[May 31]--Have You Been Personally Tempted By Satan?

James 1:13-15

We’ve been talking about the Enemy for a week now, and I wanted to end the study with some perspective. There are two extremes when it comes to spiritual warfare, and I hope to find the proper “middle ground.” One extreme, the background I grew up in, tends to discount Satanic activity altogether, in practice if not in theology. Oh, people give lip-service to the fact that there's a personal Devil, but they never give any thought to him in their daily lives. I hope that as you’ve read the last few days, I’ve made it clear that I believe in a spirit who's working behind the scenes to influence the world and the church away from God, and who can get involved in people’s lives in a personal way.

The other extreme, which I want to address today, is found in a lot of the “spiritual warfare” movement. They tend to see every bad thing in their lives as direct result of Satan. If their car breaks down, it’s because of Satan. If they fall off a ladder, it’s because of you-know-who. And especially if they fall into sin, it’s the responsibility of the Evil One.

Now I believe that our Enemy exists, and that he’s active, but we need some perspective on this. I remember several years ago, when I was listening to a brother’s testimony. He was recounting how Satan came into his room at night trying to entice him into a lifestyle of sin. I recall thinking to myself, “Really? Satan? The Prince of Darkness himself took time out of his busy schedule to come into your room and tempt you? You were that important?”

Please remember, he’s not omnipresent like our Father. He can only be in one place at a time, and he only has so many demons at his command. If he pays attention to you, that means he has to take time away from his plan to bring down the next Billy Graham. Quite frankly, I don’t think I’m that high on Satan’s “task list.”

So how does he relate to us on a daily basis? The best way I can explain is the example of a drug lord. Imagine a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood. Drug addicts and pushers are constantly roaming the streets. Bars on the windows of homes and convenience stores testify to the blight of crime all over, and everyone's affected. Now, do you expect to see the local drug lord on the street pushing his product in your face: “Hey, want to buy some drugs? Hey, want to buy some drugs?” Of course not! As the saying goes, he's got "people" for that. You’re rarely--if ever--going to see the drug kingpin himself. You see the effects of his product everywhere, and you see his representatives everywhere, but you have to really be high up in the anti-drug crusade in order to get the attention of the guy in the penthouse suite who calls the shots.

What I’m calling for is some balance. The Bible doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the specifics of how to encounter Satan in "power encounters." What it does talk a lot about is how to deal with sin in my own life. How do I treat my spouse? What type of employee should I be? How should I raise my kids? What type of church member should I be? Read today’s passage again. Is Satan ever mentioned? Nope! Instead, James reminds us that it’s our own “sinful desires” which can drag us away and entice us away from our First Love. Most of the time, that’s our immediate problem.

When someone recounts a "power encounter" they had with the Enemy, do I dismiss it out of hand? No. I believe it happens. But I also firmly believe that the primary enemy I'm going to be facing day after day after day is the opponent I see in the mirror every morning. It's my sinful nature which is my most immediate problem, and the only real power Satan has over me is through that conduit. 

So have I been personally tempted by Satan? Probably not, but what difference does it really make? My Lord called him "the Father of lies," so every lie in the world directly or indirectly comes from him. I have enough problems with my own sinful nature. Whether it’s directly from the Enemy or just my own sinful desires talking, I need to shut out every voice except the voice of my Shepherd.

Lord Jesus, yours is the only voice I want to listen to. You’ve already defeated the Enemy, and I share in that victory. I just need to live like it. Please help me in this.

[May 30]--Conspiracy Theory

1 John 5:18-21

I like to listen to political talk radio, and one of my favorite hosts has “Conspiracy Day” once a month on the day of the full moon. He invites any of his listeners to call in and try to propose the conspiracy theory that they hold, or in the host’s words “the sinister forces behind current events.” Most of them don’t hold water very well, and some of them are as old as the Protocols of Zion (the Jews are trying to take over the world, don'tchaknow), or are fairly new, like the various 9-11 theories (a U.S. government plot, of course). My favorite part is when this host, gently but firmly, picks apart their theory with logic and simple questions.

There's one conspiracy theory, however, which is completely real and based upon God’s word. There's one sinister force behind the evil in the world, and he’s pretty effective at hiding his influence. Kings, Presidents, members of Parliament, dictators and people in all levels of government are under this power. Today’s passage is pretty clear: “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”

Now if you read the TAWG blog a couple of days ago, you know how this doesn’t contradict the fact of God’s sovereignty. The Almighty is the ultimate authority, but he uses Satan for his own purposes. Satan does some evil act, thinking he’s getting away with something and that he’s in charge, and then he eventually finds out that what he did was what the Lord had planned out all along.

So what does it mean when Scripture says that Satan runs the world? Does this mean that everyone outside of Christ is demon-possessed, like the girl from The Exorcist? Of course not. But it does mean that outside of Christ, every person is completely given over to their sinful nature. They're utterly incapable of pleasing or really loving God, and through their sinful desires Satan controls them. They might be good people and do good things, but they've joined Satan in his opposition to the Lord, whether they know it or not.

In fact, did you know that Satan is their spiritual father? This is a hard saying, but Jesus said it. According to him, everyone has one or the other spiritual father, Satan or God. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Again, this doesn’t mean that they're consciously worshiping Satan like someone drawing a pentagram on the floor. The Enemy doesn’t care if they consciously worship him or not, as long as he can keep them away from being redeemed. In fact, most of the time he keeps people in deception, so they have no idea what their spiritual state is.

But take heart. Our Father is in control over all this. The Enemy’s greatest victory was when he hung the Son of God on a cross and killed him. So how did that work out for him?

Lord Jesus, you are in control. The Father has placed everything under your feet, and I share in your victory over the Enemy. Please help me live like it.

[May 29]--Tempter

Matthew 4:1-11

Of all Satan’s “jobs,” the one for which he’s probably most famous is that of tempter, someone who influences us towards sin. The first time he’s presented in Scripture is in the Garden, lying to Eve and drawing her into disobedience. He hasn’t changed his modus operandi since then, and why should he, as long as it works?

Today’s reading is the other famous passage about temptation, and it holds a lot of valuable lessons for us. In fact, a lot of biblical scholars (and I agree with them) see this as the “New Eden,” in which Jesus (as the new representative of humanity) does what Adam should've done in the first place. Adam was put to the test, and utterly failed. Our Lord was put to much harsher tests, and passed with 100%. Adam was in a beautiful garden, and had experienced absolutely nothing but God’s goodness and blessings since he was created. Jesus, on the other hand, faced the Enemy after 40 days of hunger, tiredness, exposure to the elements, and no companionship for support.

Let’s briefly examine what were the fundamental issues in each of these temptations. Basically, it appears that Satan was trying to tempt Jesus into taking shortcuts with the Father’s plan. It was obviously not the Father’s plan for his Son to starve to death out in the wilderness, so he was going to get food eventually. The second temptation was to publicly display his power in a showy exhibition--notice, it would've been from the temple, where everyone could see and be amazed. And finally Jesus was tempted to gain all the world’s power and authority in return for one moment’s submission. In both the second and third temptation, Satan was offering to give to Jesus now what would be given to him later at the end of human history: the adulation of the public and absolute authority over them.

Do you see the pattern here? Were any of these things bad in themselves? No! But what was wrong was the timing. Satan does not--and cannot--offer us anything that’s bad in itself. Money, power, sex, pleasure, are all good things. What he does is offer them in the wrong way, the wrong time, or with the wrong person. He takes something good that God's provided and perverts it and twists it.

And how did Jesus counter this? Before answering this question, let me point out something obvious: He’s God, so he can do anything he wants. He could've simply dismissed Satan with a word, but he didn’t. He countered the Enemy with Scripture, namely the book of Deuteronomy. That’s right, every verse that Jesus quoted was from Deuteronomy, the book that most Christians avoid like smelly socks. Also notice that Satan can quote Scripture as well, but he does so out of context. Do you know the Bible as well as the Devil does? If you’re going to counter his lies, do you think you might want to learn how to use the main weapon our Father's given us?

Father God, your word is the sword you’ve given me to counter the Enemy’s lies. I don’t know it as well as I should. I don’t live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of your mouth. Help me to listen.

[May 28]--God of This Age

2 Corinthians 4:1-6

We’ve been discussing our Enemy for the last few days as he relates to believers, but now I’d like to talk about his relationship to nonbelievers for a bit. He’s called the “god of this age” in today’s reading, and I’d like to examine what this means.

The passage says that he “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.” Of course, all you have to do is look at the world around us, and you can see his deceiving influence everywhere. Over one billion people are trapped in the darkness of Islam, for example. Here in America, it’s perfectly fine for someone to believe that space aliens seeded earth in the distant past in order to produce humanity, and very few people feel comfortable calling their beliefs goofy or foolish. But if someone claims that Jesus is not only the Son of God but the only way into heaven, he’s openly treated as a kook. One of my favorite lines from G. K. Chesterton was that if someone doesn’t believe in God, the result is not that he believes in nothing, it’s that he will fall for anything.

Please keep in mind the last lesson we learned from Joshua: If you aren’t worshiping the God of the Bible, it really doesn’t matter what you worship. The Enemy is perfectly fine with someone bowing before the god of greed just as much as if he gets an addiction to drugs. In fact, the former might be more effective than the latter, because the first is more “hidden” and thus it’s easier to fool the first man into thinking he’s all right.

I’ve actually experienced some things which I strongly suspect were Satanic in origin. I and a friend were witnessing to someone about ten years ago, and she sounded really receptive to what we were saying. Then out of the blue, her phone rings. Her cousin, with whom she hadn’t spoken in several years, suddenly decided to call her for no particular reason. Of course, this ended our efforts to share the Good News with her, so we left. Now, it could've been a mere coincidence, but I don’t think so. If you've never experienced Satanic opposition and would like to see some, start telling lost people about Christ. That'll whack the hornets' nest. I promise you that this will get the Devil's attention like nothing else. You’re invading his personal territory and stealing his property, so what did you think would happen?

Now, does Satan personally get involved with every lost person out there? I really don’t think so. We’ll discuss this further in a few days, but for now I want to point out that he’s only one being, with a certain amount of fallen angels to do his bidding. He’s not omnipotent or omnipresent, so he has limited resources to focus on anyone. But you can see his influence everywhere.

But I want you to take heart. Please read Matthew 16:13-18 and ask some simple questions. Are gates an offensive weapon or a defensive weapon? When was the last time anyone was attacked by a gate? So if the “gates of Hades” (Satan’s kingdom) are not going to withstand Christ’s work through his church, then here are a couple of more questions. In this passage, there are two kingdoms mentioned, Christ’s and Satan’s. Which kingdom is under siege by the other? Which kingdom has its days numbered? Which kingdom is losing souls to the other one every day? I think you already know the answers, but I just thought you could use a pick-me-up.

Lord Jesus, I praise you and thank you. I praise you because it is the enemy’s kingdom, not yours, which is under siege. I thank you because you pulled me out of that darkness, and you want me to have a part in tearing the rest of it down. Show it to me, please.

[May 27]--Can Satan Perform Miracles?

Exodus 7:8-13

In answering the above question, let me start out by acknowledging that this is not an essential issue for the Gospel, so good Christians who believe the Bible can disagree on this subject. In fact, there are Bible scholars whom I greatly respect, like R. C. Sproul, who disagree with me on this. However, I do think that this is important enough that we should consider it for a moment. My short answer, with some pretty big caveats, is “yes.”

The main passage to which Dr. Sproul points is John 3:1-3. Nicodemus started “buttering up” Jesus by saying that “no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." In other words, someone with Satanic power could not do what Jesus was doing, and it's true that Jesus never corrected his theology on that point.

I totally agree that Satan could never perform the miracles that Jesus did (like really raising someone from the dead), but does that mean that he could never carry out any supernatural signs at all? Today’s passage, to me, seems to be evidence to the contrary. Did the magicians in Pharaoh’s court just “fake it” with snakes that were ramrod stiff until they threw them to the ground? Maybe, but it appears to me that the simplest explanation is that the magicians, through Satanic power, were able to duplicate this transformation. They were also able, to some degree, to duplicate the plague of blood on the Nile and the plague of frogs.

But please notice something else. I always find this humorous every time I read this story: The magicians were able to duplicate some of the plagues, but they couldn’t reverse them. I can just see Pharaoh saying to them, “Uh, guys, that’s great and all. Yeah, that’s exactly what I needed—more frogs!!!!! How’s about GETTING RID OF THE FROGS WE HAVE ALREADY!!! That would impress me!” Once Moses produced gnats, the magicians had to give up. And as we read here, when the magicians turned their rods into snakes, during their first confrontation, Aaron’s snake gobbled up all the rest. So Satan was able, in some degree, to duplicate God’s work, but they were always inferior to what the Lord was doing, and he couldn’t really directly work counter to the Almighty's plan.

So assuming that my interpretation on all this is correct, what can we learn from it? Well, the first thing that jumps out at me is that Satan can only produce a duplicate of what God is doing; he can never actually create anything. Also, his counterfeits are always poorer in quality than God’s work.

But the flip side of this is very sobering. I believe that Satan is capable of supernatural activities which can be construed to be miraculous. In fact, Paul warned us about the days right before the return of Christ, when people will be deceived by a Satanic representative whose coming will be “in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie." Whether or not we want to call those real miracles, it seems clear to me that we need to be on our guard. If someone claims to have signs and wonders happening all day every day in his ministry, I’m not really impressed. I am impressed by his fidelity to Scripture, and quite frankly all of the “miracle workers” I’ve seen on TV tend to be pretty shabby on that score.

The good news about all this is that we don’t need to worry. No matter how powerful or impressive Satan seems to be, he's no match for our Father and Lord. My friends, this is not a battle between two equal and opposite forces. Our God reigns, and soon enough we’re going to see it with our own eyes.

Lord Jesus, please don’t let me fall for any of the Enemy’s tricks. He’s a liar, so I need to quit listening to him. I want to hear your voice, and yours alone.

[May 26]--Accuser

Revelation 12:10

As you proceed from being a new Christian into one more mature and experienced, you might run into the problem of past guilt. I know as I’ve grown closer to Christ, he makes me more and more aware of my sin, and I can’t get away with things I used to. That’s not what I’m talking about, however. All of us have sin in our past, and all of us as believers have been forgiven those sins. So when those feelings of guilt come back up, how do we deal with them?

First and foremost, we need to recognize their source. Today’s passage is referring to our Enemy Satan, and this is one of his main jobs when it comes to believers: Accuser. How do we tell when a certain feeling about sin comes from Satan or the Spirit?

It’s not rocket science. 1 John 1:9 is one of my favorite promises of all time: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And once your sin is forgiven, do you think that God will bring it up again? What would you think of a friend or parent who kept on bringing up past failures? Would that be showing love? So if this source of “guilt” is bringing up past sins which you’ve confessed, then it doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.

Also, you can examine the purpose here. When I sin and the Spirit brings it up, what’s his purpose, his goal? It’s to restore my relationship with the Father and continue the process of molding me into the likeness of Christ. Satan’s goal is the exact opposite: He wants to wreck that relationship and stunt my spiritual growth.

This is just my personal experience, but it’s been confirmed by many sources. The Spirit always points out specific sins that I’ve committed and which still require repentance. He might say to me, “Keith, you were really rude and disrespectful of your wife with that comment last night.” Satan will come along and say “You’re a lousy husband and a lousy Christian. You might as well give up.” See the difference?

Here's an easy way to distinguish the two: The Holy Spirit convicts, while the Enemy condemns.

We’ll look at the most famous instance of Satan’s accusations next month when we look at Job, but let me leave this subject for now with one final point. When we accuse a brother in Christ, especially when we tend to think the worst of him so that we can elevate ourselves, whose example are we following?

Lord Jesus, thank you that there is no condemnation for those who are in you. When the Enemy comes to accuse me, I will send him straight to you. I don’t want to listen to his lies anymore. Please tune my ears to hear only your voice.

[May 25]--Sovereignty and Satan

2 Sam 24:1-10; 1 Chron. 21:1-2

We looked at this story last month, but now I want to examine it for a different focus. We’re going to spend a week examining our Enemy, and this is a good springboard for it.

Reading these two accounts side-by-side, it looks like a contradiction, doesn’t it? So who was responsible for setting in motion the census which led to disaster? Well, as we mentioned when talking about Joseph’s brothers, there is no indication that David was “possessed” by Satan or anything else which made him do something he didn’t want to do. He was influenced, or you could say he was manipulated, but he wasn’t controlled or forced.

But what about the other actors in this drama? Who influenced David, Satan or God? If God and Satan are enemies, then how can you reconcile the two accounts? The answer is both simple and complex, and can be summarized in one word: sovereignty. This means that the Lord Almighty is ultimately in charge of everything, including Satan. He uses Satan to accomplish his (God’s) purposes. Satan has schemes and plans, all of which are destructive and intended to wreck what the Lord's done. Satan seems to be victorious, and then finds out that he just did what God was intending to do in the first place. Kinda stinks to be fighting against an all-knowing, all-powerful opponent, huh?

Of course, the best example of this was the Passion of Christ. Satan manipulated and influenced people to bring about the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of our Lord. Everything seemed to be going his way, and he got pretty much everything he wanted out of the situation. Finally, the bane of his existence lay dead on a cross.

At what point did he realize that his greatest victory had just turned into his greatest defeat? At the empty tomb? Was it earlier than that? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that Jesus by his death “disarmed the powers and authorities, [and] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” What looked like Satan’s greatest victory turned out to be the death knell of his kingdom.

How does this all work out today? How does God work everything out for his own purposes? We don’t know, and we don’t need to know. All we need to focus on is the fact that our Father has placed everything under the feet of his Son, and everything is under his control. If Satan is allowed to attack us, there’s a good reason why. Our part is to trust and obey. Like I said before, it’s both impossibly complex and extremely simple. We stay focused on what we need to be concerned about, and let our Father handle the rest.

Father God, I praise you, because you don’t accomplish your plans just despite the Enemy’s best efforts, but because of them. Help me to do what I need to do: trust and obey.

[May 24]--Grace in the Midst of Judgment, Part Two

2 Kings 25:27-30

The last time we talked about this subject, we were discussing Israel’s trek through the desert for 40 years. Why were they out there for so long? I know the worn-out joke about Moses not asking for directions, but it wasn’t because they got lost. It was because they royally screwed up! After seeing so many incredible miracles, both in Egypt and in the desert, they refused one last time to trust the Lord, and they paid the price. They were forbidden to enter the Promised Land, and had to go back into the desert to eventually die there. However, while they were in exile, the Lord graciously provided for their food, water, and shelter. Their clothes didn’t wear out and their feet didn’t swell.

Today’s reading recorded a similar situation. Judah failed the Lord for the last time, and he had finally had enough. He used Babylon to thoroughly discipline the remaining Israelites who continually indulged in idolatry and sexual immorality. King Nebuchadnezzar swooped in, conquered them, and then kidnapped most of the survivors into exile to other parts of the Empire.

But what happened after this? As the reading shows, the Lord was still being merciful to them. King Jehoiachin, their main representative, was treated far better than would be expected. In fact, anything short of a brutal death would be considered pretty lenient. Even after they'd been conquered, the people of Judah had rebelled against the Babylonians several times, and they were fortunate (or blessed) that the latter hadn't simply destroyed everything and killed everyone.

The reason I bring this up is because it is so illustrative of how the Lord treats me. I fall flat on my face, and he forgives me again. When he finally disciplines me, it's not to give me what I deserve but what I need. And even when he's bringing unpleasant things into my life, he's still providing for me and protecting me from the worst of it.

The Puritans called God’s judgment his “strange” work. They didn’t mean this in the sense of “weird” but in the sense of “very unusual.” This means that most of the time throughout our lives we experience his grace and mercy. Trust me, if you aren’t screaming in the Lake of Fire, you haven’t gotten what you deserve from him. It’s only when he displays a little bit of his justice that many of us think about him at all. And then it’s only to scream at him about the “injustice” of it all.

His heart is to forgive and restore, not destroy or judge. He isn’t willing that anyone perish, but that all come to repentance. He desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. And in my life, as a saved and redeemed child of God, he's constantly showing his love, grace, and mercy to me all day every day.

Lord Jesus, you're so good to me. I want to show you my gratitude for this in presenting myself as a living sacrifice. Please help me to stay on that altar.

[May 23]--Revival

2 Kings 22:1-20

A lot of Christians I know, in fact all of the serious ones, are really concerned about the spiritual condition of the church in America. We know that there are a lot of problems among us. Of course, there’s the obvious: Sex and money are the downfall of many pastors who ought to know better. The divorce rates of Christians and non-Christians are virtually indistinguishable. There are waaaaaaay too many Christians (or pseudo-Christians) who use the banner of our Savior as a cover for shoddy or shady business practices. I can only dream of a day in which the name “Christian” is synonymous in the business world with honesty, integrity, and a great quality of service or product. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

So if that’s what’s happening, then what can we do about it? Well, in a sense there’s nothing we can do. The Holy Spirit is the One who gives life to the church, and he’s the only one who can do that. He alone can stir up the hearts of people which have gone cold. But we can work with him, or rather for him, as we seek his guidance and power.

With the understanding that only the Lord working through his Spirit can truly revive the church, how does he work through us to accomplish this? What’s our part in his plan? The obvious first answer is prayer. As he moves our hearts, he is inviting us to plead with him to work in other peoples’ hearts as well.

Second, the love for God’s word must come back to the church at large. As you can see from today’s passage, Josiah’s heart was broken when he was exposed to Scripture for the first time. Most Bible scholars believe that what the priests found was the book of Deuteronomy, which laid out in very specific details what the nation of Israel could expect if they turned away from their Redeemer. God’s word was the catalyst for Josiah’s sweeping reforms in the next chapter. Like we discussed three days ago, the Bible tells us that there was no king quite like Josiah, before or after him, who was as zealous for obeying God’s law. And it all started with handing him a scroll.

I do have to add a caveat, however. As you read in the last verses of today’s passage, Josiah’s reforms didn’t lead to a true, long-lasting, nation-wide revival. What we read about, however, was a personal revival in Josiah’s life. His soul was ignited in godly fear for his people, and he turned his own life around and also instituted national reforms which affected everyone. Even though he didn’t succeed in bringing about permanent national change, he got himself right with his Lord.

The point I’m making is this. I don’t know if the Lord is going to bring about a national revival like he has several times in the past. I believe so, but I don’t have any special “hotline” to God’s plans. I do know, however, that I can have a personal revival in my life. And if there is going to be a national revival, then it’s going to start with ordinary individual Christians like you and me, spending time in God’s word and on our knees. Do you want to see it happen? Then you know what you need to do.

Lord Jesus, please use your word like a surgeon’s scalpel on me, cutting and healing at the same time. Change me into your likeness. You’ve done it before, so please do it again.

[May 22]--Pride and Prudence

2 Kings 20:12-21

We talked a couple of days ago about two really good kings, Hezekiah and Josiah. But while they were good men, they weren’t Jesus. Today’s reading definitely does not show Hezekiah at his best.

It's outside of today's "official" reading, but the king suffered from a deadly illness, and it took the Lord’s miraculous intervention to save him. Once he recovered, he received visitors and gifts from a land newly mentioned in Scripture, namely Babylon. In a moment of pride, the kings then proceeded to show the envoys everything he owned: “the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures.” Whenever I read this story, I envision some very stupid guy ostentatiously displaying his cash in a rough neighborhood. I don’t care if he's a Christian and trusts the Lord, that’s a very foolish thing to do.

We’ll talk more about pride when we get into Proverbs next year, but I wanted to use this story to partially illustrate how foolish it is. It clouds our judgment and doesn’t let us see things or people as they really are. Apparently these envoys went back to their king and reported to him all the wonderful treasures that were ripe for the taking. All these possessions in which Hezekiah was so proud would one day sit in someone else’s treasury. And not only his belongings, but his descendants too—his own flesh and blood, would be carried off as well.

And I love his great sensitivity! His reaction to being told that his own descendants would be taken by force to be eunuchs in another kingdom? “That’s great! Better them than me!” Like I said, not exactly Hezekiah’s shining moment.

So what about you and me? Are we proud of our possessions? Do we like to show them off? Do we care more about the next generation than our own comfort and standard of living? Let me warn you as I warn myself: When we come off a spiritual victory, that’s when it’s easiest for us to fall and make some horrible mistake. And regrettably, it’s usually not just we who pay the price for our foolish pride.

Father God, you oppose the proud but give grace to the humble. Wherever pride is hiding in my heart, please root it out. Do whatever it takes. Yes, I said that.

[May 21]--More on Angels

2 Kings 19:14-19, 35-37

As I’ve discussed before, the Bible tells us everything we need to know about God, ourselves, and how to live. It’s not given to us in order to satisfy our curiosity on every subject. Whether or not there's life on other planets is not something we absolutely need to know, so the Bible doesn’t really address that.

The reason I bring this up is because there's a common trap in discussing angels. The Scriptures give us a lot of tantalizing tidbits about them, but it certainly doesn’t tell us everything we (or at least I) would like to know. For example, how do they sense things, since they don’t have eyes or ears? When they “look” at the world around us, what do they “see”? Just how involved are they in our daily lives? The Bible doesn’t really tell us, so it’s useless to speculate.

Here are three things which are crystal clear, however. First, they are incredibly awe-inspiring beings. Almost every time in which they appeared, the first words out of their mouths were “Don’t be afraid.” Several times the lucky human recipient of this visitation was physically overwhelmed (for example, see here). John, the apostle of Christ himself, was tempted to worship one, not once but twice. I always get a kick out of seeing cute little chubby babies with wings on the front of holiday cards, because that's about as far away from the reality as you can get.

Second, they're incredibly powerful. You can read about that in today’s passage. I have a slightly macabre sense of humor, so I imagine King Sennacherib getting up the next morning, bellowing, “Where’s my breakfast?! Heads're gonna roll!” Oh, sorry about that, your majesty. Most of your army is too busy being DEAD right now. Friends, that’s 185,000 men killed overnight by one angel.

Third, they're incredibly focused. Did you read the passages in Revelation I cited a minute ago? When John fell at the angel’s feet, what was the latter's reaction? “Get up! Don’t do that! I’m a fellow servant!” This is the trap I mentioned before. To the degree that we can learn some spiritual lessons from the angels, it’s all well and good. To the degree that we obsess over them and wonder too long about details, we’re heading into really bad territory. What's their focus? Worshiping and serving and pleasing their Creator. A few years ago when there was an angel craze, I could almost imagine them crying out from behind the scenes: “Don’t focus on me! Don’t spend so much time thinking about me! Focus on the Lord God Almighty! He’s worthy of all your attention!” In today’s reading, Hezekiah prayed for deliverance with a specific purpose in mind: “so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God." And the angel was more than happy to bring that about, because that was his heart as well.

I think that there are two great lessons we can learn from the angels. First, we need to know that there are “friends” all around us, giving us secret help when we need it. We don’t need to know the specifics, but it does help to know that my Lord cares enough about me to send angels, both human and non-human, to lift me up when I need it. Second, we can learn from their example in regards to focus. Their whole being is centered towards serving and obeying the Lord, and they shun any attention which detracts from his glory. I only wish that described me. How about you?

Lord Jesus, you're so good to me. There's a whole other world surrounding me, which I know nothing about. Thank you for protecting and providing for me, as only you can.

[May 20]--Different Kinds of Good People

2 Kings 18:1-8

I’ve mentioned this before, but I really believe that David is, without a doubt, the best king that ancient Israel ever had. Throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles, kings are measured against David as the standard, and most of them fall far short. The only two who are compared favorably with David, with no qualifications, are Hezekiah and Josiah.

We’ll talk about them in a moment, but there’s a major point I need to make about the king and spiritual leadership, and this is as good a place as any. I can’t take real credit for this, but I also can’t remember who first mentioned it to me. In the Bible, you have descriptions of kings which are frequently listed along with a diagnosis of the general spiritual condition of God’s people at the time. You had good kings and bad kings, and the spiritual condition of Israel ranged from really good to really bad. What's interesting to me is not so much what you can find, but what you can’t. There are examples of good kings with good people: In other words, a godly king was mirrored in the nation as a whole, which you'd anticipate. You also had bad kings with bad people—no surprise there. You also had good kings with bad people—Josiah being the best example. But this is important—there is no example recorded in Scripture in which you had a bad king with good people. I've believed this for some time, and experience has only strengthened my opinion—It's virtually impossible for a group to rise above its leader, especially in the spiritual realm. In fact, they tend to be about two steps below the leader. To all the church leaders reading this—please take note.

Now let’s talk about Josiah and Hezekiah. If you read today’s passage and 2 Kings 23:25, you might find yourself scratching your head. Is this a contradiction? Who was better? The NIV Study Bible (which I highly recommend, by the way) provides a solution in the context. Hezekiah was unique among kings in the way that he trusted in the Lord. If you read his story in chapters 18-19, you’ll see a man who trusted the Lord and had an incredibly intimate relationship with him.

Josiah was also unique: There was no king before him or after him who dedicated so much effort into obeying God’s law. He was utterly ruthless in tearing down idols and high places (places of pagan worship, often mixed with worship of Yahweh), and tireless in rebuilding and restoring the temple of God and reviving the Passover. As far as zeal for the law was concerned, he was unmatched.

Can you guess where I'm going with this? Each of us has not only spiritual gifts but personality quirks which we bring into the Body of Christ. Everybody’s temperament has its strengths and weaknesses. The Lord's made each of us completely unique, and we need each other. Let’s help each other, and let’s provide balance for each other. And for God’s sake (literally) let’s respect and value each other, shall we?

Lord Jesus, every other Christian I meet has a unique place in your Body. Please help me to value and respect that part, even when they’re in conflict with me. Let us be one, just as you and the Father are one, please.

[May 19]--Half-Breeds

2 Kings 17:24-41

People of mixed racial origin never have an easy time of it. Ask any mulatto or any other person whose parents were of different races. Usually they don’t feel completely welcome in either culture, so they have trouble fitting in anywhere. Of course, a few years ago we elected the first person of non-white origin, so maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to take some steps out of racial prejudice. I don’t think, however, that this will really signal the end of racism. It’s human nature, sinful as it is, to be fearful and hateful of people who look different from us, and no race or people group has a monopoly on this.

If you needed any proof of this, we can discuss the issue of the Samaritans. The capital of the Northern kingdom of Israel was Samaria. The nation as a whole was unfaithful to the Lord (especially once most of the godly people fled to Judah), so after sending multiple prophets (Elijah, Elishah, Amos, and Hosea), he gave them over to the Assyrian empire to be taken away in exile. Like other conquering empires, they figured that moving people from one land and transplanting them into another would stifle nationalistic discontent. Therefore, they moved most of the Israelites out of Israel, scattered them all over the empire, and brought others into the land of Israel in their place. You can see the immediate results in today’s reading.

So what eventually happened to these Samaritans? Well, you can read about them in the New Testament. Yes, it’s the same people as you read about in the Gospels. They moved away from idols, and they considered themselves the true worshipers of the Lord God. The Jews absolutely hated them as half-breed apostates from the faith, and the feelings were mutual.

How much? Well, in order to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which every faithful Jew was supposed to take three times a year), they had to either go through Samaritan territory or take a long way around it. Guess which way most Jews went? The Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerazim was more holy than Jerusalem, so they routinely refused to provide food or shelter to any pilgrims heading to worship at the Jewish temple. For their part, if Jews were forced to go through Samaritan land, they would shake the dust off their feet once they got onto Jewish soil again.

So let’s take a brief look at Jesus’ encounters with them so we can see what God thought about alll this.

Luke recorded one instance in which the disciples were denied entry into a Samaritan village. The disciples wanted to call fire from heaven to destroy the offenders, but Jesus rebuked them and they went on.

When Jesus was accused by the religious leaders, they asked him "Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" In other words, they linked the two conditions together and in their minds they were basically equivalent.

Of course, the most famous Samaritan in the Bible was the woman at the well in John 4. This was one of the few places where Jesus publicly admitted that he was the Messiah. He redeemed this woman out of a sinful and self-destructive lifestyle, and used her to bring a lot of people into his Kingdom.

When he gave his final instructions to his disciples right before his Ascension, he outlined his plan to them of reaching Samaria right after the Jewish population with the Good News. And sure enough, Samaritans were among the first to be reached.

So do you think Jesus could have made it any clearer about how he views racial divisions? Or what does he think about the people whom everyone believes is just lost to the darkness? Does he see them as unreachable? Come on, what do you think?

Lord Jesus, please forgive me when I see “those” people as beyond your reach. You will not rest until the vision of Revelation 7:9-10 is fulfilled, and neither will I.

[May 18]--Will You Benefit From The Future?

2 Kings 6:24-7:2

Here in America, we don’t know what real hunger is. We might not eat as well as we’d like all the time, but we don’t know real hunger. Getting into a dispute with your neighbor like the woman did in today’s passage—that's desperate times.

The reason I bring up this story, however, is not because of the specific circumstances, but the principle behind what Elisha told the officer who was physically supporting the king. The officer, quite understandably, was highly skeptical that the dire situation would change that drastically. According to the word of the Lord through the prophet, the prices for flour and barley would immediately drop to ridiculously low rates, which would mean that not only would the siege be lifted, but the food shortage would be solved overnight. Even if the army left tomorrow, where would all the excess food come from?

The prophet gave an interesting answer, and it’s important for us to hear it. His response in effect was “Oh, it’s going to happen, but you won’t benefit from it.” And sure enough, if you continue reading, the Aramean army fled for their lives when the Lord made them think they were about to be overrun by another enemy, and they ended up leaving behind all their equipment and stores of food when they panicked. There was more than enough food to feed the entire city, so everyone was saved.

But all this didn’t help the officer who publicly doubted the prophet. He was accidentally trampled by the rush of the crowd, so Elisha’s prediction was fulfilled to the letter.

Why does this matter to us? Because we might be in danger of following that officer’s example. Let’s take a New Testament example to really illuminate this principle for us: As C.S. Lewis pointed out, both Peter and Judas were used by the Lord to fulfill his purposes. But only one of them benefited from it.

My friend, all of God’s promises will be kept in the end. The seemingly endless battle we’ve seen between Satan’s kingdom and Jesus’ kingdom will have a conclusion, and if you’ve read the book of Revelation you know how it ends. The question is not “Which side will finally win?” The question for you to answer is, “Will I benefit from it?”

On a much lesser scale, I believe that we're on the edge of a national revival. I hope and pray that the church in America will be awoken by the Holy Spirit, and we’ll see another Great Awakening. It’s happened before, at least three times. I think that the Lord is about to do incredible things through and for his church, in the very near future. But again I ask you, “Are you going to benefit from it?”

I don’t think that God’s ultimate purposes can be thwarted, not by Satan and certainly not by you or me. He will accomplish what he wants to do. His overall plan will be carried out. That’s not the question. The only thing up in the air is. . . well, I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Father God, many are the plans in my heart, but it’s your purpose that prevails. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a willing participant, not just a tool in your hand but an obedient child who listens to his Father’s voice.

[May 17]--Outnumbered?

2 Kings 6:8-23

This is one of my favorite stories in the whole Old Testament, not just because it has some humorous parts, but also because it illustrates some very important lessons for us.

Despite the fact that the king of Israel was a stinker (like all the others), the prophet Elisha (Elijah’s protégé) was led by his Lord to help the northern nation of Israel in its struggle against Aram. Talk about military intelligence! I’m sure that groups like the CIA, FBI, and NSA would love to have sources of information like this one.

On a side note, notice the conversation between the king and his officials. The way they phrased their response to the king, and also the fact that they thought they could kidnap the prophet and either kill him or use him for their own purposes showed that they misunderstood the situation (remember our discussion on magic?). I mean, on its face this plan seemed rather silly: If he’s really a prophet and can see the future, then how could they think they could “sneak up” on him? The only reason why they could get as close as they did was because Elisha’s Lord allowed it to happen.

But here's the point of the story on which I want to focus. Elisha’s servant, seeing the thousands of men and chariots, immediately panicked. To his eternal credit, Elisha didn’t react like his mentor once did when threatened. He simply encouraged his servant with the immortal words: “Don't be afraid. . .Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." The Aramean army thought they were surrounding the city and about to capture the prophet, but it was they who were surrounded. The prophet prayed for his servant, and the man’s eyes were opened to the supernatural forces which were protecting them all.

The Aramean army, oblivious to its immediate danger, rushed the city. I'd guess that if Elisha had prayed for the Lord to strike them down dead, the ground would be littered with corpses. But instead he mercifully prayed for the army to be struck blind. Of course, this would make them completely helpless and at the mercy of even one man.

He led them to the capital of the Samaria, and the army had their blindness lifted to see themselves surrounded by Israel’s armies, ready to slaughter them at a word. The prophet again showed his compassionate (and Christ-like) spirit by forbidding Israel’s king from killing them.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? We’ll talk more about angels as the days go by, but for now, we need to take comfort in some facts. There are spiritual forces all around us, both malevolent and benevolent. Most of the time, we have no idea what's going on all around us, and there are good reasons why the Lord has made that so. But even if it looks like we’re fighting a losing battle, both on the national level and in our personal lives, we need to know that “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” It's Satan’s kingdom which is under siege, not our Lord’s. It's Satan whose days of rule are strictly numbered, not the Lord Jesus’. Know this, my friend, and take heart.

Lord Jesus, give me the eyes of faith. You have EVERYTHING under control, even when it doesn’t look like it. When I’m panicking like that servant, please give me your peace.

[May 16]--Accept No Substitutions!

1 Kings 22:1-28

Remember what we said about the origin of the word prophet? Literally a prophet is a “mouth.” He (or she) was called and authorized to speak for God, to reveal directly and unerringly the mind of God to his people. It was not something for which you could volunteer, and few people would want to (as you might guess from the end of today’s passage). Only the Lord could choose to appoint someone to represent himself with such authority. After the books of Moses (also another prophet) were completed, the prophets were the only completely trustworthy way of hearing what God had to say, so this position was extremely important.

Since this was so vital, it was essential for people to be able to tell a false prophet from a true one, since anyone could claim to be one. If someone came forward and said that “This is what God wants to tell you,” how could you tell if he was the genuine article? Well, Moses gave one good standard: Absolute infallibility. Deut. 18:21-22 said that anyone claiming to be a prophet must be 100% accurate in any predictions they make. Not 99.9%. Also, even if what he says comes true, if he's trying to lead the people of Israel away from God and his instructions, then that’s another sign that he’s not genuine

That brings us to today’s reading. The two kings were in alliance with each other (probably not a good idea on Jehoshaphat’s part), but the godly king wanted to hear from the Lord before he committed himself. They brought in 400 yes-men, oh I’m sorry, “prophets” to give counsel, and every one of them gave the kings the same message, in complete unity and unanimity. King Jehoshaphat realized that these men were just telling them what they wanted to hear, and requested a real prophet. I find it pretty humorous that Ahab assessed a prophet on how favorable the message was. This is the quintessence of the foolishness many leaders display: What good is an advisor if he only tells you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear?

They brought in Micaiah and strongly encouraged him to echo the advice that all the other prophets were giving. Unfortunately, we're only reading this instead of seeing it dramatically portrayed, and the Bible doesn’t always give facial descriptions when it’s quoting someone. However, it’s pretty clear that when Micaiah repeated what everyone else was saying, he was saying it in a sarcastic way that made it patently obvious he wasn’t serious.

Now came the prophet’s very strange vision, and anyone who pretends that they definitively understand everything about it is lying or very foolish. The best interpretation I’ve heard of is that the Lord decided to use some sort of evil spirit (demons? Satan himself?) to inspire the prophets to lie to the kings about the outcome of the battle. Now before you get all upset over the Lord deliberately planning to deceive someone (and God cannot lie), consider this. Let’s assume that the vision was absolutely literally true (which some biblical teachers doubt)—the same Lord who sent (or allowed) this lying spirit to inspire 400 prophets also sent a true prophet who supplied them with the truth. If the kings (especially Ahab) really wanted to hear what the Almighty had to say, then they had a source of truth available to them, indeed standing right in front of them. They just chose not to listen to it.

Friend, it's the same situation today. We have several sources of lies out there, and many of them are united in telling us what we'd like to hear. But we have one source of absolute, infallible truth. The question is not whether we have access to what we need. The only question is whether or not we’re listening.

Lord Jesus, you don’t just speak the truth, you are the Truth incarnate. You are the Word who makes me true. Please give me listening ears. Take away my heart of stone and replace it with a soft heart. Only you can do this.

[May 15]--Depression, Part Two

1 Kings 19:9-21

Yesterday we looked at Elijah’s moment of failure and his quick descent into depression and hopelessness. We also saw how the Lord responded, with gentleness and compassion. In today’s reading we move into phase two of getting Elijah out of his “funk.”

By the way, Mount Horeb “the mountain of God” had a long and meaningful history—there are very good reasons why it has this name in vs. 8. This was the mountain where Moses met God at the burning bush and received his official calling as God’s prophet and law-giver. When the people of Israel came to Moses complaining about the lack of water, this was where the Lord told him to strike the rock for water to come out. And this was the launching point for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, the setting for most of the book of Deuteronomy. It was to this location where Elijah was naturally drawn (possibly by the Holy Spirit) to take a short rest and be renewed for the work ahead.

In today’s passage, however, the tone seemed to change a bit. When Elijah was in the beginning of his despair--physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted--there were no words of rebuke. But now, the Lord was gently poking his servant back into action. Notice his question in vs. 9. It’s not as if the Omniscient One didn't know what the prophet was doing. The point behind the question is that the Elijah was not where he was supposed to be. He’s been here for forty days, so it’s way past time to get back to work.

Isn’t that a marvelous picture of our Lord’s wisdom? As we discussed yesterday, he always knows exactly what we need when we need it. A few days ago, the man of God needed some rest, food, seclusion, and some time to refocus on his purpose. Now what he needed was a swift kick in the pants, so to speak.

Instead of answering the question or the mild rebuke behind it, Elijah indulged in a pity-party. I'd submit, quite frankly, that this is the essence of most peoples’ depression. To be fair, however, this is an easy trap in which to fall. If you’ve been serving the Lord faithfully, you can easily feel like you’re all alone and fighting a losing battle. I know that a lot of Christians feel this way about modern-day America.

He was called to go out to meet the Lord, and he saw several physical manifestations which he thought might be an appearance. Apparently he was expecting some awe-inspiring theophany, but the God of Israel appeared to him in an unexpected way, as he often does.

What was the Lord’s response to Elijah’s cry of self-pitying despair? He gave three distinct answers to depression. First, he gave the prophet some jobs to do. Not make-work, but real service in the Kingdom is often the best cure for melancholy. Second, he gave him an apprentice and a companion. Perhaps this was why Elijah had given into fear and despair so quickly—there’s no record of him having any type of companionship before now. This would also encourage him in knowing that his ministry wouldn't end with him, but would carry on in the person of his new servant/friend. Over the following years, Elisha would undoubtedly be a great source of encouragement when he was tempted to go AWOL like this again, and if Elijah ever was even tempted to abandon his post again, we never read about it.

Finally, he gave him hope for the present as well as the future. He thought he was one man alone against an unstoppable tide of idolatry, paganism, and wholesale abandonment of the Lord, but he was wrong. Even in that time of general disobedience, God still had people he'd reserved for himself. He hadn’t given up on Israel yet, and neither should Elijah.

I won’t waste your time in rehashing all the lessons we can learn from this story. Hopefully you can pick some things out to apply to your life right now. I know I have.

Father God, your servant John Wesley once said that despair is a sin. It shows that I really don’t trust you. Please help me as only you can.

[May 14]--Depression, Part One

1 Kings 19:1-8

Over the next couple of days we’re going to take a look at depression and how it affected the prophet Elijah and how he dealt with it. We’ll go through the story of chapter 19 in some detail because I think that this is a subject that touches all of us. If you don’t suffer from this malady on a regular basis, then I promise you that you know someone who does.

The first thing I notice from this passage is when this struck. You'd think that after the incredible experience on Mt. Carmel, Elijah’s mood would be higher than a kite. I mean, he'd seen the prophets of Baal utterly humiliated, repudiated by the people of Israel, and an awe-inspiring display of fire from heaven. The prophets were executed publicly, and supposedly a nationwide revival was on the horizon. But if he was in an exultant mood, it ended abruptly with a message from the queen. She swore to kill him before the next day was over, and Elijah panicked and fled. I’ve heard some commentators make fun of him for being afraid of a woman, but this particular woman had a reputation of making good on threats. The reason we might find this so odd is because it’s so uncharacteristic of him. I mean, this prophet had confronted the king before, and had seen so many miracles straight from the Lord, which should've proved that God was more than capable and willing to protect his messenger. The proper response would've echoed David: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”

Unfortunately, we all are prey to our emotions at times. We might go through an amazing experience with the Lord in which his presence is so evident that you feel like you could cut it with a knife. But after this emotional “high” there’s an inevitable letdown. At that point, we’re especially vulnerable to our spiritual Enemy.

The second thing I notice is how emotions can cloud our reason. Elijah asked for the Lord to let him die, because he was supposedly “no better than [his] ancestors.” What did he mean by this? What was his point? It looks to me like he had some bitterness and anger directed at himself. For just a moment, he'd listened to his fears instead of his Lord, and he was completely ashamed of himself. He felt like he'd utterly failed the Lord, and because of this he wanted to give up on life itself.

The third thing I notice is God’s immediate remedy: rest and retreat. He fled from the queen so fast that he apparently didn’t pack any provisions, so the Lord graciously provided what he needed. It’s a very touching image: He fell asleep praying for death, and an angel woke him up with some food. The angel’s words should be comforting to all of us: Our Shepherd knows that we’re made of flesh and blood, not stone or steel. He knows exactly what we need when we need it, and there are times in which his gentle voice tells us to "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."

Do you understand now just how gentle and compassionate he is with us? Just when we’re at our lowest emotional point (and not very pleasant to hang around with), he intervenes as only he can, and gives us exactly what we need.

Lord Jesus, give me listening ears. When you’re telling me to take a break and rest in your presence for a while, I need to do just that.

[May 13]--God vs. Magic, Part Two

1 Kings 18:16-40

I realize that today’s reading is the same as yesterday’s but I thought that this subject of magic was worth two day’s worth of attention. We already looked at two differences between magic and biblical worship. Today we’ll look at the other two.

The first is one that we touched upon a few days ago. Pagans (and those influenced by pagan thought) tend to think of God (or the gods, or spiritual forces), as severely limited. In fact, their view of the gods is that they’re really just enhanced human beings. They constantly fall prey to the common failings of human beings, and are sometimes even less moral than most people are. If you’re familiar with Greek Mythology, then you know exactly what I’m referring to: Zeus, the supposed leader of the gods, had a string of affairs which produced several illegitimate offspring. If they don’t believe in gods, then people sometimes (especially in Eastern thought) think in terms of spiritual forces which aren't really persons at all. As I mentioned early on, you can see this in the “Force” of the Star Wars movies. It’s not sentient like a person; instead, it’s an “energy field,” which can be manipulated and which has no intrinsic morality (because there's a “dark side” of the Force).

Do you see this played out in the “prayers” of the Baal prophets? It’s actually pretty funny reading this. You ever seen someone who's trying to communicate with someone in a completely different language? What do they often do? They speak louder and slower, since that's supposedly going to help the other person understand them. Yeah, right. Well, when Baal failed to appear, his prophets shouted louder. Why would that make a difference? Because they actually believed that their god could be distracted or hard of hearing! And of course Elijah poked some fun at this misguided attempt, even suggesting that they needed to shout even louder because Baal might be “busy.” The word “busy” is a euphemism supplied by the translators, since the Hebrew word usually referred to using the restroom, specifically the sitting-down portion. Yes, they believed that this god could be occupied by this.

In stark contrast to this, the God who watches over us neither slumbers nor sleeps. This might seem a little discomforting, having him watch you 24-7, but it also means that when you call out to him for help, he always hears you. You don’t have to shout: He hears every whisper, even before it comes out your lips.

The final difference is so obvious, it really is humorous as well. The Summons, which I referenced yesterday, is actually a novel. The characters are studying Elijah’s confrontation on Mt. Carmel, and finally the teacher asks them a very simple question. She describes the actions of the Baal prophets, and quotes from vs. 26: “But there was no response; no one answered.” She asks, “Why not? Why was there no response from Baal?” She pauses for a few seconds, everyone is silent, and then she answers her own question: “Come on guys, because there’s no such person as Baal!” and the whole crowd erupts in laughter. As distinct from the God of the Bible, Baal is a god that man made up.

That’s what’s so tragic about the Baal prophets. They worked themselves into a frenzy, wore themselves out in dancing, shouted themselves horse, and cut themselves, all to get the attention of a false god who didn’t exist. But are we any better?

Remember the last lesson we learned from Joshua? If you don’t worship the God of the Bible, it doesn’t matter what you worship. Baal worship looks very strange to modern people today, but the modern gods of money, power, sex, fame, family, TV, or anything else are no better in the long run.

But let’s turn away from the foolish worship of non-gods to focusing on the true One. He's not limited by time or space, and he pays just as much attention to you as to his ultimate plan for the nations. He's real, he's here, and he’s speaking to you. Are you listening?

Lord God, there's no one like you. You alone are worthy of my worship, my praise, my allegiance, my trust, everything I am and everything I have. It’s yours.

[May 12]--God vs. Magic, Part One

1 Kings 18:16-40

We talked a few days ago about magic versus belief in the God of the Bible, but I think today’s reading provides a perfect backdrop for really finding out the difference between the two.

Why is this important? You might say, “I don’t try to use spells, I don’t even read my horoscope. So why does this apply to me?” The reason that this is so important is because people have false views about God, and they've let these views creep into their relationship with him, even after they’re saved. We might not be trying to cast spells, but some of the practices by the prophets of Baal might seem uncomfortably familiar to us today if we look at them a little closer.

Of course, today’s story is one of the most famous, and I remember reading about it in a “Picture Bible” as a kid. It’s pretty exciting to see this ultimate confrontation between Baal and the Lord, especially the ending. But there are some stark contrasts between Elijah’s behavior and his opponents’, and these differences are very instructive. I need to give credit to a book I read several years ago, one of the best ever written about traditional religion and biblical worship, namely The Summons by Dennis McCallum. Most of this material, both today’s and tomorrow’s was borrowed from him.

What's the first major contrast between worship of Baal and the worship of Yahweh? The first thing to notice is the nature of prayer. The prophets didn’t really pray: They said prayers. When you think about it, “Baal, answer us,” shouldn’t have taken several hours to say, should it? They weren’t praying, they were chanting. They thought that by saying the same thing over and over they could badger Baal into doing what they wanted. This is exactly what Jesus warned against: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” And they added motions with their hands, trying to “send” the prayers upward. If they could get the gestures right and say the right words, then Baal would hear them. In response to this babbling, how long did Elijah’s prayer take? A few seconds at most. He asked, and God heard and answered.

Another difference was in expectations of worshipers. By this I don’t mean what the worshipers expected of their gods, but what supposedly their gods expected of them. When Baal didn’t respond, they cut themselves. They thought that their god expected them to bleed for him. What does the true God expect of his people? True, under the Old Covenant he demanded sacrifices, but only animals and grains. He absolutely forbade any type of human sacrifice, and child sacrifice (very common in Canaanite worship) was especially repugnant to him. When the time finally came for human sacrifice, there was only one which was acceptable to God—his own Son. There may come a time in which we are called to give up our lives for the sake of the gospel, but in most cases he desires a living sacrifice, a person who lives for him each and every moment.

And an even more foundational difference? It's found in the very word pray. Literally "pray" means to ask. As in ask a person. Not demand. Not manipulate. Ask. And if you ask someone for something, then that intrinsically means that this person might just say "no." Or answer in a way that you don't anticipate or expect or even want.

So we immediately see some stark contrast between Baal and the true God of Israel. The question is, which one is closer to the type of God you worship? Do you think that a certain ritual and saying the right words will impress him? Or do you relate to him as your Father, simply opening your heart to him? What type of God do you really think he is?

Father God, I only want to worship you, not some image of you that I’ve made up. Please correct my vision of you. Please let me see and follow the real you, nothing else.

[May 11]--Mystery Man

1 Kings 17:1-6

As you probably know if you’ve read 1 Kings, right after Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two separate nations as a judgment on his misbehavior. The northern kingdom was known thereafter as “Israel” and the southern kingdom was “Judah.” The kings of Judah were a mixed bag: some really good, some really bad, and most somewhere in-between. Unfortunately, the northern kingdom had an unbroken record regarding its kings: They were ALL bad. Every last one of them was a stinker.

Israel got worse and worse, in an ongoing downward spiral of idolatry, sexual immorality, and general rebellion against God. And the king in charge, Ahab, was one of the worst in their history, and that’s saying something.

Their situation was desperate, and the nation was ripe for God’s judgment. But our God, who's not willing that anyone perish but that all come to repentance, sent a man to bring his people back to himself. His name meant “The Lord is my God,” and this was the essence of his lifelong message.

The reason I call him a mystery man is because we know very little about him. Most of the major prophets have narratives which give us details about their calling: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, even Amos. We know nothing about Elijah’s background besides what's in verse one, and we’re not even sure where his hometown was. We know that Gilead was in the northern area across the Jordan river, but we really don’t know where Tishbe is. It seemed like he stepped out of nowhere, pronounced a drought sent in discipline from the Lord, and then vanished for several years from public life.

His phrase, “whom I serve,” is literally “before whom I stand.” This was a phrase was usually meant as a servant of a king’s court, roughly equivalent to the staff in a President's administration. In other words, Elijah was stating right off the bat that he owed loyalty to the real King of Israel, Almighty God, not measly king Ahab. He couldn’t care less what some earthly king thought of him; he only cared about his Lord’s opinion.

For a few days we’re going to study this prophet, drawing some very important lessons from him. But for now, here are some ways we need to follow his example. We must not be discouraged when we see the general moral and spiritual decay around us. There are a lot of “Elijahs” whom God has sent to try to bring this nation back. He's not finished with America yet. His name was his message, just like our name ("follower of Jesus") is. And most importantly, he was unafraid to speak the truth, even when it was very unpopular and was opposed by those in authority. If we’re the most popular people out there, then we need to ask ourselves, are we being faithful to the message God's given us?

Lord Jesus, I so need that spirit within me. I’m such a coward sometimes, being silent when speaking the truth in love is called for. Please help me.

[May 10]--“I’m Going To Live Forever”

1 Kings 16:21-28

In my early teens I really enjoyed this TV show titled Fame. It was a drama chronicling the everyday adventures of teenagers who'd managed to enroll in a special school for the arts. All these teens were studying the arts-especially music and drama-in order to be famous one day. In fact, that was the explicitly stated goal in the show’s theme song: “I’m going to live forever, I’m going to learn how to fly.” They were all hoping to see their name up in lights, and there was almost no sacrifice which they wouldn't make to achieve it.

It’s been over three decades since I watched that show, and the common hunger for fame since then has grown to pathetic proportions in our society. Why are people willing to humiliate themselves on daytime talk shows? Why are they willing to stand in line for hours and go through all that hardship in order to get on a reality show? Why do people scratch and claw in order to be the next American Idol? So that they can be famous. Not respected for any specific achievement, just famous for anything, even if it’s for something bad. As the saying goes in advertising, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."

So why do I bring up the subject of fame with today’s reading? You wouldn’t know this just from reading about him in scripture, but King Omri is one of the most famous Israelite kings in all of history. There's much more archeological evidence regarding Omri among “secular” (non-biblical) sources than for any other king in Judah’s or Israel’s history. Over 150 years after his reign, Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (the most powerful kingdom in the world at that time) still referred to Israel as “the house of Omri.” This was after Omri’s family had stopped ruling and the throne had passed to other families (through violent means). In stark contrast, David, whom I consider to the greatest king ancient Israel or Judah ever had, is hardly ever mentioned in any non-biblical sources. In fact, many historians, who don’t take the Bible at its word, completely disbelieved that David ever existed until very recently, until they found some mention of him in ancient records.

So what’s my point here? Omri was more famous than David, at least among foreign nations, but so what? Here’s my question to bring perspective: Of these two, whom do you think God considered more important? The answer is so obvious that it’s laughable. Omri achieved fame among the nations, but David had much more of an eternal impact. The most apparent reason for this is because our Savior came into the world through the son of Jesse. Everything in God’s plan hinged on this. Omri oversaw some incredibly awesome publics-works projects, though. And if you visit the right archeological sites you just might get to see the ruins someday.

Maybe you don’t have much of a personal desire to be famous, but you might be star-struck by some people who are in the headlines at least right now. Can you see past all the hype? Fame on earth and fame up in heaven are two very different things. One is very temporary, and the other is eternal. Which is more important to you?

It matters not if the world has heard
or approves or understands;
The only applause we’re meant to seek
Is that of nail-scarred hands

                                                                     --B. J. Hoff

Lord Jesus, that's the only applause I want. When I start to crave the approval of men, please do whatever it takes to draw me back to you.

[May 09]--What is Magic?

1 Kings 14:1-11

I wanted to discuss this question, because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about both the word and the concept. When we think of the term, we tend to visualize some wizard or witch (in a movie or TV show) waving a wand and muttering some incantation, and yes, that would be magic. But it has a much broader meaning, and there are lot more people who buy into a magical worldview and lifestyle than we might realize.

First, let’s define the term. When I use it, I’m referring to a belief in supernatural (or spiritual) forces which can be manipulated by human beings. They believe in a supernatural realm which surrounds us and influences things all around us. The materialist only believes in things that can be detected by the five senses or by scientific instruments. Most people would reject this, and assume that there’s more to this universe than physical matter.

But don’t Christians believe in a supernatural realm? Absolutely, but here is the main difference. The magician doesn't really believe in an omnipresent omnipotent personal God who created everything. He either believes in lesser spiritual beings, or he sees the supernatural as mainly a collection of impersonal forces. You don’t pray to electricity: You manipulate it for your own ends.

If a magician believed in personal gods, then these gods were just really humans magnified. They were more powerful than us and had insight into things we didn’t know, but with the right strategy they could also be manipulated, or even fooled into doing your bidding.

We, on the other hand, believe in the Lord who created everything and who's all-knowing and all-powerful. He's not a force to be harnessed like electricity. He's a Person, indeed the Source of all personality. He has a will and emotions, and he desires some things as opposed to other things. This means that we can relate to him as a person. That’s why we can call him “Father.”

In a few days we’ll examine much more closely the contrast between magic and worship of the true God, but for now I wanted to use today’s reading to illustrate this discussion. Jeroboam had a problem, namely that his son was deathly ill. He sent his wife to talk to Ahijah the prophet. But notice his directions. He told her to disguise herself so the prophet wouldn’t recognize her, and to take along some gifts for him. Presumably the king knew that he was being disobedient to what God had told him, and he also knew that if the prophet knew whose son was sick, he wouldn’t give a favorable response to the king’s desire to see his son healed.

Apparently the plan was to have the queen fool the prophet into giving a favorable prophecy and thus somehow manipulate him. But this plan betrayed a severe misunderstanding about both God and his prophets. Prophets were not magicians, they were mouths for God (literally that’s what the Hebrew word means, a “mouth”). They could only tell people what the Lord told them to say, not what they'd like to tell them or what the listener would like to hear. And also the king had a pretty small understanding of the true God, a very limited view of the Almighty. I guess they didn’t think he was omniscient, since they thought he could be fooled by a simple disguise.

But what about us? Are we guilty of the same type of error? Well, do you think that God can be manipulated into doing your bidding by performing the right prayer, or by making promises to him? Do you try to “make deals” with him? Do you act as if he doesn’t know everything about you, including that sin? Only you and the Lord can really answer those questions.

Lord Jesus, you alone are worthy of my worship and adoration. When my vision of you is too small and wrong, please correct it. I only want to worship the true God, not someone I made up.

[May 08]--Do Miracles Change People?

1 Kings 13:33-34

I guess I let the cat out of the bag with the reading. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the answer to the question above is “no.” Yesterday we read how the king saw the prophet denouncing the new worship altar, ordered his arrest, and quickly changed his mind when the hand with his pointing finger withered right on his arm. Then he watched as the altar split open on its own and spilled its ashes all over the place. And you can read the result of all this in today’s passage: He had a momentary change of heart when his health and life were threatened, but quickly turned back to his “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” worship.

Of course, we read about the same thing with the Israelites during the Exodus and in the wilderness. They'd seen all the plagues on Egypt, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the cloud that had separated them from the Egyptians while they crossed, and the drowning of the entire enemy army. They woke up every morning and collected their breakfast which had literally fallen out of the sky. They had a cloud over their head during the heat of the day and had a huge fire by night to provide comfort and security. But as a study Bible I read once put it, “There were few atheists but many rebels.” You can read chapter after depressing chapter about how they continually complained and blasphemously longed for the days of slavery in Egypt. It was their cowardly refusal to trust God one more time which caused them to wander in the desert for forty years instead of enjoying the Land of Milk and Honey. The desert holds the graves of millions of them.

So what's my point here? There's an entire branch of modern Christianity which is--quite frankly--obsessed with miracles. And by miracles I’m not talking about the “miracles” like watching a baby being born or seeing a beautiful sunset. By “miracles” I mean the real definition: a temporary suspension of the laws of nature caused by the direct intervention of a supernatural being, usually God. Sorry, but as awe-inspiring as a live birth is, it’s not a miracle. Turning water into wine with a word, that’s a miracle. Bringing a man back to life after being dead three days, that’s a miracle.

So we have a lot of Christians and churches which assume that miraculous events should be an everyday occurrence for every believer, at least those who are strong enough in their faith. Let me answer this trend first by acknowledging that I believe that true miracles still happen today. I believe that at certain times God does heal people in ways that go contrary to medical science. But does that mean that every Christian can expect to be healed like that? We’ll deal more in depth with that question next month, but the short answer is “no.” God normally works within the natural laws which he established during creation, and the exceptions to that are rare, not the rule.

One of the problems I have with this fixation on miracles is because they have somehow gotten the idea that signs and wonders can strengthen faith or even birth it within a person lacking it. Friend, if someone is not trusting God, then a miracle alone will not change him! I promise you, you’re not going to see anything more wondrous than what the ancient Israelites saw, and they never really trusted him. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after four days in the grave in front of hundreds of witnesses, and what was the religious leaders’ reaction? Plot to murder Jesus and Lazarus!

We’ll talk more later about what does really change a person, but for now, we just need to understand that they’re not God’s normal modus operandi for bringing people to himself. If you’re waiting for a miracle to start trusting in the Lord, quit waiting. What you don’t need is more light, what you need is to quit running away from the light that he’s already provided.

Father God, I don’t need anything more than what you’ve given me. Please help me to trust you, and to listen to your voice.

[May 07]--Tuning Out Other Voices

1 Kings 13:1-25

I’m sorry that today’s reading is a little more than what we normally digest, but trust me, it’s worth it to know this story. This is one of the most instructive stories in Kings or Chronicles, and most people are not as familiar with it as with stories about David or Solomon.

We don’t know what this man’s name was, since he’s only called a “man of God” in this passage. Apparently he was a prophet, speaking on God’s behalf and getting direct revelation from him. Everything he said came true, and he was sent to warn King Jeroboam and the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to return to worshiping the Lord as opposed to making up their own religion.

The king tried to entice him to supper, possibly thinking that he could influence the prophet to change the prophecy he had pronounced. The man of God, warned against this by the Lord, adamantly refused any hospitality.

But then came his downfall. Another prophet, without any recorded name, tried to persuade the man of God to have a meal with him. In that culture, hospitality was considered extremely important, and homeowners would even compete with each other for the privilege of entertaining a certain guest, especially a prominent one like this one. The man of God refused at first, citing the fact that his Lord had warned him against it. But then the prophet from the North convinced him to come inside by outright lying to him, making up a story about seeing an angel who told him that it would be all right. Perhaps influenced by hunger, thirst, and tiredness, the man of God relented. As you can see by reading the rest of the passage, this one mistake cost him his life.

Why is this story so important? In this world, there are multiple voices competing for our attention. The enemy tries to lure us away from God’s instructions with a host of distractions. It could be as obvious as sexual immorality, or as innocuous as watching TV.

Worst of all, he has plenty of ministers under his control, men and women who make it their life’s work to tell people what they want to hear. Even men and women who claim to speak for God. They might claim that an angel spoke to them, or even Jesus himself. And unfortunately, there are plenty of people, even Christians, who give them an audience.

How do we avoid this? Folks, this isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. Get to know God’s word, intimately and faithfully. Check everything a supposed Bible teacher says against what the Lord has said in his word. Yes, that includes your pastor. With all the noise around us, we need to learn how to tune it out and listen for our Shepherd’s voice.

Lord Jesus, please tune my ears for your voice. Everything else, help me to tune it out.

[May 06]--It’s My Parents’ Fault!

1 Kings 11:9-13

I’ve mentioned this before and discussed it briefly, but I thought this was a good place to examine it in a bit more detail. The question I’m referring to is whether we’re punished for our parents’ sins. Like most deep theological questions, there’s no simple “yes” or “no” answer to that one.

First off, we have to acknowledge that we’re coming to the Bible with an Western/American point of view. We pride ourselves on individualism and our concern about individual human rights. That’s why American Christians have to overcome a “Jesus and me” type of mentality that overlooks who we are in the Body of Christ. The idea that we’re punished for the sins of others is repugnant to us.

To be sure, there are verses in Scripture which might sound as if God punishes us for the sins of others. Exodus 34:6-7, one of my favorite passages of all time, ends with God saying about himself that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." Actually, though, a more literal translation like the NASB renders it as “visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren. . .” which is a bit more vague. God certainly had no problem with dishing out punishment on sinners which sometimes affected their own children. The most famous example is God’s judgment on the Canaanites: The Lord specifically told the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child within those borders, showing no mercy.

On the other hand, there is counter-evidence in Scripture. The book of Ezekiel directly addressed this by warning that “The soul who sins is the one who will die." The whole point of chapter 18 is that God will judge each person individually for what he does, not what his parents did. And of course the picture of the Final Judgment is that each one of us will answer for his own actions before God, not someone else’s.

I think two points need to be made here. First, it’s a fact of life that sometimes people undergo bad consequences for their actions, but any type of “judgment” you see on a whole family in the Bible was a temporal judgment, not an eternal one. In other words, any collective judgment was limited to this life, not the next one. In this world, unfortunately, we suffer not only for our own personal sin but also because of others’.

The second point that needs consideration is based on today’s passage. We are quick to complain when we suffer because of others’ bad decisions, but what about the good decisions? Solomon personally benefited from the godliness of his father. You can visit Arlington Cemetery, in Washington D.C., and see the graves of thousands of people who bravely made the choice to sacrifice their lives for the freedom and benefit of future generations. This country was founded by a few men who pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in order to face down the most powerful nation in the world. And of course the biggest example of this principle is the Cross. Sometimes we gain an advantage from people who made good decisions on our behalf.

I promise you, trying to figure out all the theology here will give you a headache. Just be sure you understand two things: 1) My spiritual condition affects not only me but people around me, and 2) When I give an accounting to Christ one day, the subject of discussion will be ME and MY choices, not someone else.

Lord Jesus, I need your grace so much, not only to forgive me but to change me. Please.