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Agony

“Trembling seized them;

labor pains like giving birth.”

(Psalm 48:7 {verse 6 in English})

In our society today, how rarely we take seriously the idea of being under God’s judgment. We make jokes about it, there are movies that celebrate it, and people write books suggesting that if anything, Hell would be more fun than heaven. Yet, beloved, how evil such sentiments are and how deceived we have allowed ourselves to be in these matters.

The Bible paints another picture for us — that of being struck with fear and trembling at the notion of God’s wrath. Here the psalmist speaks of the trembling of abject terror seizing ahold of him so much so that he cannot move and then the torment that comes from facing the wrath of God being like that of a woman in labor, giving birth…and the psalmist is actually just getting started.

Loved ones, take these words seriously for God’s wrath is against his enemies…all of them. Do not envy the wicked, for while their revelries may seem to fill their days with laughter, those days are fleeting and the end result is suffering greater than our human imagination is capable of relating. The psalmist here is paralleling the experience of the enemies of God in history to what is to come so that we turn from our wickedness and repent of our ways, pursuing the God of glory rather than the glory of the flesh. May indeed all of us heed his warning.

Colonists Away from the Homeland

“But our country exists in heaven, from which we also eagerly await a Savior — the Lord Jesus Christ,”

(Philippians 3:20)

While many of our English translations will render this, “our citizenship is in heaven,” to do so requires a degree of inference. Literally, Paul writes that “our country” or “our homeland” is in heaven. The language paints a picture of a group of colonists living in a land that is not their own. One must recognize that in Paul’s era, this was a common experience. Rome was expanding its borders and oftentimes Roman citizens would relocate to newly expanded territories for economic reasons and thus found themselves as strangers in a strange land.

Some of our translations, then, infer the language of citizenship to emphasize the permanent connection to where the people of the church belong. This world is not our home. Peter describes us a sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), the author of Hebrews says that we await the permanent city to come (Hebrews 13:14), and Paul contrasts the Jerusalem above with the Jerusalem below (Galatians 4:21-28). Satan is referred to as the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2 — often used as a reference to this world but also a reference to idolatry — vanity of vanities says the Preacher!). Like Abraham, we are travelers amongst a people who are unlike us.

How are they unlike us? Go to the previous verses. They are those whose end is destruction, who revel in their sin and seek to satiate their bellies. They are those who will not follow the model of Christ but who pursue the things of the flesh. In contrast, we live a different lifestyle, pursuing the pattern of behavior that we have observed in Paul and in other faithful believers before us.

I find it interesting that when I travel, everyone knows that I am an American even before I open my mouth. Perhaps it is the cowboy boots and the blue jeans, perhaps it is the way I carry myself, whatever it is, when I travel it is as if I carry a neon sign over my head that says, “American.” And note that I am not complaining about that reality; I am grateful to have been born in this great nation. I simply make an observation that should carry back to Paul’s language here. By the way we live, the people of this world (unbelievers) ought to recognize that we don’t belong to this world. Sadly, for many professing Christians, that is a stretch.

But Paul does not stop with the idea of belonging to a different country. He also speaks that while we are colonists here in this world, we are awaiting the coming of a Savior — the Lord Jesus Christ — the Prince of Heaven who will return to this world in glory and call all his citizens to himself. Therein lies our hope. Our hope is not in simply returning to heaven in spirit after our death, but it is in the physical resurrection, like Christ’s resurrection, that will come when our Savior returns from the homeland to claim his own people. That is our hope. Sadly, too, it seems that many professing Christians do not have this hope in sight either.

Like Abraham before us, we are sojourners and aliens in a land not our own. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are a church moving through the wilderness on the way to the promised land…but we are not there yet. Yet, let our lifestyles reflect the land to which we belong.

Garments of True Splendor

“And the chief priests and the scribes stood there and made impassioned accusations against him.  And Herod, along with his soldiers, were showing him contempt and mockingly clothed him in shining garments and sent him back to Pilate.”

(Luke 23:10-11)

 

And the mocking continues as Jesus refuses to perform the feats that Herod had hoped to see. What is interesting is that Herod does not just have him sent home and put to death — certainly Herod had the blood of John the Baptist on his hands, why not Jesus also? With Pilate giving up jurisdiction, Herod could easily have sentenced the man to death, pleased the priests and perhaps even won him some favor amongst the Jerusalem elite. Herod opts not do to so, and returns Jesus to Herod. Of course, this is a fulfillment of prophesy that Jesus would be hanged on a tree, but from a human perspective, it is fascinating to me to see all of these puzzle pieces laid into place. Certainly Herod, by returning Jesus to Pilate, is no less guilty of Jesus’ death, but perhaps in his own mind he can wash his hands of the man just as Pilate would later do. Perhaps Herod has as much contempt for the priestly establishment as Pilate does and Herod sees this as a way to frustrate them even more as he sees them practically begging for this man’s death. This may be the reason that Luke makes the comment about Herod and Pilate’s friendship that develops over these things in the next verse. Politics often makes strange bed-fellows.

There is another aspect of these verses, that is often overlooked, and that is the garment that is placed on Jesus’ shoulders. Many of our translations will render this word as “an elegant robe” (NIV), “splendid clothing” (ESV), “a gorgeous robe” (KJV & NASB), etc… and perhaps brings to mind the remarkable garment that Joseph was given by his father in the Old Testament. The word that Luke uses here is lampro/ß (lampros), which is the root from which we get the English word, “lamp.” In Greek, we sometimes translate lampro/ß (lampros) as splendid or opulent, but most commonly the term reflects something that is full of light or sparkles. This is the term that is used of the angel that presented himself to Cornelius (Acts 10:30) as well as the angels that John describes in heaven (Revelation 15:6) and the heavenly garment given to the Church as the bride of Christ (Revelation 19:8).

It should be noted the radical difference between that which is glorious of heaven and that which is considered glorious on earth. There is simply no comparison. Once again, Jesus is made to bear the shame of fallen man — this time being arrayed in the best of human making when the best of heaven is that which he rightfully deserves. To take the analogy further, Jesus is clothed in the garments of men so that his bride may be brightly arrayed in the garments of heaven (as we see in Revelation 19:8). It is an exchange that Jesus was pleased to make, but it is an exchange that we do not deserve to receive. One more thought along those lines — the garments with which the bride is to be clothed are described as the “righteous deeds of the saints.” May we always remember that the origin of those deeds is not within us here on earth, but in heaven, for indeed, these works have been prepared for us from before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 2:10) and done not in our strength, but in the strength of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Jesus substitutes himself in our place to give us what we could never hope to give ourselves — why then do we so often pursue the splendor of this world when Christ himself offers us the splendor of heaven.

A Little Taste of the Promise

“Afterwards, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Makpelah toward Mamre (which is Hebron), in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave which is in it were given up to Abraham as a possession for a grave from the Sons of Cheth.”

(Genesis 23:19-20)

 

And with dignity and with a foretaste of what is to come, Abraham buries Sarah, his wife. Later, Abraham will also be brought to this site for burial. Though Abraham never saw fulfillment of the promise of the land, he did close his life owning a piece of property within the inheritance that God promised him. And in that, he was satisfied.

So much about Abraham’s life is about waiting and anticipating, it is no wonder that he is referred to as the Father of the Faithful (Romans 4:11). And much like Abraham, we too are called by God to wait on Him and upon His timing. How often we grow impatient at waiting for God to fulfill his promises. How often, because of our impatience, we miss the partial fulfillments that God places in our lives. For Abraham, the partial fulfillment took the form of a burial plot for Sarah. For us, our promised inheritance is in heaven, kept free from decay and defilement (1 Peter 1:4-5), but does not God give us little tastes of heaven in the context of Worship? Is not the gathered body of Christ meant to be a foretaste of heaven to come?

How often the worship of God’s people is little more than going through the motions. Beloved, when worship is only about what you are doing, then you will only ever get out of it what you put in…there is a zero sum gain. But when worship is only about God and what he is doing, then you taste his glory, which is a gain of everything and more. If you focus your worship on man, you will only find the walls of man’s own limitations. If your focus is upon God, then walls are broken down and we will come face to face with the transcendent God. For Abraham, his longing was for God himself; for you, what will it be?

The Laughter of the Saints

“And Sarah said, ‘Laughter, God brings to me; all the ones who hear will laugh with me.’”

(Genesis 21:6)

 

The emphasis that is placed here is on the laughter. Usually, this word refers to the way we might mock someone by laughing and jeering at him, but in this context a very different sentiment is being conveyed. Here is the joy of a lifetime of reproach being lifted. The desire of Sarah’s heart, to bear her husband a child, has been denied to her through her normal childbearing years, yet he has remained faithful to her. Now, in her old age, a gift has been given to this woman. The shame and reproach that came with being barren has been removed and her only response is to laugh with joy at the thing that God has done.

What a beautiful picture of the response of this woman. Sometimes, when one has walked so long in the darkness of rejection and then suddenly one is thrust out of that despair and into joy, there is nothing to do but to laugh — one cannot contain the joy one is experiencing. Here, this woman who has tried to bring that child for Abraham in a variety of different ways, even to the extent of giving Hagar to her husband as a surrogate wife, is given the desires of her heart; what a beautiful and a human response as we see her laughing and anticipating the laughter of others who will join in celebrating with her.

Yet is this also not what Jesus does for every believer? He removes the reproach of sin and judgment from us as we stand before God. He gives us life where death was our only state of being. We are brought by him into the household of the Almighty God of the Universe and presented as clean and as a child of that God and King; beloved, what can we do but laugh in joy? What can we do but celebrate? The laughter of the saints is a holy thing and it is a thing that brings healing because it stems from a heart that has been redeemed. When God’s people gather together to fellowship, joyful laughter seems to be one of the most basic characteristics of those gatherings; I can only imagine what the joyful laughter will be like when we are all joined together before the throne of our Lord and our joy made fully and irrevocably complete. I pray that you are ready to join with me there on that day.

Wonderful night! Wonderful night!

Dreamed of by prophets and sages!

Manhood redeemed for all ages,

Welcomes thy hallowing might,

Wonderful, Wonderful night!

Wonderful night! Wonderful night!

Sweet be thy rest to the weary,

Making the dull heart and dreary

Laugh in a dream of delight;

Wonderful, Wonderful night!

-John Meyer

Our God in Heaven (Psalm 115:2-3)

“Why should the nations say,

‘Now, where is their God?’

Our God is in the heavens—

All that he delights in, he does.”

(Psalm 115:2-3)

 

            Indeed, those who have made gods to worship out of gold and silver do look at us and ask us how we can worship a God that we can neither see nor touch?  The psalmist’s reply is an important one.  Often, when we are pressed with the same question from a secularist, we retreat and are a bit defensive with our answer.  We usually say something to the extent of, “well, it takes faith…”  Or, if we are a bit more astute, one of the classic answers that is given is, “you cannot see the wind, but you see the effects of the wind—so it is with the Holy Spirit and with those born again of the Holy Spirit,” making a reference to Jesus’ language before Nicodemus.  Yet, there is nothing defensive about the psalmist’s response.  The psalmist replies to the question by saying, “Our God is in the heavens and he does all that he pleases.”  Do you see what the psalmist is doing here?  It is as if the psalmist is saying—you are criticizing me for not having a god made out of metal or stone that I can see, but your gods are inanimate objects—the creation of your own hands—how can I bow down to one who is incapable of answering my prayers?  I worship a God who rises high above the heavens—he cannot be constrained by puny things of metal or stone, nor can he even be constrained by the world itself—and all that takes place is a result of my God’s good will.  So, who will you worship, the god formed out of the dirt by the sweat of your own brow, or the God who created the dirt and all that is around with but a word of his power.  Beloved, statements like this are anything but defensive, they cut to the quick, and address the problem at hand—who is the true God of heaven and earth and what ought to be done with all of the bad imitations?

            Loved ones, why are we so often intimidated when people challenge our faith?  We know the effect of the hand of God in our own lives, we have seen God’s work in the world, and we know the truth of God that is found preserved for us within the Holy Scriptures.  In addition, creation itself testifies to God’s majesty!  Where is there room for anything but bold assurance?  It is not incumbent upon us to prove to the atheist that God does exist—it is his responsibility to prove that God does not exist if he wants to hold a position that is so contrary to reason and observation.  Because we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated by academic degrees and titles, we have allowed unbelievers to turn the tables on us, forcing Christians to swallow lies in the name of “science”—lies that do not even stand up to the secularist’s own scientific methods of scrutiny. 

            The final statement is also telling for two reasons.  First of all, it compliments the previous statement about God in the heavens.  We do not worship a God that was like the gods of the Greek philosophers—ones who were transcendent and so separate from the world that they do not act, but only observe—but we worship a God who does act within the realms of men.  But what is also important is that not only does God act, he takes pleasure in his acting.  We spend a lot of time talking about God’s sovereignty and that he works out all things according to the council of his own will (Ephesians 1:11), but we often neglect the principle that is expressed here—that God does take pleasure in his actions.           

            Beloved, think on things this way:  God is satisfied with himself to such a wonderful degree that all that he thinks and does brings him pleasure.  And, to continue the line of thought to its logical end, if God finds his ultimate satisfaction in himself and finds profound pleasure in all that he does, we can find our ultimate satisfaction in Him and pleasure in all that he does in our lives.  That is an easy statement to agree with when things are going well, but what about when the world around us seems to be falling apart?  Can you affirm, even in the midst of your greatest heartache, that God is still working all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose?  Though we may struggle with it, this is exactly how we should be thinking.  Our God rules the creation and works out his good pleasure in your life and in mine; let us strive to take our pleasure in the working out of these things by his strong and steady hand—finding our hope and satisfaction in Him and in Him alone.