Plagues and the People of God

These are unprecedented times.  The world has come to a standstill, towering economies brought to their knees, social constructs completely disrupted – all because of the Coronavirus. The ethos of fear and anxiety has surpassed that of 9/11, and like those bleak and troubling days, we have no sense of when this will come to an end.

And yet, this is nothing new.  Last week I shared a video about how John Calvin and the Company of Reformed Pastors in Geneva responded to the plague in their day. The Church has, throughout its existence weathered the political, social, and physical storms of each generation with a witness to the Gospel and a shelter for the soul.

Knowing this, I turned to the Scriptures and did a quick search on plagues in the Bible, trusting that God’s Word would give us insight into the crisis we face even today, so that we might have a heart of wisdom and know how we should respond. Here’s a brief summary of what I found.

  • The Scriptures are very clear that plagues, famines, and sicknesses do in fact come from the hand of God. The first plague we read of in Genesis 12 was brought upon the people of Egypt by God to prevent them from abusing Sarai. After that, we read (Exodus 8-12) of the 10 plagues upon Egypt, through which God brought out His people from slavery. From that point, the majority of the plagues we read about in Scripture are upon the people of Israel, as in the case of the people’s rebellion with Korah (Numb 16), their grumbling about meat (Ex 32), or for their infidelity and immorality as they were led astray by Balaam (Numb 25 & 31).
    The Westminster Confession reminds us that “God the great creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of  his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
    To that end, we must come to understand that all things, even times of sickness and sorrow, come from the Sovereign will of God, who orders all things for the praise of his glory.  We must learn to see even pandemics such as this as God’s instruments through which He brings about His good and perfect will.
  • We know that the plagues against Egypt served to demonstrate that God is able to save His people, and to show that God alone is worthy to be worshiped and praise.  In Exodus 9:14 we read, “For this time I will send all my plagues on you (Egypt) yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” The plagues that come from God are the demonstration of His power and justice.
  • In Habakkuk 3:5, we read that when God makes Himself known, pestilence and plague come before and after, making His divine judgment upon the nations known. Likewise, in Zechariah 14, we are told that God will humble the nations that do not serve Him through plagues and punishment, so that every knee will bow in worship before the Lord.  This theme is picked back up in the book of Revelation, where in chapters 9 and 15-16, we read of the plagues of the judgment and wrath of God against the sinfulness of the world.

It is evident, through these passages, that God sends plagues upon the world as a demonstrated of His wrath and judgment of sin. But these aren’t the only times we read of plagues.

  • The majority of the plagues in the Old Testament are not directed toward the nations, but actually to the very people of Israel, the congregation of God’s people.  Here is a list of examples:
    • Ex 32 – A plague of the people of Israel because of the golden calf that Aaron made.
    • Num. 11:31-25 – When Israel complained of manna and insisted on meat, God sent quail to them, but brought a plague upon them while they were eating.
    • Num. 16 – Following Korah’s rebellion, the people complained that Moses had actually killed the rebels, and a plague broke out because of their grumbling.
    • Num. 25 – Called the sin of Peor, a plague came upon the people because of their immorality and infidelity.
    • Num. 31 – There was a plague on the congregation of Israel because many had been led astray by Balaam’s teaching.
    • 2 Sam 24/1 Chron 21 – A plague comes upon Israel because of David’s census.
  • These plagues are sent upon the people of God as discipline. The people were rebellious, unfaithful, and immoral, and God would correct them of their sin. The wrath of the Holy God of Israel  was visited upon His people when they sinned against Him.
  • Each time a plague comes upon the people, there is an intercession, by Moses or David, a prayer to relive the suffering of God’s people.

We see, then, through the Scriptures, that God sends plagues upon the land as a demonstration of His wrath against those that do not honor Him; but also to discipline His own people for their faithlessness, idolatry, and immorality.

But does this apply to this world-wide epidemic today? The circumstances may be different, but the principles remain the same.

This virus is not outside the bounds of God’s sovereign plan and design. This too will serve to bring Him glory, honor and praise. Even that which we consider evil, God will use for His good purpose.  Remember the story of Joseph, whose brothers sold Him into slavery. At the end, when he is reunited with his brothers, having saved them from the famine, he tells them, “What you intended for evil against me, God meant for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20).

We cannot know, in the midst of this trial, just what purpose God is working in these trials and challenges. We can, however, use this as an opportunity to repent and seek after Christ more and more.  The plagues came upon Israel because of their unfaithfulness to God, so that they may learn not to trust in false idols, but to worship God alone.  Our hearts are still prone to idolatry, and we must cast down the false gods that catch our eye, and look only to Christ, fixing our eyes upon Him.

We are different, however, from the people of Israel in one important point – we are redeemed, saved, and delivered from the wrath of God through Jesus Christ our Savior.  All the wrath of God for our sins was poured out upon Him, so that He has borne God’s judgment and punishment in our place.  We need not be terrified of the plague of God’s wrath, for Christ has become the plagued for us.

That does not mean that we will not still come under the discipline of God, for as a loving father disciplines his son, so our Heavenly Father disciplines those whom He loves that they may share His holiness (Hebrews 12:6-11).  God may use this time to wean us from the things of this world that were competing for His glory and attention.  God will refine and recreate His people in the image of His Son, and this time of upheaval may be just one of the means through which He chooses to bring that about.

In all, let us look to our Sovereign God, who cares for His people, and will never let them out of His hand. Let us trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation and peace. And, as the Holy Spirit moves upon us, let us grow in holiness and devotion to the Lord.

SDG

A Labor of Love

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

(Acts 2:42)

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this passage taught as the model for Church ministry – and rightfully so.  This example of the early Church’s daily practice of life together reveals the essential marks of the Christ’s body.  What is the Church if it is not centered around the teaching of the Word of God, with genuine fellowship among believers who care for and build up one another, the regular and proper administration of the Sacraments, and faithful, passionate, and Spirit-filled prayer?  Countless books and conferences have given attention to this passage, seeking to keep the Church grounded in those “means of grace” through which God has long-blessed His people.

Yet something struck me as a I re-read the passage today: As often as I’ve heard this passage extolled to the leaders of the church, highlighting these essential four marks, how often have we stopped to consider what is being said about the members of the congregations? We rightly focus on the fact that the leaders of the Church (teaching and ruling elders) need to keep us grounded on these four marks, but do we give enough attention to the role of those who are being led?

Consider what Acts 2:42 says, “they devoted themselves…”  The people of the church, not just the leaders, gave themselves to these practices, devoted themselves to these means.  This word, “devotion”, deserves some consideration.

In it’s simplest form, “devotion” means diligence, commitment to, or endurance.  It suggests an intent to follow through on a decision, I have devoted myself to this task… So, in one sense, devotion is a labor, a work, that we must be dedicated to perform.

Now, before the “works-righteousness” alarms start going off, please understand that I don’t mean that we must do this in order to merit salvation.  Scripture clearly teaches that we are “saved by grace through faith… it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8-9).  That being said, God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ does not exempt us from doing good works, it actually enables us to those works (Eph 2:10).  When I say that we must commit ourselves to the work of studying the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to partake in the sacraments rightly, and to prayer, I am talking about the discipline and duty of the Christian in ongoing growth and life in the Spirit.

Another aspect of this word “devotion,” however, is that of the heart.  Devotion doesn’t just suggest commitment and dedication, but also love and adoration.  Devotion implies a heartfelt passion.  Devotion cannot be a plodding through the God-given means of grace of study, fellowship, sacrament, and prayer as though these were burdens to be carried out.  Devotion is a joy-filled, Christ-centered love for God and for the blessings known in sweet communion with Him.  It is a commitment to the Lord because of a delight in the Lord.  It is a labor, yes.  But it is a labor of love!

For the church to thrive, she must practice these marks, these are god’s gracious means give for our growth.  As leaders we must never abandoned the principles of Acts 2:42.  But this passage is meant to go beyond a Church ministry model.  It speaks to the heart of every believer.  We must, each of us, be devoted, to seek out the Lord and delight in His presence.

May you know and grow in the joy and delight in devotion to the Lord!

SDG

Slow Growth in a Fast World

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
(1 John 3:2-3)

Waiting is difficult when we in a digital society.  We get frustrated today because our movie takes a couple of minutes to download, forgetting that we used to have to actually drive to the store, pick out what’s available on the shelf, and hope that the person who watched it before you did the whole “be kind, rewind” thing on the VHS tape. We have convinced ourselves that everything we really need should come quickly and effortlessly, and when it doesn’t, something must be wrong.

The reality is, the things that have true, lasting value in our lives take time. Athletes know there are no shortcuts to success; champions only grow over time through hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. Financial success happens only through discipline, delayed gratification, and long-term planning.  Healthy relationships take time, energy, and effort to maintain; they don’t just happen.  Anything worth having requires dedication, effort, and patience.

This goes for our own maturity in our Christian walk. Growth in the Christian life doesn’t just happen, and it certainly doesn’t happen quickly.   Simply growing older doesn’t bring maturity in faith and understanding.  We say we want to grow in our faith and understanding, but are we ready to put in the work that is required for this growth to happen.

  • We pray for patience, and God will put us in situations where patience is required.
  • We pray for wisdom, and God will put us in situations where we must lean on His Word.
  • We pray for faith, and God puts us in situations where we are racked with doubts and must learn to trust Him.

The living out of our faith in Christ is a slow, laborious process.  There is never a plateau in the Christian journey, never a time when we have “arrived.”  God is always working in us to bring us more into the likeness of Christ.

We are God’s children now, John says in our text today, but we are not yet what we shall be.  By faith we trust that we have been united with Christ, justified in the eyes of God, covered by the righteousness of Christ.  Even so, we continue to grow, trusting in the inward working of God’s Holy Spirit.  Working toward that growth, we make use of the means that God has given:

  • Regular Worship and sitting under faithful Teaching of God’s Word,
  • Daily Study and Reflection on Scripture,
  • Prayer – praising God, repenting of our sins, seeking His grace to guide you.

Somedays it seems like we’re making little to no headway.  Instead of growing, we feel like we’re falling behind. But don’t give up!  Watching your children grow every day you often don’t notice the changes.  But when the Grandparents come to visit, what’s the first thing they say? “Look how you’ve grown!”  God works His transforming grace often in slow, immeasurable ways, but in the end His work is perfect and complete.

As John’s letter says, everyone who hopes in the coming of Christ purifies himself as Christ is pure.  Knowing who we are, and who Christ is making us to be, keep striving toward that goal of Christ-likeness until He appears and we are made like Him.

SDG

The Delight of Discipline

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you…”
James 4:8

For the past couple of weeks now I have been struggling to write for this blog. I’ve got a couple of good articles started (and a whole lot of bad ones too), but I never felt particularly inspired nor satisfied with what I had written. Being in a new church, a new denomination, a new community; there is so much to learn and take in that I just haven’t yet found the rhythm of writing.

I suppose that’s where the discipline has to kick in. When I don’t feel like writing, I need to write. Even if it’s just a paragraph, even if it never sees the light of day, the practiced discipline of daily writing – formulating a coherent thought and communicating it in an understandable way – will eventually bring me to the point where writing feels more natural and comes a lot easier.

The same goes for my running – which hasn’t been happening either. When I don’t feel like running, I need to run. The routine of going to bed on time so that I can get up early for a run, lacing up the shoes and hitting the road – even on those days I really don’t want to do it – builds a love for the run and a desire to keep going.

This is the beauty of Discipline. The practiced, purposeful, and dedicated commitment to a task, even when the heart isn’t there yet, will ultimately lead to heartfelt participation.

The same is true of the Spiritual Disciplines.  When I don’t feel like praying, I need to pray.  When my heart is not inclined to worship and praise before the Lord, I need to come before Him in worship and praise. When I’m tired of reading Scripture, when I think there’s nothing more to be gained, I need to take up and read.

We often disparage discipline because we think it takes the heart out of the experience: You’re only reading Scripture and praying because its on your schedule. That may be the case, but daily reading of God’s Word will develop a love for God’s Word and a desire to spend more time in it. Regular times of prayer and devotion before the Lord, even using a book of written prayers and traditional hymns, will lead to spontaneous moments of heartfelt praise.

Consider Charles Spurgeon’s message on “Pray without Ceasing”:

If for awhile the heavens are as brass and your prayer only echoes in thunder above your head, pray on; if month after month your prayer appears to have miscarried, and no reply has been vouchsafed to you, yet still continue to draw nigh unto the Lord. Do not abandon the mercy-seat for any reason whatever. If it be a good thing that you have been asking for, and you are sure it is according to the divine will, if the vision tarry wait for it, pray, weep, entreat, wrestle, agonise till you get that which you are praying for. If your heart be cold in prayer, do not restrain prayer until your heart warms, but pray your soul unto heat by the help of the everblessed Spirit who helpeth our infirmities. If the iron be hot then hammer it, and if it be cold hammer it till you heat it.

My heart may not be in it – the writing, the running, the reading, the praying. My heart and my mind may be wrestling and divided, but I will continue to pray, worship, and attend to God’s Word until I can do so with One heart and One mind.

Why? Because these things: worship, meditation on God’s word, and prayer are some of the ordinary means of grace.  They are the instruments that God uses to work His grace within us, to transform and conform us in the likeness of Christ.  The more we come to these means, the more we rest in His grace, the more we live and love in grace.

As I daily return to the ordinary means of grace, as I encounter Him where He has promised to meet me, it seems less like discipline, less like duty, and more and more like delight.

And so keep reading, even if the words seem to bounce around inside your head and never take root.  Keep praying, even though it feels like the words don’t leave the room. Keep praising, even through the tears. He is near, His grace is at hand, and He is sufficient.

May the grace of faithful discipline bring joy and peace to your heart!

SDG

Guilt is Not A Fruit of the Spirit

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
(Psalm 119:10–11)

“The road to godliness is one of discipline, and discipline doesn’t come naturally to most.”
Bill Hull, Choose the Life

One of the great goals of the Christian life is that we are to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom 8:29), that we would “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:15), to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” 2 Peter 3:18.  This growth in the likeness of Christ is only possible by the inward working power of God’s Holy Spirit, but the Spirit uses and supplies many spiritual graces, helps for our life of faith and maturity in Christ.

These graces, or Spiritual Disciplines, are vast.  We have the opportunity to come together as a congregation for worship and prayer. We have the signs of grace in the sacraments to aid us in our walk with the Lord. We are all literate people, and have the advantage of mass-produced copies of God’s word: every home has multiple copies of the Bible, and now you can have the Scriptures on your Smart-Phone, tablet, and mp3 player. There are endless opportunities for service, prayer, giving.  All of these are gifts given from God as disciplines intended to help you mature in your faith and understanding, as you grow in love for God and one another, and are transformed in the likeness of Christ.

The road to godliness is one of discipline, using the means of grace that have been given for our growth and strength.  We are to daily take up our cross, to die unto ourselves and to live unto Christ. The problem is, like diet and exercise, for most of us, discipline does not come naturally.  We want to be like Christ, and we love the idea of worshipping regularly, of reading the Bible daily, of serving more readily. But when it comes to actually doing it, the demands of work and family come crashing in. I’d go and visit my neighbor, but I don’t know what to say, and my favorite TV show is about to come on, so maybe tomorrow…

We have good intentions when it comes to Spiritual Discipline, but the implementation is difficult.  Add to that the fact that our enemy doesn’t want you to be disciplined and to grow in grace.  Satan would rather have you “spiritually soft” and undisciplined, stewing in the regrets of unfulfilled commitments, struggling with the doubts of despairs of an undisciplined heart and mind.

Friends, the purpose of taking on Spiritual Disciplines like daily reading scripture, prayer, fasting, service, etc, is not to make you feel guilty about the times when you neglect the spiritual disciplines.  The purpose is to make you more like Christ, to lead you away from reliance upon yourself – your own wisdom, strength, and even tenacity – and turn ever more to the perfect wisdom, the perfect strength, the perfect faithfulness of God.

Rest assured, the disciplines are hard work, they take time, and we will all, at one point or another, fail in our efforts to be disciples.  The original 12 disciples often failed in their discipleship. But the point was, they kept following.  When many would be followers of Jesus left Him because of some very difficult teaching, He turned to the 12 and said, “Will you leave me too?” Peter replied, “Where else shall we go to find the words of life?”

If you made a plan to read a chapter of the Bible every day, and then one day wake up and realize it’s been a week since you’ve last read, don’t be overcome by guilt and shame and just give up altogether. Turn to Jesus, admit your lack of discipline, then pick up and read. Seek His grace today. Sit at His feet and learn from His word.

If you want to grow in prayer but struggle to pray, then plead with God would put a passion for prayer in your heart. The desire to pray is a prayer in and of itself. Don’t despair that you cannot go more than two minutes in prayer without your mind wandering. Pray through the wanderings, then come back to prayer in praise.

I will say it again: Guilt is not a fruit of the Spirit. Discouragement is never the product of close communion with Christ.  Do not despair if you are not where you want to be.  Keep putting yourself in the place where growth will occur. Stop dwelling on the things you haven’t done, or you struggle to maintain some self-imposed standard. Rest in the grace of God, trust in His steadfast love, keep running back to the nail-pierced hands of Christ who died for your disbelief and rose for your righteousness.

SDG

Ethan’s Aphorisms

“Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight…”
(Proverbs 4:1)

Rather than my usual “devotional” writing this week, I thought I’d share some of the little proverbs that I’ve been jotting down as they come to me in my study time.  I call them: Ethan’s Aphorisms.

  • A pastor should never complain about his congregation.  All their faults and failures may be precisely what God is using in his sanctification.
  • A congregation should never complain about their pastor.  All his faults and failures may be precisely what God is using in their sanctification.
  • Those who leave a church because they don’t get along with the congregation or the pastor eventually find their problems follow them.
  • Rather than complain about something, pray for something.
  • Love covers a multitude of sin. (Okay, that’s not mine, but it is still good.)
  • The lack of prayer reveals a lack of faith.
  • The desire to pray is prayer itself.
  • Distractions in prayer may be promptings to pray.
  • The one who is most ready to live in Heaven is best suited to serve on earth.
  • What you believe has tremendous effect on how you live.
  • How you live ultimately reveals what you believe.
  • If you don’t know what you believe, you don’t really don’t believe it.
  • If you don’t read the Bible, you are likely not living according to the Bible.
  • A husband who will not put his wife before himself will not put Christ before himself.
  • A wife who will not submit to her husband will not submit to Christ.
  • Your child’s relationship with you is a good indication of your relationship with God.
  • A Christian’s trials are never the wrath of a judging God.  Christ has borne that wrath.  A Christian’s trials are the fruitful discipline of our loving Father.
  • That which you cannot live without has become a god to you.
  • Your sin is great.  God’s grace is greater.
  • It is never too late to repent.
  • Lost people do lost things.
  • If you are not aware of a sin from which you need to repent, you aren’t paying close enough attention.
  • The sin you despise in others is usually also found in you.
  • The more time you spend in the presence of Christ, the more you will begin to live like Him.
  • You are either connected to that which brings you life or that that which brings you death.
  • Even just a little sin, a little disobedience, a little death is too much.
  • You are either growing closer to God or further from Him.
  • Those who say they can worship God just as well while alone in nature as they can while with a congregation don’t understand what it means to worship God.
  • What you get out of worship matters far less than what you give in worship.
  • The most important thing about you is not what you do, what you’ve done, what you have, or who you know.  The most important thing about you is that you are loved by God and called His child.

SDG

The Danger of Praying for Holiness

“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
(Hebrews 12:6)

Have you ever felt that your prayers were going unanswered?  We come to the Lord, as he has taught us, praying that we might grow in holiness, that we might be more loving, that we might trust in Him, and yet everything in and around us seems to be working against this prayer.  Is God not listening?  Is God not answering?

Recently I’ve come across this hymn by John Newton (most noted for Amazing Grace):

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

This is the anguish of unanswered prayer, or so it would seem.  We read in the next stanza how we often look at prayer.  We come to God with right intentions, we want to overcome our sin, to find rest and peace – and we want God’s power to conquer and kill sin within us.  Give me holiness, give it now!

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

What we find, what Newton teaches in the hymn, is that God often uses means and methods that we would never consider to answer our prayers and to bring us to holiness in Him.  When we would be free from sin, when we begin the journey to mortify sin in our lives, that’s when it seems that sin rears its ugly head even more.  Sin and its power in us assaults us, lays us low, until we cry out to God, “Will you pursue me to death?!”

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

Often this is the way that God answers our prayers for grace and faith, using our inward trials to break our dependence on the joys of this world, and to teach us to find our all in Him.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

When you engage in the war on sin, don’t give up when you find how deeply entrenched the enemy has become.  As you drive the enemy (whom Christ has defeated) from his stronghold – he will kick and scream.  He will accuse and curse.

But even this is from the hand of God.  Don’t kick against the goads, don’t chaff under the Father’s discipline.  As Hebrews 12 teaches, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood… For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives… For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

These inward trials, this putting to death of the old life, weaning from the world, from self, from pride is painful – but it is necessary.  If you want to be more like Christ, you will, by necessity, become less like your old self.  The old orientation, the old desire – those things that came natural and easy – they are being replaced with the transforming power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

SDG

Here is a link to listen: