Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How to Understand the Secrets of the Kingdom

Was reading this week in Mark 4. Here Jesus has been teaching the crowds in parables. And then we are told in verse 10: “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Jesus says that His disciples have what they need to understand the parables but others do not. But then notice the next verse. Jesus says to them, “Do you not understand this parable?” (they did not!). And then to vv. 33-34. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

Here is what I wondered: Jesus says that His disciples have the key to really understanding the parables. Yet, in the next verse the disciples don't understand the parable, and Jesus must explain it. I thought, "If the disciples have the key to unlock the parables then why must Jesus explain it to them?" Then I wondered if the question didn't carry the answer. They had Jesus. Jesus was the key. Jesus is the one who is able to open His Word to us that we might understand it and see the wonders of God in it and begin to change or own dull and dreary hearts.

We need the same thing if we are to really understand God's Word and God's kingdom. We need Jesus or perhaps more accurately for us--we need the Spirit of Christ. Jesus, himself, said, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things" (John 14:26).

Even as I write this, though, I see a pitfall. It is easy to misuse this doctrine and to say, "Studying and thinking are not important. We just need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us understanding." In 2 Timothy 2:7 Paul commands Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." Notice: Who will give understanding? Understanding is a gift of God--God gives it-- just like we said above. What is the means that God uses to give us understanding? Thinking over what we read! Study and hard thinking have a place as we seek more understanding. We study, and we think, and we ask Jesus to give us understanding!

I'll end with a quote from John Piper, "So by all means pray and ask God to give you the light you need. But don't replace thinking with praying. Think and pray. Pray and think. This is the way God has set it up. A historical Christ. A book of preservation and revelation. All of that says: read and study and ransack and think. But all is in vain without prayer. Both-and, not either-or."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Faith is Weakness

A controversial title--I know. But I did steal it from C.H. Spurgeon, so I think I'm on pretty safe ground. I put it out there because so many times I think of faith as something that is strong and a man or woman of faith as someone who is so mighty and sufficient and able. This is not so. True men and women of faith are those who are weak and sinful and know they are weak and sinful, and in their weakness they cling to Jesus. Here is Spurgeons full definition of faith: "faith is weakness clinging to strength, and becoming strong through so doing."

I see this same description of faith in Ephesians 2:8, "It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves--it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one may boast." What do we learn about faith? Faith is turning from ourselves and our own speculations and looking to God alone for salvation and strength. Faith is not strong nor an exhibition of strength, it is clinging to the strength of another. Faith is not a work we must do or accomplish. It is looking to the work another has done. Faith leaves no room for boasting. It is a gift. Faith means turning from anything I can boast in and boasting in Christ alone.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Fool Takes no Pleasure in Understanding But Only in Expressing His Opinion

That fool might just be me.  Let me explain.  Yesterday in Sunday School we were talking about how God uses our weakness much more than our "strength" to advance His kingdom.  Fresh on my mind was a quote from J.R. Miller who says, "God is the God of those who fail. Not that He loves those who stumble and fall, better than those who walk erect without stumbling; but He helps them more. The weak believers get more of His grace--than those who are strong believers. There is a special divine promise, which says, ‘My divine power is made perfect in weakness.’ When we are conscious of our own insufficiency, then we are ready to receive of the divine sufficiency. Thus our very weakness is an element of strength. Our weakness is an empty cup--which God fills with His own strength.” 

I believe this to be wonderfully true.  There are many Scriptures that teach us the same thing:  "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6);  "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:6);   "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Here, though, is where I--the proverbial fool--got carried away with expressing my opinion.  I said something to this affect, "God never commands us in His Word to become strong, but in our weakness to continually look to the Strong One."  I even challenged folks to find any place where God commands us to be strong.  No one answered (perhaps out of kindness)--but guess what?  Even a cursory search of the Scriptures will turn up this very command.  "Be strong and courageous, " God commands Joshua and the people of Israel, no less than four times in the first chapter of Joshua.  There are other such instances in the OT and even in the New:  "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong" (1 Corinthians 16:13).

Obviously God does command us to be strong.  I think my idea was correct, but the way I expressed it was . . . lacking.   Here may be a better way:  "God never wants us to grow strong by looking to ourselves and our own resources.  God wants us to grow strong as we look to His strength.  We will always in ourselves be weak.  We are only strong as we rest in the strength of Jesus."  Is this not what Paul is saying in Ephesians 6:10, "Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power."  The Psalmist sings the same tune, "The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped" (Psalm 28:7).  Our weakness is an empty cup which God fills with His strength, but God does not fill the cup so that it never needs to be filled again.  As soon as it is filled it is poured out for God's work, so the need and weakness continue, and the cup is filled and filled again.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Place of Anger in the Life of a Christian

I've been thinking about anger this week--specifically about its good purpose. It even seems strange to speak of a good and gracious purpose for being angry. Yet I think there is no other way to describe Jesus's emotion when he drove the money changers from the temple. Most dictionaries define anger as "an intense feeling of displeasure." This appears to me an apt description of what Jesus was feeling when he cleared the court of the Gentiles.

The question for me has been what is the good purpose of anger that we see in Jesus? It appears to me that the answer is somewhere along these lines: the good purpose of anger in the Christian life is to awaken those we love to a dangerous attitude or action in their lives. The danger may be to their spiritual or physical well-being. If I see my daughter wandering out into a busy street, it is not appropriate to call out, "Honey, come on back now, OK?" It is right to scream, "GET OUT OF THE ROAD!" Is this anger? I think it is. It certainly is an intense feeling of displeasure manifested in what I say and how I say it. But notice this anger carries no ill-will with it--just the opposite. It expresses a a desire for my child's safety and good. I hope that my anger will awaken her to her danger.

You might think about like Tabasco sauce. On the right food, in the right amount, at the right time it enhances your meal. But if you put Tabasco on everything, all the time, to excess, it ends up ruining everything. No one can stomach all that fire constantly. So should our anger be as Christians. There is right place and time and proportion for our anger, but it should not permeate everything or it will ruin much.

Yet I also keep in mind James 1:20, "The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." My anger may awaken someone to their danger, but it is ineffective in drawing people to righteousness in Jesus. It is similar to preaching about Hell. Jonathan Edwards once said, "Some talk of it as an unreasonable thing to fright persons to heaven, but I think it is a reasonable thing to endeavour to fright persons away from hell. They stand upon its brink, and are just ready to fall into it, and are senseless of their danger. Is it not a reasonable thing to fright a person out of a house on fire?"

Our anger just like preaching about Hell may awaken someone to their danger, but this is not saving faith. That is why the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God. Righteous anger has its place. It may awaken someone to the danger they are in or the great harm that their conduct or attitude is causing, but your anger will never really change someone’s life and heart. It is something to think about. How many people do you know testify that it was the righteous anger of their parents or of their husband or wife that finally lead them to Jesus? I don’t know of any. But I know a great many people who will say that it was the enduring love and mercy of my parent or husband or wife that finally broke through in my life.