Heaven or Countryside?

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21-24 ESV). Let’s look at an illustration that will help us see why I think it is important to see the difference between just reading the Scripture and praying for open eyes when we read it. In our reading today, Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Suppose some careless reader knew that Paul was in Rome and assumed Paul meant that his desire was to depart from Rome and be with Christ in a more rural, peaceful place than the dangerous urban center of the empire. And suppose the reader feels that this is a wonderful thought, full of sweet implications about the value of nature and peacefulness for the soul’s refreshment. Well, he would be wrong. First, the basic meaning is simply wrong. Paul did not intend to say anything about departing from Rome to the countryside, or about the value of rural peacefulness. He intended to say that he desired to depart this life and be with Christ in heaven. So, if we read this verse in the former interpretation we would simply miss Paul’s intention. But it gets worse. On the basis of the wrong meaning, we would also a kind of glory that was not there. We would feel a wonder about peaceful, rural living for the refreshment of the human soul. That feeling has no basis in this text. Paul has seen something he would call glorious or wonderful. But that glory and wonder are not in his earthly surroundings. Here’s the point. When the psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (v. 18), he did not mean that the sight of wonders could skip the natural process of careful reading. Therefore, prayer does not take the place of careful interpretation. Prayer serves careful interpretation. We pray not just for the sight of glory, but for the help in grasping the meaning through which the glory shines. This is a part of what the Holy Spirit is tasked to accomplish in our lives. The way God illumines the text is by showing what is really there. This means that when we want to make a case for how we understand a text, we must show what is really there. One good, solid grammatical argument for what the text means outweighs every assertion that the Holy Spirit told me the meaning. The reason that statement is not irreverent is that it takes more seriously the glorious work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the grammar than it does the subjective experiences of an interpreter who ignores it. Pray your way through the reading of the Bible. You won’t go far wrong with...

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Wondrous Things

Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me! (Psalm 119:17-19 ESV). Isn’t it curious that the psalmist asks God to “open his eyes” so he could actually see the wondrous things of God? It would seem that they would be so apparent that no one could miss them. Just open the Bible and read from any passage and you certainly will see these wondrous things, right? Unfortunately we have all known what it is like to read without seeing “wondrous things.” We have stared at the most glorious things without seeing them as glorious. We have seen unspeakable love without feeling loved. We have seen immeasurable wisdom and felt no admiration. We have seen the holiness of wrath and felt no trembling. We have all seen without seeing. The reason for this is that all too often we don’t combine our seeing with the act of God-dependent prayer. God has made plain that the path to seeing his peculiar glory is prayer. I often wonder at the end of a day how much I may have missed of the glory and wisdom of God simply by failing to be in a position of constant relational communication with God. I like the way James put it: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). This is especially true with specific revelation. True understanding of the apostolic word is a free gift of God. We do not find it on our own. It is given. Understanding the Scripture ought to be one of the simplest of tasks. Yet, we so often find it confusing and difficult. Let me be more specific and practical. When we pray for God to show us his glory in the Scripture, we are not asking him to bypass the meaning of the text, but to open the fullness of the author’s meaning. Therefore, in our quest to see and experience the glory of God in Scripture, we pray for his help to understand the basic meaning of the words. Glory does not hover over the text like a cloud to be seen separately from what the authors intended to communicate. It shines in and through what they intended to communicate, which is their meaning. Even this is not quite the way to say it, because the glory is part of what they intended to communicate. But I think it is helpful to distinguish the basic meaning of a passage, on the one hand, and the worth and beauty of the message, on the other hand. I know they are not really separable. And both are part of what the author wants us to experience. Tomorrow we’ll look at a clear illustration of that; however, today make the commitment to be intentional about seeing the wonder of God in everything, especially the Scripture. You will not be sorry for that...

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More Than I Can Handle (Part 2)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV). Yesterday we looked at the Apostle Paul’s declaration that we would not be given more than we can handle. I spent some time looking at the definition and importance of the word “we.” I brought us to the conclusion that it is a clear reference to the help we receive through the merciful, sovereign grace of God. We cannot be independent from the power of God’s help in any situation of life. The next question raised in Paul’s statement is “What does ‘handle’ mean?’ Does it mean we never stumble or never fail? Well, the answer is, “no.” It doesn’t mean that. If we had perfect reliance on all that he is for us in Christ, we would pass every test glowingly. But God does not promise that kind of perfect reliance on his omnipotent grace. The promise is better understood in that we will always have with every test an escape and when he says that we will have grace for every good work. And I think what is promised is ultimately this: He will never let us so stumble or so fail that we don’t recover and repent and are restored. In other words, he will never let us sin our way into apostasy and damnation. He will enable us to bear the fruits of genuine faith and perseverance to the end. God will never give his people trials in which he will not sustain them and bring them through to everlasting glory. Our reading today is very clear at that point. Peter said, “By God’s power [we] are being guarded through faith for a salvation” (v. 5). God’s power is guarding me. He won’t let me fail in any test utterly. Remember who is writing that truth. This is the same Peter who so utterly failed the night Jesus was arrested. Yet Jesus comes to him after the resurrection and reassures him of His love for him and His calling to him. So, here’s my conclusion: God will never give us more than we can handle. That is Scripturally accurate if we mean God will never give his people trials in which he will not sustain them and bring them through to everlasting glory. We will be enabled to do all we must do to get there. That is the ultimate hope and assurance in this life. We can count on the mercy and grace of God in that wonderful promise of bringing us to our heavenly home he is in the process of preparing for us. Everything else is really temporary. It is but a momentary deviation from the perfect, eternal life he has planned and prepared for us. That enables me to handle anything that comes my way! That’s real good...

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More Than I Can Handle (Part 1)

Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:9-13 ESV). I am writing on Monday. I have several readers who have contacted me after some of the recent devotionals dealing with suffering and asked the question: Does God ever give us more than we can handle? Our reading today is often used to offer encouragement when someone is facing life challenges, sufferings, and trials. The general thought is that God will never allow anything into your life that you can’t handle. However, whether that is biblically correct depends on what we mean by “we” and “handle.” At the outset of this little series we should be very clear about one particular truth. If I survive any test or accomplish any work when I am tested, it is decisively grace, not decisively me. So, with that in mind, let’s look at what does “we” mean in our reading today. Does “we” mean God takes into account our independent possibilities based on our track record of handling trouble and, thus, measures out that trouble to us so that it doesn’t go beyond what “we” independently by our own resources can handle? Or, does “we” mean that we can handle it if we receive it by faith in divine assistance and that God knows what he himself will give us by grace in enabling us to handle what he gives us so he is not thinking of “we” as independent, but “we” as dependent on the grace that comes with the difficulty? When Paul says he won’t give what is beyond what you are able, he means, not beyond what you are able with God’s help. We know that because of a couple of other things he says. For example, he says, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” In other words, in every test or temptation, the question is, “Will I do what I ought to do?” (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:8). And Paul says, “There will be grace,” not just, “I am depending on you to use your resources without depending on grace.” “I am giving you grace so there will be grace to do it. But you are not independent of my powers to help.” And he said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:10). Let me say it again: If I survive...

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The Secret of Not Losing Heart (Part 4)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV). I collect comics. Both those developed through Action Comics and DC. One of the endearing series is that of The Justice League of America. The other that features a group of superheroes is The Avengers. Both are favorites of mine. The storyline is very familiar. There is some global threat that only this group of heroes can overcome. A climactic scene always shows the great battle fought to save humanity. As Christians we have the real story of the Savior of humanity at the heart of our faith. Yet we are often tempted to be discouraged in the face of suffering. So, let’s conclude this little series of devotionals with an example from the New Testament dealing with that very issue. Look at the death of John the Baptist. From one perspective it is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. We find him in prison simply because he publicly said that it was not lawful for King Herod to have his brother’s wife, Herodias. He sits in jail, wondering, is this how the kingdom is supposed to come? Herod throws a birthday party for himself. And for a little sexual bonus for the guests he has his step daughter dance. She was so pleasing that Herod promised whatever she wanted as a gift. She consults with Herodias her mother, who hates John the Baptist, and says, “The gift I want is the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (cf. Matthew 14:8). And in two simple verses, it is done. Imagine the thought going through his mind. He is sitting there in prison hoping for release to continue his ministry and his life. The door swings open, and there are two men, one with a sword. Then the executioner says, “Come over here and kneel. If you struggle, we will bind you.” “Why? What’s going on? What happened?” “They liked the king’s daughter’s dance, and she asked for your head.” And the last thing John is left thinking as his short life ends is: “A dance? A dance? My life for dance?” And everything in us wants to cry out against the seeming meaningless nature this act. Except for one thing: we have looked to the unseen. This seemingly irrational, pointless, meaningless murder of a great man is producing for him an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. It was not meaningless. At that moment eternity changed. A special, particular weight of glory was forged for John the Baptist forever. And so it will be for you. Therefore, do not lose heart. Look at this unseen, eternal weight of glory day by day, and be...

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The Secret of Not Losing Heart (Part 3)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV). Now, go back a bit with me. The basis of your day-by-day renewal and not losing heart is mainly unseen and eternal. The fallen nature and the fallen humanity oppress you and cause you to waste away. Those things are painfully visible. Don’t focus on them. If you do, you will be filled with despair. Look on the unseen. Look on the eternal. I have been privileged to see many beautiful landscapes. Perhaps the most majestic were to be seen when I visited Alaska and saw first-hand the Great Alaskan Range. Majestic is simply not adequate to describe their beauty. They took me to thoughts of the eternal nature of God and His promise of my immortality. That knowledge is a help in the midst of suffering. It helps me to see the unseen. This is what the apostle means when he tells us that we need not lose heart because we are being renewed day by day. We can know that this “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This is that which God is working to our good in every circumstance. All our affliction, even if it lasts a lifetime, is light and momentary and totally meaningful. So we do not lose heart. So the truth Paul wants us to put in our heads day by day so that we will be renewed and not lose heart is this: Compared to endless ages of ages, these seventy or eighty years are as nothing. Compared to the weight and greatness and wonder of the glory we will see and we will be, this inglorious, shameful, painful affliction is light. His yoke is easy and his burden, even a lifetime of affliction, is light. And remember this is Paul talking, not Don Emmitte. He had really suffered. And then comes what is perhaps the most amazing “because” of all: “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (v. 17). This glory, that God will show us and give us, is beyond imagination. That is what I mean by saying every moment of your affliction is meaningful. It has meaning. It is doing something. It is bringing about something glorious. You can’t see this. You are tempted to think, this suffering is meaningless. That’s what you feel if you focus on the “seen.” The apostle simply says, look to the things that are unseen. Nothing in your pain is meaningless. It is all preparing us for a weight of glory, a special glory. All of this comes because of that pain. So, I am prompted to not lose...

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