living God are just the inventions of men. If we try to handle a problem just with man’s methods, instead of going to God and his Word, we are in trouble.

(Side note: Isn’t it odd that Jonah ran away from preaching to unbelievers by throwing his lot in with another bunch of unbelievers?)

2. Ignoring God’s power. The hurled the cargo into the sea. Here the sailors are trying to solve the problem by physical means. If we use only what we can do, without tapping in to God’s power, we are missing out. (Especially when the issue is supernatural, like Jonah’s storm.)

3. Ignoring the problem itself. Jonah laid down and went to sleep, thus blowing off the issue completely. ‘Nuff said?

Some Thoughts on Jonah, Chapter 1

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-3 (ESV)

A couple thoughts on this passage:

Jonah was from Gath-hepher, which was under Syrian control when he was growing up (HT to Leon’s Message Board; see the maps on the linked post). Jonah actually prophesied that Jeroboam II would retake his hometown. So Jonah was no stranger to being under enemy rule. And during his lifetime he watched the Assyrian empire become more and more of a threat to Israel. This must have added a personal element to Jonah’s rebellion; once Israel kicked the foreigners out of Gath-hepher there was no way Jonah was going to help a new empire that was trying to push its way in.

Where did Jonah get the money for his fare? I don’t know how prophets made a living; perhaps he had a side job or a patron, or (as my oldest son suggested) his family had money and his father supported him. But in any case, wouldn’t a prophet be more aware than others that his livelihood came from God? So he used God’s money to run away from God, like a child stealing his father’s wallet to buy a plane ticket to another state. What an odd state of mind Jonah was in.

“Friend, Move Up Higher”

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. —Matthew 5:1

“But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’” —Luke 14:10

“No longer do I [Jesus] call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” —John 15:15

A note on Matthew 5:1 in my ESV Study Bible struck me today: The gospels make a distinction between the “crowd” or “crowds” and Jesus’ disciples. There were many that followed Jesus around to see miracles, get a free meal, etc. But when Jesus sat down to teach, it was his disciples that came to listen. Jesus also did other things such as speaking in parables to differentiate between those that wanted to learn from him and those that didn’t (Matthew 13:10-11).

To come to learn from someone takes humility. It was especially true in Jesus’ time; to be a complete disciple meant leaving all of your own ways of life, and even your own self, to become fully like your teacher. And yet there is a beautiful illustration in Matthew 5: by going up the mountain to teach, Jesus gave an invitation for those who want to be his disciples to come up with him. In a sense, when he sat down on the mountain he was saying: “Friend, move up higher.” He invites us to leave the ordinary world for something that is greater, more pure, and more filled with life: to be a member of the family and kingdom of God.

For some reason sleep has been difficult this past week. I’ve woken up well before sunrise several times. The first time it happened, I spent the hours after I woke up doing not much of anything, then tried to get a little more sleep before the day “really started”. I felt pretty lousy the whole day, and I knew why. God gave me an opportunity to spend time with Him, and I ignored it.

It wasn’t the first time, sadly, that this had happened, but this time a thought really stuck with me: Whenever I wake up, no matter what time it is, I am awake because God wants to spend time with me. Jesus calls his followers his friends, and a person wants to spend time with his friends. But he also knows that he often has to shake up our normal routine to get our attention, and so he shows up at what we consider inopportune times: oh-dark-thirty, a cancelled plan, an unexpected delay.

It is easy to see these things as interruptions. But it is better to see these things as invitations. That way of thinking not only puts our heart in the right attitude, but each time we respond (with faith, humility, and at 4 AM more than a little determination) God will bring us a little higher, a little farther removed from ordinary life, a little closer to Him.

Move up higher. Come closer. Learn from him. Sit at his feet. That is the better portion.

God’s Excited

And the angel answered her…”And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Luke 1:36-45 ESV (emphasis added)

What struck me about this is that Elizabeth never got the chance to tell Mary about her baby, and Mary didn’t get to tell Elizabeth about hers either. God “jumped the gun” both times. He used Gabriel to tell Mary, and then the Spirit “inspired” baby John when Mary visited her cousin. It’s as if God couldn’t wait to tell either one of them the news about John or Jesus.

We focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, and we definitely should. But we also need to remember that the sacrifice was “according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5, KJV). God didn’t save us through gritted teeth. There is rejoicing in heaven when even one sinner repents (Luke 15:7). God was excited to carry out his plan.

I don’t think about this enough. I more often think God saved me out of some sort of love that’s more dutiful than joyful, which just doesn’t make sense. It just shows how messed up my thinking can get about this. I need to remember just how happy God is to have me back in His family.

Come Inside

Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Luke 8:19-21 (ESV)

The wall between Jesus and his family tells the story as much as their words. Others had found a way to get to Jesus when they were blocked by a crowd. However, those men wanted Jesus not only to continue his work but to help their friend as they believed only Jesus could. There is some debate over whether Jesus’ mother and brothers were trying to stop Jesus from teaching, but we know that at this point they did not believe in him.

Jesus’ family could not get to him through the all the people, so they needed to wait for him in one of two places: inside or outside of wherever Jesus was teaching. If they were to come inside, there would be only one thing for them to do: sit and listen to what Jesus was saying. However, they would then be acting as if they believed in what Jesus was doing. It took humility to come inside, because inside there was only one place they could be–at Jesus’ feet. Instead, Jesus’ mother and brothers stay outside and call him to come out. But Jesus refuses, saying that inside is where his Father wants him to be.

Jesus makes this point with a very interesting definition of family: The members of a family hear and do the will of the head of the family–in the kingdom of heaven, this is God the Father. You can see this in other institutions. Those in the military view their comrades as “brothers” and do the will of their commanding officer. Some corporations, even, refer to their employees as their “family,” and even provide family-like benefits in cases. But of course an employee needs to do what his/her manager says. These are by no means perfect analogies to a family, but they are at least echoes of the idea that to be in God’s family means to do His will.

By standing outside of the building, Jesus’ mother and brothers also stand outside of the will of God at that moment. But it’s not that Jesus wants his earthly mother and brothers to stay outside; he’d rather his earthly family join his heavenly family. There seems to be an unspoken question in Jesus’ statement: “Why don’t you come inside?” But he knows that for them to come inside they need to recognize that they are outside and change their mind about who he is. (Thankfully, we know that they did just that later on.)

When we “stand outside” in our own lives, one of (at least) two things happens. Either we “stand in judgment” against the things that are happening inside, or we sit on the front stoop, staring wistfully out at the world while Jesus is asking us to come in and listen. I have done both of these. There are lots of things that I scoffed at when I was a young Christian that I realize now were truly great things that God was doing in people’s lives. And my natural self finds too many things about the world fascinating, and they can steal my attention from the One who made everything.

Where do we “stand outside?” When do we look at something that is happening in someone else’s life, and think, “that’s crazy,” when in fact God may be doing something wonderful? Or what’s so fascinating to us that it simply draws our gaze from the wonderful things God wants to do in our own lives?