The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

wonder-servant.jpg

From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 

Advertisements

The Power of an Ordinary Story

July 14, 2015

summerblogtour button

THE POWER OF AN ORDINARY STORY

Ordinary is an interesting word. It was a word once used for some of Christ’s disciples (see Acts 4:13). It usually denotes “nothing special,” “average,” “normal.” Nothing to see here, so just keep moving on.

An ordinary story? I’ll pass. Give me the extra-ordinary; the dramatic; the one filled with exciting special effects; the tearjerkers. Those move the needle. Those create blockbusters and best sellers. Ordinary is just not interesting.

Until it is.

Until ordinary reveals something else.

Those Jesus followers in Acts 4 certainly were ordinary guys without any special pedigree, but yet there was something quite different about them.

What was it?

It was noted that they “had been with Jesus.” Jesus has a way of making ordinary interesting.

I am not sure that LaVelle Travis (L.T.) Blevins would ever be considered just ordinary, but his story has ordinary beginnings. Born during the Great Depression in the small backwater Arkansas delta community of Gordneck, L.T. grew up like so many others of his era—poor but happily surrounded by a loving family.

Again like thousands of his contemporaries, L.T. answered his nation’s call and served in the U.S. Navy during both WWII and the Korean conflict. He married his sweetheart, began a family, started a successful small business and worked diligently to provide and care for them. 

On the surface—this describes an ordinary life. It was the kind lived all across America. Yes, he lost his first wife too soon. He retired early to care for her. Later he had serious health concerns of his own from which he was not expected to survive. But really that is all fairly common. It is normal. L.T. Blevins? Not much interesting to see here, so let’s just keep moving on.

But before you do, I ask you to look a little closer. There is more to this ordinary story. Remember how I stated that Jesus has a way of making the ordinary interesting? If you spend any time around L.T. Blevins it becomes obvious. He has “been with Jesus.”

Brother BHe just turned eighty-eight years old. The ever-present twinkle in his eye reveals a joyful soul shaped through the years by his relationship with Christ. He has this wonderful adventurous side that once led him to wrangle horses on the back lots of Hollywood movie westerns after WWII; ride across the country on a Harley knucklehead motorcycle; fly (and crash) without lessons or licenses in small planes; and physically build a lake house with his second wife, Kathleen, while in his seventies.  He has all kinds of extraordinary stories to share. 

But his most extraordinary stories are about being with Jesus. They are about his beloved Levy Church of Christ in North Little Rock, Arkansas; it’s beginnings; it’s growth; it’s ministry. He has been here through it all—serving as teacher, shepherd, cook, missionary, and everything in between.

Always here. Always faithful.

He reared his family here—now into their fourth generation. He carried the burden of leadership. He made personal and financial sacrifices for the Levy family. He mentored the current generation of leaders. He did not waver. He never created any drama. He is a peacemaker, a visionary and a great friend to preachers.

He has been with Jesus. Just an ordinary man in some ways, made extraordinary through faith in the Christ; just another boy from the Arkansas countryside, but one whose legacy of quiet dedication to God, family and church continues to shape and influence them.

He is a part of what has been tagged “the greatest generation.” Great—because of sacrifice, hard work and personal integrity. Once this was just considered ordinary and normal. It was simply how you were supposed to be.

It certainly does describe L.T. But that is not why this “ordinary” man is great.  Rather:

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. – Matthew 23:11-12

The power in this story really is found in the Christ and in the good, humble man who allowed Jesus to do the extraordinary within him.

L.T. inspires me. Throughout his life he just consistently did the right thing without any big fuss. It is an ordinary story, but it is not. It is a story of quiet and consistent faith lived out through the normal variations of life, but never wavering.

I remember one summer camp session where several people shared their faith stories with the campers. All were dramatic and meaningful. One brother showed the needle marks on his arm and gave God the glory for empowering him to overcome his addiction.  It certainly was a powerful story.

But there is also the need to share the power in stories absent of all of this—a story of faith that never ventured away. That is the power I see in L.T. Blevin’s story and in his person and that is why it is so meaningful to me.

It is the kind of life I wish to live and for my children—just consistently being with Jesus everyday in a normal, ordinary, drama-free, yet incredible kind of way.


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)


Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

January 13, 2015

Middle crossIt was the middle ground; the high ground; the holy ground.

There he was—humiliated, exposed, and dying—up on that hill in-between two thugs. It was bloody ground; unwelcoming ground; it was holy ground

It was holy only because of him. The innocent lamb at the slaughter. He shouldn’t have been there; did not deserve to be there; but there he was. God in the flesh—up there on the middle cross dying under the devastating weight of my sin.

Literally, volumes have been written about Golgotha. I am not going to uncover anything new. I will just share what I see right now:

  • The middle ground—between the thieves. Symbolism aplenty. Jesus in the midst of all of us sinners. We surround him. Will we hold him in contempt as one thief did or will we recognize the Son of God among us and seek his grace as the other one did? Another view of the middle ground—where we are called to live, daily. (See a host of Scripture references—1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:5.)
  • The high ground—I think Jesus lived his life here. He never lowered himself to engage in or respond to the manipulative tactics used against him by his enemies. He could have called down legions of angels, but amazingly he refrained. He always did the right thing even though he was tempted otherwise. Of course, we all know the discipline this requires because we have been asked to do likewise. “Let us do good unto all men,” is the exact wording of the Golden Rule type, take-the-high-ground expectation (Galatians 6:10).
  • The holy ground—the best way I know how to express one truth this reveals to us is exactly how Peter did: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Being holy is not about being better than anyone else; it is about doing my best to be like Jesus.

I am just as broken as the two criminals who died with Christ that day on Calvary, but I do not want to be stuck in my brokenness—I want to be stuck right in the middle of God’s love with Jesus on that high, bloody, holy ground of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon.

It is my only hope.


Five Steps to Effective Bible Study

December 9, 2014

I’ve quite often heard how Bible study can be intimidating–and I get that. Everything about the Bible–its length; its historical time-frame; it’s language; it’s subject matter; Bible-studying-theit’s message; its divine inspiration–makes it not only unique but also incredibly challenging for many just to pick up and read.

If someone were to decide to randomly start reading the Bible and flipped it open to, say, 1 Chronicles 26 or Revelation 18, well, good luck with that.

It is not that these biblical texts cannot be understood–they can. But unlike a novel or a good historical read or even a text-book, to effectively read, study and understand the Bible takes some preparation.

And that is not as big a deal as you might think. With all of the resources we have available now in biblical scholarship, preparation is frequently just a click away. It is now easier than ever to find the Bible study tools needed to assist us (such as introduction information on individual books of the Bible; historical and cultural background information on biblical cities; biblical language helps; etc)

Of course I am sort of a geek when it comes to Bible study. It is something I truly enjoy and I know not everyone shares this passion. But regardless of your passion (which I believe would increase with more effective study) or knowledge level here are five steps to help you to enjoy more effective Bible study.

  • Never approach text with an agenda. Yep, I start with a negative. Far too often we open up our Bible to find a verse to support something we think we already believe. This does not engender healthy Bible study. No text was ever written simply as a “proof text” for us to parse and use to win a debate or prove a point. When we bring our agendas into Bible study Scripture gets twisted and taken in all sorts of never-intended ways. Granted it is difficult if not impossible to go into Bible study unfiltered. We all have our biases to sort through, but appropriating biblical text to use for our own personal agendas is not a profitable Bible study method.
  • Let text speak in context. This is the key that unlocks the amazing teaching found in the Bible. In order to understand what Scripture is teaching now, we must understand what it first taught then–when it was originally written. To do so means digging into context–all about the original recipients; their situation; the world in which they lived; about the person who wrote the book and their purpose in writing; and what is going on in the surrounding text itself. (This is where all those resources mentioned earlier help out.) It is too easy to take Scripture out of context and make it mean anything we want (see first point). By anchoring text in context we can avoid that while unpacking a treasure trove of teaching within the text of our study. Scripture comes alive by realizing it was first given to real people struggling to live out their faith.
  • Get to know the Bible one book at a time. Recently we had a guest speaker, Dr. Cecil May, Jr. make this point at my church. Instead of bouncing around all over the Bible–take it one book at time. Let that book’s text speak in its context. Get to know who wrote the book; why it was written; the folks who first received it. Learn their story and the story in the book. It is a wonderful approach.
  • Then understand that there is a greater narrative within the Bible. In one sense the Bible is one story–an incredible narrative about the Christ. Each book in both testaments tell something of his story–some more than others, but it is undeniable that his story is the Bible’s story. So as you journey through the Bible one book at a time you will begin to see the connective thread of the story of Jesus. Understanding this larger narrative will open up the Bible in new and exciting ways.
  • Wrap up Bible study in prayer. To borrow a phrase, Bible study and prayer go together like “peas and carrots.” Pray before you start; during; and after. “Pray without ceasing.” To borrow another phrase, pray that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for those who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Bible study can be exciting, enjoyable, enlightening, and even entertaining. The Bible is an amazing and surprising book. The reasons to study it are eternal. It is forever God’s inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16). It is one way we get to know him. I hope these five steps will encourage you to study and help you get more out of your time with God’s Word.


Five Transformative Texts

July 2, 2014

All Scripture is inspired, but there are some texts that speak a weightier word from the Lord.bible pic

Here are five transformative texts which do that for me:

  • Exodus 20:1-7. These are the first three of the Ten Words. It is Yahweh identifying himself; speaking of the overarching significance of recognizing Him and His Name alone. In a culture with competing gods, Israel was to honor the Only True One. Their identity was to singularly flow from who He was. Their purpose as a people all depended upon this. If they failed to have “no other gods” before Him; they would completely fail regardless of any other factors. In fact this is what happened. It all connected back to a failure to heed these first three commandments. This is why this text remains transformative. Prioritize God first. Honor His Name above all names and our hearts will remain The Potter’s clay.
  • Hosea 6:6 (restated by Christ in both Matthew 9:13 & 12:7). The prophet Hosea lived in unstable and ungodly times. Israel had drifted far away from her purpose to be a light to other nations. Dramatically, Hosea’s own life revealed the adultery Israel had committed with other gods. Still, they managed to hold onto ritual–offering sacrifices to Yahweh, which were totally void of heart and meaning. Generations later Jesus would encounter a different Israel, but with the same empty ritualistic approach to God. So he recalled Hosea’s words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. Generations after Christ, we still gravitate toward ritual and away from mercy. “Doing” church can never trump “being” Christ.
  • Micah 6:8. Staying in the Minor Prophets during the same general historical time-frame as Hosea. Micah’s plea to an unrepentant Israel beautifully reveals the kind of people God desires in any generation: He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. This remains a watershed text–wonderfully summing up who God wants us to be.
  • Matthew 22:26-40. The Greatest Commands. This connects to all the other texts. Love God first with everything you’ve got. Then you can proceed to humbly express that love or that mercy or that justice toward others. It is transformation. It is God breathing life and meaning from His being into ours. When His Name is above all names, everything changes. We are truly free to love, serve and obey Him and to freely share these incredible gifts–without boundaries to others. Which brings us to my last text…
  • Matthew 28:19-20. The Great Comission. Yes, Christ urges us on toward sharing: to tell what the Lord has done for us; to “go into all the world.” It is part of our purpose–as it was for Israel. It is the outflowing of the kingdom of God to every tribe and people. It is the way others hear of the One who is above all else.

All of these texts are life-changing. At least they have been for me.

Perhaps you have some transformative texts of your own to share?


Praise God For A Noisy Church!

November 11, 2013

worship_clipartBabies crying. Loud amens. The rustling of pages turning in Bibles. Singing like you mean it. The warm sounds of hugs and greetings. The sweet laughter of brothers and sisters. The applause of the church celebrating a rebirth. Kids being kids throughout the halls and rooms. It is all pleasing music to the ears of God.

That is why I praise him for noisy churches!

Not irreverent noise. Not noise that purposefully distracts. Not noise made by uninterested folks. But the noise that naturally comes as a result of God’s family coming together to honor him.

Just imagine the absence of the noise. The silence would be disheartening. After all, we come in worship not to mourn, but to celebrate a risen Savior. Listen to what Scripture has to say:

  • Shout with joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious. – Psalm 66:1
  • Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth, burst into jubilant song.- Psalm 98:4

Sounds like a noisy situation. It seems worship is about making a little joyful noise. How else could we “burst into jubilant song?”

It is the kind of noise we should welcome. I would rather have babies crying in worship, then somewhere else on Sunday morning. I would rather hear the “amens” and all the other sounds, then the echoes of silence. And if worship is helping to prepare us for heaven, then we should get used to the noise. Heaven sounds like it is anything but quiet.

With winged creatures continually praising God; sounds as thunder rumbling and trumpets blowing; with twenty-four elders singing a new song; with voices numbering “thousands upon ten thousands times ten thousand” all praising God together; it will not be dull! (See Revelation 4-5.)

Could it really be any other way? Being Spirit-filled and having hearts full of thanksgiving, we cannot help but voice our praise to God. It is a natural extension of our relationship with him.

So, I thank God for a noisy church. Where there is noise there is life and I want to be a part of a living church!

How about you?