Reflections From ECCLESIASTES 4: THE PREACHER’S DOWNWARD MUSINGS…Continued

The Preacher is quite pessimistic and the level of seeming despair is evident when he reasons after beholding the defenseless oppressed and those crushed by the strong and mighty:

“Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.(Vv.1-4)

The oppressed and their tears exacerbates the Preacher’s experience as he considers the lack of comfort the downtrodden receive, “…they had no one to comfort them…” and the power of those oppressing them.  The weak ruled by the mighty, the defenseless overcome by the strong, and bitterness is the soup of the needy.

The Preacher saw acts of oppression which caused him to conclude that the “dead” (v.2a) are better off than the living.  That’s pessimism on steroids, to congratulate the dead over against the oppressed, but the Preacher is not yet finished.  Not only are the dead praised for not being in the muck of life, but those who have never come into existence are better off than the dead.  How can one be better off than the oppressed and the dead if they aren’t or never have been?  In his view, to behold the evil his eyes have witnessed and the damage inflicted on the soul is so severe, that seemingly what can’t be—a knowing and non-existent knower—is better than the alternative of existing and thus suffering horrible ills.   

While there’s oppression and evil, there’s also liberty and goodness, but then again the gloom that looms over a life without God is acutely unbearable.  I have not experienced the evils many have through the annals of time, but I have experienced despair and wrestled with dark thoughts of suicide because of suffering.  For the follower of Jesus, under such circumstances, Paul reminds us that God is working on our behalf behind the scenes:

28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”   (Romans 8:28-30)

So, when despair seems to be swallowing you up believer, know that it is momentary and that the heavenly Father, has not abandoned you, but is rather working through the pain to make you more like Jesus.

To the non-believer or skeptic, my suggestion is for you to investigate the claims of Christ to see whether or not they make sense to you.  For of all the authorities that command us how to live, only Christ Jesus claimed to be the uncreated creator who is self-existent and conquered the grave through the resurrection.  To dismiss his claims, which came through eyewitness accounts as mere fantasy, is not only pedestrian but a brazen refusal to behold the immense evidence to support his claims.

LORD, when darkness comes remind us that you truly are our light, that a life without you truly is meaningless, ugly, cold, and gray.  Teach us to look to you when suffering seems too unbearable and grant the grace required for us to finish the race set before us as we look to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.

(SDG)

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Reflections From ROMANS 13:1-2 “RULERS, SUBJECTS, & GOD’S PROVIDENCE”

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In this chapter Paul seems to be continuing his message to believers of their need to walk in love with believers and toward outsiders.  Now he addresses the issue of government rulers and how believers are to relate to them for loves sake.  Paul begins:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

 Paul grounds the duty of believers specifically in how they relate to authorities on God’s existence and seemingly on His wise decree.  The fact that any ruler exists is not a Darwinian phenomenon, but a reality grounded in the God who is there and who is not silent—the governing authorities being proof positive of that.

Since God exists, and all authority ultimately is grounded in Him, Paul seems to be saying that God gives authority to rule to whomever He wishes, according to the wise counsel of His will and according to His good pleasure which fuels all His deeds.  One might rightly object “not all rulers are created equal or worthy to be morally followed”.  The polytheistic Roman rulers were not particularly empathetic to believers, but often ruthlessly mistreated Christians for their faith.  Paul knew this well when penning this letter and I can’t see him being any clearer.  Let’s wind back the clock of history for a moment.

In redemptive history, we observe God implicitly or explicitly raising-up rulers and monarchs in order to accomplish His purposes.  These purposes are often hidden to us until after the fact.  Pharaoh, Saul, David, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Cesar, and more were never ultimate, God always was and is and ever will be (See The Book of Daniel).  That is, in the hidden wisdom of God He exalts a ruler for a time and purpose known only to God, so that His over-arching redemptive plan for humanity and the entire created order may come to fruition.

In this mix are a whole lot of human tragedy, pain and suffering (i.e., Problem of Evil) which call into question both God’s existence, power, wisdom and goodness.  And yet none of these realities mute God’s voice through Paul.

Since this letter is written to believers, I take “every person” to mean that specifically believers are to heed the command and because of God’s mercy and grace that has been poured out on them through Christ, this submission to authorities is a means to demonstrate the love previously mentioned.  Moreover, it’s a way to placard that the Creator is alive and well in the affairs of men.  Paul continues with:

Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

He understands very well that many rulers are evil and the inclination to revolt against them is real and understandable…if God did not exist and He was not ultimately in charge.  But what is meant by “resist”?  The word that follows it is probably a good definition of it: “opposed”.  That is, to resist is to oppose, to be against the ruler and hate Gods ordinance.

Somehow Paul is saying that even if a ruler is evil, God is ultimate, not chance, luck, or human desire.  And thus, instead of revolting or being against the ruler, the believer is to submit understanding that God is ultimately ruling through the ruler. Some may object, but this is what seems logical to me according to the text.  The command given to “not resist” comes with a warning of God’s condemnation on the transgressor.

What is this condemnation?  We already know that believers are no longer under God’s condemnation because they have been justified by faith once for all according to chapter 8.  Could it be that those who resist are walking according to the flesh (for all sin is that) and not according to the Spirit?  Perhaps, and if that’s the case does it show that the one in rebellion is actually not regenerate, maybe?

The core of what I see being taught is not to have unquestioned loyalty and submission to a monarch by a believer (the following verses seem to argue against such a view) rather we are to understand that all authority comes from God who will hold to account every ruler for their actions whether good or evil and knowing this is what stays the believer from revolt.

(SDG)

Summary of CHAPTER TWELVE: THE GOD WHO GATHERS AND TRANSFORMS HIS PEOPLE [Pages 187-200]

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            In this chapter Carson first notes why scaling and measuring Christian commitment from nominalism to fanaticism is mischievous.  The reason is because the grace of God truly humbles us.  It is radically loving, forgiving, and generous.  That is because unlike other religions whose focus is on effort and moral improvement, such that the result is self-righteous, bigoted, over-confident, condescending people, Christianity is different when one is biblically faithful.

For Christianity underscores the fact of grace that transforms a Biblically faithful living out of the regenerated life where salvation is by grace, and is based on Christ’s work on our behalf, not on our own achievements.  This changes everything!  Even though true Christians have done awful things (e.g., Crusades, Slavery, etc.), it’s the very Christian message previously ignored that challenged and eventually toppled these enterprises.[1]  Christianity has often apologized for the Crusades but Islam has not.

Second, Carson considers the fact that something has to be ultimate.  If God is not ultimate then it will be the creature’s creation; be it the State, the Dictator, or any other idea. The reason for this is our “mannishness” which is designed to worship the Creator and when He is not then inevitably the image bearer concocts something to worship. 

            The gospel calls out people, gathers them together, and transforms them.  Thus, any so-called Christianity that does not incorporate the aforesaid reality into its vision, is not worthy of the name it carries.  For according to Ephesians 2:8-10 believers are saved by grace through faith in order to do the good works God prepared for them to walk in.  This means that new birth necessarily produces the fruit of the “new creation,” and while good works don’t secure our salvation, they attest to the genuineness of it.  Transformation must occur!

            Third, Carson considers whether or not one can be a biblically faithful Christian and separate themselves entirely from a local church.  He answers absolutely not and rightly so!  Consider Paul’s take in (Ephesians 2:11-22):

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

             The church is God’s household where we are being built up into a holy temple where Christ Jesus is the chief cornerstone.  In the Old Testament circumcision was the mark pointing to the one who belonged to the redeemed community.  In the New Testament baptism is the initiation one receives in order to join the ChurchThis is flows from the reality of new-birth in the early church.

In this community God speaks, sanctifies, transforms, and puts many into leadership positions.  The church is not a building, but rather the gathered people of God.  Thus, Biblically faithful churched people (while not perfectly) are the people of God who reflect His character among themselves and the world.

            Fourth, Carson speaks to the reasons for why Christians are moved to obey from a posture of gratitude for what Christ has done.    He points out that looking at things is utterly transforming because they force us to see that empty handed we came to the cross and filled with treasure we leave.  Where we once thirsted, now we are satisfied and this is apart from anything we do or bring, because it’s all based on what Christ has done and given to us—new creation! (Eph. 4:17-5:10)

            And while moral structures are definitely here, they are never nor ever can be the basis for gratitude when we see the gospel exemplified on Calvary’s cross.  We’ve been so deeply forgiven, how can we hold a grudge?  We’ve been given the Spirit securing our future inheritance how then can we be stingy and clinch to fleeting treasure? We are destined to be with Almighty God Forever!  Hence, everything changes!

            Fifth, Carson considers why greed is labeled idolatry.  The reason is because what you most want becomes your god.  It displaces God who is ultimate, it makes me long for that which is contingent, finite, and at the end of the day—what will fail me!  It’s the looking for our identity in someone or something other than God, that’s why it’s labeled greed.

            Sixth, Carson accentuates that for the Christian suffering is both a privilege and a sign of grace.  Suffering transforms our attitudes when we obey Jesus’ command to follow him, “take up your cross and follow me”.  This is stunning and too often utterly missed in the church.  Crucifixion was brutal, it was torture. (Mt. 16:24).  Death to self-interest is the point.  Though most of us will not be tortured for our faith, all of us face the issue of saying to God, “My will, not Yours’ be done, sorry–God”.  The scripture reveals that it’s been granted to us not only to believe on Christ but also to suffer on his behalf (Phil.1:29).

Both belief and suffering are equally gifts from God to us.  This is so counter-intuitive that unless it were so clear, I would today still miss it as I read these same words early in my Christianity and just glossed over them as impertinent to my situation.  Amy Carmichael and Jacob DeShazer have stories that depict a life of self-sacrifice where self-pity was not nurtured, but the transforming power that the gospel brings was exemplified.

            Seventh, Carson reflects on John Newton’s life and the lesson we can learn from him.  It goes something like, “that while I sin and do fall down, The Lord does lift me from the ground, And while I hate the sin I see, I’m not the man I used to be, For grace has given me new life, And when in death I close my eyes, Christ’s loving arms will be my prize.  That’s profound.

[1] I don’t think that all of the Crusaders were evil, but those who in their activity crossed the boundaries between what is clearly contra Christ’s teaching to hate what is evil and cling to that which is good.  See Rodney Starks book,  GOD’S BATTALIONS: The Case for the Crusades, © 2009 by Rodney Stark, Harper One, Harper Collins Publishing Company, New York, NY

Reflections From ROMANS 8:20-39 “COMPARING PRESENT SUFFERINGS WITH FUTURE GLORY IS INCOMPARABLE”

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Paul here seems to springboard from (v.18) to the end of the chapter concerning our suffering.  As God’s children, our suffering entails fighting the remaining sin but that again does not disqualify us as children because the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we indeed are God’s children:

14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” 

             Now, Paul argues that the sufferings we presently experience are not comparable to the glory in the future to be revealed in us: 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  He then goes on to explain the multifaceted aspects of this glory which is first a creation that’s set right again (Vv.19-25).  Secondly, this glory will be brought about by the Spirit’s intercession for us and the creation (Vv.26-30).  And finally, no one or thing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Vv.31-39).  Several observations are of note.

First, present sufferings are bearable in light of the hope we presently possessOne ploy demonic spirits use to paralyze believers is to veil this future glory with hardships and often what results is despair.  Paul is saying to the believer, “Don’t despair, because the eternal glory to be revealed is worth the pain you are momentarily suffering”.  Many people abandon their pursuit of God because of pain and suffering.  There’s a breaking point where the creature deems God not worthy to be trusted.   Yet, true believers are to press through and trust God in hope.

Biblically, the term “hope” is not wishful thinking but rather it’s a confident expectation in God’s word of promise.  Consider what Paul says:

 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”   

I take this to mean that when God gave over Adam and Eve for the lesser glory of the creation over against that of the Creator, the result of this sin was the entire damaging of the created order.  This brought a slavery to futility (i.e., things were no longer in harmony with their intended design and the Designer) but were and remain at war with Him.

Secondly, God had a plan to rectify the chaos in hope.   Even though this war obtains, God gave over to sin Adam and Eve in hope.  That is, He had a plan to restore the catastrophic results of sin caused by His children’s rebellion and is the proof the rest of creation will once again come into order.  The chaos will be dealt with as Paul continues:

22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

By “groans” I take Paul to be saying that the creation also suffers because of sin and the pain is likened to “child birth”.  I understand this to mean that the pain will be worth the wait because of the life which awaits us.  Now when Paul says, “we await our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”, he seems to indicate that that already as children of God, a future word of promise is yet to be fulfilled.  Moreover, this includes resurrected bodies not subject to death or corruption or futility as the rest of creation has experienced.

Third, Paul accentuates how this hope will be realized.  The apostle now transitions from the previous state of affairs to inform us how all this hope will be realized through the Spirit’s intercession which is always in line with God’s will:

26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  

We have divine help from beginning to end, for the Spirit prays for us because we lack the requisite knowledge on how to properly pray and thus explains God’s purpose in salvation for His present and future children (Vv.28-30).

Why can we trust in future glorification?  The reason is because Christ’s past mortification of death on the cross and resurrection to new life has been won by the Master (Vv.31-36).  Paul says that regardless of life’s circumstances (and they can sometimes be unbearable), because of Christ’s love for us, we are thus super conquerors (Vv.37-39).

Those who are in Christ are no longer under the sentence of death, yet suffering is real and painful.  Nevertheless, suffering is momentary and it’s pain can’t compare to the glory that awaits believers and the creation, where we anticipate our resurrected bodies and the creation is set right.  Thus, we can bank on God’s word of promise of “hope” because forever his word is settled in heaven.  Let God be true and every man a liar—that contradicts Him! (SDG)