Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.

 

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Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

September 25, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #3

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery within the Roman Empire was not racially based. Slaves were primarily made up of people from conquered nations who were sold into the slave networks that supplied much of the labor that fueled the continued expansion of the empire. Piracy (through raiding and capturing) also added to the slave rolls. Claiming abandoned babies (unfortunately a rather common practice known as “exposure”) for the singular purpose of selling them (when of age) in the slave markets also contributed to the slave supply. And there were also generational slaves—the offspring of slaves who continued to belong to the house that owned their parents (slaves were by law not allowed to marry).

Slaves were a commodity within the Roman Empire. The empire depended upon the labor they provided to function. According to various estimates slaves made up approximately 30-35% of the population throughout the empire. They had no legal rights (until the latter stages of the empire—an important note); could not own prosperity; and belonged completely to their owners—considered nothing more than property by them. One historian noted:

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak…Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves. (Mark Cartwright; Slavery in the Roman World on the “Ancient History Encyclopedia” website.)

The circumstances of slaves varied according to their abilities and owners. Slaves who were educated and/or skilled in a craft would fare better than others. They would typically be owned by wealthier families in cities—serving as tutors or using their skills to earn money for their master (and even for themselves—slaves were allowed to earn money and could even purchase their own freedom, which was called “manumission”). Those without skills often would work in harsher conditions in rural areas on farms or used in brothels. The owners always dictated daily life for slaves—some could be kind; others could be cruel.

For the most part slaves accepted their lot in life in the Roman Empire. On occasion some would rebel. Perhaps the most famous such rebellion took place in 73 BC led by a gladiator slave named, Spartacus. It ended with the rebellion crushed by General Pompey; Spartacus dead; and 6000 of his fellow slaves rebels crucified along a 120 mile section of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Choosing between crucifixion and slavery—most chose slavery. Again the historian notes:

The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one. (see above reference.)

Neither Slave Nor Free

It was into this culture that Paul spoke these words to the Galatian churches—and quite revolutionary words they were. It was nothing short of a social revolution. As noted, slaves were property—not people. The idea that there was no difference between slave and owner; that owner and slave were somehow equals; that they would sit down as brothers and sisters—was outrageously scandalous—socially in every way. The socio-economic gap between slave and owner within the Roman Empire was just too vast; too culturally entrenched; even too politically significant to be bridged, but yet here is Paul saying, that in Christ, it can be. To understand and accomplish this took an entirely new and revolutionary way of ordering things. It took the kingdom way.

Paul and Slavery

It is quite notable that the apostle Paul never called for the end of slavery or for the emancipation of slaves. Certainly he recognized its unjust, cruel, dehumanizing, and exploitative nature, yet he was not divinely directed to end it. How could his words to the Galatians be reconciled to this? How could there truly be no slave or free if slavery continued to exist? In answering this question the true revolutionary nature of the kingdom is revealed.

Much like Christ—whose teaching, while not overtly political, deeply subverted the cultural norms—Paul subverted the accepted slave/owner relationship. He does so by calling upon slaves to see their work for their owners as working for the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), which was quite a revolutionary thought. Doing that would be a game-changer in that slaves would give full effort in their labor, not hold back, rebel, or steal from their owners (see also Titus 2:9-10). It would reorient the slave and redefine his purpose. His purpose now became a kingdom purpose. His owner now became someone to win for Christ and working for him as if he was working for the Lord was his venue to do it. This is why Paul concluded his Titus teaching to slaves by saying, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our savior attractive.” Slaves as evangelists to their owners? Subversive indeed. So much so that Paul could ask slaves to even reimagine themselves as free—free to serve God through the purchase price of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).

Interestingly enough he also asked those who were free to reimagine themselves as slaves in the same text—their purchase price being one into slavery to serve the higher cause of Jesus. Christ is the great equalizer in this situation. God is not respecter of persons in this regard. Being clothed with him changes identities—that of Christian slave owner as well. Paul commanded them to not mistreat, be harsh or threaten their slaves, but to be fair and just—treating them kindly—while reminding them that they too have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). And then there is the way he seeks to resolve the conflict between Onesimus, a runaway slave, and his Christian owner, Philemon. He appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother and reframes the value of Onesimus not in market terms, but in kingdom terms. If the institution of slavery was to change for the better within Rome or eventually end, this is the way it would. Not through rebellion would it happen. Rome would and did brutally crush those. It would change when slave owner and slave began relating to one another through the revolutionary teaching of the kingdom of God. Then and only then would everything change—and it did. While slavery did not end completely, slaves eventually gained more legal rights within the empire. Was this chance or did the growing influence of God’s kingdom have something to do with it? No where else would you see slave and owner sitting together as one—brought together in Christ Jesus. No longer wearing the clothes of a slave or owner, but of Christ.

“Class warfare” or “identity politics” only serve to heighten and further social divisions. The kingdom of God serves to help us overcome such social constraints and unite in the common cause of Christ; to understand that our value is not tied to our socio-economic status or political identity in our particular culture. If Christ can remake the slave/master relationship, there is no social barrier he cannot overcome. The kingdom is for all and welcomes all to unite in Christ.


The Cross is Enough

October 21, 2015

It is not my goodness. I have none. I am just a filthy rag.

It is not my ability to keep a law or perform good deeds. I consistently fall short at rule keeping.

It is not my mastery of morality. At this I am a failure. My flesh is weak.

It is not my winning personality; good looks; athletic prowess; charisma or intelligence. Those are all fleeting, inconsistent and limited.

It is not my expert homiletic or exegetical skills. These remind me of what I do not know.

It is not my church and our ability to produce a welcoming atmosphere or quality worship. Another church nearby likely offers something even more appealing.

It is not even the Bible. Yes, it is divine, inspired, and living. It contains the will of God. It is to be heard and heeded, but as essential as the Bible is to our faith–it is not enough.

It is the cross. The old, rugged, bloodstained, despised, and awful cross of Jesus—it is enough.

As Mercy Me sings in their amazing song (check out the entire song below):

No matter the bumps
No matter the bruises
No matter the scars
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless
No matter the hurt
Or how deep the wound is
No matter the pain
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

The proclamation of the cross pleases God. The Apostle Paul whose goal was to “preach Christ and him crucified” had this to say:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.*

The power of God to save; to make whole; to transform; to give hope; to heal wounded hearts; to persevere; to vanquish guilt; to discover worth; to mend brokenness; to make you flawless.

By God’s grace the cross is enough.

Praise God the cross is enough.

*To see the entire context of these scripture references read 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.


The Power of Telling a Story

July 6, 2015

summerblogtour button

I am participating in a “summer blog tour” which will feature posts by several Christian bloggers and authors. We have all contributed by telling stories and finding the power of God’s working within them. Each week there will be two new articles which will be posted on each participant’s blog. In this way you will be introduced to new writers and perhaps choose to follow their blog. I hope you enjoy this summer blog tour and are blessed by the power found in each of these stories.

Starting our blog tour is Steve Ridgell. Steve lives to share the story of Jesus with this world. In addition to his work as Director of Ministry for Hope for Life , Steve is a regular writer for Heartlight.org and has written books. His latest book is Can I Tell You a Story?  Steve also serves as an elder at the Southern Hills church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.

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Jesus often used stories to illustrate how to live as his disciples. I believe hearing the stories of Jesus still equip us to live out his call on our lives. And here is one example of how I think that works.

I have often heard people talk about the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28, but I wonder if we have missed what it means.   It is too easy to simply make the point that “go into all the world” means go out of your front door and into your world.

What does that mean in terms of real life action? I believe Jesus explains exactly how his followers go into their world and make other followers. I think he shows how to go, where to go, and what to do when we get there.

Listen to the stories he told about going into your world.

How do I go? I go living forgiven.

She was a woman caught in adultery. The response by those who caught her was the familiar refrain of guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. But Jesus offered forgiveness, not condemnation. And then he told her to “go and leave your life of sin”. Go back among her friends and family as a changed person. Live forgiven. That is how we demonstrate the truth that Jesus changes lives. We are the living examples of God’s work in this world.

Where do I go? To those in need – and then serve them intentionally.

The story of the Good Samaritan was told to illustrate who is our neighbor. It is the story of a man who saw someone in need and then did something about it. He cared for them. Your world, your neighborhood, is full of hurting people in need of help. Physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs. Sick people, abused people, lonely people, addicted people. The last thing Jesus said after the story of the Good Samaritan was for us to “go and do the same.” So we go into our world as servants committed to helping others. But we do it with purpose.

We serve intentionally in the name of Jesus. This gives us credibility to speak into lives. Our lives are living proof that Jesus works. Our service is the proof that the Jesus story is worth hearing.

What do I do when I go? Speak with courage the story of Jesus.

He fought so many demons he was called Legion. He was lonely and in pain. Jesus met him, connected with him, and healed him. When Jesus left that place, Legion was ready to go with him. He was all in for a mission trip with Jesus. Except that Jesus told him no. Instead, he told him to go home to his family and tell them what the Lord had done for him and how he had mercy on him.

Our lives give credibility to the story of Jesus. Our service gives opportunity to share that story. But you will not make followers of Jesus in your world until you tell them the good news of Jesus. Tell your story. Tell His story. And invite them to become part of the story.

Go into all the world. Go into your world.

Live Forgiven.

Serve with Purpose.

Speak with Courage.

And you will make followers… who will make followers… who will make followers.

 


When Bad Things Happen to Good Churches

January 23, 2015

Being in the preacher world I am well acquainted with bad things happening to good churches.

Division; immorality; financial difficulties; unhealthy leadership; strife and friction; ungodly agendas; even false teaching are among the bad things that often happen.

All are devastating. All are hurtful. All threaten to undermine the work of God’s kingdom. All happened to churches we read about in the Bible.

Just pick one: Corinth? Rome? Ephesus? Galatia? Colossae? They were all familiar with bad things.

Allow me to pick one–Ephesus–and roll with that (mainly because I am leading a study on Timothy at my church right now). We know quite a bit about this church. The first-century historian, Luke, details its riotous beginning in Act 19. The apostle Paul shares a rather emotional moment with its leadership in Acts 20. Later he pens letters both to the church and his protégé, Timothy, who was serving there (listed in the New Testament as Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy). And then this congregation is the recipient of one of the seven letters written to churches by Christ as recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. In terms of information about them—we have a broad context.

A broad context of bad things happening.

Bad things not only happened to the Ephesian church, but were first predicted to happen to them (see Paul’s statement in Acts 20:25-31). Ouch!

Turns out Paul was right—what he foresaw happened and it was bad. Unhealthy leadership with ungodly agendas did a number on this fledgling body of believers. Read 1 Timothy in particular, and you will start getting the picture. It is a picture of bad things.

To counter these bad things Paul sent Timothy. After Timothy got there and saw just how bad things were, Paul had to write a stay-there-and-do-the-job-I-sent-you-to-do type of letter. Hey, I have been a preacher at a good church when bad things were happening. Believe me when I say Timothy needed this kind of encouragement!

Of course, Paul gave him specific advice on how to handle the various bad things occurring, reminded him that he definitely was the man for the job, and encouraged him to keep his own nose clean as he sorted through the mess.

It is worth noting that in the midst of all of this instruction and confidence building, Paul uses the exact same phrase twice to preface a major point. It is:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. (1 Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)

Interesting. Various ideas have been floated out as to exactly why he turned this phrase, but I like to think it is one of those okay-now-listen-up-because-what-I-am-about-to-tell-you-matters-a-little-bit-more type statements. It is similar to when a parent calls the kid by his full name. Now it is time to pay closer attention!

So what was this crucial information Paul wanted to share and how does it help good churches currently dealing with bad things?

It all has to do with Jesus.

In both contexts Paul follows his preface with strong affirmations about Christ, forgiveness, and hope.

Could there be any more important information or any better way to counter the bad things while leading the church to a healthier place?

It all has to do with Jesus.

When bad things happen to good churches just double-down on the Christ! It may sound over simplistic in the always complex consequences of the bad things, but no surer foundation exists upon which to rebuild.

Bad things have a way of distracting; of bouncing off in all directions; of creating confusion in such a manner that we lose sight of the blessings of Jesus. He gets lost in his own church! The bad things discourage us; disappoint us; and divert us away from him and the hope he promises. They create a debilitating fog that clouds the joy of Christ, which prevents him from being exalted in his church.

Little wonder then in his letter directly to the church in Ephesus, Paul’s prayer was for them was “that you may know him better” in order to more fully realize the hope Christ offers by having the “eyes of your heart…enlightened” (see the entire context of Ephesians 1:15-23).

Discouraged because bad things are happening at your church?

Fix your eyes on Jesus more than ever! Get to know him even more. Teach, preach the forgiveness and the hope found only in him. Exalt Christ!

Not only will he provide you the strength (right, Timothy?) to navigate the bad things; he will create the healthy focus enabling your church to rediscover the good things.

He was the answer to the Ephesian church crisis.

It reminds me of what Paul “resolved” only to know while dealing with the bad things in the Corinthian church.

It was all about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

When it truly is all about Him, bad things will not defeat good churches. They will hurt. They will disappoint. They may even discourage for a season. But better days are ahead. That is the essence of the hope Jesus offers.

Remember that letter Jesus wrote to the Ephesian church recorded by John in Revelation 2:1-7? Hear what he says to them then:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Wow! Seems like the bad things were in their rear view mirror. They did not allow themselves to be defeated. This good church overcame the bad things in his name!

If (and God forbid) bad things ever happen to your good church cling to Jesus!

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)


“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)