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

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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).

 

Insufficiently Sufficient.

When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 ESV

Paul seems to have felt it necessary to defend his movements since the time that he had sent his troubling letter to the Corinthians. He has already told them, “I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea” (2 Corinthians 1:15-16 ESV). He had already made one painful visit to the city of Corinth and had no desire of doing so again. “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you” (2 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). In addition, he had been quite busy in the meantime, traveling to Troas and on to Macedonia. The Corinthians needed to understand that they were not the only fellowship for which Paul was responsible. He had many congregations over which he served as an apostle and their spiritual father. His dance card was full, so to speak. He was pulled in many different directions and always wrestling with the weight of the responsibility he felt for the spiritual well-being of the new believers who made up the churches he helped found. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he described his attitude regarding his relationship with them.

For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. – 1 Corinthians 4:15 NLT

But at the end of the day, when all was said and done, Paul knew that his schedule was in the hands of God. He was the one leading them “in triumphal procession” as they followed the will of God and the example of Christ. There might appear to be setbacks and detours and there would most certainly be difficulties along the way, but the outcome was guaranteed to be a victorious one, because of Christ. Paul was content with being a means by which God spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere he went. Whether he ended up in Corinth, Troas, Macedonia, Asia, Palestine, Greece or Rome, it really didn’t matter. He knew that his mission remained unchanged – to share the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone with whom he came into contact.

But Paul was also painfully aware that the “fragrance” of the knowledge of Christ wasn’t always pleasant to everyone who heard it. He sadly states, “to those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom” (2 Corinthians 2:16a NLT). In his first letter, the apostle Peter refers to those who refuse to believe the gospel message as “those who do not believe” and who “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:7-8 ESV). Because of sin, they are destined to condemnation and death – eternal separation from God. And in their condition the fragrance of the gospel comes across as a stench. It isn’t good news. As Paul wrote in his first letter, “…people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).

So what do they do? If the good news is incomprehensible to them, how do they get saved? It requires regeneration. Jesus told the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NLT). Because of the fall, men are born spiritually dead. They are without spiritual life and condemned to remain spiritually separated from and dead to God for eternity, unless something happens to regenerate them. In his letter to Titus, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT).  J. I. Packer describes regeneration as “the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His will.”

So until the Holy Spirit regenerates the unbeliever, opening his eyes and giving him the capacity to see and comprehend the truth of the gospel, he will find the good news onerous and odorous.

But to those who “are being saved” the gospel and those who share it are “a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2:16b NLT). And while Paul feels completely inadequate for the task, he knows he is being used by God. He has been an eye-witness to the power of the gospel as exhibited in the changed lives of countless individuals who were once dead in their sins.

Paul wasn’t in it for the money. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself or build up his own reputation. He was like a captive being led in a victory parade by the victorious Christ. His place in the line had been made possible by Christ. His role in the spread of the gospel was the result of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross. So he gladly preached the word “with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He had learned to go with the flow, to go where God directed him. He had learned to see apparent setbacks as nothing more than God’s orchestration of His divine will. He had learned to recognize his own weakness and God’s all-sufficient power. He was insufficiently sufficient, because he believed it when he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). And as he would tell the Corinthians near the end of this letter, “That’s why 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). As the old hymn so clearly teaches:

I am weak, but Thou are strong,

Jesus, keep me from all wrong;

I’ll be satisfied as long,

As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,

Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.

Daily walking close to Thee,

Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

 

 

A Few Final Words.

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. – 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV

Verses 13-14 are an apt summary of all that Paul has said in this somewhat lengthy letter. As he wraps up his discourse with the Corinthians, he gives them five significant charges. He tells them to be watchful or vigilant. They are living in difficult days and there is a constant threat of attack on the church, both from without and within. They need to keep their eyes open and their heads on a swivel, living with a wariness and an awareness that their faith will face an unceasing onslaught of spiritual warfare. The church itself will be in the cross hairs of the enemy, as he seeks to disrupt its unity and destroy its testimony.

Secondly, Paul reminds them to stand firm. Despite the pressure they may feel or the persecution they may face, they are to persevere, standing their ground and refusing to give up or give in to the enemy. I am reminded of the words of Moses, spoken to the people of Israel as they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them. “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and watch God do his work of salvation for you today. Take a good look at the Egyptians today for you’re never going to see them again. God will fight the battle for you” (Exodus 14:13-14 NLT). They could have run, but they would have been slaughtered. They could have attempted to fight, but they would have lost that battle. Or they could stand their ground and watch God work. And because that is what they decided to do, they were able to experienced an incredible miracle of God’s salvation.

 And Paul is quite specific when he tells them to stand firm in the faith. He is referring to their faith in Christ and the salvation that His death has made possible. Jesus died so that we might have life, abundant life now and eternal life to come. Our faith is to be a future-focused faith, resting in the promises of God, many of which are as yet unfulfilled and unseen. The author of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). The Israelites had no idea what God was going to do to save them from the advancing armies of Egypt, but they had to place their faith in the promise of God – that He was going to take them to the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He as not going to let them down or allow their exodus to end on the shores of the Red Sea. Our faith must stand on the promises of God. The apostle Peter reminds that, “by God’s power [we] are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God is not done yet. His salvation of His people (the church) is not yet complete. So we must stand firm, even in the face of difficulties and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Next, Paul encourages the Corinthians to act like men. It is a call to bravery in the midst of battle. He wants them to boldly stand their ground, because they have God on their side. The God of heavens armies is their commander in chief. They have a power at their disposal that is limitless and guarantees them victory each and every time. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about this very same power that should provide us with the impetus to act like men:

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. 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. – Ephesians 6:10-13 NLT

Next, Paul tells them to be strong. This is a call for them to grow in their strength and stamina. They were not to remain as they were, immature and insufficiently equipped to face the challenges ahead. They were to grow in their faith and in their knowledge of God. They were to increase in their dependence upon God and their trust in His ability to provide and protect. It is when, by faith, we stand firm and watch God work, that we grow strong. It is our faith in God that gives us the strength to stand firm. Our bravery is based on His strength, not our own. It is as we trust Him, that our spiritual stamina and strength increases. We discover, as Paul did, that His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).

Finally, Paul adds an important but oftentimes missing element to his calls to action. He says, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14 ESV). Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to leave this one out? Paul spent an entire chapter of this letter unpacking the power of love in the life of the believer. Love is not an option, it is an indispensable, non-negotiable requirement for each and every one of us. We are to love as He has loved us. As Paul stated in chapter 13, even the gifts, if done without love, are useless and without value. Love is to be the motivating factor behind all that we do. Bravery without love is nothing more than false bravado. Alertness and watchfulness, done apart from love, will result in a self-centered, circle-the-wagons mentality that focuses on self, not others. Even faith-based perseverance and persistence, sans love, can leave us with a me-centered, pride-filled attitude of spiritual arrogance. Love has to be at the core of all that we do. Love for God. Love for Christ. Love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. And even love for our enemies.  

 

Living In God’s Love.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:14-21 ESV

Paul picks up where he left off in verse one of this chapter. “For this reason…” He repeats that very same phrase, because he is took a brief aside to discuss the mystery of the church in verses 2-13. Now he is ready to make some application regarding this unity of Jews and Gentiles into one household of God. Back in chapter one, Paul had prayed for their spiritual enlightenment. He asked that God would give them “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17 ESV). Now in chapter three, he tells his audience that there is another prayer request he offers up on their behalf. He prays for their spiritual strength. “…that according to the riches of his glory he [God] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16 ESV). In chapter one, he prayed that they might know God. Here he is praying that they would be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Earlier he prayed that they might know the hope to which they had been called. Here he is praying that their knowledge of that hope would strengthen their faith. The author of Hebrews described faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Faith and hope go hand in hand. They are inseparable. Faith makes that for what we hope become as real and tangible as if we already possessed it. But hope is not based on what we can already see. Paul told the Romans, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25 ESV). Jesus promised to send His Spirit. God has guaranteed us eternal life. Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for us. But we can’t see any of these things. We have no tangible, visible proof. They are unseen by us. But by faith, we believe them to be true and real. Why? Because they have been promised to us by God. We trust His word. We rely upon His faithfulness. And the Spirit of God provides us with the strength we need to believe, even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. Paul’s desire was that Christ would continue to dwell in their hearts through faith. He was not insinuating that they could somehow lose their salvation. But he was concerned that they could begin to lose their focus on the sufficiency of Christ in their lives. He wanted them to know that they were “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17 ESV). They were firmly and securely planted in the love of God through their faith in Christ. But Paul wanted them to fully comprehend that fact. He wanted the Holy Spirit to provide them with the strength necessary for them to fully comprehend just how powerful and vast God’s love for them really was. 

It is one thing to have a knowledge of God. It is another thing to understand and appreciate the love of God. It is when we begin to comprehend His incredible love for us, as displayed in His sacrifice of His own Son on our behalf, that we are able to see life through His eyes, not our own. We stop seeing every little trial as a punishment and start viewing them as opportunities to trust in a loving God who has great plans in place for us. When we begin to focus on all that God has done for us and all that He has promised to do for us in the future, we feel His love and we gain strength for the journey. He has not left us. He will never forsake us.

This all boils down to an understanding of and appreciation for God’s love. It is He who had saved them. In the midst of their sinfulness and helplessness, God had intervened, sending His Son to die on their behalf. Paul put it in simple, yet profound terms: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The apostle John adds the important distinction that Jesus did what He did out of love as well. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 ESV). The love of God and His Son for us should encourage and empower us. It should flow through us. Paul prayed that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. This is not a prayer that his readers would become gods, but that the very nature of God – His love, mercy, grace, righteousness, compassion, selflessness, and holiness – would fill us and exude from us.

And Paul had every confidence that what he was asking from God would be provided by God. Why? Because He is “able to do far more abundantly that all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 ESV). God doesn’t just have the power to save us, He has the power to sanctify us. And He has made it possible by placing His Spirit within us. His power is not just an external force working from the outside in. The very same power that raised Jesus from the dead resides within us, transforming us from the inside out. His love for us not static. It is actively revealing itself in His ongoing activity in and around our lives as He molds and makes us into the likeness of His Son. God is patiently, lovingly working within individuals, but also within the church. He is doing things we cannot see. He is accomplishing works that are invisible to our eyes. But in faith we wait expectantly. We hope confidently. We labor joyously. We endure patiently. We are loved. He is faithful. And He is far from done.

God In Heaven.

O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying,If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.” And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy—behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. – 2 Chronicles 20:6-12 ESV

Where do you turn when everything looks bleak and desperate? What is your natural reaction when difficulty shows up in your life? For Jehoshaphat, at least on this occasion, it was to turn to God. Jehoshaphat was the king of Judah and he was a reformer king. In other words, he had gone out of his way to bring the people of Israel back to God. He had personally traveled throughout the land of Judah, carrying a message of repentance and reform to the common people. He had commissioned the judges telling them, “ judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment” (2 Chronicles 19:6 ESV). He had appointed Levites, priests and the heads of families to act as judges for the people as well, telling them, “Thus you shall do in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart” (2 Chronicles 19:9 ESV). And yet, despite all of Jehoshaphat’s reforms, we read that “the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle” (2 Chronicles 20:1 ESV). He had been faithful and done what was right and now he found himself surrounded by his enemies. This is the kind of circumstance that would cause most of us to ask, “Why?” We would want to know why God was doing this to us. We would demand to know what we had done to deserve this fate after all we had done for Him. We would see the circumstances before us as unfair and undeserved. But instead of complaining, questioning, or second-guessing God, Jehoshaphat turned to Him for help. “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord” (2 Chronicles 20:3-4 ESV).

Jehoshaphat’s name means “The Lord will rule (judge)” and it seems that he actually believed that statement. He took His problem to the God in heaven. He appealed to the Lord God, the ruler and judge over all creation. As far as Jehoshaphat was concerned, God was not just the Lord over Judah, He was the king of the entire universe. “You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you” (2 Chronicles 20:6 ESV). God had given them the land in which they lived. He had done so in keeping with His promise to Abraham. It was their land by God-given right. And now that they found themselves surrounded by their enemies, they were going to need God’s help. Jehoshaphat appealed to God, reminding Him of the prayer Solomon had prayed when he had dedicated the temple in Jerusalem – “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save” (2 Chronicles 20:9 ESV). That time had come. Disaster was at the door. The enemy was at the gate. So the people were crying out to God, counting on the fact that He would hear and save.

Verse 12 records two important admissions made by Jehoshaphat. He said, “we are powerless” and “we do not know what to do”. He admitted their weakness and confessed that they were clueless as to what to do. Too often, these two things are the hardest for us to admit as believers. We tend to try to solve all our problems in our own strength and according to our own wisdom. We come up with our own solutions and attempt to power our way through our problems in our own strength. But Jehoshaphat and the people owned up to their inadequacies. Far too often we find it difficult to say, “I can’t” and “I don’t know”. We see weakness and not knowing what to do as faults. Yet the apostle Paul said, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why 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 12:9-10 NLT). And Paul was able to say this because God had told him, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

Not knowing what to do and lacking the strength to do anything are assets, not liabilities, for the believer in Christ. When we are weak, God is strong. When we don’t know what to do, God offers His infinite wisdom. He is never at a loss as to what to do and never lacks the power to see that it is done. But we must turn to Him. We must lean on Him. We must desire to see His power work through us and for us. We must learn to see difficulties as opportunities to see God’s power displayed and to learn His direction for our lives. When we can’t, He can. When we don’t know what to do, He always does. He is the God in heaven.