Captivity, Wilderness, & Promised Land

In January the Holy Spirit walked me through the book of Exodus and showed me many new insights. Now I’ve moved into Deuteronomy, and I’m fascinated to see how this book of Moses traces the same theme:

Yahweh is present with us when we are in captivity, when we are in the wilderness, and when we arrive in a new land of opportunity.

I do understand that the Exodus is a story about the ancient Israelites and is not entirely transferrable to me or the church of new covenant believers. But God’s goodness, mercy, and provision are fully applicable to us. We can learn much from their story.

We may be a different group of people with a unique relationship with him, but he is the same God. He is immutable, and so is his love for all of his people, Jew and Gentile, past, present, and future.

I’d like to trace God’s presence and active involvement with Israel in their captivity, in their journey through the wilderness, and in their claiming of the land promised to them. In doing so, I am challenging us to see this metaphorically, and to recognize how God has been present with us at all times also. He is faithful in times of captivity, in our wilderness wanderings, and when we enter and occupy new territory.

CAPTIVITY

Egypt was a place of slavery. The Hebrew people had been multiplying in that land since the time of Joseph and posed a threat to the god-like Pharoah who ruled them. They went from honored guests to captives subject to all manner of abuse.

In spite of the harsh conditions, Egypt was also a place of provision. Their basic needs were met, and they were strong enough to produce millions of children. The Hebrew slaves were fed and housed. This is verified by their complaint to Moses when in the wilderness they only had manna for dinner:

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num. 11:4-5).

We may view them with a critical eye, so ruled by their appetites that they would consider going back to Egypt to satisfy their stomachs. But even as I type this, I feel a twinge of shame about the times when I have chosen comfort and safety on my own terms over freedom and complete trust in the Father.

Nevertheless, as the people were still slaves to their humanness, God was free to take care of them in many ways.  God was present and fully aware of his people’s needs during their long captivity. He had a plan, and a timeframe to carry it out. In the meantime, he heard their cries and prepared humble Moses to be their rescuer. He confided in Moses,

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7).

“I am concerned.”

Moses and Pharoah entered a series of contentious negotiations about the release of the Israelites, and I picture our concerned God hovering over these conversations, listening. Pharoah spits out his stubborn wrath, declaring,

“Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).

God’s answer? I AM THE LORD

God had been God Almighty to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, emphasizing his otherness. The term LORD emphasizes relationship. Just as a person isn’t a leader if no one is following him, a lord is not a lord without people submitting to his lordship.

In this way, God identifies with his people. He tells Israel,

“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians” (Ex. 6:7).

The LORD’s rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt was so dramatic and shocking to all who witnessed, that it was to be recognized every year in perpetuity in the Passover observances. Jews were commanded to remember that the LORD heard their cries while they were enslaved, and he brought them out with a mighty hand.

When we are in any state of captivity, whatever its cause, the LORD our God is with us. He is aware. He has compassion. He provides. He rescues, in his way and time.

WILDERNESS

Once the Hebrews had escaped Pharaoh’s tyrannical grip, a new set of problems arose quickly. People being people, they quickly put aside their amazement at God’s miraculous rescue and began to complain about their first experience of freedom. They entered the wilderness.

There’s not enough food. We don’t like the food. There’s no water-we’ll die of thirst. We don’t trust our leaders. We don’t trust God. We’re afraid. Maybe this was a big mistake, coming out here.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a wilderness is “a region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings”; it is an “area essentially undisturbed by human activity”; and, it is “an empty or pathless area or region.” *

A wilderness (especially in that part of the earth) is a lonely, barren place with little vegetation or wildlife. This is where they wandered for 40 years because they lacked the faith or will to enter the Promised Land immediately after leaving Egypt.

Their long walk through the wilderness was a consequence of their unbelief, but God did not abandon them. Not in the least. He provided the perfect amount of manna for them to gather each day to keep them nourished. They didn’t get sick. Their shoes didn’t wear out. Just try to find a pair of shoes you could wear every day for forty years!

And when they, like spoiled brats, demanded meat, he gave them meat. When they couldn’t find water, he made water gush out of a rock at Moses’s command.

During this circuitous wilderness journey, their God led them with a cloud by day and fire by night. Every day, and every night. He taught them to build temporary shelters. He taught them to build a place to worship him.

As they journeyed, the LORD spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11), and Moses delivered to the people every instruction needed to survive their journey. This period in the history of the Jews is commemorated at the Feast of Tabernacles by commandment,

that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  (Lev. 23:43)

God never abandons us or forsakes us, even when we are lost, rebellious, stubborn, unholy, or ungrateful. He is the best of fathers.

PROMISED LAND

The two words promise (or promised) and land occur together 9 times, in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Isaiah. The covenant promise that God would bring Abraham’s family into the land of Canaan “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8) was renewed to Moses. Moses knew he was leading these hordes of people to a good place, a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17).  This would be a place of abundant resources to meet every need.

It took lots of doing and trusting, but Moses persevered, only to be told that the generation of people who had come out of Egypt wouldn’t see the land themselves, but that this new adventure would be given to their children and grandchildren. Even Moses would not be allowed in—only Joshua and Caleb would see the land of promise because of their unflinching faith and courage from the beginning.

Promised Land has become a figure of speech for us. It is that elusive physical or psychological destination where there is unlimited abundance, security, and peace.

If we are very fortunate, we may experience glimpses of this “land” in our mortal lifetime. Mostly, though, we must wait until we see our heavenly home, our “better country” (Heb. 11:16).

Maybe we’ve spent too many years in Egypt, figuratively, captive to sin and shame. Or maybe we’ve wandered long in desert places, never listening to and following the Lord’s direction. We keep circling the mountain. But the promise remains.

Whether we see glimpses of the Promised Land while alive here or have to wait for heaven like the saints of old, God knows us, sees us, leads us in, and acts always for our good.

Wherever we are, the Lord is with us at all times. This is his ultimate promise. He brings us freedom. He provides for us. He leads us at every step. He shelters us and fights our battles. He teaches, comforts and warns us. He throws our enemies into confusion. He leads us to “green pastures beside still waters” (Ps. 23:2)

What a loving and mighty God we serve!

* https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wilderness

Making an Argument (revisited and revised)

I look at the year 2020 as a time of collective insanity. We faced a pandemic that isolated us with our fears, frustrations, and addictions. Political upheaval, racial enmity, shootings, and riots brought much division. People responded with wrongheaded (in my opinion) political correctness and threats to free speech.

We are still in a lot of pain over this.

I first published this blog back then, along with others in which I shared my own reactions to what I was witnessing. Some recent observations and conversations have brought this topic back to my focus.

One of the phenomena that was most troubling to me was the tendency for people to react publicly, loudly, and emotionally to unfolding events. At all levels, it seemed that millions of people were trying to regain some sense of control by expressing their feelings and opinions–on the streets, in the sports arena, or especially, on social media.

I celebrate our right and ability to express ourselves in this wonderful country called the United States of America. If what you say makes me uncomfortable, that is my issue to deal with. I can confront you about it, but I mustn’t limit your right to express it. I believe I should be afforded the same consideration.

Because my worldview is distinctly biblical and Christ-centered, I have come to be at odds with the northeastern liberal and secular cultural mindset in which I was raised. I have to be ready to respond when people attack my beliefs, and “give an answer for the hope that I have” in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).

This is the basis for my ability to respond from the best of who I am, heart, soul, mind and strength.

I have also spent a lot of time in formal study, where critical thinking is an absolute requirement. I had to take the time to form ideas, rigorously support those ideas with Scripture or research data, and write papers that communicated my thought processes and conclusions.

In essence, I had to learn to not just state a point of view, but make an argument to defend it. This is what I continue to strive for in all of the writing I release into the world.

We often hear people these days yelling at each other, full of emotional fury, but unable to make a clear defense for their strongly held positions. Presenting a thesis and a coherent argument to support it is becoming a lost art.

We don’t all have to be high-level debaters, rhetoricians, or apologists to acquire skill in presenting a case for what we believe and why we believe it.  

One of my daily prayers has been, ‘Lord, show me when to speak, what to say, and more importantly, when to be silent.’ If I can’t state my case on an issue in a way that is honoring to God and his word, and with the genuine desire to peacefully edify and inform others, it is probably best to hold my tongue.

Granted, it is sometimes hard to discern when it is the right time or place to argue a complex or difficult case, and with whom. Please, not on Facebook with your Aunt Sylvia!

I won’t attempt here to cover all the bases, because when I wrote this in 2020, it was addressed to Christian believers who earnestly desired to use their voices well in public or private discourse. My revised comments are still offered in that context.

Let’s start with scriptural guidance on what not to argue about…and with whom:

Who is greatest. In Luke 9, the disciples disputed like children in the schoolyard about which of them would be the greatest. Let us not be found engaging in this kind of ridiculous argument with our brothers and sisters! It is fruitless to compare people. Everyone is valuable, and all of us have a part to play and a contribution to make. We avoid identity politics, racism, sexism, and envious rants.  

Religious traditions. John the Baptist’s disciples argued with some Jews about the need for ceremonial washing (John 3:25-26). The Pharisees were always trying to pick a fight with Jesus about his healing people on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for disputes about religious practices that are not essential to faith in Christ and his salvation. Diversity in these things is acceptable in God’s sight.

Geneologies and angels. Several times Paul warns about those who get caught up in genealogies or obsess about angels. These are distractions from sincere faith in Christ. We shouldn’t give them space in our heads. We are permitted to study these things if they are of interest. But they shouldn’t be a basis for conflict.

Second, let’s look at the Bible’s admonitions about certain types of people we shouldn’t argue with.

Fools and heretics. There are clear warnings in the Proverbs about the futility of trying to convince fools of anything. That is what makes them fools in the first place—they do not receive instruction and despise true wisdom.

Paul says about a person who persists in arguing against the commandments of God, “If anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant” (1 Cor. 14:38). He warns Timothy,

“If anyone…does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness,he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

These are some strong apostolic warnings and we should take heed to them. His description unfortunately applies to quite a few troublemakers out there right now.

Demonic arguments and human arguments

The father of lies continually stirs up strife and sets up deceptive arguments against faith-based convictions. These then become culturally normalized, so that if we dare to object to what we perceive to be lies, people who promote them will call us names and try to silence us. This is true right now on issues of sexuality, abortion, vaccines, environmentalism, and many others. It’s being called “cancel culture.”

When we recognize demonic work like this in our midst, we must counter with the correct weapons—Scripture, spiritual admonition, prayer, and prophesy. We use our spiritual authority in the name of Jesus Christ to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).

We demolish arguments, not people; we are not fighting against flesh and blood. This is a spiritual calling, and it requires faith, determination, and plenty of courage. Even in the midst of severe spiritual warfare, we do our best to keep loving people. They often don’t know they are being exploited by the enemy.

We don’t give in, as Eve did in the garden, when the serpent flatly contradicted God’s clear direction. God had said, “Don’t eat of this tree or you will surely die.” Satan said, “You will not surely die, because…” Satan brought an argument, and Eve had no counterargument to demolish his. I don’t think there is a plainer illustration in all of Scripture. We must be prepared to demolish demonic arguments.

Apologetics. Not all arguments are demonic, of course, and certainly not all who argue against Scripture are evil. Others may be inculcated in a different system of thought but are open to an honest discussion. This calls for the art of apologetics. This is where being an ambassador for Christ gets interesting and can even be fun.

The best-known biblical example of this skill is Paul’s message to the curious Athenians in Acts 17. Paul acknowledges their religious, cultural, and philosophical worldviews, and makes his own case from that platform. He shows the skeptics a path to faith in Jesus Christ that makes sense to their Greek mentality.

Paul can do this because he has taken the time to understand their cultural context. He doesn’t yell at them to win them to Christ. He reasons with them using their own cultural vocabulary.

There are some contemporary apologists I admire greatly–Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, and Michael Brown, to name a few. What I appreciate about these men is their ability to stay objectively grounded in truth, while showing great grace and respect for their debate opponents.

It is a pleasure to watch one of these apologists patiently listen to a debate opponent’s or skeptic’s challenge to Scripture and then respond with disarming wisdom, grace, and kindness. They’ve learned to make an argument and defend it, using chapter and verse, but not only chapter and verse. They also use reason, philosophy, literature, logic, experience, and history. And, common sense!

Like the opponents of Jesus, their opponents are often left speechless. Not disrespected, just corrected. Challenged to think more deeply, their curiosity aroused.

In this highly charged, conflicted atmosphere we are experiencing, it is tempting to just ride with the downstream flow of the cultural current. But if we do, we forfeit our opportunity to offer an alternative to the increasing barbarity and depravity that grieves our hearts and the heart of God.

Let us look to Jesus, The Apostles, and the honorable apologists of our day and follow their examples. When called to take a position on a controversial issue, we will do well to learn how to make an argument based in Scriptural truth. We approach people with respect for their differing worldview. We then can speak with authority and grace, and not merely react from our emotions.

Humility and Pride in Acts 8

A few times I’ve read through the whole Bible in a year. This requires a particular daily discipline that I didn’t feel prepared to undertake this year. I have several writing goals on the docket that demand that I drill down deeper into some texts rather than taking a survey approach.

I’ve found that whatever Bible-reading plan I commit to at the year’s beginning, the book of Acts is always on the agenda early in the year. I’m drawn back to it time after time. It recharges my faith to again witness the boldness of the first Christians, the active participation of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous signs that followed the early disciples’ proclamations of Jesus the Messiah. It inspires me to endeavor to be more like them.

This book of the Bible teaches us the supremacy of the name of Christ. The early Christians demonstrated the humble practice of keeping Jesus Christ first, bringing glory to him rather than to themselves. This is a relevant issue to address in our self-obsessed culture, and these people and their stories are worth emulating.

One of the most dramatic illustrations occurs in Acts 8. It involves the character of Philip, followed by a contrasting story about Simon the Sorcerer.

There isn’t a lot of information about Philip in the text. In Chapter 6 we learn that he was one of the seven men chosen to minister to the material needs of the Gentile Christians. The qualifications to serve on this team were: holding a good reputation in the community and being filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. By this standard, Philip was well known among them as a Spirit-filled, wise man of God.

When persecution arose in Jerusalem, most of the disciples were scattered to other locations. Saul (later converted and called Paul the Apostle) was wreaking havoc, chasing after Christians to stop the spread of the gospel. Philip went to Samaria,

and proclaimed the Messiah there.When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.So, there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8).

Can you picture this? The story doesn’t mention any traveling companions, so it appears that Philip made this tremendous impact singlehandedly. Notice that his first act was proclamation of the gospel, the good news that Messiah had come. Accompanying the message were supernatural signs—demons fleeing hysterically, and crippled people healed. Mark’s gospel foreshadows scenarios like this:

Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:20).

The word was confirmed by works of power, and the outcome was the abundant fruit of joy!

Now we turn to Simon, a famous magician in Samaria, who

for some time…had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people…He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. (Acts 8:9-11).

Simon had become what we might call an “influencer.” He understandably became concerned when Philip came to town and performed miraculous signs through the power of the Holy Spirit. Competition!

But the word and works of Philip were compelling, the Spirit broke through, and Simon himself believed and was baptized. The one that had amazed the public through demonic tricks was now overcome by the power of the true God.

Unfortunately, Simon’s conversion, like most of ours if we’re honest, didn’t instantly correct all of his character defects and pre-existing mindsets. He quickly twisted his blessing into a curse.

As a parenthesis following these two accounts, the narrator reports that Peter and John came to Samaria to lay hands on the new converts and impart the gift of the Holy Spirit. Simon witnessed this impartation and got it in his head that he’d like to purchase this same ministry with money and operate it for himself. Like a Holy Spirit franchise for Samaria, perhaps.  Peter discerned Simon’s wicked heart and motives and admonished him,

“Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:22-23).

Simon received Peter’s chastisement and seemed genuinely frightened and repentant. The story doesn’t say what happened next to him. I’d like to assume that he found some humility that day.

We do learn of Philip’s next assignment, which is to pop down to the road to Gaza, where he will meet an Ethiopian eunuch and lead him to the Lord. I love this Philip. He knows how to walk humbly and joyfully as an obedient servant of the Lord. He knows that his life is not his own, and that’s just fine with him.

My point here in spelling out the contrast between these two individuals is to encourage all of us to watch our step. In our ministries and spheres of influence, whether large or small, pride can easily creep in, and we can begin to think of ourselves as something great. This is the beginning of a downfall.

No one is great but one. According to Jesus, no one is even good but one. And we know who that is. It is him.

Lord, help us to learn from Philip and Simon…about the dangers of spiritual pride and the joys of humble obedience. Amen.

“Progress, Not Perfection”

Those of us who have lived on the earth for many circuits around the sun can declare that we have been through times of significant tests and struggles. Some of the battles are external and circumstantial, and others are internal.

The past year held many wonderful opportunities for me, as well as some physical and emotional challenges. Most of my battles were internal. I came in full contact with my aversion for messiness, disorder, confusion, unfinished things, wasted time, effort, and resources.

I recognize, for better or worse, that I have reached a stage of life where I greatly desire order, peace, and efficiency. Sadly, life often doesn’t conform to my desires. Life insists on being messy.

It is not necessarily a problem to desire order, peace, and efficiency. This can even be substantiated by Scripture. But when life doesn’t conform to our desire and becomes messy in spite of our best efforts, we can lose our serenity and enter dangerous spiritual waters.

Our imperfections and the imperfections of our world are facts we must accept. When we deny these facts, it will undoubtedly interfere with our fellowship with God. Our awareness of him becomes obscured by self-obsession.

There’s a name for this—idolatry. The very high standards we set for ourselves can become an idol when the line between high personal standards and perfectionism becomes blurry. I have come to believe that when this happens, perfectionism becomes a form of idolatry.

I’ll own this for myself first. I don’t necessarily expect others to be perfect. In my role as a therapist for many years, it has been important for me to be calmly present and without judgment toward people whose lives and relationships are a mess. I don’t feel a need to assess them or their choices according to the standard I maintain for myself. I have a well-developed capacity for empathy, acceptance, and compassion toward those whose lives have run into the ditch.

When it comes to people personally close to me whose actions and lifestyles directly affect me, I am more tempted to judge, criticize, and attempt to control. This comes naturally to me as the child of an alcoholic family system who throughout life has tried to bring order out of chaos. It is something I am actively working on with the help of the 12 Steps and an incredible sponsor who helps me process and work through these issues.

What has become most clear to me though, is that I can be pretty hard on myself when I encounter a lack of control over my thoughts, relationships, and circumstances. I’ve stumbled onto the uncomfortable truth that there are times when I am not as well put together spiritually, emotionally, or mentally as I thought I was. I am very far from perfect.

Imagine that!

Let’s explore some of the manifestations of perfectionism any of us might experience at some point, and then see how Scripture comes to life for us on this important topic.

Speaking first from my experience in the clinical realm, perfectionism manifests in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s behaviors like obsessive cleaning of the home that makes sufferers and their families anxious and miserable. Or it might be an eating disorder triggered by the perceived need to meet a perfect standard of beauty.

Sometimes it is just a constant anxiety and worry that we may have missed something important, and life could spin out of orbit because we can’t exert complete control over our circumstances, finances, or relationships. We might be co-dependent, living with someone else’s addiction and trying to maintain a false picture of perfect family life for the outside world to see.

All of these examples come with a lot of pain, frustration, and misery.

Jesus told his disciples, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). What could he possibly have meant by this? Every good Bible student knows that when we come across something difficult to understand, we need to consider the context of the verse as well as what the author intended to convey in the original language.

Jesus spoke these words as part of his Sermon on the Mount. This sermon contains the core message of his entire gospel. It redefines blessedness, righteousness, mercy, discipleship, and the reality of God’s kingdom on the earth “as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

In closer context, Jesus had been talking about forgiveness, specifically forgiving those who don’t deserve forgiveness. Seen in this light, he seems to be saying that when we extend this radical forgiveness in obedience to him, we are walking in alignment with the Father, because this is what the Father does for each of us. Ironically, we display godly perfection when we forgive others—and I daresay when we forgive ourselves–for not being perfect!

There are over 40 occurrences of the word “perfect” in the Old and New Testaments. Most translators choose the English word “perfect” in these occurrences, but some other variants are “blameless,” “complete,” and “mature.” Scripture states clearly that only God and his word are perfect in the way that we usually use the word (see Ps. 18:30; 19:7). The Christ-follower is to recognize this, and still reach toward the ideals of blamelessness, spiritual wholeness, and mature discipleship. We are to steadily move from the real, where we live, to the ideal, where God lives.

The Apostle Paul admitted that despite his wholehearted effort to “really know Christ and the mighty power that raised him from the dead,” he had not attained perfection. He wrote, “But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Phil. 3:10, 12, NLT). We, all of us, are works in progress.

Paul rebuked the Galatian believers for trying to perfect themselves solely through human efforts (Gal. 3:3). This man understood through his own struggle with sin that God’s power is made perfect in our human weakness. Here’s more irony—we are strengthened when we recognize our own weakness in his sight. Then the perfect strength of God—the dunamis–can flow to us and through us.

Maybe the best antidote to perfectionism is to reframe each day’s goals and purposes not in terms of our standards of performance or completion, but in terms of progress only. As they say in 12-Step groups, “Progress, not perfection.”

It would be more helpful to ask not whether we’ve achieved our own standard in our daily walk, but whether we are steadily moving toward God and the standards he sets for us. We may further ask if our hearts are being cleansed, formed, and perfected by the only one who does have the power to perfect us, as he defines it.

Do our hearts follow hard after him, like David’s? If so, as we increase in holiness, we walk in his grace and forgiveness and can set aside our own strivings to be perfect.

He loves us, his imperfect people who will in the end be made perfect!

This is what I’m thinking about today at the coffee shop. Imperfect me and my Perfect Jesus. Determined to enjoy the journey with him.

Happy New Year, my imperfect fellow travelers. I love you!

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Jesus and Children

As we celebrate the birth of Christ year after year, our senses are often flooded with sights, songs, colors, and smells that can evoke a sense of reverence and gratitude.

Though it is implausible that Jesus was actually born on December 25, celebrating together at this time of year serves as a marker of the centrality of our faith and our relationship with God. In that way, it resembles the religious feasts of the Jews.

We know quite a bit from Scripture about the birth of Jesus. The gospel writers (except for John, who gives no attention to birth narratives), considered it essential to relay the dozens of fulfillments of messianic prophecy surrounding his conception and birth.

What we don’t know is what Jesus was like as a child. After his infancy, there is only one account of Jesus, at age twelve. He worried his parents by staying in Jerusalem after the feast to converse with the Jewish scholars in the temple. Luke records,

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Lk. 2:48-52).

This tells us that by the age of 12, Jesus was already an extraordinary person, with a lively mind, a strong grasp of Scripture and theology, and a commitment to be about his Father’s business.

I love to wonder at what occurred between infancy and his coming of age as a young Jewish man, and then the beginning of his ministry at age 30. What happened in these gaps where the gospel scribes are silent?

My husband and I have an altogether lovely and loveable granddaughter who just turned three years old. We can’t help noticing how she went from being thoroughly innocent (like her little sister still is) to behaving in ways that reveal she is a sinner like the rest of us. Like all toddlers, it seemed that one day she woke up and realized she possessed the power to be mean, selfish, stubborn, and manipulative.

She doesn’t always behave in these ways. I’m just saying she learned that she had the ability. Little Autumn doesn’t intend to make things more difficult for her parents or herself. It’s just baked into her humanity. For the rest of her life, she will have to learn how to channel her negative, fleshly impulses into socially acceptable behaviors if she wants to thrive and get along with others.

Because we have such a natural talent for sin, we all require a lot of civilizing if we are going to survive and make sense of our world. I don’t subscribe to all of Freud’s theories, but I think he got this part right. We require lots of supervision and care as children if we are to become healthy, responsible adults.

This can’t be true in the same way about Jesus. The Bible tells us so.

Jesus was surrounded by every sin of humanity, yet never sinned himself. He didn’t have “terrible two’s”. He wasn’t bratty toward his teachers. He couldn’t have been an entitled, rebellious, or disrespectful teenager. This wasn’t inside of him, so it wouldn’t have manifested on the outside.

I hope you don’t find these musings irreverent. I wouldn’t teach these thoughts of my own as gospel. But it increases my love for Jesus to allow myself to imagine other aspects of his beautiful, perfect personality where Scripture is silent. Maybe you’d like to join me.

I imagine Jesus as having an easy temperament as a small child. He probably ate and slept well. I’ll bet he was easy to comfort if he hurt himself, was quick to smile and laugh, loved to hear stories, and quickly responded to his elders’ instructions.  

Jesus developed physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually under the love of his family and his heavenly Father, without any of the human hindrances of sin. He was rigorously educated and yet retained complete innocence. He possessed perfect wisdom without inner battles with doubt about God’s love, or about the purpose of his life.

As I indulge in these imaginings, I also find a fuller appreciation for the value that Jesus placed on children and childlikeness. For Jesus, children were better models of God’s heart than adults because children have less time to be negatively impacted by the outside world.

Even though I don’t misbehave in the ways that my granddaughter does because I have been “civilized,” she still is closer than I to the innocence that God longs to restore for all of us. Eventually, if we don’t stay close to the flame of God’s love and grace, the world has a way of thoroughly ravaging and destroying our hearts. And that, unfortunately, happens to all of us to varying degrees as we grow up.

Jesus repeatedly celebrated the relative innocence of children and childlike faith when he observed it in grownups. When the religious leaders rejected his teaching, he looked to heaven and exclaimed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25).

When those same leaders spewed contempt on the children who were praising him for “the wonderful things he did” (Mt. 21:15), Jesus reminded them that children possess an ability to praise God in their own wonderful way, quoting Psalm 8, “From the lips of children and infants, you, Lord, have called forth your praise” (v.16).

On several occasions, Jesus’s closest disciples, wanting to understand issues of power and hierarchy, asked him who would be the greatest in his coming kingdom. Each time, he pulled a child close to illustrate his answer.

He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me (Matt. 18:2-5).

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt.19:13-14).

Jesus loved the company of children. He eagerly longed for them to come near so he could bless them. In a culture that didn’t highly value children, Jesus made time for them.

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).

Jesus also made himself available to heal sick children or cast out demons that had afflicted them. We see this in the stories of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:35-43), the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), the boy with demon-induced seizures (Mark 9:20-26), and the son of a royal official (John 4:46-53).

We rightly celebrate the birth of Jesus and all of the wondrous, awe-inspiring events surrounding it. His coming and dying in our place was the only way we could be reconciled to our Creator. He came so that we would no longer have to fear death and what lies beyond it.

As we consider the magnitude of this truth, aren’t you grateful that he also taught us how to live? Even in the sparse details about his childhood, we can make some suppositions (as I have dared to do here) based on our knowledge of his sinlessness and uninterrupted communion with the Father.

We can assume that he was sinless as an infant, as a toddler, as a child, and as a teenager, before he was revealed in adulthood as the Savior of the world. This is hard for us to comprehend. We were children who learned to sin, and we remain in a battle with sin and doubt even as God is sanctifying us. Jesus, our High Priest, is able to help us. He bids us to approach his throne of grace like children.

To these things, the Scriptures do attest. Jesus loves the little children and all those with childlike hearts.

Oh, come let us adore him!

What Do We Want the World to See?

Back in the late nineties, we lived in the sweet small city of Marietta, Ohio. Marietta lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. It has great historical significance as the gateway city to the western expansion. The town features a broad levee where the sternwheel boats used to dock, and where they still assemble once a year for a Sternwheel Festival.

In pleasant weather, the town hosts musicians in a little courtyard adjacent to the levee. Being a musician and songwriter, I was featured there several times.

Once, when I had finished a set, my good friend Lisa approached me, gave me a hug, and exclaimed, “Jesus sure looks good on you!” I was taken aback. I thought she was quoting something from a sermon or song lyric. No, she had said it spontaneously. I later composed a song with that title because I loved the phrase.

What a great compliment! She was telling me that while I played and sang, she could see him on me, shining through. I couldn’t hope for anything better than that. Isn’t this what we want all the time, whether at work, at play, doing creative things, teaching, or parenting?

My husband and I got talking about this the other day. What was it that people saw in Peter, Paul, Stephen, or Phillip, as they traveled around the Holy Land sharing the good news about Christ’s resurrection and salvation? What was it that led thousands to cry out to Peter, “What must we do to be saved?” (Acts 2:37; 16:30).

How do we display our lives in Christ so that those who have not yet experienced a relationship with him might observe and desire it for themselves?

There is mystery in the way many of us are drawn to the Lord by the Spirit. Sometimes we become disciples long before we truly understand what has happened to us inside. This is how it was back in the 1980s when I was a smart, curious, but lost college student.  Jesus came in a distinct, personal way, and changed everything about me and the life I was living. This happened in large part because of the Christians around me.  Jesus looked good on them, and I wanted to meet him for myself.

I want to look at how Scripture comes to life to answer the question posed in my title. What do we want the world to see when they look at us? What do we believe, and how do we express our beliefs outside of our comfortable Christian circles? Most importantly, how do we represent the beautiful, winsome love of Christ to those around us, causing them to want to hear more about him? I’ve thought of four ways.

  1. We love each other well.  It is always best to start with the words spoken by Jesus himself. He told his disciples plainly, By this, all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35).

Unfortunately, the church has often done a very shabby job of this. Instead of being known for our love, we have often been known for our tendency to pass judgment on those that are outside of our circle. We engage in interdenominational, intra-denominational, and non-denominational squabbles at every level. At times even members of the same church can’t get along and don’t consistently show love and care for one another.

A greater offense is that sometimes the basic needs of Christians are not taken seriously as the responsibility of the Church. The world watches to see if we will take care of our own.

Picture how it would look to those watching if we were to consistently love and honor each other and work to meet each other’s needs. Maybe they would want to become part of such a loving and generous community, just as Jesus said.

2. We tell anyone who will listen about the supremacy and exclusivity of Christ, without apology. The magician, comedian and ardent atheist, Penn Jillette, has been outspoken about this:

“I’ve always said…I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” *

This man, who doesn’t believe the gospel, makes this excellent and very convicting point. If we believe that the gospel holds the only key to salvation and eternal life, and we hide the message because we’re ashamed or afraid, we lose integrity and authenticity when we DO speak up.

I love the testimony of the apostles after they had healed a blind man and got thrown in jail by the religious leaders. An angel broke them out of jail (see my previous blog series on angels), and they came together to pray. They said,

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30).

After being punished for their preaching and healing in Christ’s name, they asked the Lord for greater courage to do more of the same. They are such wonderful examples to us.

Picture how it would look to those watching if we were to speak boldly and consistently about the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, regardless of whatever persecution or opposition may come. Maybe they would want to know why we would risk so much to follow him.


3. We exhibit joy and peace instead of anxiety and worry. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Clearly, this is important for our individual mental and spiritual health. It is the way we exercise our faith, putting all confidence in our loving God and Father.

But it also matters because when the world is in a tizzy about this or that social, financial, or political issue—which it ALWAYS is—we can demonstrate a different outlook. We can live calmly, patiently, and peacefully. We show forth, as Peter wrote, “the reason for the hope that lies in us” (1 Pet. 35. We can show those who are worldly and anxious how to maintain an outlook that is joyful and confident by focusing on Jesus Christ and the word of God.

Picture how it would look to those watching if we were to remain calm, confident, and prayerful, no matter what difficulties we are facing. Maybe they would want to know how to find the peace we enjoy in Christ.

4. We live wholeheartedly by a code of honesty and integrity based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Christians in these morally relativistic times are all too quick to compromise, justify themselves, and make excuses for decisions and behaviors that do not line up with the gospel. Because we live under God’s amazing grace, sometimes we think that we can get away with a lower standard.

For me, this happens internally more than externally. To illustrate, I tend to have lots of judgmental thoughts about people I encounter throughout the activities of my week. I am a generally kind, polite, and considerate person, so I would never verbalize those thoughts to others because I know it would be hurtful. So, am I without fault because I keep my thoughts to myself?

No. We don’t get far in the New Testament before running into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spoke words that forever raised the standard for those who would claim to be his followers. What we think and harbor in our hearts matters just as much, or more, than the things we say or act out. At some point, the heart that Jesus already sees can and will be exposed and seen by others. Sadly, we give them an excuse to turn away from the gospel and call us hypocrites.

We don’t have to be perfect. But we do have to care about pursuing holiness in all our affairs, and even in our thoughts, because people are watching.

Picture how it would look to those watching if we were to guard our hearts so diligently that our behaviors and consciences were pure and undefiled. Maybe they would want to talk with us about how they can overcome their sense of guilt and shame.

These are just a few of the ways that Jesus might look good on us. We can’t take for granted that people are going to recognize that we are his followers. We need to consciously consider how we love and give, how we witness, how we pray and trust God, and how we think and behave ethically each day.

If we can walk in this awareness, maybe more people will approach and say, “I want some of what you’ve got” or “Why do you have so much hope and peace?” or “Please tell me about your Jesus!”

Maybe they’ll say, like my friend did, “Jesus sure looks good on you!”

Wouldn’t that be so wonderful?

*https://www.churchpop.com/2016/01/16/atheist-penn-jillette-christians-evangelize/

The Ministry of Angels, Part 3: Worshipers, Warriors, Witnesses

So far in this series about angels, we have looked at the angels who announced the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus, and the angels who attended Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness. We also looked broadly at the power, purposes, and roles angels play across the Bible’s narratives and prophecies.

In the second installment, we zoomed in on the roles prescribed for angels in this present Church age until the return of Christ. We saw that angels are powerful and can break down prison doors. They provide necessary guidance, instruction, warning, and encouragement to believers as we advance the cause of Christ and his kingdom. They observe us, assist us, worship Jesus with us, and wait for the Father to send Jesus back to gather us.

In Part 3, we look to that day, when Jesus returns to bring an end to what is our current earthly reality and establishes a new heaven and earth where he gloriously and eternally reigns. He will bring many angels with him.

This aspect of angelology is more complicated and somewhat troubling. The reason is that before the dawn of creation, the archangel Lucifer pridefully rebelled against God. He was fired from his ministry as a worship leader and was cast down to earth from his heavenly home. He took a third of the angels with him.

Since the third chapter of Genesis, this fallen angel we now call Satan, and his many minions, have been busy causing trouble for humanity. They are cunning, malicious, and deceptive.

But no angel, even a fallen one, is smarter or more powerful than God, his Son, the Holy Spirit, and the angels that serve on their behalf. Starting with Genesis 3:15, God has been foretelling a day when this enemy will be dealt with in a very final way. The evil one and his followers will be cast into the lake of fire, never to practice their mischief again.

Paul stated this as a promise to encourage the church in Thessalonica:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels(1 Thess. 1:6-7)

God’s judgment against these iniquitous angels will be harsh. Though they appear to have a wide ability to hinder the citizens of God’s Kingdom, Jude 6 in the Message translation assures us again.

And you know the story of the angels who didn’t stick to their post, abandoning it for other, darker missions. But they are now chained and jailed in a black hole until the great Judgment Day.

Jesus will return when he gets the “go” sign from the Father, and the saints, dead and alive, will be raised to live forever with the Lord. Unfortunately, it is also true that those humans who stubbornly refuse the gospel will face judgment with the fallen angels. These truths come directly from the mouth of Jesus as he taught with parables. For example,

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13:41-43).    

The angels will be given delegated authority to sort the sheep from the goats, the weeds from the wheat, and the good fish from the trash. These metaphors all convey the same truth. Jesus, with his angels, will administer justice and judgment. Those who love and serve God will find great and glorious reward, while those who reject and despise God will perish in a miserable way.

If you are not a believer and happen to be reading this, I’m sorry. You’ll have to take it up with Jesus himself. But hopefully, these repeated metaphors drive home the point. If Jesus is speaking the truth here, it is time to draw near to God and come into the company of the sheep, the wheat stalks, and the good fish. The time is coming when it will be too late.

The book of Revelation is replete with angels who are very busy administering, announcing, and sharing with Jesus Christ in the great drama of the end of the ages. It would take a book, not a blog, to outline all of the angelic characters in this elaborate apocalyptic story.

I encourage you to search your Bible app and see for yourself. Angels are mentioned 77 times! In the meantime, I’ll speak in generalities.

Angels deliver many messages. They speak to John, the human instrument used to pass the revelations to the rest of humankind. They prophesy to end-time churches. Angels tell the “eternal gospel” to the souls of people still on the earth suffering great tribulation. They announce and introduce the unfolding events, almost like masters of ceremonies working for their exalted host.

Angels are worship leaders. Some of them sing and some play trumpets. Some bow low before the throne of God and cry “Holy, holy, holy!”

Angels are warriors who fearlessly battle Satan and his legions. They confront every evil spirit, king, nation, and principality that has defied God. They destroy everything that is ungodly. They emerge victorious, of course, because they carry out the directives of God Almighty.

 Angels are witnesses and participants of the wedding banquet of Christ and his bride and in the establishment of Christ’s glorious new heaven and earth. After releasing war and judgment on the earth, the angels are present to see the glory of God’s redemption. They introduce the bride. They stand upon the gem-encrusted gates of the New Jerusalem.

_________________________________________________

In conclusion…

Angels appeared to some shepherds on a hillside outside of Bethlehem to announce that the Messiah had been born. Angels came to the barren wilderness to comfort and feed Jesus after he overcame the taunting of Satan. Angels were at the tomb when the stone was rolled away and Jesus arose.

Angels have watched the saints of God throughout the ages, intervening to provide, guide and rescue. They broke open prison doors so that the apostles could return to their mission. Angels led believers to places and situations where they could preach the gospel to the unsaved.

Angels will be active agents of God during all of the end-time events prophesied in the Gospels and Revelation. They will fight many battles and administer God’s justice. They will help those on earth to gain courage and saving faith. Angels will be part of the new, spotless, glorious kingdom of the Lion and the Lamb. We will bow with the angels to worship forever our King.

I don’t worship angels, but I am grateful for these strong, courageous, holy helpers!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Ministry of Angels Part 2: Angels are Real in the Age of Grace

In my last blog, I told you that angels have never been a focus of biblical study for me. But recently I’ve done some reading and have reflected on personal experiences throughout my life that have sparked an interest. This is the second installment of three.

Last time, I wrote about the intervention of angels in the events surrounding the conception, birth, and infancy of Jesus. The archangel Gabriel announced the coming of John the Baptist, Jesus’s forerunner, to his father Zacharias. Gabriel then appeared to Mary to announce that the Spirit was bringing the life of the Savior into her womb.

These appearances were startling and troubling to both Zacharias and Mary, but both received and believed the angel’s messages.

Mary’s husband Joseph must also have taken angelic messages seriously, even those delivered in his dreams. His obedience to what he heard was essential for the protection of the Christ child.

I think we ought to follow these examples and take angelic messengers of God seriously also, believing they exist, and that sometimes they come near.

Let me make it clear again that angels are not to be worshiped, as they apparently were at the time that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians:

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind (Col. 2:18).

It seems that some in the church wanted to appear spiritual with their stories of angel sightings, but ironically, Paul accuses such people of being unspiritual. Anything that distracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately carnal and will not provide what the Spirit needs to endure and thrive in this age.

The author of Hebrews also expounds on the deep truth that there is no being, terrestrial or celestial, that should ever compete for our affection for Jesus Christ. He reigns supreme.

But because angels were assumed to be participants in God’s plans throughout the ages, in this installment, I want to look further at the roles and functions of angels during our current age of grace. When I speak of this age, I am referring to the Church age, this dispensation that was inaugurated at Pentecost with the sending of the gift of the Holy Spirit and will persist until Christ’s return to gather his bride.

Angels follow the commands of Jesus, as he now sits at the Father’s right hand. The Apostle Peter, one of that small group of disciples filled with the Spirit on that first day in Jerusalem, testified boldly that Jesus was resurrected, and ascended to heaven, “and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him” (1 Pet. 3:22).

Hebrews 1:14 reveals their general role as sent ones under the command of Jesus. They are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” This service takes several forms, as we will see. Since we are now looking at the age of the church, Acts is the best place to start.

Angels can literally open prison doors. There are two such instances in Acts. The first involved all of the apostles when their preaching upset the Jewish leaders and they were jailed in order to silence them. The text reads,

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life” (Acts 5:18-20).

This must have been incredibly validating to the apostles and confounding to the skepticism of the Jewish leaders. Surely, something supernatural was helping these simple men from Galilee.

The second instance was when Herod had killed the apostle James and, seeing it “met with approval among the Jews,” attempted to do the same to Peter. As the church prayed for Peter in his jail cell,

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. (Acts 12:7).

The angel told him to get dressed and follow him. Peter wasn’t sure if it was really happening or if it was a vision, but when he came to himself and saw that he had safely walked past several guards and was back in the city, concluded with certainty, “The Lord has sent his angel and rescued me…” (v.11).

Angels give God’s people assignments and the courage to fulfill them, especially in regard to saving the lost. An angel sent Phillip down a highway toward Gaza, where he met, taught, and baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 8:26). This opened the heart of the continent of Africa to the gospel.

An angel was used powerfully to orchestrate the meeting between Peter and the centurion Cornelius. This encounter was the beginning of the church’s inclusion of God-fearing Gentiles into its body. Perhaps the long-standing prohibitions against intermingling Jews and Gentiles warranted the dispatching of an angel who would be able to convince both, Peter, and Cornelius, that it was indeed the will of God for Gentiles to be saved and filled with the Spirit (Acts 10:3-7,22; 11:13).

An angel appeared to Paul on his long, dangerous journey to Rome. Paul had been assured by the Lord that he would appear before Caesar. This gave him confidence that he would survive the trip, whatever they might face. But to seal this confidence, Paul shares with his Gentile, unbelieving shipmates:

But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar, and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ (Acts 27:22-24).

Angels are curious spectators of our progress even when they are not intervening. This might be my favorite picture of angels. Paul wrote that Christ-followers had become a “spectacle to the whole world universe, to angels as well as human beings” (1 Cor. 4:9). Peter wrote to the believers that it was not only the ancient prophets who foresaw in part the coming of Christ, his resurrection, and the glory to follow.  He added “Even angels long to look into these things (I Pet. 1:12).

Angels are watching. Angels are curious. Angels wait, like the saints that have gone before, to watch the glorious unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.

And that brings us to a final observation about angels in our days.

Angels deliver revelations to the saints about the future. This is seen most notably in the book of Revelation. The author of the book was Jesus Christ, who sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John” (Rev.1:1).  An angel delivered this abundance of prophecy and apocalyptic imagery so that God’s people could know “what must soon take place” (v.1:2).  

We still await the fulfillment of most of the prophesies sent by this angel, but we are wise to read and understand them as well as we can and act in accordance with the wisdom they provide.

Because angels have been so active throughout this age of grace, we can’t rule out the possibility that Jesus might send angels to help us in our time.  The wise author of Hebrews warns us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). There could be an angel in the room where you are sitting as you read this.   

Angels might spring us from prison if we are unfairly persecuted for our faith. They might hand us assignments to expand the kingdom of Christ that we would not have endeavored without their guidance and encouragement. They may appear to inform, warn, instruct, or encourage us as we see wickedness in the world increase. They may show us the future so we can better prepare our hearts as we watch for our Lord’s return.

God can communicate with us in various ways. Sometimes he gives new light to understand the Scriptures. Sometimes the Holy Spirit provides direct revelation through a word, a vision, or a dream. And sometimes, he sends an angel.

The Ministry of Angels, Part 1: About God’s Business

In my years of studying Scripture, I don’t recall ever taking a strong interest in angels. For reasons only the Holy Spirit fully knows, the topic of angels has caught my attention and curiosity recently.

For one thing, I have traveled quite a bit, and I believe I’ve encountered angels while being lost, losing things, having car troubles, or needing other practical assistance, and this happened very recently. They looked like humans, and I can’t verify that they were angels after the fact, but the manner and timing of their appearance, and their complete willingness to serve me in moments of distress seemed beyond accident or coincidence.

More significantly, I’ve begun noticing just how often angels are part of biblical narratives, in both the Old and New Testament. Sometimes they appear in dreams or visions, sometimes as visitors, sometimes as rescuers from danger, and sometimes as messengers.

The Hebrew and Greek words for “angel” signify a messenger, broadly understood to “denote any agent God sends forth to execute his purposes…but its distinctive application is to certain heavenly intelligences whom God employs in carrying on his government of the world.”[1]

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The author of the book of Hebrews, comparing the admittedly inferior ministry of angels to that of Jesus the Son, describes them as “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). Angels are created beings who serve us in many ways as they are appointed by Jesus, their commander.

I wish the author of Hebrews had elaborated a bit on this ministry of angels; that was not his primary focus. But we can learn much by observing angelic appearances in the Scriptures and see how they might come to life in our own experiences.

An appropriate example of angelic visitation at this time of year is in the stories of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, received several communications from angels in his dreams. First, an angel prevented Joseph from divorcing Mary, revealing the divine origins and nature of the child she was carrying. Second, when Herod the madman conspired to kill all the male children aged two and under throughout Judea, an angel warned Joseph and he fled with his family to Egypt. Third, when it was safe again, an angel gave Joseph an “all clear” sign and he returned to Israel.

Joseph is one of the Bible figures I look forward to meeting in eternity. I respect him. I appreciate that he didn’t dismiss the messages of these angels but acted on their counsel without hesitation. He preserved the life of the Savior of the world, who, being an infant at the time, needed his earthly father’s protection. God would have protected his Son in some other way if Joseph refused to listen and obey, but Joseph trusted that these angels were sent from God to help and inform him in his important role.

A few chapters later, angels figure twice in the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The first is when Satan suggests that Jesus should jump off the roof of the temple, quoting Psalm 91:11-12,

“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Though Jesus didn’t take the bait but shot back a response from Deuteronomy (engaging in what you might call a spiritual, Scriptural swordfight), this quote from Psalm 91 still stands as a testimony of the angels’ role in protecting God’s people from harm. (That doesn’t mean we should do foolish things like jumping off high places to test God, as Jesus makes clear).

I think the second mention of angels in the passage is beautiful. After Jesus dealt with Satan’s cruel nonsense, Satan skulked away, and “the angels came and attended him” (Mt. 4:11). It doesn’t say exactly what the angels did for Jesus, but he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for 40 days and nights and had no physical comfort or warmth in that barren place. My guess is that they attended to all of his physical needs, strengthening him to return to civilization and launch his ministry.

To amplify these aspects of the ministry of angels, I offer a few OT examples angelic intervention:

  • Lot would have been burnt toast if the angels had not warned him to flee the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Jacob found a new identity and became a true worshiper of God through his encounters with angels.
  • In spite of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness, God remained faithful and dispatched his angels: “Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat” (v.25).
  • Psalm 103 reveals that God’s angels are “mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word” (v.20).  
  • Job’s story shows us that angels (including Satan and his contingent) have the ability to “present themselves before the Lord and converse with him” (Job 1:6; 2:1). They are in a position to serve him because they can draw near to hear his instruction.

So, we see that angels are God’s created supernatural beings that:

  • Can manifest themselves to humans in a variety of ways
  • Are messengers and ministers who serve humans in a variety of ways
  • Are not to be worshipped, but are to be taken seriously and obeyed, because they represent God

I invite you to reflect on times in your life when an angel may have intervened to deliver a message, protect you from harm, or provide a need as an agent of God’s sovereignty and goodness. Like me, you may not be able to prove that it was an angel, but it is worthwhile to consider. Be assured that Scripture attests to God’s employment of angels throughout all of human history, to deliver guidance, provision, strength, and protection to the “heirs of salvation.” That is us, his beloved children.

Next time, we’ll look at the specific functions of angels in our current age of grace, in behalf of individuals and the church. We will look at what angels know, and what they don’t know, what they do, and what they don’t do.

I will never exalt angels above the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. There are several NT warnings about this because overemphasis on angels has historically been one path toward doctrinal corruption.

Angels are important and powerful, but they are ultimately servants who worship with us at the throne of God.


[1] “angel,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/eastons-bible-dictionary/Angel

The Pursuit of “Destiny”

My friend Les responded to one of my recent emails in which I asked readers to challenge me with study and blogging suggestions. He shared that he is currently pondering the concept of a person’s individual destiny in God.

Do we have a distinct individual destiny that exists within our souls and is progressively revealed as we live and grow? Or is destiny something that we find outside ourselves and must work to achieve as an endpoint to our walk with God? How do we understand this idea of destiny on a practical level? How might it inform the way in which we live?

I thanked Les and told him I’d love to see what the Bible says about destiny. No doubt lots of philosophers and theologians have pondered this idea for ages. Merriam Webster provides one definition, “a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency.”1 But as you know, my primary interest is in discovering how Scripture comes to life on every question.

               First of all, it’s important to note that the word destiny does not occur in the King James Bible, and the corresponding Greek word is not found in the New Testament. “Destiny” was the name of a pagan god and is associated in Islam and Stoicism with the idea of fate, “a blind, purposeless force, rather than providence, foresight, and wise planning.2

An initial concordance search for the word destiny in the NIV is revealing. Bible Gateway presents Jeremiah 29:11 as the only positive verse that relates to the concept of destiny. But this verse, known and loved by many, doesn’t even contain the word!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This familiar verse tells us that God has plans that are good. In this context (always essential to consider!), his plan was revealed to the prophet and addressed to a group of Hebrews about to be exiled to Babylon. It is not a prophecy of an individual destiny.

Also, this is not a disembodied, other-worldly prophecy. Rather, it reveals a continuation of God’s redemption story in a real time and place. God is speaking history before it happens. And he makes no mention of individual destinies. God declares that as his covenant people, the Israelites will prosper, increase in numbers, bless the land and people where they sojourn, and eventually be returned to their homeland. Their destiny is embedded in God’s perfect plan for them.

The same source cited above implies that destiny can be broadly interpreted as a biblical concept in the sense that, “God sees the end from the beginning. He has appointed a destiny for the Christian, for the unbeliever, for Israel, and for other nations. But instead of the word ‘destiny,’ the Bible speaks of providence, predestination, and last things or eschatology.

Interestingly, all of the references in the NIV that do include the English word destiny have a negative connotation. One, in Philippians 3:18-19 delivers a dire warning about the destiny of the wicked and rebellious, the carnally minded who deny and despise God.

“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”

The Apostle Paul only speaks this one time about destiny, and it is the destiny of the wicked, not the destiny of the righteous.

There is a parallel Old Testament reference in Psalm 73, and I’d like to hang out there for a minute to explore the context fully. The psalmist Asaph is troubled about the apparent prosperity of the wicked. He laments that he has had all kinds of lack and struggle in life despite his devotion to God, and wonders if it’s worth it:

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. (v.13-14).

In contrast, he observes, those who ignore or defy God seem to have an easy time of it:

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. (v. 4-5).

 But then he comes into the manifest presence of God, and gets a golden revelation:

“…I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (v.17-18).

As for Asaph, he turns his lament into thanks and praise:

“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v.23-26).

While the wicked will eventually come into a very dark and unfortunate destiny, lovers of God like Asaph (and hopefully, you and me), have the comforting awareness of God’s presence and guidance in this earthly life, and the promise of glory to come. Our destiny as believers is to live in this reality day after day. We look to God to be our strength and are satisfied with the portion we are given.

This is a very humbling view of the concept of destiny. It speaks to my heart that I am to endeavor to remain faithful to God, each day finding the next right thing to do, and doing it. Whatever gifts or talents he has bestowed upon me, I’m to use them diligently, with the heart of a servant. My individual destiny only matters as it pertains to trusting God and giving glory to him, one day at a time.

I could perhaps give a more encouraging pop psychology interpretation of the idea of destiny, or even try to put an evangelical positive spin on the concept, but I find these Scriptures fully satisfying in themselves.

Does God have good plans and purposes for us? Absolutely! His plan is to lavish love upon us as we follow his commandments to love him and serve one another. His purpose is that his name would be thoroughly known and praised throughout the earth, “as the waters cover the seas” (Hab. 2:14).

               I don’t discount or ignore the reality that individuals have very different paths, and sometimes it appears that we are subject to an inscrutable set of circumstances outside of our control. This can feel like what the pagans called fate or destiny, or even, luck. We can also get very concerned about whether we are living the right kind of life, the one we were “destined” for.

But as Asaph came to understand, it is not wise or healthy to get too hung up on this. We are instead to remember how good our God is, and what pleases him. We are to steadfastly pursue his good purposes to the best of our ability, whether we feel immediately rewarded for it or not. We live honorably and worshipfully and leave the rest to him.

             We cling tightly to our hope of eternal life with him, which will be rewarding beyond measure. That is our destiny, and that, my friends, is destiny enough.

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/destiny

2 https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Destiny

3 Ibid.