Fear Versus Faith

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:23-27 ESV

“His disciples followed him.”

Did this group include the two individuals who had approached Jesus, expressing a desire to follow Him? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But it seems likely that they were not on board when the boat sailed – either literally or figuratively. One considered the cost of discipleship far too high. The other allowed the worries of this world to take precedence over his commitment to the cause of Christ.

And it’s interesting to note what happened to those who did step into the boat with Jesus that fateful day. Perhaps Peter, James, John, and the other disciples were a bit full of themselves as the boat left the shore, thinking themselves to be true disciples of Jesus because of their presence in the boat. They had literally followed Him. And they were enjoying the privileged position of being His faithful disciples. And then, suddenly, the storm appeared.

Remember, this little excursion had begun with a simple request from Jesus that they sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in order to escape the crush of the crowds.

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. – Matthew 8:18 ESV

But long before they made it to the opposite shore, a violent storm arose. Mark describes it as “a great windstorm,” with waves so high that they broke over the sides of the boat, causing it to fill with water (Mark 4:37) These kinds of storms were not uncommon on the Sea of Galilee. This relatively small body of water lies 680 feet below sea level and is surrounded by hills that can reach a height of 2,000 feet. When the cool, dry air from these hills comes into contact with the warm, moist air found at sea level, the results can be dramatic. Extreme temperature and pressure changes can produce severe storms with violent winds, which can whip across the relatively shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee, causing massive waves that can sink a small boat with relative ease.

That is the very situation in which the disciples found themselves. And they were not alone, because Mark records that other boats had accompanied them on this crossing. What had begun as a simple boat ride to the other side had quickly escalated into a life-threatening encounter with Mother Nature. And Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were professional fishermen, found themselves in fear for their lives. They had seen these kinds of storms before and they knew what could happen. They knew their lives were in danger and while they made every attempt to use their knowledge of the sea and their skills as boatmen to save themselves, they eventually turned to Jesus for help.

But first, they had to wake Him up.

While they were busy bailing water and fearing the worst, Jesus was fast asleep in the hold of the ship. The contrast is stark and intentionally so. They were in a panic and Jesus was at peace. They were filled with worry and anxiety, while Jesus enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Their thoughts were on the immediate danger of their circumstances. Jesus was resting in the sovereign authority of His Heavenly Father. He knew He was not going to die in a storm at sea. He was fully confident in God’s plan for His life and His Father’s sovereign control over the affairs of His life.

But the minds of the disciples were focused on the wind, the waves, and what looked like the threat of death. So, in their panic, they awakened Jesus and shouted, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing” (Matthew 8:25 ESV). Mark adds a bit of nuance to their words that reveal their doubts about Jesus’ care for them.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” – Mark 4:38 ESV

None of this made sense to them. Their minds were filled with questions.

How did this happen?

What’s going to happen to us?

Why isn’t Jesus doing something about it?

Does He not care about us?

Does He not love us?

Sound familiar? They should. Because they are exactly the kinds of question we raise when we find ourselves in difficulty. When the winds and waves of life suddenly appear and threaten to overwhelm us, we begin to question the goodness and the greatness of God. We see the storms of life as anomalies and unwanted interruptions that seem to indicate God’s disinterest in or dissatisfaction with us. He appears to be asleep at the wheel, and oblivious to what is going on all around us.

But it is at those very moments that God cries out to us just as Jesus did to His disciples as the waves crashed over their boat.

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” – Matthew 8:26 ESV

Before Jesus confronted the waves and the wind, He confronted the fear and faithlessness of His followers. His question was aimed at exposing the real problem they faced, and it was not the storm. They were suffering from a lack of faith, not an over-abundance of rain and boat-rocking wind.

If you recall, when the Centurion had heard that Jesus was willing to come to his home to heal his servant, he had responded, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9 ESV). And Jesus, amazed by the words of this Roman soldier, had said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10 ESV).

This pagan Gentile had believed that Jesus was powerful enough to step into his life circumstance and provide a solution. He somehow knew that Jesus had authority over sickness. He exhibited no doubts as to whether Jesus was capable of doing what He said He would do. He believed, and Jesus rewarded his belief by the healing of his servant and a commendation for his faith.

But as to the rain-drenched, fear-saturated disciples, Jesus questioned their faith. They exhibited no belief in His power or authority. They questioned His seeming lack of concern for their well-being. They had followed Jesus, but as soon as the waves and wind showed up, they were ready to bail – not just water from the boat – but from their commitment to following Him. This was not what they had signed up for.

But rather than reprimand them, Jesus rescued them. Matthew records that he “rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:26 ESV). This verse almost comes across as a play on words. The calming of the storm was accompanied by the calming of the disciples’ fears. As the waves and the winds subsided, so did the anxiety of the disciples. And their fear was replaced by wonder.

“What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” – Matthew 8:27 ESV

And their question reveals their incomplete understanding of just who Jesus was. They had seen Him heal the leper and had heard Him declare the Centurion’s servant healed. They had even witnessed Him remove the fever from Peter’s mother-in-law. But this was an altogether different kind of miracle. Jesus had spoken to the wind and waves, and they had obeyed His command.

The disciples were wrestling with the identity of Jesus. The more time they spent with Him, the more they wondered just who they had decided to follow. Was He a rabbi, a teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker, their long-awaited Messiah, or something more? The actions of Jesus were out-of-the-ordinary and unexpected. His words were powerful. His miracles were inexplicable. His identity was unclear. But with each passing day and each successive miracle and mind-boggling encounter, they were growing to know Him better and learning to trust Him more.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Humbled, Hungry, and Helped

1 “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 8:1-10 ESV

We don’t always understand the ways of God and, according to God’s own self-assessment, we should not be surprised by that.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

The ways of God are beyond man’s capacity to comprehend. Which leave us with two basic choices: We can resist His will, writing it off as unrealistic and therefore, unnecessary to obey. Or, we can consider the source and place our trust in Jehovah Elohim – “The Lord your God” – the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator-God whose wisdom is beyond understanding and whose integrity is without question.

As Moses continued to prepare the people of Israel for their entrance into the land of Canaan, he kept reminding them of all that God had done for them. It was natural for them to be apprehensive about the future because it was filled with the prospect of battles against formidable enemies. And while God had assured them that He would go before them and provide them with victories over those enemies, it did not completely remove all fear and doubt from their minds. Most likely, their minds were filled with all kinds of questions and they found themselves playing the “What-If Game.”

“What if we go into battle and God changes His mind?”

“What if all the nations band together and overwhelm us?”

“What if fail to win the first battle and God turns His back on us?”

“What if our new leader proves to be a lousy one?”

Moses knew what was going through their minds, so he kept reminding the people about the trustworthiness of God. He encouraged them to look back and remember all that God had done for them. He had a proven track record of faithfulness.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years…” – Deuteronomy 8:2 NLT

But along with reminding the Israelites of what God had done for them, Moses pointed out the why and the how behind His actions. There had been a method to God’s seeming madness. And Moses doesn’t want them to overlook the wisdom inherent in God’s ways.

“…the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.” – Deuteronomy 8:2 NLT

Everything that had happened to them in the wilderness had been for a reason. There had been a divinely ordained purpose behind it all. God had been testing them. And this test had not been for God’s benefit. He already knew their hearts and did not need to see the results of their test to come to a conclusion about their spiritual condition. No, the testing had been for their sake.

And one of the primary methods God used to reveal their need was to humble them. The Hebrew word is `anah and it means to afflict or oppress. The humbling they experienced was the result of the affliction and oppression. God used circumstances to bring them to a point of need and dependence. He used life necessities like food, water, and clothing to bring them to a point of total reliance upon Him.

It is important to remember that God had been leading them every step of the way, ever since they had left Egypt. In fact, the book of Exodus reveals that, immediately after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, “they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus 15:23 ESV). The text tells us that there was water, but that it was bitter and unfit for human consumption. So, “the people grumbled against Moses” (Exodus 15:24 ESV). They failed the test. Rather than recall the incredible power of God displayed in His parting of the Red Sea, they saw their circumstance as untenable and their God as incapable of doing anything about it. But, in spite of the lack of faith, God made the bitter water sweet. 

Two-and-a-half months later, God had led them to the wilderness of Sin. The memories of the miraculous plagues ordained by God and performed by Moses had begun to fade. The weariness of wandering through the wilderness had begun to take its toll. And seemingly, out of nowhere, the people launch into another fit of disgruntled disenchantment with their circumstances.

“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” – Exodus 16:3 NLT

Don’t miss the ingratitude that permeates their complaint. Their unhappiness with their current lot in life was causing them to look back with fond memories on their former lives as slaves in Egypt. Rather than expressing their thanks for God’s deliverance, they accused Him of genocide. Driven by their hunger for food, they charged God with trying to starve them to death in the wilderness. Once again, they had failed the test. And Moses made it clear that they had failed.

“In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaints, which are against him, not against us. What have we done that you should complain about us?” Then Moses added, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning, for he has heard all your complaints against him. What have we done? Yes, your complaints are against the Lord, not against us.” – Exodus 16:7-8 NLT

They had tried to hide their anger with God by directing their complaints against Moses, but their efforts had failed. And they had failed God’s test. He had known they would be hungry. He was the one who had led them to the wilderness of Sin. But He was allowing them to experience need in order to teach them that He was to be their source. There was no reason for them to complain. All they had to do was ask. Their God was all-sufficient and He proved it by providing them with quail and manna.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Now tell them, ‘In the evening you will have meat to eat, and in the morning you will have all the bread you want. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’” – Exodus 16:11-12 NLT

God humbled them by allowing them to experience hunger. But He also fed them. Their hunger was God-ordained and intended to point them to their Provider. Their lack was meant to point them to the all-sufficient source of all good things: God Almighty.

But in spite of God’s incredible patience and gracious provision, the day came when the people of Israel became dissatisfied with the manna.

“Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

Driven by their stomachs, the people of Israel unwittingly revealed the condition of their hearts. They failed the test. They were more concerned with the gift than the Giver. They were more consumed by the thought of food than they were by the holiness of the One who made the food possible. And that’s why Moses made every effort to remind the Israelites who stood on the edge of the land of promise that the difficulties of life were intended to test their reliance upon God. They were meant to teach them that their God was greater than whatever circumstances they might face.

“…he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:3 NLT

God had allowed them to experience hunger, but He had also fed them. He had caused them to walk countless miles that left the Israelites weary and worn and yet, their sandals and clothing showed no signs of wear. God provided. He could be trusted. Because He was faithful.

“For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:4-5 NLT

What an astounding statement that is and yet, how easy it is to overlook it and underappreciate its significance. God had their best interest in mind every step of the way. And now, as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan, Moses wanted them to understand that nothing had changed. Their God was the same. He was greater than their greatest difficulty. He was still leading and guiding them. And He would still be providing for them. But they were going to have to rely upon Him. Which is why Moses pleaded with them to “obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him” (Deuteronomy 8:6 NLT).

God had great things in store for them. The land was rich and bountiful, with more than enough resources to meet all their needs. But more important than the capacity of the land to provide for their physical necessities, was their need to keep their eyes focused on the God who would make it all possible.

“When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. – Deuteronomy 8:10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you — for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? – 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV

In time, Timothy had returned from his assignment in Thessalonica, where he had been sent by Paul to establish and exhort the believers in their faith. At his reunion with Paul, Timothy provided a report concerning the state of the churches in Thessalonica, and Paul deemed what he heard as “good news.” Timothy shared details regarding their faith and love – pistis and agapē – two characteristics that Paul deemed indispensable to the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews stressed that “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). Faith begins the Christian’s spiritual journey, but it does not end there. Faith is to be a permanent fixture of the believer’s life from the moment of conversion to the future day of glorification. Paul himself wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). And in the original Greek, that phrase actually reads, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” Faith is the fuel of the Christian life. It provides new life in Christ and makes possible the abundant life that He promised.

As the author of Hebrews makes clear, faith is a belief in the existence of God. But there’s more. It is a belief that this existent God is a rewarder of those who sincerely seek Him. In other words, those who sincerely seek Him and Him alone will be rewarded with the joy of finding Him. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 NLT

While God has revealed His invisible attributes through all that He has made, most men have chosen to worship chosen the creation rather than the creator. They had an awareness of God’s presence, but rather than seeking Him, they turned their attention to things made by Him. And the apostle John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known” (John 1:18 BSB). And Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV), who made God not only knowable but approachable. And yet, Paul also reveals that many who have heard about Jesus, still refuse to believe in Jesus. And their disbelief results in a spiritual blindness to the reality of who He is and what He has come to offer.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They don’t believe. The Greek word is apistos and it means “not belief.” It is a lack of faith and trust in who Jesus is and the salvation He came to offer.

But for those who do believe in the salvation offered by God through His Son, forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship with God are the reward. But God expects that belief to last well beyond the point of conversion. Placing your faith in Christ is not a singular event, but a lifelong experience. The Christian life is a journey on which the believer’s faith will be tested all along the way. And when Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were exhibiting faith amid difficulty, he was encouraged. Their faith was a living faith. They were exhibiting a belief in the promises of God that did not waver in the face of difficulties. They were not allowing the presence of trials to diminish their trust in God. Their perseverance in the face of difficulties made Paul proud because it reflected their adherence to his teachings.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

They fully believed that they were loved by God and didn’t allow their less-than-ideal circumstances to diminish that belief. And their unwavering belief in God’s love for them manifested itself in a selfless love for others. That was the second characteristic Timothy highlighted. He reported to Paul that the Thessalonian believers loved well. But the text is very specific as to what kind of love they exhibited. The Greek word is agapē, and it refers to a specific kind of love. Timothy could have used the Greek word philadelphia, which refers to a love between brothers or friends. No, he specifically used agapē, which carried a much more powerful connotation. Within Christianity, it came to be associated with the love of Christ. It was a selfless, sacrificial kind of love that exhibited a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of quality that demanded nothing in return. This kind of love is unconditional and not reciprocal. It doesn’t require the one who is loved to return the favor. It doesn’t demand that the one to be loved be lovely or loveable. In fact, Paul tells us that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). And the apostle John would have us remember that this kind of sacrificial and undeserved love is exactly what we received from God.

This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

The Thessalonian believers loved in the same way they had been loved by God: Sacrificially and selflessly. And this brought Paul great joy. It provided him with comfort as he faced his own set of trials and troubles. News of their faith and love was exactly what he needed to hear. And he responded to this encouraging report by telling them, “It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT).  News of their faith and love was like a tonic for Paul. It made all his hard work well worth the effort. For Paul, there was nothing more revitalizing to his own faith than to hear that his spiritual children were growing in godliness. And the two characteristics that best illustrated their growth were persevering faith and selfless love.

Yet, in spite of the good news delivered by Timothy, Paul longed to see his brothers and sisters in Christ again. And he assured them, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). Notice the motivation behind Paul’s desire to return. He wants to fill in any gaps that might exist in their faith. For Paul, faith was dynamic, not static. It was to be living and ever-increasing. That is why James wrote, “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). Both Paul and James knew that true saving faith would result in true life change. And they also understood that faith would have a tendency to ebb and flow, based on the circumstances of life. There would be those days when a believer found holes in his faith – those gaps where the seed of doubt tends to take root and, in time, turns into full-grown disbelief. So, Paul wanted to fill in the gaps. He wanted to bring confident assurance to their faith, by increasing their knowledge of God and improving their understanding of and reliance upon His promises. And this desire by Paul to pour into the lives of believers is reflected in his prayer for the congregations in Colossae.

We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:9-11 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Why?

Righteous are you, O Lord,
    when I complain to you;
    yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
    they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth
    and far from their heart.
But you, O Lord, know me;
    you see me, and test my heart toward you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
    and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
How long will the land mourn
    and the grass of every field wither?
For the evil of those who dwell in it
    the beasts and the birds are swept away,
    because they said, “He will not see our latter end.” Jeremiah 12:1-4 ESV

Jeremiah was a confused and conflicted man. One minute he is weeping for his people, longing for God to spare them the coming destruction he knows they so fully deserve. But here, we find Jeremiah praying that God would give the wicked exactly what they deserve – dragging them off like sheep to the slaughter. Jeremiah, though a prophet, was still human. He had feelings just like anyone else and he felt confident and safe in expressing those feelings to God. He was angry at the people of Anathoth for plotting his death. He was frustrated with the stubborn and persistent refusal of the people of Judah to listen to his words of warning and call to repentance. And though he knew that God was righteous and just in all his actions, Jeremiah still had questions for Him.

“Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?” – Jeremiah 12:1 NLT

Why? It’s a common question aimed at God by His people. We can’t help but ask why, because we don’t understand the ways of God. From our perspective, things seem illogical and even unjust at times. He doesn’t appear to be acting fairly or with integrity. We look at our life circumstances and see injustice, but then wonder how that can be if God is just. Jeremiah looked around him and saw wicked people who were happy and prosperous. With all that he knew about God, that seemed difficult to understand or explain. So, he asked God to provide him with answers. And Jeremiah would not be the first or the last human being to have questions for God. Job, in the midst of all his sufferings, expressed similar words to God.

“Why do the wicked prosper,
    growing old and powerful?
They live to see their children grow up and settle down,
    and they enjoy their grandchildren.
Their homes are safe from every fear,
    and God does not punish them.” – Job 21:7-9 NLT

He went on to say:

“They spend their days in prosperity,
    then go down to the grave in peace.
And yet they say to God, ‘Go away.
    We want no part of you and your ways.
Who is the Almighty, and why should we obey him?
    What good will it do us to pray?’” – Job 21:13-15 NLT

It was Asaph who wrote in his psalm:

“For I envied the proud
    when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
They seem to live such painless lives;
    their bodies are so healthy and strong.
They don’t have troubles like other people;
    they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.” – Psalm 73:3-5 NLT

The prophet Habakkuk expressed his confusion and complaint to God regarding His seeming indifference to the Babylonians and their treatment of the people of Israel.

“But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they?” – Habakkuk 1:13 NLT

Things don’t always turn out like we think they should. Our expectations of God are sometime dashed on the rocks of reality. We expect deliverance and find ourselves suffering pain. We anticipate victory, but end up experiencing defeat. We attempt to follow God faithfully and then find ourselves inexplicably going through difficulties and trials. And like Jeremiah, we end up asking God, “Why?” We demand answers. From our human perspective, we see those who give God little but lip service seemingly prospering and skating through life unscathed. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t seem fair.

Jeremiah is incredulous. He can’t believe what he is seeing. He even tells God, “But as for me, Lord, you know my heart. You see me and test my thoughts” (Jeremiah 12:3 NLT). Jeremiah was no hypocrite and he was confident that God knew so. And yet, he was the one who was suffering, while his opponents were prospering. Nothing about that scenario seemed just, right or fair. How could God let that happen? Why would God let that happen?

Jeremiah suffered from a malady common among God’s people. It was a false assumption that community with God equaled immunity from suffering. As the children of God we too often assume that our lives will be trouble-free and painless. But the Bible paints such a different picture. We have the stories of Joseph, who was used by God to preserve a remnant of the people of Israel from starvation and provide them with food and shelter in the land of Egypt. But in order for that to happen, Joseph had to endure countless trials and repeated acts of injustice against him. It was all part of God”s plan for his life. Generations later, Moses was God’s chosen instrument to deliver the people from their captivity in Egypt. But first he had to run for his life, guilty of murder and a wanted criminal. Then he had to spend 40 years living as a common shepherd in the wilderness until God issued His call for Moses to be His deliverer. David was anointed by God to be the next king of Israel, but spent years running for his life in an attempt to escape the wrath of Saul, the current king who had placed a bounty on David’s head. Time after time and all throughout the Scriptures, we see the people of God suffering as part of God’s divine plan. Jesus suffered at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel, accused of crimes He had not committed and executed like a common criminal. The apostles suffered constantly as they took the gospel to the nations. Paul described his life as a faithful messenger of the gospel in less-than-glamorous terms:

“I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” – 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NLT

Paul would later tell Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12 ESV). And it was Peter who wrote: “For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 NLT). Jesus Himself told His disciples: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT). The life of the believer is not for the feint of heart. Jesus told His disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matthew 16:24-25 NLT). Following Christ requires daily death to self. It demands a giving up of our rights and expectations in order to submit to the will of the Father. Jesus never promised us a trouble-free life. But He did promise abundant life – a life filled with the peace that passes all understanding. A life marked by the promise of God’s persistent presence. A life characterized by joy in the midst of sorrow, hope even in times of sorrow, strength when we are weak, comfort when we are suffering, and the promise of an eternity free from sin, sorrow, pain and death. It was Paul who reminded the believers in Rome: “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

We are more than free to ask God, “Why?” But we already know the answer. He knows what is best. He has a plan. He can be trusted. And while His ways are not our ways and His methods may seem nothing short of madness, we must trust that He knows what He is doing and has a perfectly good reason for our suffering.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Yet I Will Rejoice.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.Habakkuk 3:17-19 ESV

Things don’t always turn out like we expect or desire. The circumstances of life have a way of showing up in surprising forms, both good and bad. Difficulties can appear suddenly and stay long past their expiration date. These are all truths we know from experience. They are part of the reality of life on this planet. They come with having to lie in a fallen world, mired by sin and under God’s curse and condemnation. But the one thing we tend to forget is that the very same God has provided a way for men and women like us, to escape the long-term effects of the curse and be exonerated from the just condemnation of God. God sent His own Son. He sent a Savior. And those who place their faith in that Savior, believing that He came, He died and that He rose again, are provided with the assurance that their sins are forgiven and their future is secure. They are guaranteed abundant life here and now, and eternal life to come. And it is that promise on which they are to hope as they endure the pain and suffering that comes in this life. Salvation does not provide us with escape from the difficulties of life. It is not some kind of spiritual immunization, inoculating us from trials or suffering. But it does provide us with a new perspective, a radically different way of looking at our time on this earth. The apostle Paul puts that new perspective in words for us:

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! – 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT

But what about Habakkuk? What was he to put his faith in as he wrestled with the news that God was going to judge the people of Judah for their sins and send the Babylonians as the means to accomplish that task? The Messiah had not yet come. The Savior had not yet been sent to redeem mankind from its sins. And yet, Habakkuk displayed saving faith. He knew that He could trust his God. His God had promised to provide for and protect the people of Judah, and Habakkuk took God at His word.

The closing lines of Habakkuk’s prayer contain some of the most powerful statements regarding faith in God that are found in the Bible. They are spoken by a man who has boldly, and somewhat dangerously, expressed his frustration with God over what appeared to be His lack of action. The prophet was frustrated with the unrepentant nature of the people of Judah. They refused to listen to his message. They were wicked and rebellious and Habakkuk wanted to know when God was going to act. And when God told Habakkuk that He was going to send the Babylonians to enact His judgment on the people of Judah, Habakkuk had the temerity to question God’s will and wisdom. And yet, once God explained Himself and reassured Habakkuk of His unwavering faithfulness to the people of Judah, Habakkuk had a change of heart. He literally sang God’s praises. This entire last chapter of his book are a song, composed to promote the goodness and greatness of God. And nothing had changed. Habakkuk’s circumstances had not been altered one iota. The people of Judah were still in rebellion against God. The Babylonians were still on God’s divine schedule to destroy Judah and Jerusalem. But in spite of all of that, the prophet was able to say:

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation – Habakkuk 3:18 ESV

And Habakkuk wasn’t talking in a future tense. The rejoicing he mentioned wasn’t some kind of post-salvation joy that would show up once God had destroyed the Babylonians and put everything back the way it was supposed to be. No, Habakkuk was talking in the present tense. He qualifies his statement by saying:

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! – Habakkuk 3:17-18a NLT

Do you catch what he is saying? In spire of the circumstances, the negative circumstances, of life, Habakkuk was going to rejoice in the Lord. He was going to praise the God of his salvation. Before the fact. That is the essence of faith. The apostle Paul provides us with one of the most succinct definitions or descriptions of faith found in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Faith shows up in the form of assurance or certainty in a good outcome, long before the outcome is clear. It is a conviction regarding events that have not taken place. It is a trust in God, a reliance upon His promises and a confident assurance in His goodness. Once again, the apostle Paul gives us some insight into what true faith looks like.

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. – Romans 8:24-25 ESV

Habakkuk had hope in God, and he was willing to wait for God’s deliverance with confident patience. Even is the figs failed to show up or the vines were bare of fruit, he would keep trusting. If they ran out of olive oil or experienced a drought because of a lack of crops, he would keep patiently waiting. Why? He tells us:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19 NLT
God would be his strength. His faith in God would give him the energy to endure whatever came his way. His trust in the goodness of God would provide him with the strength he needed to walk the paths of life with confidence and sure-footed stability. He knew God would not let him down. The Babylonians were coming. God had assured it. But Habakkuk was not worried. He knew God was in control and that He had promised to restore His people and remove the Babylonians. The days ahead were going to be difficult and full of unpleasant experiences, but Habakkuk was able to say, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord!” What a timely reminder for those of us who are Christ-followers, as we wait for our Savior to return. We too, live in difficult days. We are surrounded by those who would love nothing more than our destruction. The world hates us. The enemy is out to destroy us. And yet, we can rejoice in the Lord. We can have an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not yet see. All because we trust in God.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Lord Was With Him.

As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. – Genesis 39:19-23 ESV

Have you ever felt alone? Has there ever been a time in your life when it seemed as if God had abandoned you ? Those dark moments of the soul can be difficult to handle. When your world feels like it is collapsing in on you and your God has turned His back on you, it is easy to give in to despair. It is even possible to allow what appears to be God’s rejection of you to lead to your resentment of Him.

The story of Joseph provides us with a glimpse into the painful reality of life on this planet. Even as the favorite son of his father and a descendant of Abraham himself, Joseph was not immune to the difficulties of life. He was sold by his own brothers into slavery. He was bought on the slave block by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But while in Potiphar’s home, the Lord was with Joseph, and he succeeded in all that he did. The blessing of God was upon him and Potiphar senses it, eventually placing Joseph over all of his household. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse when Pharaoh’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph and he repeatedly turned her down. Finally, in revenge, she accused him of attempted rape. That is when Joseph’s young life took another dramatic turn.

Potiphar was furious and had Joseph thrown into prison. No trial. No due process. No innocent until proven guilty. It all happened so fast, it had to have left Joseph’s head spinning and his mind reeling with thoughts of “here we go again!” The first time, Joseph had been stripped of his cloak and thrown into a cistern. Now he finds himself stripped of his position and thrown into prison. And in both cases, he had been completely innocent. Where was God? Why had He let this happen? Joseph had done the right thing by rejecting the immoral overtures of Potiphar’s wife, and yet he was the one suffering in prison. Even as we read this story, it is easy for us to focus all our attention of Joseph’s circumstances and assume that something is wrong, that God has somehow abandoned Joseph. Evil appears to be getting the upper hand. And yet, Moses reminds us, “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21 ESV).

Yes, even in the prison, God was with Joseph. God’s presence is never limited by our circumstances or surroundings. Yet we tend to think that the good times are the best indicator of God’s blessing. We seem to believe that any difficulties that come into our lives are either an indication of God’s displeasure with us or a sign that He has distanced Himself from us. And yet, King David provides us with these comforting words:

I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you. – Psalm 139:7-12 NLT

Even if we wanted to get away from God, we couldn’t. So why would we think that our circumstances are proof that God has given up on us? The only thing that had changed for Joseph was his location. He had gone from Potiphar’s house to prison. His accommodations had changed, but not his relationship with God. His employment status had changed, but not status as a child of God. The Lord was with Joseph – even in prison. Just as the Lord had been with Joseph in the cistern. He was never alone. His master had fallen out of love with him, but not his God. His brothers had abandoned him, but not his heavenly Father.

And God continued to bless Joseph, not by providing him with an immediate escape plan from prison, but by making him successful in prison. God used what appeared to be a less-than-ideal situation to accomplish produce a better-than-could-be-expected outcome. He had a plan for Joseph and his imprisonment was an important part of that plan. What is important for us to recognize is that Joseph seems to have spent no time having a personal pity party. He simply went to work. Just as he had in Potiphar’s house, Joseph showed himself to be a diligent and faithful worker. And before you know it, the warden elevated Joseph to a position of prominence and importance. The text tells us, “the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it” (Genesis 39:22 ESV). He saw something in Joseph’s character that impressed him. He found Joseph to be an ideal prisoner and an individual he could trust. Joseph’s character had not been changed by his circumstances. He was still faithful to his God and his God was faithful to him. “And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed” (Genesis 39:23 ESV).

Too often, we judge the presence and power of our God based on the comfort and convenience of our circumstances. If all is going well, God must love us and be with us. If anything goes wrong, we immediately assume He is angry with us or turned His back on us. But He is always with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us. Even Jesus told His disciples that their circumstances were going to get worse before they got better. Their lives, after His departure, were going to be marked by difficulty. But God would be with them. The trials they would soon face would not be a sign of God’s abandonment of them, but of His work being done through them.

“But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. So don’t worry in advance about how to answer the charges against you, for I will give you the right words and such wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to reply or refute you! Even those closest to you—your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends—will betray you. They will even kill some of you. And everyone will hate you because you are my followers. But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.” – Luke 21:12-19 NLT

Betrayed by those closest to you. Unjustly thrown into prison. Hated and despised. But what does Jesus say? Stand firm. God would be in the midst of it all. In time, the circumstances would become proof of God’s presence, not His absence. Joseph was learning that God was with him, even in the worst of times.

Aiming To Please.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ESV

Why do you do the things you do? Most likely, it is either to please yourself or to please someone else. We are either motivated by self-satisfaction or some form of people-pleasing. We are out to make ourselves feel good or to ensure that others feel good about us. But Paul introduces another motivating factor for the believer: Pleasing God. More than anything else, we should desire to do what pleases Him. And Paul knew that a life of holiness, living set apart and consecrated to God and His purposes, was what pleased God. He wrote to the Thessalonicans: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a ESV). God desires His people to be holy and distinctively different in their behavior. He wants to them live according to His will and in keeping with the godly guidance of His indwelling Holy Spirit.

The apostle Peter described as life of holiness as “doing good”. He wrote, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15 ESV). He went on to say that we must abstain from certain ungodly behaviors such as sexual immorality and lustful passions. But while we “put off” unrighteousness, we must “put on” godliness. Peter went on to say, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ESV). To refuse to live a holy life is to disregard the very will of God for you. It is to willingly disobey and displease Him. But Paul insists that he makes it his aim to please God. That was how he was able to maintain his motivation to do the right thing even when he got the wrong reaction. He was able to endure injustice and abuse even when he was doing exactly what God had called him to do. Because his real goal was to please God, not man. Peter claimed that suffering was to be an expected part of living a godly life. “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21 ESV). Just as Christ suffered for doing what was right and godly, so shall we. We should not be surprised when living godly in an ungodly world brings godless reactions from ungodly people.

But Paul was of good courage. Even though he found life on earth to be difficult at times, he was encouraged by the knowledge that this life was not all there was. He believed in a life to come. He lived by faith, not sight. Like the writer of Hebrews, he knew that faith was “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). And he knew that faith was essential if anyone wanted to live a life that pleased God, because “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” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV).

Paul received courage from the fact that God had promised Him eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ. He received courage from the promise of Jesus that He would one day return. He received courage from the promise of a redeemed and resurrected body. And he longed for the day when he would be able to vacate his earthly “tent” and move into his new body, a “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1 Corinthians 5:1b ESV). But in the meantime, while he waited for the return of Christ or his own death, he made it his aim to live his life in such a way that it pleased God. That meant he had to stop trying to please others or doing what brought pleasure to himself alone. And Paul knew that there was a day coming when his actions or deeds would be judged by God. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (1 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). On that day, every believer’s conduct in this life will be judged – every thought, action, attitude, and word will be exposed. Everything we have done since the day we accepted Christ as Savior will be assessed and evaluated as to whether is was good or evil. This has nothing to do with judgment for sin, because all our sins have been paid for by Christ. It is about whether what we have done in this life since coming to faith in Christ was godly or ungodly, righteous or unrighteous, pleasing or displeasing to God. Did we live our lives in keeping with His will? His will is our holiness. So was that our motivating factor? Was pleasing Him our aim? Our actions and attitudes will reveal whether it was or not. How we lived our life will expose whether we were trying to please Him or whether we were living to please ourselves or others. Paul’s aim was to please God – even in this life. He made it his life-long objective to do the will of God, to live holy, set apart – doing good even when it produced less-than-good outcomes. He lived by faith, not by sight; trusting in the reality of what he hoped for, yet couldn’t see: Heaven and his resurrected body. Paul actually looked forward to the judgment seat of Christ, because he was confident that his aim in life was to please God. He was attempting to do the will of God, not men. He was striving to please God, not himself. And while that kind of lifestyle might result in troubles and tribulations in this life, it promised rewards in the life to come and the promise of hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).

 

God-Reliant.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ESV

Paul has just finished talking about the affliction he has suffered as a result of his ministry and the comfort he has received from God. He willingly accepted the first and gladly praised God for the second. And he wants the Corinthians to know that his knowledge regarding suffering and affliction is firsthand and not academic. He knows what he is talking about. So he refers to a real-life incident of which they seemed to have some knowledge. “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia” (2 Corinthians 1:8 ESV). We do not know exactly what occasion Paul is referring to, but we know that his life and ministry were marked by regular persecution and difficulty. Later on in this same letter, Paul gives an autobiographical glimpse into the kinds of trials and tribulations he had suffered on behalf of Christ.

Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT

Whatever happened in Asia, it was bad enough to make Paul and his companions question whether they would make it out alive. “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it” (2 Corinthians 1:8b NLT). This had been an occasion when Paul felt like he had received a death sentence and was going to end up martyred for the cause of Christ. This provides us with an insight into how Paul viewed his life and ministry. While he knew that his affliction was to be expected and viewed as nothing more than partaking of the sufferings of Christ, he was human and felt the same apprehension any normal man would when facing death. He never knew the outcome of his work on behalf of Christ. It could end well or it could turn out poorly. He had experienced both outcomes. But he had also experienced the comfort of God, which made it possible for him to continue his ministry with boldness and confidence.

Paul had even learned to accept the possibility of death with a certain degree of confident assurance, because it caused him to rely even more greatly on God. The possibility of death was a real possibility in Asia, but it had a positive impact on his life. The “sentence of death” hanging over their heads caused them to put all their trust in God – “we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9 NLT). The promise of the resurrection comes into much clearer focus when facing death. There comes a time in every person’s life when they have to come face to face with death, and there is little they can do to stop it. And there is nothing they can do to impact what happens after death. Yet Paul had a confidence that, because he believed in the resurrected Christ, he would experience life after death, and one day enjoy receiving his resurrected body. As he wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).

But Paul’s reliance upon and confidence in God didn’t stop with his assurance of life after death. It was the promise of the resurrection that gave Paul his courage to face the trials and difficulties of life with boldness. He knew his future was in good hands. He didn’t need to fear death, so he could live his life with a sense of abandonment. He even told the believers in Philippi:

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT

He told his young protege, Timothy:

Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:5-8 NLT

Paul could suffer through all the afflictions and difficulties that came with his job because he trusted in God. He had not only experienced the comfort of God, he had been an eye-witness to the salvation of God. God’s intervention and protection gave him confidence. “And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us” (2 Corinthians 1:10 NLT). And Paul also realized that it was the prayers of the saints that played a big part in the success of his ongoing ministry and God’s miraculous provision for and protection of him. So he encouraged the Corinthians to keep up their prayers on his behalf. They were partners in his ministry because they lifted him up before God. They were his helpers because they prayed for him. There was little they could do to assist Paul physically because of the distance between them. But they could pray, asking God to do what they could do. Prayer is a form of dependence upon God. In prayer, we are asking Him to do what only He can do. We are placing ourselves at His mercy and submitting ourselves to His care. Paul was a firm believer in God-reliance. He was learning to trust God for anything and everything, including his very life. Difficulties are designed to make us dependent upon God. Trials have a way of forcing us to trust Him. Afflictions can be perfect opportunities to experience His affection. It is in the daily affairs of life that God intends for us to see the faithful expression of his love.

A Word to the Weary.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. – 1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV

We all need encouragement at times. Especially when it comes to our walk of faith as believers. Living the Christian life can be difficult. There are pressures and expectations. There are constant temptations and trials. Our own sin natures wage war within us, attempting to lure us away from obedience to Christ and back in to the self-gratifying lifestyle He died to deliver us from. It is during those times that we need to be encouraged and reminded of our calling. When times are difficult, it helps to have someone come alongside us and boost our spiritual confidence by pointing us back to the reality of our relationship with Christ.

Some time in the middle of the first century, the apostle Peter wrote a letter to believers living in northern Asia Minor. These people were living in a Roman province that is now modern western Turkey. Peter refers to them as “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” They were believers who found themselves living as relative strangers because of their faith in Christ. The Greek term Peter used was παρεπίδημος (parepidēmos) and it was used of “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” (“Blue Letter Bible – 1Pe 1: Peter’s First Epistle – 1 Peter 1, Blue Letter Bible: KJV – King James Version). Peter was using the word metaphorically, calling his readers “strangers” or “aliens” because their real home was in heaven. They were essentially passing through this land on their way to their real homeland. They had been dispersed, so to speak, among the Gentiles living in northern Asia Minor and, as a result, were suffering the effects of their status as believers living among unbelievers. It was not easy. Their lives were not always pleasant.

They were the “elect”, chosen by God for salvation and set apart by Him to live holy lives in the midst of an unholy world. Their salvation had been God’s doing. He had made it possible for them to be restored to a right relationship with Himself. It was His Son who had died in their place. It was His Son’s righteousness that had been imputed to them and  made it possible for them to stand before God as justified. Their situation was part of that election. God had saved them, but had also placed them in the context in which they found themselves. God was not surprised by their circumstances. He was not unaware of the difficulties they were facing as His children living in a sinful and, oftentimes, hostile world. Dr. Thomas L. Constable explains what Peter meant by the foreknowledge of God.

The foreknowledge (Gr. prognosin; cf. Acts 2:23) of God refers, of course, to what God knows beforehand. God’s foreknowledge has an element of determinism in it because whatever really happens that God knows beforehand exists or takes place because of His sovereign will. Therefore when Peter wrote that God chose according to His foreknowledge he did not mean that God chose the elect because He knew beforehand they would believe the gospel (the Arminian position). God chose them because He determined beforehand that they would believe the gospel (the Calvinist position).

God had predetermined their salvation and their circumstances. They were right where He wanted them to be. Their struggles and trials were not to be viewed as indicators that they were out of God’s will, but right in the middle of it. He was in control. He was sovereign. He had chosen them and He would care for them.

In a single sentence, Peter mentions sanctification, obedience and sprinkling with blood. It almost comes across as a throwaway line, but there is significant meaning behind what Peter is saying to his readers. The sanctification of which he speaks is that which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. When we come to faith in Christ, we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit. His presence within us sets us apart from the rest of the world. He becomes our guarantee, our down-payment, so to speak, of all that is to come. It is His presence and power that enables us to live the life to which God has called us. It is the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to live obediently to Christ. No longer is our obedience dependent upon our own self-effort, but on the power of the Spirit of God who lives within us. And while we still struggle with sin in this life, we must never lose sight of the fact that we have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ. His blood, shed on our behalf and as payment for our sins, cleanses us from all unrighteousness. He has purified us with His blood.

The blood of Christ has provided us forgiveness of sins and a right standing with God. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to live in that right standing, obeying the will of God even in the midst of the troubles and trials of life. And our willful obedience is the proof of God’s ongoing sanctification of our lives. He is at work within us. And He uses the circumstances surrounding our lives to mold us into the likeness of His Son. Just like those to whom Paul wrote this letter, we are “elect exiles” living as strangers and aliens in a foreign land. We are citizens of heaven. We are members of another Kingdom who find ourselves living temporarily in a land that is hostile to our King and opposed to His rule. The rest of Peter’s letter will be a loving reminder of who we are in Christ, how we have been called to live and what our faith will look like as we live out our lives in this world.

The First Step Is The Hardest.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. – Hebrews 11:29 ESV

After God had destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, including the son of Pharaoh, the Egyptians were ready to see the Hebrews leave. “All the Egyptians urged the people of Israel to get out of the land as quickly as possible, for they thought, ‘We will all die!’” (Exodus 12:33 NLT). Not only did they urge them to leave, they loaded them down with wealth just as God had said they would. “And the people of Israel did as Moses had instructed; they asked the Egyptians for clothing and articles of silver and gold. The Lord caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the Israelites, and they gave the Israelites whatever they asked for. So they stripped the Egyptians of their wealth!” (Exodus 12:25-26 NLT). And they marched out, more than a million strong, under the leadership of Moses and the direction of God.

This is where the story gets interesting. “When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land” (Exodus 13:17 NLT). Instead, “God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18 NLT). God took them the long way. But not only that, He eventually had them do a U-turn. “Then the Lord gave these instructions to Moses: ‘Order the Israelites to turn back and camp by Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea. Camp there along the shore, across from Baal-zephon’” (Exodus 14:1-2 NLT). They were going backwards. God had them head back toward Egypt and He told Moses why. “‘Pharaoh will think, “The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness!” And once again I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after you. I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. After this the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!’ So the Israelites camped there as they were told” (Exodus 14:3-4 NLT). God had one last trick up His sleeve for Pharaoh. He knew that once Pharaoh heard that the Hebrews were camped nearby, he would change his mind and go on the attack. This whole encounter was part of God’s plan.

So Pharaoh didn’t disappoint. He showed up with a huge army complete with 600 chariots and he found the Israelites camped before the Red Sea. “As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the Lord, and they said to Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt?  Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, “Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!”’” (Exodus 14:10-12 NLT). They were not happy. They were in a full-blown panic. And yet, the author of Hebrews says, “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land.” They don’t appear to be very faithful in the Exodus account. They don’t seem to have much faith in God. They were scared, disillusioned, and confused. This was not what they had been expecting. Everything had looked so promising and now there were facing the entire army of Pharaoh. They were in a bad spot. They were in a jam. Their circumstances could not have been any worse. But remember, God had led them there. This was all part of His plan. What looked like the beginnings of an unmitigated disaster was actually going to be a divine deliverance.

Even Moses told the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14 ESV). They had front row seats to what was going to be the greatest show on earth. They just didn’t realize it yet. You know the story. God miraculously parted the Red Sea. “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:21-22 ESV).

There are those who say that they people had no faith. They reason that the faith of which the author of Hebrews speaks is that of Moses. It was his faith that got them across the sea. But the Exodus passage makes it clear that “the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea.” Each and every one of them had to place his or her sandals on ground between those two walls of standing water. They had to take that initial step of faith and walk the path that God had provided. It would have been scary. It would have been intimidating. They would have had doubts along the way, wondering if the walls of water would suddenly crash down, drowning them all. It would have taken a while for more than a million people to make the crossing. The ones in the back of the line must have been wondering if they would ever make it across before Pharaoh’s army arrived. And yet, by faith, the people crossed – each and every one of them. Their salvation, the work of God, required that they step out in obedience. They had to walk if they wanted to live. They had to take the path God had provided, in spite of their fears, doubts and apprehensions.

As we walk on this earth as followers of Christ, we will find ourselves facing difficult and sometimes disillusioning circumstances. God’s path for us will not always be easy or make sense. We will have doubts and fears, second thoughts and last-minute temptations to stop in our tracks and refuse to walk the path God has placed before us. But in those moments, we must remember the words of Moses, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13 ESV). That doesn’t mean our fear is sin. It simply means that, at some point, we have to stop fearing and start trusting. We have to remember that God is in control and He has a plan for our lives. The path He lays out before us may seem illogical and even dangerous at times. His solution may appear worse than the problem we are facing. But we must learn to trust Him and step out in faith. The people of Israel doubted, but they walked. They feared, but they took the first step. When there had been no way of escape, God had provided one. And they took it – in faith – weak and wavering as it may have been. And they got to the other side.