God Alone.

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. They crossed the Jordan and began from Aroer, and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.

But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” – 2 Samuel 24:1-10 ESV

This closing chapter of the book of 2 Samuel will not end with David’s death, but with a recollection of yet another of David’s sins against God. This time, he will be guilty of taking a census in order to determine the size of his army. Most commentators believe this was done late in David’s reign and life, because he will use Joab, the commander of his army, as well as his troops, to travel across the length and breadth of the kingdom in order to take the census, a job that would take them nine months to complete. So it is believed that his had to be during an extended period of peace, when there was no eminent threat of war. The latter years of David’s reign was the only time when this could have happened.

But regardless of when it happened, the main concern is that it did happen. And there is a bit of confusion with this point, because the book of 1 Chronicles, in recording this very same episode, tells us, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1 ESV). And yet, in this version of the story, it says, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’”  (2 Samuel 24:1 ESV). So, which was it? Did Satan incite David to number Israel, or was it God? While this appears to be a contradiction, it is really a matter of perspective. We know from the book of James that God does not tempt anyone to sin.

God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. – James 1:13 NLT

But God does discipline His people for their sins. And He has a track record of using others to accomplish His will, including the kings of foreign nations and even Satan himself.  In the book of Exodus we read how God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, so that he would refuse to let the people of Israel go. But his stubborn refusal would result in yet another display of God’s glory and greatness. All of this was so that the people of Israel, having lived in Egypt for 400 years, would know that their God was greater than the gods of Egypt.

In the case of David, recounted in this closing chapter of 2 Samuel, it seems that God desired to punich Israel for their disobedience, so he allowed Satan to entice David to take the census. It was in keeping with God’s plan to discipline His own people, but Satan was the instigator of David’s rebellious decision to do what he did. But why was taking a census so bad? What was so wrong about David wanting to know the size of his army? The problem does not appear to be the taking of the census itself, but the motivation behind David doing it to begin with. It was David who wrote:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
– Psalm 20:7 ESV

Another anonymous psalm states a similar truth:

The best-equipped army cannot save a king,
    nor is great strength enough to save a warrior.
Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory—
    for all its strength, it cannot save you. – Psalm 33:16-17 NLT

In taking a census of his fighting force, David was revealing that his hope and trust were in his army, not God. He was placing his confidence in the size of his mighty military machine, not power of God Almighty. He just had to know. So he sent the military commander and his troops to scour the land, determining the exact number of all the men qualified to serve in his army. It is important to remember that this was probably done in a time of peace, when there was no pressing need to have a larger army. But David wanted to know. His action was sinful. And at the heart of David’s sin was his lack of trust in God. And it would appear that David’s lack of trust was an expression of the hearts of the people. God was angry with them, but the text does not tell us why. Perhaps it was their lack of trust in Him that was the real issue here. David, as the king and legal representative of the people, was acting out the very heart attitude of the people of Israel. They had begun to place their trust in someone or something other than God. Perhaps they had become comfortable with David as their king and overly confident in his military prowess and the army’s ability to protect them from their enemies. By the latter years of David’s reign, Israel had become a powerful nation and a force to be reckoned with. Their success had probably produced a fair amount of over-confidence. As is usually the case in most of our lives, when things are going well, we tend to forget about God. In times of relative peace and tranquility, we can find it easy to lose our need for God. Whatever it was that the Israelites had done, God was angry with them, and so, He used David to bring about a fitting punishment for their sin.

David, against the better judgment of Joab, commanded the census be taken, and nine months later he got the news for which he was looking.

…in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000. – 2 Samuel 24:9 ESV

One million three hundred thousand men. That is a huge army by any standard. And it must have made David proud to know that he had those kinds of numbers at his disposal. This news would have fed his pride and boosted his ego. He was a powerful king with a formidable army at his disposal. But David’s moment of ego-driven ecstasy would be short-lived. We’re told that, “after he had taken the census, David’s conscience began to bother him” (2 Samuel 24:10 NLT). He had second thoughts about what he had done. Perhaps he remembered the words of his own psalm. Whatever the case, his heart began to be burdened by what he had done. He recognized his actions as sin and confessed it openly to God.

“I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt, Lord, for doing this foolish thing.” – 2 Samuel 24:10 NLT

David had sinned. No surprise there. After all, we have seen him sin before. But the key lesson in this passage is that David recognized his sin and confessed it before God. He admitted his guilt and sought God’s forgiveness. He didn’t attempt to blame anyone else for his actions. He didn’t make excuses. And it’s interesting to note that David confessed his sin before God had done anything to discipline him for it. Sometimes, we can sin against God and be completely comfortable with our actions, until He chooses to punish us. Too often, it is when the disciplining hand of God falls on us, that we see the folly of our sin and confess it to Him. But David confessed before God had done anything. His heart was sensitive enough to recognize the error of his ways and to admit it to God. He didn’t wait until God’s judgment fell on him.

Trust in God is a vital characteristic for the child of God. The proverbs state:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
    do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
    and he will show you which path to take. – Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT

In numbering the people, David had illustrated his failure to trust God. He was putting his hope and trust in something he could see and count. He was placing his confidence in the physical size of his army, not the invisible might of his God. It’s always easier to trust in something we can see and touch, than to place our confidence in a God who is hidden from our eyes. But God had proven Himself faithful to David, time and time again. He had rescued him repeatedly. He had protected him countless times throughout his life. But here, near the end of his life, David found himself putting his trust in something other than God, and he would pay the consequences for his sin. It is so important for us to remember that “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). If we put out hope and confidence in the things of this world, we will lose the battle. We are in the midst of a spiritual battle that will require faith and hope in God. The size of our army or our bank account will not help us in this conflict. Our physical strength will be no match for the spiritual enemies we face. David could number his army, but they would not be his source of salvation in a time of need. God alone can save. God alone deserves our trust. God alone is the one who warrants our attention, affection and hope.

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

How Things Turn Out When God Gets Left Out.

Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim, and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan. Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. And the king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king repay me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. But here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you.” And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you, and all that you desire of me I will do for you.” Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over. And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home. The king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him. All the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel, brought the king on his way.

Then all the men of Israel came to the king and said to the king, “Why have our brothers the men of Judah stolen you away and brought the king and his household over the Jordan, and all David’s men with him?” All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is our close relative. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king’s expense? Or has he given us any gift?” And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, “We have ten shares in the king, and in David also we have more than you. Why then did you despise us? Were we not the first to speak of bringing back our king?” But the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel. – 2 Samuel 19:31-43 ESV

These closing verses of chapter 19 set up was is going to happen next. As David attempted to reestablish his claim to the throne of Israel, he was faced with the task of rewarding those who had stood by his side during Absalom’s short-lived coup, but also of winning back the allegiance of those who had sided with Absalom in his rebellion. There were some, like Barzillai, who had aided David in his escape from Jerusalem. This wealthy octogenarian, had provided food for David and his followers while they were in Mahanaim. Barzillai was from Gilead, a region east of the Jordan River that was divided between the tribes of Gad and Manasseh. We are not told which tribe Barzillai belonged to, but only that he had proved to be an ally to David during those difficult days after the loss of his throne. David’s desire to reward him was gratefully rejected by Barzillai because of his advanced age. Rather than accept David’s gracious offer to return to Jerusalem and live out his days in David’s palace, he preferred to return home and die in his own land. But he offered Chimham, most likely his son, to stand as his proxy. Chimham would return to Jerusalem with David and receive the benefit of the king’s gratitude. 

But there was a storm brewing. David’s return to the throne was not going to be easy. And simply handing out rewards to those who had stood by his side was not going to make the transfer of power any easier. If you recall, one of the first things David did when he received his abrupt wake-up call from Joab and stopped his excessive mourning over Absalom, was to call for the tribe of Judah to come to his aid. He sent a message to the leaders of Judah.

“Why are you the last ones to welcome back the king into his palace? For I have heard that all Israel is ready. You are my relatives, my own tribe, my own flesh and blood! So why are you the last ones to welcome back the king?” – 2 Samuel 19:11-12 NLT

This wasn’t exactly the case. David was a bit optimistic in his assessment of the situation, because the text actually paints a slightly different picture.

Meanwhile, the Israelites who had supported Absalom fled to their homes. And throughout all the tribes of Israel there was much discussion and argument going on. The people were saying, “The king rescued us from our enemies and saved us from the Philistines, but Absalom chased him out of the country. Now Absalom, whom we anointed to rule over us, is dead. Why not ask David to come back and be our king again?” – 2 Samuel 19:9-10 NLT

Not everybody was lining up to welcome David home. The Israelites, representing ten of the other tribes besides Judah and the Benjaminites, were divided in their thoughts regarding David. Many were scared that David would seek retribution against them for siding with Absalom. Others argued that David had been successful against the enemies of Israel, but had fled at the sight of Absalom. The only real vote of confidence in David was that, since Absalom was dead, he was the most obvious choice as a replacement. And yet, David was under the somewhat deluded impression that all of Israel was ready to welcome him back and so he used this thought to goad the tribe of Judah into action. But in doing this, David actually made his problem worse.

We’re told that, “All the troops of Judah and half the troops of Israel escorted the king on his way” (2 Samuel 19:40 NLT). Not everyone was on board with David’s return. Many were in hiding, fearing what David was going to do when he returned to power. And the leaders of the ten tribes expressed to David their concern over what they saw was a case of cronyism. 

But all the men of Israel complained to the king, “The men of Judah stole the king and didn’t give us the honor of helping take you, your household, and all your men across the Jordan.” – 2 Samuel 19:41 NLT

It was important to these men that they have the favor of the king, because they were the ones who had sided against him. So when they saw the men of Judah, David’s own tribe, getting the honor of escorting him across the Jordan, they became jealous and fearful. They knew their actions against David were going to make it difficult to win back his favor, and they were concerned that David’s close ties to his own tribe were going to make reconciliation that much more difficult. So an argument broke out. It is important to remember that these people had just fought a major battle against one another in which 20,000 men had died. There were still emotional and physical wounds to be healed. The civil war that had just taken place, while short-lived, had left deep-seated animosities between the tribes. Every step David took, both literally and figuratively, was going to be hyper-analyzed. His leadership skills were going to be tested like never before. His ability to navigate the stormy and dangerous waters of reunification was going to require a wisdom greater than he possessed. If David ever needed God, it was now. But there is a marked absence of any reference to God in any of this narrative. In so many other times during David’s life, we saw him seeking God. He would turn to God for counsel and refrain from making any decisions until he had heard from God. But here, in the heat of the moment, David seems to be acting out of impulse. Perhaps he was in a hurry to put this nasty episode behind him and get things back to normal. But it appears that every decision he made blew up in his face. He was learning the difficult lessons that come with leadership. Simply wearing the crown did not make him a king. Getting his kingdom back wasn’t going to win his people back. Handing out rewards was not going to heal the wounds that plagued his nation. David needed the wisdom of God. Without His help, David was like any other man, susceptible to outside influences, filled with inner conflicts, motivated by fear and self–preservation, capable of anger, and always subject to sin.

Far too often, we read the stories of the life of David and attempt to make him into an icon of virtue, a model for spirituality and godly leadership. But David was a man. Yes, he was a man after God’s own heart, but that does not mean he always did was God would have him do. The real lessons to be learned from the life of David have to do with the faithfulness of God, not the righteousness of David. His life is a stark reminder of just how much each of us needs God. He was God’s anointed king. He had been hand-picked by God for his role. But without constant reliance upon God, David was an accident waiting to happen. Apart from God, his life tended to end up a train wreck with bodies strewn across the landscape. The good news of the gospel is not just that we have been chosen by God to receive His mercy and grace as made available through His Son’s death on the cross. It is that we have access to His wisdom and power every day of our lives. We have forgiveness for the sins we will inevitably commit. We have His unfailing love even when we fail to love Him consistently or completely. David wasn’t a perfect king, but he was God’s king. And his life provides us with a powerful reminder that our best days will be those in which we recognize our weakness and our need for God’s power. Trying to be king without God would never work out well for David. Trying to be a Christian without God will never turn out well for us either. It is not the title that sets us apart. It is our relationship with and dependence upon 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

Children of the Promise.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
    break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than those of the one who has a husband.”

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. – Galatians 4:21-31 ESV

One of the dangers of biblical interpretation is that of taking what was meant to be literal and turning it into an allegory. This is most often done with difficult passages. Because the Bible is made up of a variety of literary styles, such as history and poetry, and some passages are allegorical in nature, it can be tempting to take what God intended to be literal and force upon it an allegorical meaning. Another thing that can make reading and interpreting the Bible difficult is that there are some passages that have both literal and allegorical messages within them. Paul provides us with a case in point. In his defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, Paul will use the historical account of the births of Ishmael and Isaac to explain the true nature of the law and man’s relationship to it.

Paul somewhat sarcastically asked his readers, who seemed to be set on living according to the law, why they refused to listen to what the law said. He then tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s two sons, found in the book of Genesis, located in the “law” section of the Old Testament. When a Jew referred to “the book of the law,” he was referring to not only the Mosaic law itself, but to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible as we know it today. The Genesis account tells of the birth of Ishmael to Abraham through his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar. This had been the result of Sarah’s attempt to help God fulfill His promise to give Abraham a son. The only problem was that it was not according to God’s plan. Sarah had seen her barrenness as a problem too big for God, so she had intervened and encouraged Abraham to have a child with Hagar. But Paul pointed out that Ishmael, “the son of the slave was born according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23 ESV). Paul’s emphasis was that Ishmael’s birth was of the flesh or natural.  And as the son of a slave, his relationship to Abraham would be completely different than that of Isaac. God had told Abraham that Ishmael would not an acceptable substitute or stand-in as his heir. God had promised to give Abraham an heir through Sarah, in spite of her barrenness, and He did. God supernaturally intervened and made it possible for Sarah to conceive and bear Abraham a son. And Isaac’s birth was the direct fulfillment of God’s long-standing promise to Abraham.

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. – Genesis 12:1-2 ESV

As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. – Genesis 17:15-16 ESV

And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:18-19 ESV

Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, was not to be Abraham’s heir. That right and responsibility would go to Isaac, the son of the promise. It is at this point that Paul reveals the allegorical or figurative message found in this literal, historical recounting of the births of Ishmael and Isaac. “Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants” (Galatians 4:24 ESV). What Paul is really providing us with is an analogy or illustration of what these historical events represent or foreshadow. Ishmael represented the covenant of the law given at Mount Sinai. Because Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” or through Sarah’s and Abraham’s self-reliance, he was disqualified from becoming the fulfillment of God’s promise. The law, though given by God, was completely dependent upon man’s ability to live up to it. It was based on self-reliance. The law was never intended by God to bring about man’s justification or right standing before Him. It simply revealed and exposed the depths of man’s sinfulness. The law enslaved men under sin. It condemned them for their sin, but could do nothing to relieve them from its control over their lives. That is, until Christ came. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). At one point, Jesus had told the Pharisees, the experts in the Mosaic law, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36 ESV).

Paul was attempting to contrast Judaism with Christianity and compare life under the law with the life according to faith. Paul wanted his readers to know that they were children according to the promise. They had been freed from the onerous task of attempting to keep the law in an ill-fated effort to earn a right-standing before God. Jesus Christ had died to set them free and justify them before God according to His works, not theirs. So why would they ever want to go back to trying to keep the law? Ishmael would share in the inheritance promised by God to Abraham’s heir. And those who attempt to live by keeping the law through dependence upon their own self-effort, will not inherit eternal life, promised by God to all those who placed their faith in His Son. The temptation toward legalism and self-reliance is alive and well today. The pressure to somehow earn favor with God through our own self-effort exists for all believers. But Paul would have us remember that we are called to live our lives by faith. We are to trust in God and His indwelling Holy Spirit, not our weak and frail flesh. We must learn to say as Paul did earlier in this same letter: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

Philippians 3:1-11

Knowing Christ.

Philippians 3:1-11

I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

What a fascinating and somewhat confusing series of verses these are. In verses 10 and 11, Paul actually stresses three things that he has made it his aim to know. In the Greek, the sentence would literally read, “to know him, the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.” So Paul wanted to know all three. The Greek word he uses is not just intellectual or “head” knowledge. It conveys an intimacy and experiential aspect to it. The Jews actually used this same word to refer to sexual intercourse between a woman and a man. There is no question that Paul knew Christ. He had come to know Him years ago on the road to Damascus. But Paul had a desire to grow in his knowledge of God, and he seems to link the three things he mentions in these verses together. Knowing Christ, the power that raised Him from the dead, and sharing in His sufferings. For Paul, they all went together and were essential elements for a vibrant relationship with Christ.

Intimacy with Christ will include a ever-increasing replication of the character and qualities of Christ. Paul wanted it all. He was not content to have a surface-level awareness of Christ. He wanted to truly know Him. He wanted to experience the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. He knew he had that power available within him in the form of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). Paul wanted to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in his life on a daily basis. He wanted to know what it was like to be raised from death to life, from not just at the resurrection from the dead, but here and now – in this life. And Paul wanted to know and experience the same kind of suffering Jesus had experienced. He wanted to share in the sufferings of Christ, learning first-hand what it was like to undergo trials and tribulations all for the sake of obedience to the Father.

It’s interesting that Paul makes this statement at the end of a section where he addresses the false hope of human effort. As he has had to do elsewhere in his ministry, Paul was addressing the problem of circumcision. The believers in Philippi were being hounded by converted Jews, known as Judaizers, who were trying to convince them that they had to become “card-carrying” Jews if they wanted to truly be saved. This meant that all males had to be circumcised, and everyone had to keep all the Jewish laws and rituals. Paul stood vehemently against all of this. He would stand for nothing that added to the simplicity of the Gospel message of faith alone in Christ alone. There was absolutely no place for works or human effort. If merit or achievement were the standard, then he had a resume like no other. He was a Jew, a Pharisee, a keeper of the law, and even a persecutor of the church. But as far as Paul was concerned, all of that was literal garbage compared with knowing Christ as His Savior. Paul was no longer a law-keeper, attempting to make himself right with God through self-effort. He was a Christ-follower, relying on the work that Christ completed on the cross for his sake. “For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 NLT).

So for Paul, human achievement was dead-end street. It achieved nothing and provided a false sense of hope. Knowing Christ was everything. Growing in his awareness and understanding of His Savior was the highest priority for Paul. He wanted to know in his own life the same kind of power that had raised Jesus from death to life. Paul wasn’t interested in some kind of sterile, intellectual knowledge. He wanted to experience the power of God in his life, even if that meant having to suffer. As Paul stated earlier in chapter two, “When he appeared in human form,he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:7-9 NLT). For Jesus, humility, suffering and obedience preceded glorification and honor. The same should be true for us as His followers. Paul wanted to experience what Jesus had experienced. He wanted his life to be marked by the same qualities and attitudes that Jesus had. The power of God showed up in Jesus’ life at the worst possible moment – in His death. Jesus experienced the presence of the Spirit even in His greatest times of suffering. It was how He survived the ordeals surrounding His trials and crucifixion. Paul wanted to know what it meant to experience those same things. So should we. Suffering as a result of our faith lends our walk a sense of legitimacy. It is proof of our fellowship with Christ. It also provides an opportunity for the power of God to show up in our lives. When we are weak, He is strong. God shows up in our darkest moments. His light illuminates our darkest days. Paul wanted to know Christ. He wanted to experience the power of God in his life. And he wanted to share in the sufferings of Christ in order to understand and appreciate what Christ had done for him. Every other goal or achievement is worthless in comparison. But how odd these words sound in our happiness-obsessed, comfort-at-all-costs society. What a difference it would make in our lives and in our world if the words of Paul became our daily prayer: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!”

Father, these are hard words. I want to know Your Son better, but I am not fond of suffering. I want to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in my life, but I am not always willing to let go of my own power and rely completely on His. I want all that a relationship with Christ offers, but I still hold on tightly to what I think this world has to offer as well. Continue to work on my life, giving me the capacity to view life the way Paul did. So that one day I might be able to express his words with equal enthusiasm. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Learning to Lean.

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NLT

Going through difficulties is, well, difficult at times. No one enjoys trials and troubles, in spite of James’ admonition to “consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2 NLT). Trials can be trying. Difficulties are difficult. Suffering can be insufferably hard. Unless we share Paul’s perspective on the subject. And there are few people who understood suffering as well as he did. In this follow-up letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul provided them with a primer on how to handle suffering, and he spoke from first-hand experience. He wrote of the trouble he had encountered somewhere in Asia during one of his missionary journeys. He didn’t provide any details, but simply said that it was a life-threatening experience. He and his traveling companions fully expected to die. So whatever it was, it was bad. Paul wrote that they were “crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure” (2 Corinthians 1:8b NLT). And yet, the result of this overwhelmingly difficult circumstance was positive. Paul learned to give up and look up. His strength and self-confidence at an all-time low, Paul understood just how much he needed God to see him through the trial. He learned to rely on God, instead of himself. One of the fascinating things about trials is that they can reveal to us just how lousy we are at being god. Through trials, we discover our weaknesses, fears, ignorance, inadequacies, and vulnerabilities. We are no match for life. And yet, small personal victories over trials and troubles along the way can lull us into a false sense of confidence and cockiness. We can begin to believe that we are our own savior. We can deliver ourselves from any and every difficulty – with a little ingenuity, creativity and determination.

But Paul knew better. He had encountered a trial that was beyond his personal capacity to endure. And it drove him to his knees and into the arms of God. “We placed our confidence in him,” Paul wrote. And guess what? “And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again” (2 Corinthians 1:10a NLT). Paul gave up, looked up, and God showed up. He delivered. He rescued. And Paul learned an invaluable lesson: That God who rescued once, will do it again. He learned to trust God, because God is trustworthy. And that wasn’t just some academic understanding, gleaned from a book sermon, or seminar. Paul had learned it first-hand and up close and personal. Paul’s God wasn’t some ethereal, disembodied deity who lived in some invisible realm and watched over His subjects with disinterest and disdain. He was transcendent, but He was also eminent. God was involved in the lives of His people. He got His hands dirty. He saw what was going on. He heard the prayers of His people. And He did something about it. And Paul had learned to rely on God. He had learned to place his confidence in God.

But there was one other thing Paul had learned and attempted to pass on to the Corinthians. Paul had experienced the comfort of God in the midst of trials. God doesn’t always deliver. At least not on our terms or according to our time table. A big part of trusting God is being willing to let Him do what He knows to be best for us, regardless of whether we particularly like it or not. It’s interesting that Paul had to endure difficulties that practically crushed and overwhelmed him. From his perspective, his difficulties were bad enough to make him believe he was going to die. And yet, God was in the midst of it all. And while it was going on, God was not distant or disinterested. He was providing comfort. The Greek word Paul uses for comfort is parakaleo, and it means to “come alongside, to console, to encourage and strengthen.” God had been there. He had provided them with encouragement, exhortation and comfort – even in the midst of all the difficulties. Sometimes we fail to see God in the middle of our messes. He is there, speaking to us, encouraging us, teaching us – but we are so busy staring at our difficulty or scheming how to get out of it, that we fail to see or hear God.

And Paul had learned one more valuable lesson about trials. Not only does God comfort us in the midst of our trials, He expects us to pass on that comfort to others. One of the most beneficial things about enduring the difficulties of life is that we get the opportunity to come alongside others in their times of trouble, comforting them just as God did us. We can share our intimate knowledge of God’s love, compassion and mercy. We can encourage them to trust in the midst of trials, because we have learned to rely on God. We have seen Him prove Himself faithful in our own lives. So we can speak from experience and “come alongside” those in need and encourage them to wait on the Lord. We can become a source of comfort to them. God never wastes our suffering. He uses it to reveal our weaknesses, expose our pride, dismantle our self-reliance, and increase our faith. He shows up when things are looking down. He comes alongside right when we think He is nowhere to be found. He provides comfort and strength to endure. And He rescues right when He knows it’s time. All so we will learn to place our confidence in Him.

Father, the trials of life are real and regular. They come without warning and, sometimes, in waves. And the tendency is to miss You in the midst of them. Open my eyes so that I can see You in my trials. Help me to hear Your words of comfort and encouragement. Patiently pry my hands off the rudder of my life, so that I will allow You to direct my path and set my course. Forgive me for my self-reliance and stubborn self-sufficiency. I want to rely on You more and me less. I want to experience Your comfort and pass it along to all those You bring into my life who need it. I want to place my confidence in You – at all times and in every circumstance. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men