The Lord Is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

Paul was a powerful proponent of prayer and was not shy in requesting others to pray on his behalf. He knew he was engaged in a spiritual battle that required spiritual weapons. He told the Corinthians believers:

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NLT

And as he told Timothy, one of the primary weapons in our warfare with evil is prayer.

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 NLT

His belief in the power and efficacy of prayer was supported by James, who wrote, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). And, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had challenged them to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV). And, as Paul told Timothy, this was his desire for every congregation to which he had ministered.

In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy. – 1 Timothy 2:8 NLT

Paul didn’t view prayer as an optional. It was not some kind of spiritual accessory you put on when it was convenient or when you determined it was necessary. It was to be a permanent and vital part of the believer’s life, a sentiment Paul expressed to the church in Ephesus.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. – Ephesians 6:18 NLT

And this call to persistent and perpetual prayer was because of the very real nature of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had warned the Ephesian believers of the epic spiritual war taking place around them and their role in it.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For 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 6:10-12 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and he coveted the prayers of others. But notice that Paul’s prayer request, while personal in nature, was not focused on himself. He was asking them to pray that his ministry would continue to be successful – “that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 NLT). He didn’t provide the Thessalonians with a long list of personal prayer requests that focused on his health, finances, or relational concerns. It wasn’t that Paul didn’t have problems or personal issues, but that his focus was always on the bigger cause of spreading the gospel.

Paul didn’t need better clothes, a bigger house, improved health, or a trouble-free life. And while he appreciated any concern that others had for his well-being, he wanted them to know that he really had no needs, except the strength and determination to continue doing what he had been called to do.

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:10-12 NLT

And Paul made it clear that all he really needed was provided for him by Christ.

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

As Paul’s letter has made clear, there were those who opposed his teaching and were always trying to add to or alter the gospel message. Not only that, but he also faced physical threats to his life because of his work on behalf of Christ. Paul provides a detailed list of his physical sufferings in his second letter to the church in Corinth. He describes how he had “been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23 NLT). Then he gave them specific instances of his abuse. “Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25 NLT).

So, Paul asked the Thessalonians for prayer in light of the very real nature of his opposition and their relentless desire to put him out of commission.

…pray for us…that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1, 2 NLT

As the Thessalonians knew from their own firsthand experience, not everyone accepted the message of the gospel. Many of their own friends and family members had denied God’s gracious offer of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Not all have faith, Paul states. Not everyone is part of the body of Christ. And wherever believers exist, they will find themselves surrounded by those who despise their message and their very existence. Jesus had warned His disciples: “You will be hated by everyone because of My name” (Matthew 10:22 BSB). And He broadened the scope of this hatred by declaring that the whole world would stand opposed to His followers.

If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. – John 15:19 BSB

But Paul assures his fellow believers in Thessalonica that, while the world was filled with hostile people who did not share their faith, “the Lord is faithful” and “He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). No matter how bleak things appeared to be or how intense the persecution may become, the Lord stood ready to strengthen and protect them. With true pastoral conviction and a loving shepherd’s heart, Paul encouraged his flock to remain faithful to the Lord. He had not and would not abandon them. And Paul complimented the Thessalonians for their past faithfulness and assured them of his confidence that they would remain committed to Christ, no matter what happened.

we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing—and will do—what we are commanding. – 2 Thessalonians 3:4 NLT

Finally, Paul offers up a prayer on their behalf, asking that God give them a greater understanding of His love for them and a deeper appreciation for the endurance Christ modeled with His own life. They need to keep the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ on their minds constantly. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, an understanding of God’s love as expressed through Christ’s sacrifice is the key to experiencing fulness of life and power.

…may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:18-19 NLT

And as the author of Hebrews points out, a constant focus on the faithfulness of Christ will go a long way in providing world-weary Christians with the strength they need to not only survive but thrive in this life.

…let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

Because of the unwavering love of God and the faithfulness of Christ, they had everything they needed to say as Paul did, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 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

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Faith in the Face of Affliction

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

We know from Luke’s account of Paul’s second missionary journey, recorded in the book of Acts, that Paul and Silas had been forced to flee Thessalonica because of threats against their lives. They left under the cover of night and made their way to Berea. Their initial reception in Berea was positive and Luke records that the Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV). But before long, the Jews in Thessalonica got word that Paul and Silas were in Berea and sent men to stir up the local Jews against them. Once again, Paul was forced to leave, but he asked Silas and Timothy to remain behind in Berea (Acts 17:14). Paul then made his way to Athens by boat. Once there, he immediately went to work sharing the gospel, even preaching in the Areopagus, an outdoor arena located on a small hill northwest of the city of Athens. The term,  Areopagus referred to the place and the council of rulers who met there to debate and discuss important topics. Paul addressed this learned group, using the local shrine to the “unknown god” to discuss with them the truth regarding Jesus Christ. And all went well until he mentioned Jesus being raised from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:31-33 ESV

In spite of the negative response of the council, there were those who heard Paul’s message and believed.

In his letter to the Thessalonian believers, Paul picks up the recounting of his travel itinerary right at this point.

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith… – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 ESV

Paul had left Silas and Timothy back in Berea, but a further decision had been made to have Timothy return to Thessalonica to continue the work of building up the local congregation there. In a series of letters he had written to Timothy, Paul provided his young friend and ministry partner with some specific instructions regarding his work among these fledgling congregations.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them. – 1 Timothy 4:12-13 NLT

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. – 2 Timothy 4:2 NLT

Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that Timothy had been sent to encourage and instruct them, but also to strengthen their faith as they wrestled with the persecution they were facing.

We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. – 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 NLT

If you recall, a year earlier, when Paul and Silas had been in Thessalonica, a mob attacked the home of Jason, one of the members of the local congregation. He and a few other Christians had been dragged before the city council where they had been falsely accused of insurrection against the Roman government.

“They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, named Jesus.” – Acts 17:7 NLT

Jason and his companions were forced to post bond and released, but the pressure on this small congregation did not let up. The Jews living in Thessalonica saw them as a threat and continued to stir up trouble for them. The Gospel was having an impact, resulting in the conversions of some of the members of the local synagogue. And this resulted in a spirit of jealousy and resentment among the Jews. And the city council, answerable to the Roman government, was not about to tolerate anyone or anything that caused a spirit of dissent or discord in their community. So, this small congregation of Christ-followers was under increasing pressure and growing persecution.

But Paul reminds them:

…you know that we are destined for such troubles. Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 NLT

He had warned them that trouble would come, and it had shown up as promised. Evidently, this had been the motivation behind Paul’s decision to send Timothy back to Thessalonica. He was concerned that the pressure being placed upon the believers there would cause them to consider reneging on their commitment to Christ.

Paul had a strong commitment to the spiritual well-being of the local church and, knowing that persecution was to be expected, he had sent Timothy to provide godly leadership in the face of opposition. And he had already provided Timothy with ample instructions regarding his role as an elder/shepherd of the people of God.

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:14-15 NLT

The church was to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. The local congregation in Thessalonica was meant to conduct itself in keeping with the truth of the Gospel, exhibiting its life-transforming power even in the face of persecution. Paul was well aware of the fact that Satan would do everything in his power to discourage and demoralize the young believers in Thessalonica. In fact, he confessed to them his fear that they would give in to the enemy’s attacks on their faith.

I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless. – 1 Thessalonians 3:5 NLT

Paul had expressed similar concerns to the believers in Ephesus and had provided them with insights into the nature of the spiritual battle in which they were engaged.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For 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 6:10-12 NLT

Faith in Christ had resulted in salvation for the believers in Thessalonica. But it had also resulted in persecution. Their commitment to Christ had placed a bullseye on their backs and made them tempting targets for the enemy. And Paul knew that the constant presence of trials and tribulations would cause some to lose faith. Their strength to stand firm in the face of opposition would grow weak and the temptation to return to their old way of life would be great.

Paul had warned Timothy that this would happen, so he had encouraged him to “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and thereby shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19 BSB).

The local church is meant to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. It is within the local fellowship that the miracle of the Gospel shows up in transformed lives and a loving community of Christ-centered people who love God and each other. But for that local church to be impactful, it will require individual believers who remain committed to the cause of Christ regardless of any persecutions or problems they may face.

Paul knew that the Thessalonian believers were suffering, but he also knew that they could survive and thrive. His answer to their problem of persecution was simple. It was the very same thing he had told the believers in Corinth.

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love. – 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

And God had not left them ill-equipped or on their own. He had provided them with ample resources to fight the good fight of faith.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6:13-17 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

The Power to Obey

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philemon 1:21-35 ESV

Paul’s use of the word “obedience” seems odd in light of the fact that this entire letter has been couched in terms of a request. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had admitted that he could have used his authority as an apostle and simply issued a command to Philemon but he had refused to do so. He wanted this to be Philemon’s decision.

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… – Philemon 1:8 ESV

Because all of this revolved around a relationship, Paul had not wanted to dictate the terms of Philemon’s decision or to use coercion to force his hand. He knew that any healing between the two men would have to come from the heart and not the head.

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:14 ESV

So, what prompts Paul to bring up obedience at this point in his letter? And why does he express such confidence that Philemon will do the right thing? I think it goes back to what Paul knew and believed about Philemon. He had every confidence that Philemon would respond positively and correctly because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Remember what he said about his friend earlier in his letter: “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (Philemon 1:5  ESV).

Philemon had a track record of doing the right thing. And Paul was confident that his friend would face this latest test with the wisdom and strength of the indwelling Spirit of God. Philemon was not left to his own devices or relegated to operating according to his sinful flesh. He was a new creation. He had a new heart. He had a supernatural power available to him that would enable him to respond with justice, mercy, grace, and love.

Paul’s confidence was in the power of God to reform the hearts of men. He knew that the reconciliation of these two men was God’s will and that God would equip Philemon with the strength to obey that will. Paul knew from personal experience that, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, nothing was impossible. He confidently told the believers in Philippi,  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

His prayer for the believers in Ephesus had been that God would “from his glorious, unlimited resources…empower you with inner strength through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT). And Paul had been confident that God would answer that prayer, boldly claiming, “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 NLT).

Paul believed that Philemon would obey the will of God because Paul believed in the power of God. His job had been to present the facts of the case to Philemon and then leave the result up to the Spirit of God. The resolution of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was going to have to be divinely empowered. It had to be a “God thing.” If Philemon tried to accomplish this in his own strength, he would fail. If he attempted to muster up the resolve to free Onesimus from slavery and treat him as a brother in Christ, only to please Paul, he would end up having regrets and harboring resentment over his financial losses.

If Philemon’s motivation to do the right thing came from an external source, his decision, no matter how righteous in nature, would be shortlived. It wouldn’t last. But Paul had every confidence that God was going to work a miracle of heart-transformation between these two men. And, as a result, God would get the glory. The news of their reconciliation would spread. The paradigm-shifting precedence of Philemon emancipating his former slave and treating him as his social and spiritual equal would leave an indelible mark on the community. And the only explanation would be the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And Paul rested in the knowledge that God would accomplish far more than even he could imagine. Philemon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, would far exceed Paul’s words of counsel and his hopes for reconciliation.

He closes his letter by asking Philemon to prepare a room for him. He fully expected to be released from his house arrest at any moment and had every desire to visit his friends in Asia Minor. And, as always, Paul was grateful for the prayers of all those who had been praying for him during his confinement in Rome. Never one to take the petitions of others lightly, Paul found great encouragement in the knowledge that his needs were being lifted to God’s throne in heaven. And he believed that God would answer those prayers.

Finally, Paul provides Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus with greetings from some of their mutual friends. He includes Epaphras, an evangelist whom Paul describes as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:23 ESV). This doesn’t mean that Epaphras was imprisoned with Paul in Rome, but that as a fellow minister of the Gospel, he shared the risks that Paul did. He was “imprisoned” or held captive to his role as an ambassador of Jesus Christ.

Paul adds the names of four other individuals and then closes his letter with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:21 ESV). And it’s hard to imagine that Paul did not have in mind the words spoken to him by God regarding the empowering nature of His grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Philemon had all the power he needed to do all that God was calling him to do.

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

Our All-Powerful-All-the-Time God

1 Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do anything,
    and no one can stop you. ” – Job 42:1-2 NLT

The Lord merely spoke,
    and the heavens were created.
He breathed the word,
    and all the stars were born.
He assigned the sea its boundaries
    and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs.
Let the whole world fear the Lord,
    and let everyone stand in awe of him.
For when he spoke, the world began!
    It appeared at his command. Psalm 33:6-9 NLT

36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” – Luke 1:36-37 ESV

When we, as humans, attempt to discuss the power of God, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We are finite creatures who are well acquainted with personal limitations. It is impossible for us to consider something being all-anything. That little three-letter word “all” conveys the idea of wholeness or completeness. And while we might say that a glass or bowl is all full, we know that it will not remain full permanently. Upon completion of a task, we might proclaim, “All done.” But we will do so knowing that the finished task will likely need to be repeated at some point.

Someone who claims to be all-in regarding a project or endeavor will likely have his commitment tested somewhere along the way. His assurance of whole-hearted engagement will likely waver, given enough time or the lack of his expectations being met.

We live in a world full of limitations. No one is truly all-knowing. They may know a lot, but there will always be more to know. Someone may appear to have “all the money in the world,” but logic precludes the veracity of that statement. No one can literally have all the money. And while someone might wield a great deal of power, there is no one who is truly all-powerful. Even the world’s most powerful people experience limitations to that power. And the sad reality of life is that no one can ever seem to get enough power. And the same can be said of fame, money, or time.

Which brings us back to our all-powerful-all-the-time God. Theologians refer to this as God’s omnipotence. The word omnipotent comes from omni- meaning “all” and potent meaning “power.” And when used of God’s power, that word “all” is meant to convey the complete and wholly undiminished nature of that power. His power is without limits. It never diminishes in intensity. God does not grow tired. In fact, the psalmist states, “he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps” (Psalm 121:4 NLT).

God isn’t just more powerful, extremely powerful, or simply powerful. He is all-powerful.

The power of God is that ability and strength whereby He can bring to pass whatsoever He pleases, whatsoever His infinite wisdom may direct, and whatsoever the infinite purity of His will may resolve…  – Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Volumes 1-2

Notice what Charnock says. God can bring to pass whatever He pleases. God’s power is directly tied to His will. Unlike man, God’s will is never a case of wishful thinking. There is never a case when God desires something, but finds Himself lacking the power to make it happen. God has never had to say, “If I only I could….” He has never had to sit back and watch His will go unfulfilled because of a lack of strength.

A. W. Pink states, “He who cannot do what he will and perform all his pleasure cannot be God. As God hath a will to resolve what He deems good, so has He power to execute His will” (A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God). This is essential if we are to understand and fully appreciate the transcendent nature of God. He is not a slightly improved version of man. He is not a human on steroids, but He is the infinite Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence.

And God’s power was not acquired, developed over time, and is not running out. C. H. Spurgeon put it this way: “God’s power is like Himself, self-existent, self-sustained. The mightiest of men cannot add so much as a shadow of increased power to the Omnipotent One.” The greatest earthly examples of power we can think of are all limited. Niagara Falls, while impressive, is not self-existent or self-sustaining. It has a source, or it would not exist. And it will one day cease to exist. Simply divert the headwater that provides the source of its power, and the falls will become nothing more than exposed rocks and a dry river bed.

But because God’s power is self-existent, it cannot be diminished or diverted in any way. His power is unmatched in its intensity and irrepressible in its intent.

All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, “What do you mean by doing these things?” – Daniel 4:35 NLT

The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth… – Psalm 135:5 NLT

It was Job who confessed to God, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you” (Job 42:2 NLT). And Job argued with his well-meaning, but misinformed friends, “who can turn him back? Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Job 9:12 ESV).

It was Lord Acton who wrote the oft-quoted line, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” But that truism does not apply to God. Because He is holy, just, and righteous in all He does, God’s power cannot be corrupted – even though it is absolute. God is deity, not humanity. He is nothing like us, and cannot be measured according to our standards or evaluated based on our limited and sin-influenced perspective.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
 – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God’s undiminished and non-constrainable power always accomplishes what He intends. God, Himself stated, “My word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it” (Isaiah 55:11 BSB).

While we may not fully comprehend or appreciate the extent of God’s power, we all relish the idea that it might be at our disposal when needed. We love the thought of the all-powerful God putting all that power at our beck and call. But God’s power, while accessible by us, is not answerable to us. He is not our cosmic Genie-in-a-bottle or personal valet. God’s power exists to accomplish God’s will, not ours. And A. W. Pink would have us maintain a delicate balance when it comes to our reaction to and relationship with God’s power.

Well may all tremble before such a God! To treat with impudence One who can crush us more easily than we can a moth, is a suicidal policy. To openly defy Him who is clothed with omnipotence, who can rend us in pieces or cast us into Hell any moment He pleases, is the very height of insanity.

Well may the enlightened soul adore such a God! The wondrous and infinite perfections of such a Being call for fervent worship. If men of might and renown claim the admiration of the world, how much more should the power of the Almighty fill us with wonderment and homage. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of 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 Need For Strong Leadership

1 So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  Deuteronomy 31:1-8 ESV

Moses’s days were numbered, and he knew it. His long and somewhat drawn out homily to the people was meant to prepare them for the inevitable and, possibly, to delay the unavoidable. He would not be going with them into the land of Canaan. God had denied Moses the privilege of leading the people of Israel when they crossed the border of Canaan and began their conquest of the land.

Moses had been God’s hand-picked deliverer. He had been chosen by God for the unique assignment of rescuing the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, and he had performed that role faithfully and effectively. Then he had successfully led the people to the edge of the land of promise, only to see them refuse to keep God’s command and cross the border – all because of an excess of fear and a lack of trust in God. So, Moses was forced to spend the next 40 years leading this rebellious generation around the wilderness until they had died off. Then, with a new generation in tow, he once again brought them to the edge of the land of promise so they might enter and possess it. But he would not be going with them. Why?

It all goes back to a regrettable scene that happened at a place called Meribah. Early on in their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel found themselves short on water and patience. So, they complained to Moses, who took the issue up with God. And God gave Moses instructions to take his brother Aaron’s staff “and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV).

But Moses was angry with the people for reading him the riot act over their lack of water. So, when he had assembled them, he took the staff and, rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he took his anger out on it.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12 ESV

God accused Moses of two sins: Disbelief and disrespect. He expressed a lack of faith in God by refusing to do exactly as God had said. God’s word was not enough. He decided to add a little drama to the moment by striking the rock. And, on top of that, he seemed to take credit for the miracle, showing a deep disrespect for God. In doing so, he did not treat God as holy in the eyes of the people. As a leader and the representative of God, he had displayed unholy behavior, and his actions had reflected poorly on God. When Moses spoke, he spoke for God. When he led, he did so on behalf of God. When he struck the rock in anger, he did so as the representative of God. And his ungodly actions made God look unholy in the eyes of the people. This was a serious issue that brought a severe punishment from God.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

And yet, just a few chapters later in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 ESV

Moses was a great leader. He was a God-appointed and Spirit-anointed leader. But at Meribah, he had chosen to doubt and disrespect God, and he would pay dearly for that lapse in judgment. So, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses broke the news to the people of Israel that he would not be the one leading them on the next leg of their journey. That responsibility would fall to Joshua, Moses’ protegé and successor. And Moses assured the people that, ultimately, it would be God who would be going before them as their divine leader.

“The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them.” – Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV

Their true leader had always been God Almighty. Moses had been nothing more than a human representative whose authority and power had been delegated by God. Now, the responsibility to lead God’s people would fall to Joshua, whom Moses assured them would “cross before you just as the Lord has said” (Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV).

And just to make sure that the people understood that God, not Joshua, was their true leader, Moses reminds them just who it would be that gave them victory over their enemies.

 “…the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og…” – Deuteronomy 31:4 ESV

“…the Lord will give them over to you…” – Deuteronomy 31:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV

It would be God who gave them victory over their enemies. It would be God who went before them, never leaving them alone or on their own. Which is they could be “be strong and courageous” and not fear. Joshua would be their new human leader, but it was God who would make their path straight and their battles victorious.

Unlike Moses, God would never leave them or forsake them. Even good leaders can make bad mistakes that let their followers down. But not God. Moses would not be leading them into Canaan, but they could rest easy knowing that God would be with them every step of the way.

Next, Moses turns his attention to Joshua. He brings his much-younger successor before the people and provides him with a similarly worded charge:

Be strong and courageous, for you will accompany these people to the land that the Lord promised to give their ancestors, and you will enable them to inherit it.” – Deuteronomy 31:7 NLT

Joshua would be attempting to fill some rather large sandals. He was tasked with stepping into the formidable role that Moses had held for nearly half a century. And he was going to have to be strong. But his strength would have to be in the Lord. Without His help, Joshua would find the days ahead difficult, because as Moses knew all too well, leading God’s people was anything but a walk in the park. And he gave Joshua the same simple, yet vital reminder.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV

The people of Israel were going to need strong leadership if they were to be successful in fulfilling God’s command. The conquest of the land was not going to be easy. The enemies who lived in the land would not give up without a fight. There would be many battles to fight. They would face more powerful foes and come up against what appeared to be impenetrable defenses. But the people and their new leader would need to constantly remember that their strength and success would be God-ordained, not man-made.

Moses knew the people were going to need Joshua. But he also knew that Joshua was going to need the Lord. Effective spiritual leaders are those who allow themselves to be led by God. They find their strength and courage in the Lord, not in themselves. Moses knew from personal and painful experience just how difficult the role would be that Joshua was taking on. He was going to need all the help he could get and the only reliable source he could turn to was God Himself.

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

Heart and Soul

13 “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. 22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. 24 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. 25 No one shall be able to stand against you. The Lord your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. – Deuteronomy 11:13-25 ESV

Moses continues to make this a matter of the heart. While he has repeatedly addressed the need for the Israelites to obey God and he does so again in this section of his address, he will not allow them to practice a form of obedience that is mere form and function, yet devoid of faith and love.

Moses provides them with a conditional clause, designed to drive home the non-negotiable role of love in their relationship with God. In the New English Translation, verse 13 reads this way:

“…if you pay close attention to my commandments that I am giving you today and love the Lord your God and serve him with all your mind and being…”

Notice the two parts to this conditional clause. First, Moses calls them to “pay close attention” to the commandments of God. The Hebrew word Moses used is shama`, and it is most often translated as “hear,” but it carries the idea of obedience. They were to listen carefully to all the commands that Moses had shared with them but, more importantly, they were to hear and obey.

But Moses ties their hearing and obeying to a second non-negotiable expectation. Their obedience was to be accompanied by a love for God that manifested itself in service to Him. In other words, the proof of their obedience would be willing service to God that flowed from the heart. And that service would influence their entire character, including their “mind and being.”

The English Standard Version renders those two words as “heart and soul.” The first is from the Hebrew word, lebab, and it has to do with the inner man. It was believed to be the seat of the senses, affections, and emotions of the mind. The Hebrew word, nephesh, which the ESV translates as “soul,” had to do with man’s essence. According to the NET Bible study notes, “Old Testament anthropology equated the ‘soul’ with the person himself.” The soul represented man’s being or very existence. A soul-less man would be a lifeless man.

Moses is calling the people to obey the commands of God, but to do so out of love for God. That love was was to permeate their whole persona –  heart and soul, mind and being. And this is not the first time Moses had issued this call. Chapter six provides an earlier, yet no less emphatic version of this very same message.

“You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5 NET

The ESV reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Moses was calling for complete and total commitment to God. They were to put every fiber of their being into their relationship with God. And, if they did, there would be very positive consequences. Remember, Moses used a conditional clause, an if-then statement, to drive home his call to love and obey. He told them that “if” they would obey, love, and serve God with all their heart, soul, and strength, “then” God would reward them with His unparalleled blessings.

“…then he will send the rains in their proper seasons—the early and late rains… – vs. 14 (NLT)

He will give you lush pastureland for your livestock, and you yourselves will have all you want to eat.” – vs. 15 (NLT)

There would be tangible benefits to their loving obedience to God. The covenant between God and Israel was conditional. It was going to require their unwavering allegiance and heartfelt obedience to His will for them. They were not free to live in the land of promise according to their own terms. God had set them apart as His own, and He fully expected them to live accordingly. And Moses made it painfully clear what would happen if they didn’t.

“…then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 11:17 ESV

Remember, the covenant was conditional. If they obeyed, they would experience God’s blessings. But if not, the outcome would be dramatically different:. No rain. No fruit. No future in the land. And this negative outcome would all begin with their unfaithfulness to God. “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them…” (Deuteronomy 11:16 ESV).

Again, notice the emphasis on the heart. The heart would be the primary point of failure. If they truly loved God with all their heart, soul, and strength, there would be little risk of them being deceived. But half-hearted love for God and a partial commitment to His will leaves plenty of room for unfaithfulness. The enemy always attacks at the greatest point of weakness. And anyone whose heart is not fully committed to God will find himself an easy target for temptation. Which is why James wrote:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

If our relationship with God is based solely on rule-keeping, it won’t be long before we find ourselves resenting all the restrictive regulations He has placed upon us. That’s why an understanding of His love for us is so crucial if we are going to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Legalism is the byproduct of a loveless relationship with God. As we begin to question His love for us, our love for Him diminishes, and the result is loveless, lifeless rule-keeping. The heart is not in it. Obedience without the heart is legalism. And heartless legalism will ultimately lead to spiritual infidelity.

Moses knew that the people of Israel faced a real danger of falling away from God. He had seen it before, and he was anxious to prevent them from making the same mistake their forefathers had made. So, he provided them with a stern, but loving warning:

“So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” – Deuteronomy 11:18-20 NLT

He called them to an all-out, no-holds-barred commitment to keeping the commands he had shared with them. This was to be a community-wide affair, where every man, woman, and child was educated in the ways of God. The entire nation of Israel was to commit itself to God, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

“Be careful to obey all these commands I am giving you. Show love to the Lord your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him.” – Deuteronomy 11:22 NLT

They were to prove their love for God by faithfully keeping the commands of God. And if they did, then God would bless them.

Then the Lord will drive out all the nations ahead of you… – vs. 23 (NLT)

Wherever you set foot, that land will be yours. – vs 24 (NLT)

Your frontiers will stretch from the wilderness in the south to Lebanon in the north, and from the Euphrates River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. – vs. 24 (NLT)

No one will be able to stand against you… – vs. 25 (NLT)

God would do His part. But He required that they live in obedience to His will. Yet, God was not demanding legalistic adherence to a set of religious rules and standards. He was calling on His chosen people to respond in loving submission to His will because of His unwavering love and care for them. He wanted their obedience to be based on a trust in His faithfulness, not simply a fear of His anger. He wanted them to obey, not because they hoped He would bless them, but because He already had blessed them.

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

 

 

 

His Grace Is Sufficient

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 ESV

When we speak of sanctification, we typically frame the discussion in terms of spiritual growth or maturity. We tend to use terminology that conveys the idea of progress or of an incremental increase in our spirituality from one degree to another. We talk of becoming more like Christ, of increasing in our faith, or of growing in godliness. And there is ample biblical evidence to support this kind of language.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15 ESV

The concept of spiritual growth is indeed biblical, but we tend to read these verses with a modern mindset that has been heavily influenced by the American work ethic. What do I mean by that? It’s really quite simple. We read the Bible through the lens of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of achievement and success. We even throw in biblical-sounding phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves.” This well-worn bromide has become sacred truth in the eyes of many, even though it has no precedence in Scripture. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of grace as found in God’s Word.

But, as western Christians, we have been raised on a steady diet of self-help books that promote autonomy and encourage self-actualization. We are the do-it-yourself generation with an Internet full of how-to videos on virtually any topic just a mouse-click away. With a few helpful tips, we can rebuild an engine or relaunch our careers. We can learn to brew our own beer or open up our own winery. With a little self-effort we can improve our quality of life, increase our income stream, enlarge our network of friends, and even take our spiritual life to a whole new level.

But is that what Paul has in mind in 2 Corinthians 12? I don’t think so. In fact, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on weakness, not strength. His focus is on inadequacy and need, not self-sufficiency and individual sovereignty. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthian believers to help themselves, but to acknowledge their need for God’s grace in their lives. And he used himself as an example.

Paul refers to a man he knew who, fourteen years earlier, had received a vision from God. This man had been allowed to enter into the “third heaven,” a reference to God’s dwelling place.  As a result of this divine vision, this man “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). Like the apostle John in the book of Revelation, this individual was given a one-of-a-kind experience that was difficult to put into words. He saw things no other man had ever seen before. And Paul took it upon himself to brag on this man’s behalf. This hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill encounter with God. It had been totally supernatural and an undeserved act of God’s grace.

And it becomes clear from the context that this “man” was actually Paul himself. He was speaking in the third-person in order to relate a past event that had experienced, but he didn’t want it to come across as boasting. His intent was not to make himself look better in the eyes of others, but to emphasize the grace of God. The vision had been God’s doing. Paul wasn’t even sure how it happened. He couldn’t tell you whether he was physically transported to heaven or if it had all been some kind of dream. But Paul refers to  “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and his fear of the experience producing in him a level of conceit or pride. So, he says that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).

Paul had a mountain-top experience with God, but that was followed by some kind of pride-popping, humility producing “gift” from God to keep his head out of the clouds and concept out of his heart. We aren’t given the nature of this “thorn” but we know that Paul prayed for its removal, not once, but three separate times. And each time Paul prayed, the answer was, “No.” God wanted to keep Paul from focusing his attention on the wrong thing. His heavenly vision, as great as it was, was not be mistaken as a sign of his own godliness. His God-ordained glimpse into glory was not to be understood as God somehow glorifying Paul.

In response to Paul’s request for the thorn removal, God simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). The solution to Paul’s problem was not another vision of heaven or a divine thorn-extraction procedure. No, all Paul needed was grace. The grace of God was fully sufficient. It was grace that had transported an undeserving man into God’s presence. And it was grace that would transform an undeserving man into Christ’s likeness. And that is the bottom line of this passage. Paul’s vision of heavenly glory was not the real miracle. It was God’s power made available to Paul in all his earthly inadequacy. Look closely at what Paul says:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul could have bragged about going to heaven. But he knew the real miracle was that heaven had come to him, in the form of the power of Christ. His weakness had not been a barrier. It had actually been the required condition for the saving power of God to show up. For Paul, weakness was a badge of honor, not a sign of unworthiness. He didn’t view weakness as a deficit to be filled through self-effort and hard work. No, it was a non-debatable reality of who he was, apart from Christ. Which is what leads him to say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Had Paul lived in the 21st-Century, he might have been tempted to seek the latest self-help advice and do-it-yourself tips for improved spiritual strength conditioning. He might have found himself listening to the endless stream of well-meaning voices telling him how to overcome his weakness and embrace his inner warrior. But I doubt it.

Paul was quite at peace with his deficiences because he knew the real source of his strength. He would not allow heavenly visions or pain-producing thorns in the side determine his identity. His weakness was not a sign of unrighteousness or evidence that he was growth-deficient in his spirituality. It was an opportunity to refocus his faith on the grace of God and to reestablish his hope on the power of Christ.

Think about your own life. If you’re like me, you tend to long for those rare moments when heavenly visions give you a glimpse of God’s glory. But they are few and far between. And you also long for God to remove the thorns that bring you pain and leave you feeling weak and ineffective in your spiritual walk.

Paul’s vision of heaven didn’t make him any more spiritual. And the presence of pain and suffering didn’t make him any less spiritual. Escaping earth for heaven is not the point. Avoiding weakness through self-effort is not the goal. It is a realization that heaven came to a fallen earth in the form of the Son of God, and He made divine power available to sin-weakened men and women who recognize that God’s grace is sufficient.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 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

 

False Help and Hope.

1 In the year that the commander in chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and captured it— at that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.

Then the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Then they shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, ‘Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’” – Isaiah 20:1-6 ESV

Map-of-Assyrian-Expansion.jpgAs has already been stated, this whole section of the book of Isaiah is designed to expose the futility of Judah placing their hope in other nations. Faced with formidable foes threatening to destroy them, the people of Judah were quick to turn to other nations for assistance. Their first line of defense was to make an alliance with a pagan nation like Egypt or Cush.  They had even considered aligning themselves with the Assyrians. But God wanted them to know that He alone was to be their source of safety and security. They had long ago abandoned Him, turning to the false gods of the nations around them and even when faced with His divine judgment in the form of foreign invaders, they remained obstinate, refusing to repent and turn to Him. They thought they could evade and escape His punishment by placing their fate in the hands of a foreign king.

And yet, they watched as, one by one, other nations and cities fell before the unrelenting power of the Assyrian army, including the city of Ashdod. Ashdod was the northern-most Philistine city, located only 35 miles to the west of Jerusalem and, in 713 BC, its king, Ahimiti, had decided to rebel against the the Assyrians, prompted by the promise of aid from the Egyptians. As a result of his rebellion, Ahimiti was replaced by the Assyrians. When the people of Ashdod continued to rebel, the King Sargon II turned the city into an Assyrian province. And the Egyptians never lifted a finger to help them. In fact, the people of Ashdod had pleaded for help from Judah, Moab and Edom, but none ever materialized.

At the time of the fall of Ashdod, God gave Isaiah a strange assignment. He told him to “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet” (Isaiah 20:2 ESV). He was to remove his outer garment as well as his shoes and the text says, “he did so, walking naked and barefoot.” But before we jump to conclusions and assume that Isaiah was being forced by God to expose himself to all those around them, it is important to know that the Hebrews word translated as “naked” is`arowm and can refer to complete or partial nudity. In many cases it was used to refer to someone who had taken off their outer garment, only to reveal their tunic or undergarment. It seems unlikely that God would have required Isaiah to expose himself completely. But, in demanding that Isaiah strip down to his undergarments and walk the streets of Jerusalem, God would have been demonstrating the shame that Judah would soon experience. Isaiah’s condition would provide a visual demonstration of the humiliation and shame coming to all the nations on Judah’s list of potential allies. Like someone stripped of his possessions by thieves, Isaiah would be a walking reminder of the fate of Judah’s false saviors. And he would do this for three long years.

But Isaiah’s three-year-long dramatic display was intended to send a message to the people of Judah. God wanted them to know that their refusal to place their trust in Him would prove to be a poor decision.

“As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.” –  Isaiah 20:3-4 ESV

They Egyptians and Cushites would fall, just as the city of Ashdod did. Their people would be led away, their fine garments and sandals removed, looking more like slaves than the citizens of a once-powerful nation. While Isaiah’s dramatic performance was nothing more than theater in the round, what God describes as happening to the people of Egypt and Cush will be real and not an act.

And God reveals that it will be only then, as their two allies are led away as captives, that people of Judah “shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast” (Isaiah 20:5 ESV). It is going to take the fall of these two nations to bring the people of Judah to the point of brokenness. The two Hebrew words used to describe their emotional state at that time are chathath and buwsh, and they paint a picture of confusion, fear and loss of hope. They will have placed all their hope and trust in these two nations, believing that they would be the ones to protect them from their enemies. But their hopes will be dashed when their allies fall.

Isaiah is told to warn the people that when this prophecy takes place, it will leave them wondering what happened. It will leave them in a state of hopelessness and helplessness.

“Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?” – Isaiah 20:6 ESV

And in 701 BC, God’s warning came to fruition. The Assyrians defeated Egypt at Eltekeh, leaving the people of Judah were left without help or hope. Or so they thought. But God was there. He always had been. And God was ready to help them, to provide them with hope in the midst of the darkness and despair surrounding them. But they would have to turn to Him. They would have to place their trust in Him. And later on in this same book, Isaiah describes the goodness and greatness of the God who stood ready to assist those who will call out to Him in their time of need.

He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:29-31 ESV

God possesses power greater than that of any nation. And He offers that power to those who find themselves suffering from physical, emotional and spiritual weakness. But He requires that we wait on Him. That means we must allow Him to operate on His time schedule, not ours. We must not allow our impatience with His seeming delays to tempt us to turn to other forms of help. The key to enjoying the benefits of God’s strength is learning to trust His timing. Notice that those described in this passage are faint, lacking in strength, weary, and exhausted. They can’t take another step. They are on their last legs. In other words, they have come to an end of their own strength. And it is at that very moment, that we tend to start looking for outside sources of strength. But will we turn to God? Will we wait on Him? Will we place all our hope in His ability to provide the very help we need? God calls out to us as He did to the people of Judah.

“…fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 ESV

He is our help and our 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

A Profound Paradox.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 ESV

In verse one, Paul confesses, “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” He is letting his readers know that he is about to provide some more proofs to validate his apostleship and to set him apart from the false apostles who are dogging his ministry. His reference to visions and revelations provide a hint that what he is about to divulge is well beyond the normal arguments for his apostleship. This is going to involve the supernatural and direct communication from God. Visions are typically visible manifestations of God’s power. They are seen. The Greek word Paul uses is optasia and it means, “a sight, a vision, an appearance presented to one whether asleep or awake”(“G3701 – optasia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org).

Revelations would seem to indicate verbal communication from God. The Greek word is apokalypsis and it means, “a disclosure of truth, instruction; oncerning things before unknown” (“G602 – apokalypsis – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org). Paul is going to share a personal experience that included a vision and word from God. He refers to to himself in the third person, simply because he is trying to diminish the aura of bragging that comes from sharing such a story. He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2a ESV). It is clear that Paul is referring to himself, because later on he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations…” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). This is a personal experience that Paul had and one he shared reluctantly and somewhat obscurely. He does not provide a lot of detail and refuses to share exactly what he saw or heard. But fourteen years earlier, Paul had been given a vision by God and was somehow transported into the “third heaven.” In the ancient mindset, there were three heavens. There was the sky or the visible atmosphere, and then there was the heavens containing the sun, moon, stars and planets. The third heaven or paradise was a reference to the dwelling place of God.

Paul recalls being somehow transported into heaven. He could not tell if it had all been a dream or whether he had actually gone there in his physical body. While there, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not spend any time describing the sights or sounds of heaven. He provides us with no insights into what it might have looked like. Not only that, he gives us no clue as to what it is that he heard. He only describes it as unrepeatable. This obviously one-of-a-kind, supernatural event clearly set Paul apart. Who else could claim to have been transported to heaven and given a glimpse of the sights and sounds associated with that remarkable place? But while blown away by the experience, Paul refused to boast about it. He would not allow himself to turn his divinely ordained experience into an opportunity to make himself a celebrity. He would boast about “this man,” but when it came to himself, he would rather boast about his weaknesses. He explains, “I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message” (2 Corinthians 12:6 NLT). Paul wanted his life and message to be his calling cards, not his supernatural vision.

It is interesting to note that earlier Paul had referred to the time in his life when he had been saved from arrest by being lowered in a basket from window. He boasted of this as something that revealed his weakness. He had been forced to suffer the humiliation of being crammed in a basket and lowered out a window. For a guy of Paul’s temperament, this would have been a blow to the ego. But now he talks about having been raised by God to the very heights of heaven. This may have been what Paul meant when he wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12 ESV).

An experience like Paul had could have easily gone to his head. He could have seen himself as somehow more anointed and blessed by God. After all, who else could claim to have gotten an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise? But God wasn’t going to let Paul get the big head. In fact, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not say what this “thorn” was. The Greek word Paul uses is skolops and it actually refers to a sharp pointed stake. It was far more than just a “splinter” or an inconvenient annoyance. It was potentially debilitating and described by Paul as “a messenger of Satan to harass me.” Was it a physical disability or a spiritual weakness? Paul doesn’t say. Because Paul mentions conceit, it may have been a proclivity toward pride and arrogance. The constant harassment Paul faced from his always-present adversaries would have easily driven Paul to boast of his superior calling and intellectual prowess. Paul was an educated man who had risen high in the ranks of the Pharisees. He was an Old Testament scholar. It would have been easy for Paul to develop a haughty spirit and arrogant attitude toward those who questioned his ministry. But God lovingly kept him humble. On three different occasions, Paul pleaded with God to remove this “stake” from his life. And each time God refused. But He reminded Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV). God’s grace was greater than Paul’s problem. His strength was far superior to Paul’s weakness in the flesh. And more than 14 years later, Paul was able to say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b ESV). It was an awareness of his weakness that made Paul appreciative of God’s gracious love and power. Anything he accomplished in his life that was worthwhile or worthy of praise was attributable to God, not himself.

Paul would gladly suffer the humiliating of being lowered down the wall in a basket. He would willingly go through the pain of another stoning or the indignity of arrest and imprisonment – for the sake of Christ. Because he had learned the invaluable life lesson of “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

 

 

 

God’s Glory In Clay Jars.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV

Paul was not afraid to admit that he was human. He was far from perfect. In fact, later on in this same letter, he will write, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). But this did not mean that Paul saw himself as flawed or somehow faulty when it came to his ministry for Christ. This was an important distinction that Paul felt compelled to make, because the value and integrity of his ministry was constantly under attack.
Paul is out to defend his ministry, not himself. As far as he was concerned, this was not about him. It was about the glory of God as revealed in the face of Christ and made accessible by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He was simply a conduit through whom God communicated His message of reconciliation to the lost. He claims, “we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 NLT). Just like the rest of the believers in Corinth, Paul’s life had been transformed by the gospel.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

And ever since his conversion experience, he had seen it as his Christ-commissioned responsibility to take that same gospel message to the ends of the earth. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV). 

The amazing thing to Paul was that God had chosen to place His glory in a “clay jar” like himself. He viewed himself as common and unimpressive, as without value and unworthy of being a receptacle for the very Spirit of God. He humbly admits, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). God had chosen to place His glory into less-than-perfect vessels. And not only that, Paul saw himself as sharing in the very sufferings of Christ as he bore the light of God’s message of redemption to the world. Just as Jesus suffered and died in order to make possible the redemption of mankind, so Paul and his fellow apostles were suffering for the sake of the gospel. “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10 NLT).

Paul explains to the Corinthians, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NLT). In spite of all the problems, persecutions, rejections and roadblocks they faced in their daily ministries, the apostles supernaturally sustained by God. He protected and provided for them. This does not mean they were somehow immune to trouble. Paul knew what it was like to go hungry and do without the essentials of life. In fact, he wrote the believers in Philippi, thanking them for their willingness to help him, but confessing, “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). Paul knew what it was like to experience all kinds of deprivations and indignities for the sake of the gospel. On one occasion, he had even been stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). And yet, God had sustained and revived Him. Just days later, Paul and Barnabas would continue their missionary journey, sharing the gospel and encouraging believers. “They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NLT).

Paul knew what it was like to suffer. He was familiar with pain and persecution. But he had a unique attitude toward his life and ministry.

Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you. – 2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NLT

Paul would later write to his young mentor, Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8 ESV). He would write to the believers in Philippi, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17 ESV).

Paul was not perfect, but he was perfectly content in knowing that he was being used by God. He was a clay jar containing the glory of God and carrying the life-transforming message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul had no problem admitting his own weaknesses. He even referred to himself as the chief of all sinners. But it was this indisputable realization that made his ministry all that more amazing. It led him to say, “This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NLT). The thousands of changed lives Paul had left in his ministry wake were not the result of his powers of persuasion or oratory skills, but because of the glory of God that had taken up residence within him in the form of the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul could be content with sufferings of all kinds in his ministry for Christ. It is why he could boldly claim, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).