Trust God

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
    and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
    and weighed the mountains in scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
    and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
    and taught him knowledge,
    and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
    nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
    or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
    chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
    to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 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 40:12-31 ESV

This chapter opened with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” And the next ten verses revealed the form that comfort would take. God was going to intervene on behalf of Judah. Isaiah was given a vision of a future day in which the Lord God will appear in glory and might.

Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
    See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. – Isaiah 40:10 NLT

God will one day come as Shepherd of Israel, carrying his lambs in His arms and “holding them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11 NLT). But how can the people of Judah know for certain that all of this will take place? What assurance do they have that this future revelation of God’s glory and deliverance will happen? Isaiah has already provided an answer to these questions. It is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). He is trustworthy and true, and His word is as immutable as His holy character.

But God knows that the people of Judah have their doubts. They are still obsessed with God’s declaration that the city of Jerusalem is going to fall to the Babylonians. So, any news of God’s future redemption sounds a bit hollow and too good to be true. The immediate prospect of defeat carries far more weight with them than any promise of future restoration. So, God addresses their apprehension with a series of 13 questions. And these queries from God are meant to reveal His greatness and the everlasting nature of His nature. God is eternal. He stands outside of space and time. Which is why He speaks of future events as if they have already happened. He is without equal and beyond comparison, and Isaiah stresses His incomparability with three rhetorical questions:

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?

Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  

The answer to all three questions is the same: No one. There is no one else like God. He doesn’t need advice or instruction. He doesn’t require anyone else to tell Him what is right or wrong. Compared with God, the “the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). Like dust on a scale, they are infinitesimal and inconsequential. Their weight or glory doesn’t even register. In contrast, God’s glory is so great and His power, so beyond comparison, “He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). To put it bluntly, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes, they count for less than nothing—mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17 NLT).

This series of questions is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between God Almighty and His servant Job. After having lost virtually everything near and dear to him, including his children, his wealth and his health, Job was confused by the dire nature of his circumstances. He questioned the nature of his suffering and defended his own righteousness before God. In a sense, he expressed his doubts concerning God’s justice. And God responded with a series of questions for Job that contrasted His own character with that of Job’s. For two chapters, God bombards Job with a series of questions designed to juxtapose God’s glorious deity with Job’s humanity.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much. – Job 38:4 NLT

“Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!” – Job 38:17-18 NLT

“Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct? – Job 38:34-35 NLT

And two chapters later, God wraps up his inquisition of Job with the stinging words:

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
    You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” – Job 40:2 NLT

This was all about a mere man questioning the integrity of the God of the universe. Job may not have liked his circumstances, but that gave him no right to doubt the goodness or greatness of God. Which is what led God to ask:

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his? – Job 40:8-9 NLT

There is no situation that provides justification for man’s questioning of God’s integrity. Our first reaction, when faced with difficult circumstances, is to measure God’s character by human standards. We tend to analyze His actions by using our own flawed sense of right and wrong. But Isaiah asks, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him?” (Isaiah 40:18 NLT). God is not a man so He cannot be judged like one. And He is not a false god, made by human hands. He is uncreated. He has no maker. And He owes no one an answer or explanation for His actions.

So, God repeats Isaiah’s previous question:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. – Isaiah 40:25 NLT 

And the answer remains: No one.

Yet, God knows that His people still have their doubts about Him. So, He confronts them with the real issue behind their refusal to believe His word.

“O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? – Isaiah 40:27 NLT

There were convinced that God was blind to their current circumstances. Not only that, they were questioning God’s integrity by accusing Him of ignoring their rights. In essence, they were labeling God as unjust and unrighteous. They were measuring God by their circumstances, rather than viewing their circumstances through the lens of God’s character. So, Isaiah gave them a much-needed reminder of how just and righteous, good and gracious God is.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion. – Isaiah 40:29-30 NLT

Notice the circumstances in which God reveals His power and strength. It is in the midst of our weakness and powerlessness. It is when we are tired and exhausted that God tends to show up in all His glory. God told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” and Paul responded by saying, “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).

How could Paul take pleasure in weakness? It was because he trusted God. He knew from experience that God tended to show up when things were looking down. God’s power was best manifested when Paul’s weakness was on full display. Which is why Isaiah reminded the people of Judah:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

Trust is the greatest antidote to trials. Relying on the incomparable, unquenchable power of God when our strength is gone is the key to surviving and thriving in this world. But we must trust what He has said. We must not question His word or doubt His integrity.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

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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You Are God Alone

14 Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. 15 And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: 16 “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 17 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 18 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, 19 and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. 20 So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” – Isaiah 37:14-20 ESV

Faced with the threat of annihilation at the hands of the Assyrians, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, had taken the situation directly to God. He had entered the temple to pray and sent his key officials to plead with Isaiah to intercede with God on behalf of the nation. And Isaiah had sent the king a reassuring message from God.

“Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” – Isaiah 37:6 ESV

God promised to save Jerusalem from the threat of Assyrian invasion. King Sennacherib would receive a divinely inspired message that forced him to return home, where he would be assassinated by his own sons. So, God has provided the king of Judah with His personal guarantee that none of the boastful threats of the Assyrian king will come to fruition. Yet, in spite of God’s assurances, King Hezekiah still has the Assyrians camped outside the walls of his city and the threats of the Assyrian emissary ringing in his ears.

“Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? – Isaiah 37:10-11 ESV

The problem persisted. The enemy was still outside the city walls. And Hezekiah was left with two options: Believe the words of King Sennacherib or those of God Almighty. At this point in the story, that is all he has to go on. The words of a man and the words of His God. One was visible, his power manifested in the sizeable army camped outside the walls of Jerusalem. His words were backed by a well-documented reputation for accomplishing what he set out to do.

“Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” – Isaiah 36:18-20 ESV

Hezekiah could see the power of Sennacherib with his own eyes. It was all around him. And it was clear that the forces of Judah were outmanned and ill-equipped to deal with the circumstances facing them.

To make matters worse, Hezekiah’s God was invisible. Yes, the king believed in Him. He even spoke to Him. But he couldn’t see Him. And, unlike the gods of the pagans, there were no statues or figurines representing Yahweh that Hezekiah could turn to for assurance. His God was transcendent and hidden from human view.

But while God was invisible, He was far from unknowable or imperceptible. He had a reputation as well. Yahweh had a long track record of intervening in the affairs of mankind, especially on behalf of His chosen people. From the day He had called Abram out of Ur, God had chosen to reveal Himself in a variety of ways, to reassure His people of His imminence or nearness. He spoke to Abraham audibly and regularly. He appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He revealed Himself to the people of Israel as a flame of fire and a cloud, leading them across the wilderness for 40 years. And God had repeatedly intervened on behalf of His people, accomplishing great victories on their behalf, even when they faced more formidable foes and insurmountable odds.

Hezekiah was faced with a dilemma familiar to all believers of all times. He could allow the presence of a tangible trial to influence his decision-making, or he could rely on the promises of a God he couldn’t see but who had proven Himself faithful time and time again. And the text tells us that Hezekiah made the right choice. He took his problem to God.

Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord – Isaiah 37:14-15 ESV

He took the enemy’s message to the only one he could trust: God. And he opened his prayer to God with a series of appellations that seemed designed to remind himself of God’s power and distinctiveness.

“O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the mighty cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You alone created the heavens and the earth. – Isaiah 37:16 NLT

He addresses God as the divine warrior-God. He leads the innumerable hosts of heaven, a supernatural army that far surpasses any earthly or human foe, including the Assyrians. He describes God as Israel’s God, a not-so-subtle reminder that God had chosen the nation of Israel as His own. They belonged to Him, and He was responsible for their well-being. Hezekiah goes on to describe God as sitting on a throne, but unlike any earthly throne occupied by a human king. God sits enthroned between cherubim – supernatural, angelic beings who are unlike anything of this earth. This designation of God’s glory and magnitude is borrowed from the psalms.

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us! – Psalm 80:1-2 NLT

The Lord is king!
    Let the nations tremble!
He sits on his throne between the cherubim.
    Let the whole earth quake! – Psalm 99:1 NLT

And Hezekiah acknowledges that Yahweh alone is God of all the kingdoms of the earth, including the kingdom of Assyria. He is sovereign over all. In fact, Hezekiah admits that God created all that exists. He made the heavens and the earth and every living creature. While Sennacherib could brag about his creation of a mighty kingdom, only God could claim the title of Creator. Hezekiah was bringing his problem to the source and the solution of all things.

And Hezekiah begs the great, majestic, transcendent, all-powerful God of the universe to intervene on Judah’s behalf.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. – Isaiah 37:17 ESV

Hezekiah acknowledges that Assyria had successfully defeated the other nations, but only because the gods of those nations were lifeless and impotent. They were fabricated by men and, unlike Yahweh, had no power to save.

For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. – Isaiah 37:19 ESV

False gods provide faulty help in times of trouble. They can’t deliver the necessary aid because they lack the necessary ingredient to do so: Life. But not so with Yahweh. He is alive and well. He is all-powerful and fully capable of providing the hope and help we need in life’s darkest moment. There is no challenge too great. There is no enemy too strong. There is no challenge we will face that is beyond His awareness or outside His ability to provide a solution. So, Hezekiah asks his Sovereign for salvation.

So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord. – Isaiah 37:20 ESV

Selfishly, Hezekiah wants to see Jerusalem saved. But he also wants to see God glorified. And he knows that the seriousness of the situation will require the power of God for any hope of salvation. He longs to see God work so that the nations will see that God is sovereign over all. He wants His God to receive the glory He deserves. And so, he begs God to save. When we trust God to do what only God can do, He alone gets the glory. When we turn to Him as our sole source of help and hope, we get to see Him work, and the world gets to see the one true God in action. Our reliance upon Him gives proof of His reliability. Our trust in Him demonstrates before the world the trustworthiness 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

 

Good News. Bad News.

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers.

“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” – Jeremiah 16:14-18 ESV

God is reliable. He can be counted on to do what He says. His character is unchanging and while His ways are difficult to understand at times, He is consistently faithful in all that He does. God had warned the people of Israel that if they failed to remain faithful to Him, He would bring curses upon them. They failed and He was going to faithfully keep His word. He was going to do exactly what He said He would do. He hadn’t been lying. He had meant what He said. And they were about to learn the trustworthiness of God the hard way. They were going to go into exile. And God compares their pending judgment to fish being caught by a fishermen or prey being stalked by a hunter. The prophet Ezekiel used this same kind of terminology when he described the pending fall of Jerusalem and the capture of the king, Zedekiah.

“And I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare. And I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it, and he shall die there.” – Ezekiel 12:13 NLT

Later on in his book, Jeremiah will chronicle the actual capture of Zedekiah after he attempted to escape from the city as King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians invaded.

But the Babylonian troops chased the king and caught him on the plains of Jericho. They took him to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who was at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. He made Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons and all the nobles of Judah. Then they gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon. – Jeremiah 39:3-7 NLT

Exactly what God had said would happen took place. Zedekiah was taken captive to Babylon, but never saw it, because his eyes had been gouged out.

The prophet Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, had a hard time understanding why God was going to allow the Babylonians to take His people captive. And he uses the same imagery of fishermen catching fish to convey his concern.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate?
Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:14-16 NLT

Judah was going to fall. They would be as helpless as fish caught in a net. Any attempt to escape their fate would prove useless because God had ordained it. It was going to happen just as He said it would. But that should also be a comfort to them. While it was difficult for them to see the good news in the midst of all the bad, God informed Jeremiah that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was not a train. It was the goodness and graciousness of God. He reminded His prophet that He had long-term plans for the people of Judah.

“As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the people of Israel back to their own land from the land of the north and from all the countries to which he had exiled them.’ For I will bring them back to this land that I gave their ancestors.” – Jeremiah 16:15 NLT

Yes, they would go into exile. Because God had said they would. But they would also return from exile, because said they would. Both events would occur, because God said they would. He could be trusted to keep His word. And when we read these passages that contain examples of God’s judgment upon His people, rather than question the ways of God, we should be reminded of the faithfulness of God. He doesn’t lie. He never fails to follow through on what He has said. And when He tells the people of Judah that they will one day return to the land of promise, He means it. His word means something. His threats are never idle. His words are never cheap. His promises never prove false. Even before the people of Israel entered into the land of Canaan, promised to them by God, He had told them that if they failed to obey Him and remain faithful to Him, they would suffer the consequences of their disobedience and experience capture and exile. But He had also promised to restore them.

Even though you are banished to the ends of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back again. The Lord your God will return you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will possess that land again. Then he will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors!

“The Lord your God will change your heart and the hearts of all your descendants, so that you will love him with all your heart and soul and so you may live!” – Deuteronomy 30:4-6 NLT

This prophecy has been fulfilled in part. The people of Judah were restored to the land of Canaan. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record exactly how God kept His word. But there is a part of God’s promise that has yet to be fulfilled. He has not yet changed the hearts of the people of Israel so that they might love him will all their heart and soul. That part of His promise has yet to take place. The prophet Ezekiel provides us with further insight into what God has in store for the nation of Israel some time in the future.

For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God. I will cleanse you of your filthy behavior.” – Ezekiel 36:24-29 NLT

That has not yet happened. But we can be certain that it will. Why? Because God has promised it. Jeremiah could rest on the certainty that God would one day return the people of Judah back to Jerusalem. Because He had promised it. And one day, God is going to give the people of Israel new hearts. He is going remove their stubborn hearts and replace them with tender, responsive hearts. He is going to put His Spirit within them so that they will love and serve Him faithfully. And the truly amazing thing is that God is going to do all this, not because they deserve it, but because He has promised it.

“I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations.’” – Ezekiel 36:22 NLT

“But remember, says the Sovereign Lord, I am not doing this because you deserve it. O my people of Israel, you should be utterly ashamed of all you have done!” – Ezekiel 36:32 NLT

But how can we know that this is going to happen? How can we be so sure that God is going to do what He has promised? He answers those questions for us.

“For I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I say.” – Ezekiel 36:36 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

Foolish Wisdom.

“How can you say, ‘We are wise,
    and the law of the Lord is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes
    has made it into a lie.
The wise men shall be put to shame;
    they shall be dismayed and taken;
behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
    so what wisdom is in them?
Therefore I will give their wives to others
    and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
    everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest,
    everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
    when there is no peace.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
    No, they were not at all ashamed;
    they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
    when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
    there are no grapes on the vine,
    nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
    and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
Jeremiah 8:8-13 ESV

What good is it to know God when what you know about God is wrong? What good does it do you to have a knowledge of God’s Word that’s based on a faulty understanding of what it says? In these verses, God exposes a serious problem among His people that was due to the negligence and deceit of the men who were supposed to be their spiritual leaders. While the people had a false confidence in their knowledge of God’s laws, He tells them, “your teachers have twisted it by writing lies” (Jeremiah 8:8 NLT). Their interpretations of God’s laws and commands were blatantly wrong. They were guilty of manipulating God’s law in such a way that it made adherence to it easier and violation of it less likely. The prophet Isaiah wrote this less-than-flattering assessment of the people of Israel from the mouth of God Himself:

“this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

And centuries later, Jesus would quote this very same verse when speaking of the Pharisees in His day.

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 ESV

The Pharisees and scribes had come to Jesus accusing His disciples of breaking the traditions of the elders by not washing their hands before they ate. And Jesus responded by accusing them of breaking the commandments of God for the sake of their own man-made traditions. While the law said that everyone should honor their father and mother, and that anyone who reviles their father or mother should be put to death, they had developed their own set of laws. They actually taught that if someone had parents who were in need of financial support, the adult child could get out of helping them by simply saying, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God” (Matthew 15:11 NET). And the result of taking advantage of this loophole was, “he does not need to honor his father” (Matthew 15:11 NET). Jesus describes this as nothing less than hypocrisy. It was a violation of the letter of the law.

And that was exactly the kind of thing going on in Jeremiah’s day. They were guilty of violating the letter of the law. By placing the interpretations of men over the God-given intent of the law, they could claim to be living in obedience to God’s will. But God accused these spiritual leaders of having rejected His word. Reinterpreting His laws to create loopholes so that obedience was easier to achieve was nothing less than violating His laws altogether. And God didn’t take what they were doing lightly. He described them stark terms:

“From the least to the greatest,
    their lives are ruled by greed.
Yes, even my prophets and priests are like that.
    They are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
    for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
    when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 8:10-11 ESV

And worse yet, they had no shame for their actions. They exhibited no remorse or regret over what they had done. Rather than acting as shepherds of God, leading His people well and caring for their spiritual needs effectively, they were motivated by greed and power. They told the people what they wanted to hear. Unlike Jeremiah, who obeyed God and warned the people of coming judgment and called them to repentance, these false shepherds offered superficial words of encouragement and assurances that all would be well.

The role of a spiritual leader among God’s people is a high-cost calling. It can be dangerous. Speaking the truth of God is not always easy or appreciated by those who have to hear it. The prophets of God were rarely well-received or treated with respect. Even Jesus had warned His disciples:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” – Matthew 10:16-18 ESV

Speaking on behalf of God can be dangerous business. One would think that sharing the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness for sins would always be well-received. But that is exactly the message Jeremiah was given by God to share to the people of Judah. He was calling them to repentance. If they would only acknowledge their sins and return to God, He would forgive them. But there’s the rub. They refused to admit their sins. And they resented the fact that Jeremiah was accusing them of being sinners. In order to receive salvation for sins, God requires acknowledgement of those sins. Someone who refuses to see themselves as a sinner will never see their need for a Savior. That was the problem the Pharisees had. They refused to admit that they were sinners. They viewed themselves as righteous before God. And Jesus sarcastically said of them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV). They hated the words of Jesus. They rejected His calls to repentance. They saw no need of a Savior because they refused to see themselves as sinners.

And that same kind of attitude is alive and well today. There are countless men and women masquerading as God’s messengers and delivering words of encouragement and false promises of future blessing, while the people of God live in open disobedience to the will of God. In pulpits all across the country, the seriousness of sin is downplayed or ignored altogether. Calls to repentance have been replaced with calls for social reform and messages about tolerance and love at all costs. Sermons on holiness have been replaced with pep talks about happiness. Rather than teaching the whole counsel of God, pastors have determined to cherry pick and proof text their way through the Scriptures, preaching only those passages they deem uplifting and encouraging. Pleasing men has become far more important than pleasing God. And the warning that Paul gave Timothy has come to fruition in our day.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3 NLT

God would not tolerate this kind of spiritual leadership in Jeremiah’s day and He is not about to tolerate it in ours. He was going to deal harshly with the false prophets and priests in the land of Judah. And what makes us think He is not going to do the same thing among the people of God today. Their successful ministries are not a sign of God’s blessing. Their popularity among the people is not an indication of their position as God’s spokesperson. Diluting the Word of God may result in packed pews but it will never garner the blessing of God. Minimizing God’s call to holiness by preaching messages that promote happiness may build a successful ministry, but it will ultimately bring the judgment of God. God holds His ministers to a very high standard. Anyone who claims to speak for God will be held accountable by 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

Branches, Pots, Pillars and Walls.

And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”

The word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” – Jeremiah 1:11-19 ESV

Jeremiah must have looked like he needed a bit of convincing. Of course, God knew Jeremiah’s heart and was fully aware that just because Jeremiah was called didn’t mean he was convinced of and committed to that calling. So, God gave His reluctant prophet a few signs to confirm that what He was saying was true. These two signs are similar to what God did when Moses expressed reluctance at God’s call to be the deliver of Israel.  Moses had his doubts. He was unconvinced that the people of Israel would listen to what God had given him to say.

But Moses protested again, “What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? What if they say, ‘The Lord never appeared to you’?” – Exodus 4:1 NLT

So, God gave Moses a sign. He asked Moses what he was holding in his hand and Moses, responded, “A shepherd’s staff” (Exodus 4:2 NLT).

“Throw it down on the ground,” the Lord told him. So Moses threw down the staff, and it turned into a snake! Moses jumped back. – Exodus 4:3 NLT

Moses couldn’t believe his eyes. He jumped back in fright and astonishment. He hadn’t seen this one coming. But God was not done yet.

Then the Lord told him, “Reach out and grab its tail.” So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a shepherd’s staff in his hand. – Exodus 4:4 NLT

In a similar way, God asked Jeremiah what he saw, and he responded, “I see an almond branch.” Whether this was a vision or an actual almond tree, we are not told. I tend to believe that God simply pointed out a nearby tree and almond trees were plentiful in that area of the world at that time. So Jeremiah saw the almond tree, which is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring. God was going to use this common sight and turn it into a constant reminder of His faithfulness to do what He has said He will do. The Hebrew word for almond is shaqed and it is very similar to a key word God uses in the very next line: shaqad. This Hebrew word mean “watch”. God told Jeremiah, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:12 ESV). Every time Jeremiah saw an almond (shaqed) tree, he would be reminded that God is watchful (shaqad) and will do what He has promised to do. Jeremiah could trust God.

But God was not done. Once again, He asked Jeremiah, ““What do you see?” And Jeremiah responded, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north” (Jeremiah 1:13 ESV). This time, Jeremiah was shown a pot of boiling water that was tipped precariously, as if its scalding contents were about to spill out. And when Jeremiah told God what he saw, God provide its meaning: “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land” (Jeremiah 1:14 ESV). What followed was God’s description of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Judah. Remember, God had given Jeremiah a visual prompt in the form of the almond tree, that whatever He says will happen, will happen. And now, He was telling Jeremiah exactly what was going to happen. 

It is interesting to note that God simply tells Jeremiah, “ I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north … and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 1:15 ESV). We know that it was the Babylonians who would eventually come against Judah. But when God gave Jeremiah this prophetic word, they were not a threat. It was the Assyrians who were the bully on the block at the time Jeremiah received his call and commission. But they would eventually be replaced by the Babylonians. The Neo-Babylonians would actually be a confederation of northern tribes that join forces in a massive army under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. They would come against the cities of Judah and eventually establish a siege against the capital, Jerusalem.

God provided Jeremiah a glimpse into Judah’s not-so-pretty future. And He tells Jeremiah exactly why this was going to be their fate.

And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. – Jeremiah 1:16 ESV

Unfaithfulness. That would be the ultimate cause of Judah’s fall, just as it had been for Israel, the northern kingdom. And it is important to note that this word of warning came to Jeremiah when Josiah was king of Judah. He was the reformer-king. Unlike most of the other kings of Judah, he was described in positive terms: “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight and followed the example of his ancestor David. He did not turn away from doing what was right” (2 Kings 22:2 NLT). He ordered repairs to the temple and in the process of doing the work, a copy of the book of the law was found. When Josiah heard what was written in the law, he was devastated. He realized that the people of Judah had been living in disobedience to God’s commands for years. So, he set out to change all that. He instituted a series of important reforms, calling the people back to the worship of Yahweh. He had the law read to the people and then he “renewed the covenant in the Lord’s presence. He pledged to obey the Lord by keeping all his commands, laws, and decrees with all his heart and soul. In this way, he confirmed all the terms of the covenant that were written in the scroll, and all the people pledged themselves to the covenant” (2 Kings 23:3 NLT).

So, when God gave Jeremiah the vision of the boiling pot, and warned him of the destruction to come, it was at a time in Judah when things were a spiritual upswing. Josiah was making some real progress in bringing about change. But God knew better. He knew the hearts of the people and was fully aware that much of what was happening was external in nature. The hearts of the people had not and would not change. Their unfaithfulness was inevitable and God’s judgment was unavoidable.

And God gives Jeremiah his marching orders: “Get up and prepare for action. Go out and tell them everything I tell you to say. Do not be afraid of them, or I will make you look foolish in front of them” (Jeremiah 1:17 NLT). Not exactly what you might call a pep talk. God let Jeremiah know that this was not going to be a walk in the park. He was going to face opposition. The people were not going to like what he had to say. Jeremiah was not going to win any popularity contests or be invited to a lot of dinner parties. But God let’s Jeremiah know that he will not be alone or left on his own.

“I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” – Jeremiah 1:18-19 ESV

God was going to equip Jeremiah to handle the task ahead of him. God uses three images to assure Jeremiah that he will have what it takes to do what he has been called to do. God tells this reluctant and, probably shell-shocked young man that He will make him like a fortified city, able to resist the onslaught of the enemy. He will be like an iron pillar, strong and able to remain upright under the greatest of pressures. He will also be like a bronze wall, impervious to the arrows of those who would seek to do him harm. Jeremiah’s job was not going to be easy, but God was going to be with him.

It is not easy to speak the truth of God. It never has been. What Jeremiah was going to have to tell the people of Judah was not going to be easy to say and it would be even harder to receive. The idea that God would destroy them would be repugnant to the people of Judah. Any calls to reform or repentance would be met with deaf ears. The prophet of God is rarely ever met with open arms by the people of God. And that is true today as it was back in Jeremiah’s day. In fact, Vance Havener sarcastically describes the modern church as a “non-prophet organization” (Vance Havner, cited by Dennis J. Hester, compiler, in The Vance Havner Quotebook, p. 179.). We don’t like to hear the truth. We don’t want to be told that what we’re doing is wrong or out of step with God’s will. We don’t like to be called on the carpet or have our sins exposed. In fact, Paul told Timothy that a day was coming “when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3 NLT). And that day is here.

Jeremiah had his work cut out for him. But God was going to be with him. He just needed to be obedient and faithful to his calling, and God would do the rest. Jeremiah was not to seek the favor of men, but to pursue faithfulness to 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

Bright Lights In A Dark Place.

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV

When it comes to man’s relationship with God, it seems that everyone has an opinion, but not everyone’s opinion counts. It really doesn’t matter what I think. What you determine to be the truth about God, sin, righteousness, salvation or any of a number of other important spiritual matters is unimportant if what you believe does not come from the Word of God. Peter was preparing his readers for a rather in-your-face attack on false teachers and prophets – those individuals who were rising up among the people and secretly bringing in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). Peter will accuse them of blaspheming the way of truth with false words (2 Peter 2:2, 3). He will warn the people to avoid them like the plague. But why should his opinion matter? What made Peter any different than anyone else when it came to spiritual truth?

Peter has already made it clear that he was an eye-witness to the majesty of Christ, having been there when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top. Peter was a hand-picked follower of Jesus and had been privileged to see the words of the Old Testament prophets concerning the coming Messiah literally come to life in Jesus. That is what he seems to mean when he says, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV).  That day on the mountain, he, James and John had heard God audibly declare, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5 ESV). God had testified as to the deity of Jesus. He was the Son of God. They had heard from the mouth of God Himself that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the words of the prophets. And they were to listen to Him. Which is why Peter tells his readers, “you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV). What Peter and the other apostles were teaching was the truth of God as revealed directly from the Son of God. They were carrying out the commission given to them by Jesus.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

Peter was simply teaching what he had been taught by Jesus. He was expanding upon the teachings of Jesus and clarifying the nature of the good news as revealed in His death and resurrection. As Peter has already stated, what he was teaching was not “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16 ESV), but “the prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV). And “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20 ESV). In other words, the prophets didn’t make up what they wrote. It was given to them by God through the inspiration of the Spirit. In fact, Peter asserts, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21 ESV). Which is exactly what Paul confirmed when he wrote:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:17-18 ESV

Peter’s primary concern seems to be that his readers stay attentive to the Word of God. He wanted them to recognize the truth that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic words of the Old Testament. The good news was to be like a “lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV). This appears to be a reference to the return of the Lord for His bride, the Church. Peter is speaking of the rapture. Like the morning star that appears in the sky and foreshadows the coming of the dawn, Jesus will one day return for the Church and that day will usher in the dawn of a new day, the day of the Lord. Peter wanted them to live with that day in mind. They were to keep their minds focused on the reality of Christ’s eventual return.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV

The false prophets and teachers were attempting to mislead the people by teaching something other than what the prophets wrote and the apostles declared. So Peter was warning his readers to not lose sight of the truth of God’s Word and the promise of Christ’s coming. They were to stay focused on the task at hand. They were to not allow themselves to be deceived or distracted from the calling they had received from God. Jesus had appeared to them like a bright light in the darkness, illuminating their sin and eliminating their guilt and shame. Now they were to be bright lights in the darkness surrounding them. They were to live like Christ, fully reliant upon the Spirit of God and obeying the Word of God.

Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:15-17 ESV). That was Peter’s desire as well. He wanted his readers to shine as lights in the world – bright lights in a dark place. But to do so, they would have to stay committed to the truth of God as revealed in the written Word and the Living Word. God did not leave His plan of redemption up to the opinion or interpretation of men. The apostle John made perfectly clear God’s grand plan for the redemption of mankind:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

We have that light shining within us. And we would do well to recall the words of Paul, written to the believers in Corinth.

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. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 ESV

You Have Spoken.

And now, O Lord God, confirm forever the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, and do as you have spoken. And your name will be magnified forever, saying, “The Lord of hosts is God over Israel,” and the house of your servant David will be established before you. – 2 Samuel 7:25-26 ESV

2 Samuel 7:18-29

David trusted God. He took Him at His word. He believed that whatever God had promised, He would fulfill. This was a characteristic of God that he had been taught since he was a child. He would have been familiar with Numbers 23:19 where it states, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” And there is a strong possibility that David was familiar with the words his mentor, Samuel, had uttered to King Saul on the day that God told him that he was taking the kingdom away from him and giving it to another. “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Samuel 15:29 ESV). God had made a promise to David. He had sworn to place a descendant of David on the throne and to establish his throne forever. And David was willing to believe what God had told him. Over in the book of Hebrews, we are told that God keeps His covenants. “God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:17-18 NLT). God had given his promise to Abraham that through one of his descendants, the nations of the earth would be blessed. And Abraham believed God. He trusted Him. He also took God at His Word. And it was that faith in God and His promise that was accounted to Abraham as righteousness. Over in Hebrews chapter 11, there is a list of great men and women of faith from the Old Testament who placed their faith in God. And it tells us “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it” (Hebrews 11:13 NLT). Abraham never saw all the descendants God had promised. He never once owned an acre of property within the boundaries of Canaan, the land God had promised. It was by faith that Joseph believed the people of Israel would one day leave the land of Egypt, even though he never lived to see that day. Over 400 years later, it was by faith that Moses led the people out of the land of Egypt, not fearing the Pharaoh, but also not knowing exactly where he was leading them. It was by faith the people of Israel marched seven times around the walls of Jericho, not knowing exactly how God’s somewhat unconventional battle plan was going to work out. God had spoken and they trusted Him.

It’s amazing what happens when we trust God, when we take Him at His word. The problem is that obedience to God’s word and acceptance of His promises always requires faith. We don’t always know how things are going to work out. When God told Abraham he would be the father of a great nation, Abraham had no way of knowing how that was going to happen. After all, he was old and his wife was barren. When God told David that he would have a descendant who would reign in Jerusalem forever, he had no idea what that meant or how it was going to take place. But he determined to take God at His word. His only response was to ask God to confirm His word. He just asked God to bring it all about – in whatever way He might see fit. No stipulations or requirements. No helpful advice or conditions. He knew that whatever God had in mind would be far better than anything he could dream up. And his ultimate desire was that God would receive glory. “And your name will be magnified forever, saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel.’” Is God’s glory our greatest desire? Is our faithful acceptance of His word and patient waiting for its fulfillment more important to us than getting our own way? God has promised us peace, joy, contentment, His presence and provision, and not to mention eternal life. But for some of us, that doesn’t seem to be good enough. We get frustrated because we don’t seem to be enjoying the peace we were expecting. We aren’t experiencing joy, at least not according to our definition. We lack contentment. We fail to sense God’s presence, and we tend to provide for ourselves, refusing to wait on Him. And if the truth be told, for a lot of us, eternal life is not worth waiting for. So we try to treat this world as if it is all there is. We seek everything here and now, refusing to wait on God’s promise of the hereafter. But as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT). God has spoken. But are we listening? God has promised, But do we believe Him? He doesn’t lie. He never fails to keep His word. He always knows what is best. So when will we learn to trust Him?

Ears to Hear.

We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. – 1 John 4:6 ESV

1 John 4:1-6

This passage is filled with warnings about those who would deceive with false messages regarding Jesus and, ultimately, the Word of God. If they don’t confess and believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God sent to take on human flesh and become the Savior of the world, their message is to be rejected. But John also puts a lot of the responsibility on those who hear. In other words, the ones who receive the message are just as responsible as those who give it. There is a need for us to listen attentively, warily and wisely. And that is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Jesus Himself once said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 11:15 NLT). John records Jesus using this phrase again in the book of Revelation when Jesus spoke to the churches, one of them being the church in Ephesus. “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches” (Revelation 2:7 NLT). In the Greek, there is only one word that John uses and it is the word, akouō. But this word means far more than just to hear. It conveys the idea of hearing and comprehension. It means “to understand, perceive the sense of what is said.” So we are to listen carefully to what we hear being taught, whether it comes from a pulpit or podcast, the TV, a book, a magazine, or the lips of a close friend.

As John is prone to do, he has once again set up a striking contrast between one thing and another. He provides us with no grey area. For him, it is a matter of truth or falsehood, black or white, fact or fiction. The messenger is either from God or from this world. The listeners are either children of God or children of the devil (1 John 3:10). The message is either the Spirit of truth or the spirit of error. There’s the Word of God and everything else. The problem is that we live in an environment where everything is becoming increasingly grey and indistinct. It is becoming more and more difficult to know what is truth. Everything is relative. Tolerance is the law of the land. Anything goes. Everything is to be accepted. And if we are not careful, even as believers we can find ourselves buying into the lies. We are being bombarded with messages that sound so compelling. And many of them are coming from those who claim to be speaking on behalf of God. But anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. We must filter out the rhetoric and rationalizations and listen to what the more sinister, hidden agenda behind the message might be. We must probe behind the surface of what is being said and discover the heart of what is being taught. We must ask whether what is being conveyed is in keeping with God’s Word. We must question whether their message is from God or from men. It may be appealing, well-worded, highly convincing, logical, and rational, but if it contradicts the Word of God, it is to be rejected. The problem is that much of what is being taught today doesn’t come across as heresy. It comes couched in terms that speak of God’s love, compassion, grace and mercy. It encourages us to be accepting, tolerant, and forgiving. It paints God as a cosmic force who exists to help men and women become all that they can be. He is portrayed as a life couch who wants to help each and every individual reach their full potential. He wants to give them heaven on earth, but based on their terms, not His. He is imagined as a God who wants everyone healthy, wealthy, happy, whole, and free to live their life according to their own standards. Sin gets redefined or eliminated altogether. Salvation becomes nothing more than a form of self-actualization. Holiness gets replaced with happiness. Jesus gets reduced to little more than a role model worth emulating, but not a Savior worth accepting.

What is amazing is the ease with which many children of God accept the messages of this world. Paul knew this day was coming and he warned his young protege, Timothy, about it. “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT). I believe Paul was referring to those who claim to be believers in Jesus Christ. They would go from listening to sound and wholesome teaching to chasing after myths. They would be driven by their desires and seek out those who would tell them what they wanted to hear. And there will never be a shortage of those willing to tell us what we want to hear. They will gladly redefine sin, re-imagine God, reinvent the gospel, reduce the role of Jesus, remove the threat of hell, reject guilt, and revise the teachings of the Bible to fit our more modern, 21st-Century mindset. Their message is appealing. They use spiritual language. They quote Scripture. They talk of God. They speak of Jesus. They promise happiness and wholeness. They write best-selling books. They fill large auditoriums. They appear on national TV. They attract large crowds. And they teach a spirit of error. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand! “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5 ESV). Jude gives us an even more dire description of these false teachers. “…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness” (Jude 1:12-13 NLT). Appearances can be deceiving. So can words. Listen carefully and discerningly.

Listen Carefully.

They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. – 1 John 4:5-6 ESV

1 John 4:1-6

John made a fairly bold claim when he wrote, “We are from God.” He was telling his readers that he could be trusted because what he wrote, he had received directly from God. He was making it up. It wasn’t his opinion or his fading recollections of how things had happened. John had received his message directly from the Spirit of God, just as Jesus had promised. “But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative–that is, the Holy Spirit–he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26 NLT). John had special help and assistance. So did Paul and the other writers of the Old and New Testaments. Paul made a similar claim when he wrote the church in Corinth, “When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths” (1 Corinthians 2:13 NLT). Paul and John both believed that what they were writing, teaching, and proclaiming was the very Word of God. Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). And Paul was not just referring to the Old Testament. The authors of what would become the New Testament believed what they were writing was from God. Peter said this of Paul, “just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures” (2 Peter 1:15-16 NET). These men were penning the words of God. They were prophets acting on behalf of God. Listen to what Peter claimed:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,i with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2 Peter 1:16-21 ESV

Peter was confident that what he wrote was from God, given to him by the Holy Spirit. So what they taught concerning Jesus was God’s words, not their own. That is why they were so adamant that their readers, those who believed in Jesus, not be deceived by any other messengers who might teach a different Jesus, a different gospel, or a different Spirit. Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote under the divine influence of the Spirit of God. They were not just motivational speakers coming up with their own version of the truth or their own take on spiritual life. Paul wrote, “And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:4 NLT). He claimed, “When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths” (1 Corinthians 2:!4 NLT). The things of God are impossible for the non-spiritual to discern or understand. “But 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 NLT). But they can understand the things of the world. The non-spiritual, those who do not know Christ, are susceptible and receptive to falsehood, because they don’t know any better. But believers have the Holy Spirit, who helps us discern the difference between truth and fiction, the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. But we must learn to listen carefully to what He is saying. We must spend time in the Word of God in order that the Spirit of God can educate us and equip us for life in this sometimes very confusing world. We have the truth, as revealed in the Word of God. We have the ability to understand God’s Word because we have God’s Spirit. And we have the promise that “the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4 NLT). 

Holy Help.

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. – 1 John 4:4 ESV

1 John 4:1-6

Not everyone who claims to speak or write on behalf of God has been sent by God. But how are we to know the difference? When you walk into a Christian bookstore and see the shelves lined with titles that all claim to be written from a Christian perspective and worthy of not only your time, but your money, can you trust them to be trustworthy? John gives us the litmus test: Find out what they say about Jesus. In other words, check their message. Do they confess Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world? That’s the foundational test. But beyond that, is their message consistent with Scripture? To discover that, you will have to know the Scriptures. And you will have to be discerning, because false prophets do not usually deny Jesus. They simply do not confess Jesus. The danger is much more subtle. They may teach a slightly different Jesus. They may portray a redefined version of Jesus. But is their message consistent with the Scriptures? Is the Jesus they present the same one the apostles confessed? Has their Jesus been “modernized” to bring Him up to speed with current events and our culture’s changing views? Is the version  of Jesus they paint of a more tolerant, loving, totally accepting, non-condemning Jesus? Or is He the Jesus that loved sinners and said to the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV). The problem today with many who claim to be speaking on behalf of God is that they want their Jesus to be accepting of both the sinner and the sin. They want a version of Jesus that is tolerant and totally accepting. And He is. But they forget that “he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5 ESV). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 ESV). When we start redefining Jesus and His message, we are on shaky ground. And when we start accepting the teachings of those who would portray a slightly different Jesus than the one the Scriptures reveal, we are venturing into dangerous territory. So what are we to do?

John would have us remember that we have help. Jesus has left us a helper, the Holy Spirit, who lives within us and lives to assist us and empower us as we make our way through this life. John tells us, “the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4 NLT). Because we have the Spirit’s help, we can overcome all the false teachers and confusing doctrine that is being spewed out all around us. The Greek word John uses that is translated “overcome” is nikaō, and it can mean “to carry off the victory.” When referring to Christians, it typically means that they are those who ”hold fast their faith even unto death against the power of their foes.” And the Spirit is the one who helps us do just that. We have to rely on Him to help us spot falsehood. He alone can help us discern fact from fiction. But here is the point many of us miss. He will not do it apart from the Word of God. Dr. Thomas Constable puts it this way: “We overcome Satan, his agents, and his influence as we resist his temptations to doubt, deny, disregard, and disobey the Word of God.” But we overcome only with the help of the Spirit. But it is so important for us to remember that He will use the Word of God as the means by which we evaluate and test what is being taught. It is far more easy for us to doubt, deny, disregard and disobey the Word of God when we don’t know the Word of God. It is far more likely that we will give into false teaching when we don’t know what the true teaching of Scripture is. The Holy Spirit helps us understand Scripture. But if we spend no time in the Word, we make it impossible for the Spirit to teach us, convict us, equip us or comfort us through the Word. Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT). Jesus promised us, “But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative–that is, the Holy Spirit–he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John  14:26 NLT). So we have everything we need to withstand the assault of the enemy that comes in the form of false teaching, deceptive doctrine, and tempting half-truths. We have holy help, in the form of God’s Spirit and God’s Word. So we can overcome.