[Jan 31]--Dust On The Scales

Isaiah 40:12-17

            When was the last time you actually had something weighed? I was pondering that as I typed out the title for today’s devotional. I can’t remember when exactly it was, but I suppose it was when I last bought a certain amount of meat from my grocery’s deli. On instructions from my wife, I went to the deli and got a half-pound of some type of meat that she wanted. The deli worker put the meat on the scale, measured out what I asked for, wrapped it and handed it to me.

            That’s where today’s title comes in. Hopefully they keep their scales relatively clean, but of course there’s always going to be a minute amount of dust that settles on the scales. You probably can’t even see it, and it certainly isn’t going to affect the price you pay.

            And so we come to today’s passage. Remember the main point of this chapter? God told his prophet to “comfort [his] people,” and that’s what the prophet’s words are meant to accomplish. So we come to an interesting point that he’s trying to make concerning the Lord.

            He starts by asking some rhetorical questions. He asks who has measured the entire oceans in his hands? Who has marked off the breadth of the heavens,  the whole of creation beyond our world? Well, besides God himself, the answer is “no one.”

            And who has instructed the Lord? Who's been his counselor? To whom has God ever gone for advice? To whom has the Almighty ever gone and said “Gosh, I could really use some input on this issue. Can you enlighten me?” The answer, once again, is “no one.”

            We move from looking at God himself to comparing him to the nations of the earth. Think about all the military might which has trodden the earth in all the years that mankind has gathered armies. Think of the great hordes of troops commanded by the likes of Napoleon, Caesar, Hannibal, General Lee and Grant, and Eisenhower. Think of all the industrial might of all those nations. And if you gathered them all together and put them on God’s “scales,” they wouldn’t even register. They’re just “dust on the scales.” They’re beneath contempt.

I’m reminded of the nations as presented in the second Psalm. They’ve gathered together in a grand conspiracy to keep the Lord from anointing his chosen One, the Son whom he's appointed as heir to everything. And what’s the Lord's response to the plans and schemes and gathered resources which have gathered together against him and his Messiah? Wringing his hands up on the throne? Biting his nails? Um, no. He’s laughing at them. And then he tells them “Too late! I’ve already done it! You’re a day late and a dollar short!”

But let’s get back to the main point here. This isn’t an esoteric lesson in theology. The Spirit (through his messenger) has a point to make. And that point, once again, is to comfort his people. So how does this comfort us? How does making an issue of God’s omnipotence versus the relative impotence of the nations meant to bring us comfort?

Here’s why, and it directly addresses something that’s bothered me for some time concerning American-style Christianity. We tend to focus on the personal side of the equation of our relationship with God, a “Jesus is my bestest friend!” type of perception.

My friend, a God who's just your “buddy” is not going to be very comforting when your world is falling apart. I don’t know about you, but I find it very comforting that my Father is waaaaaaaaaay bigger than anything this world has ever seen. He made the world, and he holds it together by just the word of his power. He’s not Atlas, carrying the world upon his shoulders. He spoke it into existence once, and that word is powerful enough to hold creation together as long as it takes.

And he manipulates kings and presidents and tyrants and dictators and nations like pieces on a chess board for his own purposes and for our good. And that’s key. If he was just a God “up there” who didn’t really know or care about the intimate details of my personal life, then that wouldn’t be very comforting either. But we can praise and thank him that even though the nations “are counted as less than worthless and less than nothing,” he counts each and every individual one of us as infinitely precious. He knows and he cares. Bask in that for a while.

Father God, it astounds me that the God of the universe, who runs this world and this universe actually cares about me. Not because I deserve it, but because you’ve chosen to care. And love. And forgive. And redeem. And adopt. Wow.

[Jan 30]--Cut Grass And Flowers

Isaiah 40:6-9

            Keep in mind the whole point of this passage: Comfort my people. That’s the main purpose of chapter 40, to comfort God’s people. They were expected to read this chapter about 85 years later when Babylon invaded their country, besieged Jerusalem, killed much of the inhabitants, and carried them all as captives to another nation. This is meant to comfort them.

            So what’s the point of today’s passage? What’s the Holy Spirit (through his “mouth”) trying to tell them and us?

            He makes a huge contrast in front of them. On one hand there are men. There are good men like Isaiah or King David or King Hezekiah or George Washington. There are very powerful and evil men, like Stalin or Hitler or—in Isaiah’s day—Sennacherib, or—in Jeremiah’s day—Nebuchadnezzar. The bad men command armies and thousands of men to their death, often just for their own personal glory or ambition or whims. They erect statues of themselves, so that the people can gaze up to their glorious leader in awe.

            And what are these men, both good and bad? What do they all have in common? In a word—transience. They’re compared to flowers and grass, and I understand full well the comparison. I’ve bought flowers for my wife, and I try to pick out good ones. The best ones I pick out for her smell nice and are really pretty. But within a few days, the prophet’s description runs true: They wither and die. Some take longer than others, and some are prettier and prettier-smelling than others. But they all eventually give in to the inevitable.

            The grass which I have to mow and mow and mow and mow during the summertime will die out in the winter. The green grass turns brown.

            Why did God compare men to flowers and grass? I mean, I live longer than they do, right? Not on God’s timetable, you don’t. By his reckoning, mankind has been here just for a little while. You’re here today and gone tomorrow. You’re going to live, what? Eighty years? Ninety? A hundred? What is that in the grand scheme of things? No wonder James compared us to a “mist” that’s here momentarily and then vanishes.

            Hitler. Stalin. Nebuchadnezzar. Napoleon. Hannibal. Caesar. All of them, at one time, had the lives of countless men under their command. Each one of them thought they were a god among men. And then the “breath” of God blew on them. Not his fist. Not the full extent of his anger. Pick up a dandelion and blow on it. That’s what God did to these fools.

            But what does last? Well, the Lord of course. The angels don’t age or die. Souls of men go on to their eternal destiny. But there’s something else, something very practical for us, especially if we’re experiencing hard times.

            Ah yes, God’s word. Skeptics have tried to pick it apart. Mockers laugh at it and make fun of it on the comedy circuit. So-called “scholars” dismiss it. Tyrants ban it and burn it. Christians--who should know better--ignore it. And they’ve all been doing that for thousands of years. Fools who call themselves wise men hold it on an anvil and hit it as hard as they can with their hammers, only to find that the hammers have broken first. And God’s word is still here.

            Why were these words of comfort to their first hearers in exile? Because the ones who were persecuting them would end up like those flowers. They wouldn’t last. But God’s word—including his great and precious promises—would last forever.

            I think I see two big applications staring us in the face.

1)      Do you see just how short a time you have? If you haven’t received Christ, then the only day you can do that is today. If you know someone who needs to hear the Good News of Jesus, then the only day you can do that is today. If there’s an area of disobedience that you’d like to deal with in this life before you have to deal with it at the Throne of Christ, then that the only day you can do that is today.

2)      Do you value God’s word? I’m sure you haven’t burned it. You might even give lip service to some belief about its authority. But do you ignore it? I assure you, it doesn’t ignore you.

Lord Jesus, almost everything I pour my life into—sports, TV, work, and a host of other things—are here today and gone tomorrow. I beg you, please give me the eternal perspective. Help me to pour my life into what really matters.

[Jan 29]--Words of Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-5

             I guess it’s a sign of conceit, but I’ll do it anyway. Do any of you out there actually care what my favorite Bible passages are? If you’ve read for a while, you know that my favorite book of the Bible is Romans, and my favorite of the Old Testament is Proverbs. Why? What’s my criterion? I’ve given this some thought, and I suppose it could be summed up in one word: completeness. I love them so much because they cover a range of subjects. You’ll find no better and more thorough explanation of our salvation than in the book of Romans. You’d be hard pressed to find a subject in Proverbs that isn’t at least touched upon in Proverbs: love, money, marriage, work, raising children, life, death, and especially what we need to know about the Lord.

            That’s why I love the book of Isaiah so much. He runs the gamut of emotions and subjects, and there’s no prophet that tells us more about our Savior (both in his first and second comings) than the son of Amoz. And that’s why I’m really excited about this particular chapter of Isaiah. It’s really complete. It tells us a lot about our Savior God.

            Before we get to it, let’s address an issue that you might encounter out there. It’s conventional wisdom among a lot of biblical scholars that one man didn’t write the entire book of Isaiah. They point to a harsh shift of mood as their first piece of evidence. I’ve mentioned this before: The first 39 chapter of the book (with a few exceptions) are mostly focused on God’s judgment on sin. The last 27 chapters (with a few exceptions) are mostly focused on God’s ultimate redemption.

            Let me answer that objection with a simple question: Who do you think is the best interpreter of Scripture? A guy who has some degrees behind his name who doesn’t really think the Bible is literally true? Or the writers of the Gospels? Seriously. Because personally I think I'd take their interpretation over anyone else’s. If you don’t take them to be authoritative, then that’s another issue. But they quoted from both “divisions” of the book, and as far as they were concerned, there was one man who was the author of the book that bears his name.

            But let’s actually look at the beginning of the chapter, shall we? The first 39 chapters are warning Judah about the coming Babylonian invasion and exile. The remaining chapters talk as if the exile has already happened, even though they wouldn’t occur for about 85 years after he died.

            So what’s the Lord’s main message for his people while they were in exile? Remember the main job of a prophet (and pastor): Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  Speaking to the future generation in exile, the Lord tells his messenger to “Comfort my people.” Let them know that their time of punishment has an ending, and that ending is closer than they think.

            Do verses 2-3 sound familiar to you? They should. They were partially fulfilled in Isaiah’s ministry, but they'd be completely fulfilled in the service of John the Baptist. His purpose in life, his reason for existence, was to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. That was John’s (and Isaiah’s) breath, water, and food.

            They were royal heralds. A herald arrived weeks or months in advance of the arriving king. He told people to get ready for the king’s arrival. If there were rocks or trees on the highway, they were removed. Streets were swept, trash hauled away, and everything was “spruced up” as much as possible so that when the king arrived on his inspection or tour, everything looked as nice as they could get it.

            That’s what vss. 3-4 are talking about. This “raising of the valleys” and “lowering of the mountains” is not something that Jesus does when he comes again. This is something that God’s people were expected to do before he arrived.

            Now we need some discernment here. Verse 5 is not saying that he’s not going to arrive until we sweep the streets and get everything ready. He’s coming at his appointed time whether we’re ready or not.

            You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? The King is coming for his inspection, whether you’re ready or not. Consider this your John the Baptist/Isaiah the prophet wake-up-call.

            But I’d like to end on a positive note if I may. One way or another, all mankind will see the glory of the Lord.  They might see it reflected in the Message of the Good News. They might see it in the image of Christ reflected (however imperfectly) in his Church. All of redeemed humanity will one day see his glory when he returns. And the rest will see his glory as reflected in his judgment. When will you see it?

Lord Jesus, please fill me with your glory. Please help me to be the messenger I need to be. I want to accurately and faithfully represent my Savior to the world. Any rough areas or obstacles to your work in my life? Get rid of them. Yes, let's.

[Jan 28]--Joy Of The Redeemed

Isaiah 35

Reading over yesterday, I wanted to provide a little balance. I just couldn’t end on what seemed to be a sour note. After all that judgment, the very next chapter—not by coincidence, I believe— focuses on what can be summarized as “the joy of the redeemed.”

Now, to be fair, there’s some debate over exactly when this will be, or was, fulfilled. Some people think that it was fulfilled during Christ’s first coming. There’s some reason to think so, since Jesus definitely healed blind eyes, lame legs, deaf ears, and mute tongues while he was here on earth, and he pointed this out to people who doubted as to whether or not he was the true Messiah. In other words, it seems that a person who studied and believed the prophets would expect that the Messiah would be doing miracles like this, and it’s likely that this very passage was what he was referring to.

I think that today’s passage was partially fulfilled during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but it awaits completion in the future. So some others think this refers to when Jesus comes back and sets up a physical kingdom on earth. That’s possible, and I wouldn’t discount it.

Still others think that this is figuratively describing the “eternal state,” when everything is destroyed by fire and then made new. Well, one thing we can know for sure: If it isn’t fulfilled before then, it will certainly be fulfilled by then.

Now here's a clarifying question: What difference does it make? Really? Does it really make a difference in your daily walk with Christ as to exactly when and how this will play out? Will it keep you from sin and draw you closer to your Savior depending on how you answer the above questions? I'd humbly submit as an answer—No.

So what can we draw from this, assuming that it’s not all fulfilled 2000 years ago? There are some things I think all of us should take away from this:

1) When Christ comes back, all will be made right again. None of this is what he intended for creation. You're aware of that, right? There’s only been two people in all of history who saw this world the way God created it to be. When they sinned, it wrecked everything. I wear glasses and have to take medicine to keep my diabetes in check. God didn’t create eyes and pancreases to malfunction like that. But when he returns, all will be made right once more. Actually, far better than it was at the beginning.

2) We'll dwell in perfect safety and harmony. When raising children, we have to eventually teach them about the “lions” and other “ravenous beasts” out there. We might not believe in monsters like werewolves and vampires, but there are monsters out there for real, both in human form and otherwise. They change their faces and methods and names, but they’re always out there. Every age has their own. But it will not be always. The monsters will be locked away in quarantine forever, and the fear will be gone. Forever.

3) We need to make sure we’re on the right side. Please note that the prophet is careful to warn us that only the “redeemed” will have a place in this. How much did the prophet understand of what he wrote? We can’t be sure until we ask him face-to-face. But we do know as N.T. believers that the only way any of us can take part in this is to be “bought back” (that’s literally what “redeemed” means). “Bought back how? With what?” Hopefully you know by now. If not, read this.

If you are one of those who’s been “bought back,” now might be a great time to thank him for it. Ya think?

Lord Jesus, thank you. I'm yours twice over: Once because you made me, and twice because you bought me. Please help me to act like it.

[Jan 27]--Personal Jesus

Isaiah 34:1-7

If you’re old enough, do you remember the song title above? I’m old enough to recall when it came out. It was released by Depeche Mode in 1989, and for a while you couldn’t seemingly turn on the radio without hearing it. I thought about that song as I read today’s passage. “Keith, do you have the wrong reading link above? What in Sam Hill does that song have to do with this reading from Isaiah?” Please bear with me, and it might make sense.

If you read the lyrics of the song, they’re actually not that bad in themselves. There’s some indication that the group meant it sarcastically, but taken on its own the lyrics are pretty sound, as far as it goes. It talks about someone who’s there to help you in times of need, who’s there to be a shoulder to cry on, to lift you up when you’re feeling down, etc.

And there is that aspect of our relationship with God in the Bible. Even in this very prophet’s book, it predicts that the Great Shepherd will carry his sheep “close to his heart” and “gently lead those that have young.” He wants to have an intimate relationship with us which is as close as a heartbeat, as close as the breath on my lips. He knows me inside-out as if he had nothing else in the universe to think about, and he wants me to know him better as well.

So again, why am I pointing out this passage like this? Because it provides a vital and essential corrective on our too-often overemphasis on the intimacy aspect, to the detriment of the transcendent aspect. Like I said, “Personal Jesus” is not wrong in and of itself, but if that’s all you know about the God of the Universe, you aren’t worshiping and knowing the true God of the Bible. At best, you have a very inadequate understanding of him, and at worst you’re worshiping a god of your own making. The biblical term for that second scenario is idolatry.

That’s why it’s so important to read the Bible from cover to cover, and to focus on what the prophets have to say about the God with whom we have to deal. He's the Judge of all the universe, with humanity in particular having a date before his Throne of Judgment. He's the Lord over the nations, and he'll one day call each and every one of those nations to account. He'll weigh them out on his perfect scales, and they'll get exactly what they deserve. He's the One before whom angels dare not look at face-to-face. He's the One who moves the mightiest nations around like pieces on a chessboard. Need I remind you, that this is the same God who killed every man, woman, child, and animal on the face of the earth—with the exception of eight people and the animals on the boat? And when our gentle, loving Savior returns to earth, he'll be riding a white horse, symbolizing a conquering king leading a marauding army? And then he’s going to cleanse this entire earth with fire, reduce everything into its molecular components, and then raise up something better in its place.

To us, his throne is a place of mercy and grace and help and kindness. And it always will be. But to those on his “bad side,” not so much. And the only thing separating those on the wrong side from those on the “good side”. . . is Jesus’ blood covering our sins. That’s it.

I just wanted to provide a little corrective perspective, that’s all.

Lord Jesus, I'd be an absolute fool to trust in my righteousness, my resources, or anything except my Savior. You alone are worthy to judge everything and everyone, and I'm so grateful for your mercy, grace, and love.

[Jan 26]--God's Longing

Isaiah 30:18

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men! I was planning to just tack on today’s verse onto yesterday’s devotional and spend a couple of sentences at the end of it referencing the verse. But as I looked at it, there was so much “meat” in it that I had to give a full day to it.

If you read yesterday, you know that the context of the verse was Israel’s temptation to go to Egypt to get military support against the oncoming Assyrian assault. God had told them that if they went to Egypt, it would be disastrous for them, not least because they were deliberately disobeying a specific command. If they’d only wait on him and trust in him, everything would turn out fine.

Now we come to today’s verse, and although the immediate setting was Israel’s temptation towards Egypt, I think it has a personal application to us today. At least it does to me.

First, we get a glimpse into the Father’s heart. It says that he “longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.” Shall I trot out the usual verses I supply which show what type of God we serve? If you haven’t seen them, look at them here. Yes, he judges, but his heart is to forgive and restore and save, not to destroy. When God revealed his essence to Moses (as best as the prophet could handle it), the Lord didn’t show any particular “form” that was described. Instead, the Lord revealed his innate character, who he is: He is “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”

Second, we have a bit of an odd combination in the second half of the verse. He says, in effect “The Lord is longing to forgive you and restore you and protect you and provide for you, because he is a God of justice.” Or it might be related to the last part of the verse: “Because he is a God of justice, all who wait on him are blessed.”

Does that strike you as a little strange? Wouldn’t you expect him to say something like “The Lord is longing to forgive you because he’s a God of love.” That would be true: He is love.

But that’s not what Isaiah says. It says because he is a God of justice, he longs to forgive. Or as some interpret it, people who wait on him (in faith) are blessed because he is a God of justice.

It makes sense if you think about it a little further. He’s not calling on us (in this verse) to entrust ourselves to him because of his love, but because of his justice. Let’s get this straight. We deserve nothing from the Lord but judgment. He owes us nothing but Hell. So that’s obviously not what the prophet’s referring to. But he's promised that if we come to him in repentance and ask him to forgive, he will. And he’s promised that if we wait on him, he'll take care of his children.

That’s how we can make an appeal to him. That’s what we can ultimately trust in. Not just his love, as incredible as that is. But we can appeal to his honor. His reputation. His word (in the sense of you “giving your word”). We can say to him “Lord, I know that I deserve nothing good from you. But you’ve promised X to everyone who comes to you, and I know that you will never ever ever back down from your word.”

My friend, you can take that to the bank. You might not feel like he loves you, but you can know that Heaven and earth will come apart at the seams before one syllable of one promise of God fails. And that’s more than enough.

Father God, I thank you for the great and precious promises I have in your word. Every syllable will come to pass, and that’s where I’m going to take my stand. That’s my anchor. That’s my shelter.

[Jan 25]--Looking For. . .

Isaiah 30:12-17

I remember growing up listening to a song that you heard all the time on the radio, and I later learned it summarizes humanity’s plight so perfectly: “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places.” Can you think of a popular song title ever that crystallized so well what’s wrong with the world?

Of course, there are other things we can look for in the wrong places, and today’s passage tells the sad story of Israel, who was looking for security in all the wrong places. It’s totally understandable, when you know their situation: They heard of this 900-pound gorilla of the Middle East named Assyria, and it was heading their way. Nations a lot stronger than they were had fallen before this beast. From the human perspective, it looked like the most natural thing in the world to look for allies wherever they could find them.

And the most natural solution was Egypt. Once their refuge, then their oppressor, and now it looked like their only hope. Apparently relations had thawed over the years, since Egypt was offering an alliance against the common enemy. And Egypt had the one weapon that seemed virtually unbeatable: trained horses and chariots! This was the supposedly unstoppable weapon of that time.

Against this conventional wisdom the lonely prophet stood against the tide and said “Stop!!!” Of course, if they consulted their Scripture, it wouldn’t have even come to this point. There had been enemies in the past who'd had chariots and horses. Ever hear of the Judge Deborah? Israel had turned away from the Lord, and he had given them over to a Canaanite king named Jabin. Under Deborah’s guidance, Israel defeated them with God’s power behind them. The lesson should have been plain: Horses and chariots are not going to save you. Trusting and obeying the Lord? That will.

Now that raises the question: Is having a military wrong? No. The Lord himself raised up an army among Israel. Some of God’s finest people were military heroes, David being first and foremost on that list. The whole book of Judges is filled with military heroes. Rarely did the Lord tell his people to just “trust in God” by dismantling all earthly strength.

So what was the issue with going to Egypt at this point in time? Well, first and most importantly: God had already told them not to do that during the days of Moses. That should have ended the issue.

But the heart of the problem was, well, the heart. By disobeying his explicit command, they were demonstrating that they weren’t trusting in him. There’s nothing intrinsically sinful about horses or chariots or any other weapon or any other earthly resource. The only question is: “Am I trusting in God or trusting in my own resources?”

This principle applies on the macro level (with national defense) as well as on a more practical level in our daily lives. Are you trusting in God or in your retirement savings? Are you trusting in God or in your job skill set? Are you trusting in God or in your hard work, personal connections, etc.? Again, there’s nothing intrinsically sinful (most of the time) with earthly resources. They were given to us by our Father, and we should use them if appropriate.

But what, or who, are you ultimately trusting in? And if you claim that you trust him, are you demonstrating that by obeying?

Yes Father, I trust you. And by your grace, I’ll show that by obeying.

[Jan 24]--Perfect Peace

Isaiah 26:1-7

I find it interesting when people long for a “simpler time” and indulge in nostalgia. I always feel like asking them (I’m usually too polite to say it out loud) “When exactly was this ‘Golden Age’ which you’re talking about? The 50’s, when we were constantly under the threat of nuclear war? The 60’s, when our country was torn apart by racial strife? The 70’s, when we had long gas lines, high unemployment, and financial crises? Or maybe we can go back further, like the 30’s, or the 40’s, or the turn of the century?”

My point is pretty simple: There’s never been a time when people could just sit back and say “Now we’ve got it made! No more war or famine or poverty!” Or if they were, they were fooling themselves. Every generation has its own reasons to fear: Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism, Economic Depressions, Islamic extremism, etc.

But even though each age has a different reason to fear, each has the same cure for their fears. Isaiah calls each of us to find perfect peace. How? Speaking to his Lord, he says that “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” Who wouldn’t want perfect peace, especially in days like these?

So easy to talk about, so easy to suggest it in a devotional, and so difficult to do. Please note that it’s not just an issue of trusting God. Yes, I trust him. Or at least I say I do. But the promise of perfect peace is towards those whose mind is steadfast.

Why is this important? Because making your mind steadfast is a decision you make, not an emotion to which you succumb.

Let’s take a less melodramatic example than the world ending. Let’s think about a common situation in these hard economic times. You’re just told that your job is in jeopardy; in fact, it’s pretty likely you won’t be employed next month.

Yes, you need to trust in God’s provision. But what does that mean? Is it just an emotional wave that passes over you, a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit? Maybe so, but probably not. What I’m talking about here is a specific decision that you make. You say or think (out loud might be better): “I'm choosing to trust in you. I will not panic. I will not give in to fear. Father, you've promised in [Book, chapter, verse] that you'll take care of me.” What if the Enemy (either directly or indirectly) tries to bring fear to your heart again? You simply say “Get away from me, Satan! I'm choosing to trust in him. I'm not going to panic. I'm not going to give into panic. The Lord has promised in [Book, chapter, verse] that he'll take care of me.” Repeat as needed.

Do you notice the secret above? In order for your mind to be steadfast, you need to fill it with Scripture. Memorize as much as you can. Don’t wait for situation X to come up. At the very least, familiarize yourself with verses which pertain to what you might experience in the near future.

So do you want perfect peace? Then a practical step might be turning to your Bible. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

Father God, I thank you for your promise of perfect peace if my mind is steadfast, if I just trust in you. I can’t do that on my own; I’d be fooling myself if I tried. It’s only by your empowering grace that I can even come close to this. Please give me what I need.

[Jan 23]--Bigger and Biggest

Isaiah 25:1-9

As you might have guessed, I was not that popular during most of my high school experience. For some strange reason, a “geek” and “nerd” who loved comic books and sci-fi and wore glasses and who was socially inept didn’t have ten girlfriends on a “wait list.” And of course with the unpopularity came the bullying. I’ve always been shorter than most, so that also invited bullying by guys who were bigger than I was. Man, I wish I'd been bigger and taller and stronger!

That’s the story of most of the world, isn’t it? The stronger preying on the weaker, both on the micro level up to the international level. But there’s something else that even the strongest man or nation has to remember: No matter how big or strong or tough you are, there’s always someone bigger or stronger or tougher.

The reason I bring this up is because I think of that every time I read today’s passage. What does the passage have to do with what I talked about before?

Today’s reading from Isaiah predicts a time when the Lord comes and makes everything right. As N.T. believers we know that this is referring to the return of the Lord Jesus. But what I want to point out is the prophet’s description of the arrival of the Messiah in vss. 6-9.

He says that the Lord will set before “all” peoples (Jew and Gentile) a feast fit for a king. There will be “aged wine” (representing the best of the best) and the “finest of meats,” symbolizing the almost decadent nature of what he’s prepared for his people. But then he gets to the best promise of all.

He will finally do away with the “the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations.” What is this sheet/shroud?

Well, even if he doesn’t answer that question in the very next verse, you might've guessed. What is the one thing that hangs over all our heads, the one enemy that no man can defeat and which every man naturally fears? Death. It’s the great leveler. Ever since our first parents put us under its power, it stands pretty much undefeated. As the saying goes, the death rate is 100% nowadays. It claims everyone of all races, ages, economic status, national citizenship, and geography.

Like the proverbial bully, it takes what it wants from us, and we have no say in it. Why? Because it’s bigger than we are.

But one day that will change. Isaiah says that the Lord will “swallow up” death forever. My friend, the only way you can swallow anything is if you’re bigger than it is. And he is.

That process started two thousand years ago when a Man walked out of a tomb after inhabiting it for three days. Now it holds no fear over us, because we know that our Savior escaped from its grasp, and he’s just the first of many.

And one day he’ll return and we’ll have new bodies which will never be subject to that tyrant again. The greatest fear of all mankind will be thrown out into the garbage in front of all of us. The tears will be wiped away. And what will be our song as we watch?

“Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”


Lord Jesus, thank you so much for the sure hope which we have in you. When we trust in you, we’ll see in the end that you are completely worthy of that trust.

[Jan 22]--The Real Path of Peace and Unity

Isaiah 19:1, 16-25

As I write this, Egypt has been in the news a lot lately. The people have risen up against the dictator who’s ruled over them for almost three decades. I’m certainly not going to cry into my pillow over him, but I’m really concerned about what'll replace him.

Seeing this nation with roots stretching back for millennia has turned my thoughts towards what God’s word has to say about it. Please pardon my lack of precision in terminology, but when I say that Scripture has a somewhat schizophrenic view of Egypt, you know what I mean by the word. The first time we read of it, Abraham left the Promised Land because of a famine and sought refuge there. As I’ve discussed before, my distinct impression from Moses’ description is that this was not a shining moment in Abraham’s faith: There’s no indication that the Lord told him to go there, and he ended up lying about his wife and handing her over to a harem to save his own skin.

Then Joseph went there as a slave, and ended up being second-in-command to Pharaoh himself. Joseph brought the rest of his family there to ride out another famine. In that instance, Egypt provided (once again) a refuge. I don’t know who pointed this out to me several years ago, but it was very important that Jacob’s family moved to Egypt for a few years. They were a small group in constant danger of being assimilated while in Canaan, and Egypt provided a chance for them to grow into a group that was in less danger of that. In fact, the exact opposite was true: The Egyptians wouldn’t even eat with the Hebrews. So for many years, Egypt was a great place to be: They were protected, cared for, provided for, etc.

Of course you know it didn’t stay that way. A new Pharaoh arose who didn’t “remember” Joseph’s contributions, and their refuge became a prison and a slaughterhouse. An entire generation of boy babies were drowned, and everyone who wasn’t killed was sentenced to horrible oppressive slavery. Then the Lord sent Moses and they left that horrific place.

But the odd thing is, the Lord—even while Moses was alive—foresaw a different view of Egypt. He warned them through the prophet that they must never go back to Egypt for horses, the “atom bomb” of that age. In other words, the threat from Egypt in the future was not an outward one of physical violence (like in Moses’ day) but as a source of temptation to trust in man’s resources and not in God’s provision. And as we’ll discuss in a few days, that’s what happened in Isaiah’s day.

So Egypt has been a physical refuge, a source of persecution, and a source of temptation. But is there another role for Egypt in the future? One they’ve never taken on before?

As near as I can tell, yes. I know that there are those out there who take passages like this symbolically, and I can respect their viewpoint. I don’t think they’re being unfaithful to Scripture. But I do believe that one day Egypt will join Israel and others in true unity and peace.

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’m pretty pessimistic about any efforts to bring about national unity or peace without Christ as the center. But when he is the center, when people are brought into the Lord’s kingdom, then we’ll see true and lasting peace and justice. When people unite in worshipping the one true God, then we’ll see what the dreamers have called for. That’s when Jew and Arab and Persian and Turk and Greek and Korean and Japanese and everyone else who has a grudge against someone else can truly put aside hate and injustice and be made into one. One Body.

I don’t think we’ll see the complete fulfillment of that until Christ returns. But in the meantime, we can pray and work towards bringing people under the Banner of the Prince of Peace. What part does the Father have for you in this?

Father, what do you want me to do? What tool do you want me to be? How can I be more useful?

[Jan 21]--Celebration Time

Isaiah 12

I said I wasn’t going to do it, and for the most part, I won’t. I’m referring to my personal commitment to avoid (as much as possible) taking a stand regarding specifics about the return of Christ. I try—again, as much as possible--to keep this devotional such that any Evangelical Bible-believing Christian would agree with it. Part of my reasoning, quite frankly, is because I try to keep my theology practical. I always ask “If this certain interpretation of prophecy is such and such, how would it really affect my daily walk with Christ?” If the answer’s “Not much,” then I tend to avoid talking about it.

But regarding this passage, you might look at the first three words and ask “In what day?” What’s Isaiah referring to? When is this going to take place? I won’t go into anything more specific than to say this: I think it’s partially fulfilled now in the lives of everyday believers, and I think it will be completely fulfilled when our Savior returns.

The reason I brought up this passage is because I think that however you interpret it regarding the Second Coming (and I think it does apply), it’s a beautiful picture of our salvation. There are some great lessons for us here, today, right now. Here’s what I’ve found:

1) This is a song about God’s salvation, right? If it sounds similar to a Psalm, that’s no accident. This could have easily been written by David. And what’s the first thing he praises God for regarding his salvation? The removal of sin. Not just thanking him, but praising him. The fact that God has taken your sin away and placed it on the sinless Substitute is a source of praising him. Only he could have done it.

And before we move on from this subject, this is a good reminder: Before we get into a right relationship with God, before we can truly worship him, the sin issue must be dealt with. That’s our #1 problem, and there’s not even a close second in that department. If you haven’t dealt with that problem by receiving Christ as your Savior and Boss, then nothing else matters as far as God is concerned.

2) I notice the personal aspect of our salvation. It starts out with calling him “God” (which is appropriate), but then moves into calling him—not once, but twice—“Lord.” That’s the translation of the covenant Name by which we know him. It’s not just knowing about him but knowing him on a personal level. There’s an aspect of this when we first receive Christ, and then it grows from there as we continue to live in his presence on earth. And in case you missed it, there’s a very direct allusion here to Miriam’s song about Israel’s Redeemer after they crossed the Red Sea (word for word match).

3) There a final aspect of our salvation that this passage describes which a lot of Christians (including myself) have neglected: Telling others about him. Not just the people in your personal circle, but people all around the world. Those crazy Muslims you see on TV calling for the death of America. The Europeans who've abandoned the God of their fathers. The people in the world who couldn’t make an informed decision about Christ if they wanted to. Do you have Isaiah’s vision? Does God’s salvation and blessings towards you make you want to “make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted”? Why not? I’m not saying that God has called you to drop your life where you are and become an international missionary. But I do believe that he’s called every believer to be involved in his worldwide reclamation project. Are you? Involved, I mean.

Lord Jesus, you’ve been so good to me, and so often I hide it like I’m ashamed of it or something. I want to make known among the nations what you’ve done, and proclaim that your Name is exalted. What do you want me to do?

[Jan 20]--Nope, Not Yet!

Is. 9:8-12, 21; 10:4

I remember reading through Isaiah and studying it seriously using a Navigator’s LifeChange book (which I can’t recommend highly enough). That was the first time I really sat down and read all the works of that prophet, and that was when I fell in love with his book. If someone asked me what my favorite book of the O.T. would be, I’d have to say Proverbs. But it only leads by a nose: Isaiah comes in pretty close, and it really depends on what day of the week it is.

The reason I love Isaiah so much is because it’s so complete. There’s hardly a subject of theology which isn’t addressed in Isaiah: the depths of man’s sin, the heights of God’s grace, God’s love, mercy, holiness, sovereignty, and even quite a bit on the afterlife (Heaven and Hell). And don’t forget Jesus: There are more prophecies about our Savior’s coming (1st and 2nd) in this one book than anywhere else I know of (with the possible exception of the Psalms).

But people don’t like reading the prophets. They might look here and there guided by the latest best-seller on the Second Coming to try to find out who the Anti-Christ is, but that’s about it. And one of the main reasons is the nature of passages like today’s reading.

But you miss out on so much if the only thing you look for are clues about the End Times. And today’s readings are a hint as to the sort of things you miss out on.

At first glance, it seems like other passages you might've seen elsewhere: God is ticked off at his people. It might or might not list exactly why he’s so mad, but he’s certainly mad for some reason.

I particularly remember reading chapters nine and ten together with the Navigators book, and I recall thinking to myself “Wow, I noticed something. There’s a pattern here.” Did you notice it? Isaiah keeps repeating one phrase over and over and over: “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.” The passage gives details about a specific punishment God is about to pour out on Israel, and someone might ask “So is that enough to satisfy his anger against us?” And the answer—repeatedly—is “Nope, not yet!” He’s going to hit your nation again and again and again, and it still won’t be enough! No matter how bad he hits you, it still won’t be enough to satisfy his holy anger against your sin.

Again, I remember asking myself while reading this “So what will satisfy his anger against sin? What will finally turn his anger away from them (and us)?” Then it hit me. I remember reading this phrase before, not in the Old Testament, but in the New.

1 John 2:1-2. A great alternative translation of verse 2 from the Greek would be “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath.” The theological term is propitiation. It’s such a rich term, and unfortunately not one out of a thousand modern American Christians has ever heard of it.

It means that the righteous anger which God must (because of who he is) pour out upon our sin was poured out on Jesus on the cross, and his anger was completely satisfied. There is a way in which NASA uses the term which is really illuminating. When the Shuttle comes in from orbit, the air friction produces enough heat to burn it to a crisp. So the bottom of the shuttle is lined with tiles which provide propitiation from the heat. They’re designed to take the heat upon themselves and direct it away from the rest of the shuttle.

So it could truly be said that Jesus “took the heat” for us.

When was God’s anger against my sin satisfied? When was it turned away? How? By redirecting it upon a Man upon a cross.

Lord Jesus, what can I say to that? What measly sacrifice could I ever offer which could approach that? Thank you. I’m yours.

[Jan 19]--Useless Whispers

Isaiah 8:19-22

People claim that this nation is becoming more and more secular, but I have some reasons to doubt that. Modernism, with its stringent materialism (matter is the only thing that matters) holds sway over some people, especially scientists and intellectuals. But really I think today the winner seems to be Post-Modernism.

Keep in mind that Post-Modernism doesn’t have a problem acknowledging the spiritual realm. See how many popular movies out there which show life beyond the grave (Ghost and all its imitators). The main test for me is the use of a word that is so overused to the point of irrelevance: Spiritual. People love to tell you that they’re “spiritual.” As Dennis Prager has pointed out several times, this word has such a flexible meaning that it really doesn’t mean anything at all. It certainly doesn’t refer to a personal relationship with a God who has certain expectations, who loves certain things and hates other things. Often people use it to refer to the fact that they are open to seeking other sources of wisdom outside the normal human experience.

That’s the pattern you’ll see with a lot of “spirituality,” which C. S. Lewis caught on to a long time ago. If you’re watching a beautiful sunrise and don’t want to believe that this whole universe is just a random dance of atoms, then the vague notion that there’s “something” out there can be quite comforting. But if you’re involved in a shady business that you wouldn’t like the public to know about, well, this idol can be safely put back into your pocket until you feel like pulling it back out.

That’s what you’ll see in all the different manifestations of extra-biblical spirituality: There’s no moral standards attached to any of this. Whether you go see a palm reader, a fortune teller, a tarot card reader, a medium or any other person like this, you’ll never see them lay out a list of moral rules that someone--an actual Person--wants you to obey.

That’s one of the reasons why this stuff is off-limits. Can we be clear about this? The Bible is abundantly clear: Any attempt to contact the spiritual realm outside of communicating directly with God is strictly off limits. You don’t try to talk to your grandma from beyond the grave. You don’t go to a fortune teller for any reason. You don’t go to your horoscope. Here are some Scriptures if you have any doubts about how God feels about it.

Why not? Why are there such stiff penalties attached to this sort of activity? Why does he take it so seriously?

Well, obviously if God tells us to avoid something, that really should settle the issue. But here are two very good reasons from Scripture:

1) It's very spiritually dangerous. The O.T. doesn’t go into this issue as much, but the N.T. is very clear that there's such a person as Satan, and he and his minions can attach themselves to people through certain practices. I personally think that most of the practitioners of this are just fakes and charlatans, but you wouldn’t want to have any contact with the spiritual realm except as God directs, would you?

2) Quite frankly, I think that this reason is actually better than the first one, since the Bible harps on it so much, including today’s reading: To inquire of any spiritual resources outside of God is showing a profound lack of trust in him. He’s our Father. He's sent his Son to bleed and die for us. He’s provided his“instruction and the testimony of warning,”--or in our case—the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, and they provide all the guidance we’ll ever need. They provide access to the very mind of the omniscient God, and they tell us everything we need to know, both for this life and to prepare us for the next one.

3) The last reason is really just the flip-side of #2: It’s really foolish to consult these bad sources. My friend, the best-case scenario is that the fortune-teller you’re consulting is a fake. Why listen to someone who mutters and can’t give you a straight answer about what you need to know? Not that I recommend it, but most everybody has read a horoscope at one time or another, right? If you’ve read them, you know what I’m talking about: “Today you will make a very important decision!” You want to risk angering God over something so foolish?

Father God, I haven’t read a horoscope lately or consulted a medium, but I tend to trust my own judgment and wisdom, which is just as foolish. Help me to trust you--and only you--to tell me what I need to know.

[Jan 18]--You Gotta Fear Something!

Isaiah 8:11-18

Israel in the time of Isaiah—just like today—was a tiny nation surrounded by enemies sworn to her destruction. Assyria, the 900 pound gorilla of that day, was advancing towards them, and every nation that had stood in their way was torn apart like wet cardboard. The most obvious strategy in a time like this was to make alliances with whomever you could find. Egypt looked like a good candidate. They were militarily strong, and if Israel allied with them, then they just might survive this.

Please don’t misunderstand the point here. It’s not necessarily wrong to make alliances. But God had specifically told them not to go back to Egypt for anything. Once upon a time, Egypt had been a refuge for God’s people (in the days of Joseph). To go back there was a step backwards, not forwards.

But people wanted security, and Egypt was one of the most powerful nations on the planet. Egypt they could see and touch. Egypt had chariots and horses and armies and weapons and a history of military victories. And they seemed to be willing to be allies.

Another thing that people could see? The Assyrians. They also had horses and chariots and armies and a history of military victories. And they were coming.

In stark contrast, they couldn’t see God. Sure, they might've heard stories about him, but they certainly couldn’t see him right now. He wasn’t visible. He seemed to be silent.

Is that how it feels for you today? The bills are real enough. The threat of losing your job is all too real. But God doesn’t seem to be.

Here’s the message of the prophet: He is real, and you need to trust in him and fear him. In case you missed it when I talked about it before, when I talk about “fearing” God, I don’t mean it in the sense of “being afraid of him.” It’s reverence mixed with an awe mixed with a desire to please him and know him.

Notice that we aren’t either to fear men (either be afraid or in the biblical sense), and we aren’t to entirely put our trust in them either. They can neither send you to Hell nor deliver you to Heaven. The Lord can do either one.

But what about the fact that I can’t see him or hear his voice? Well, that’s where faith comes in. You either believe that he’s real or he’s not. You’ve undoubtedly seen evidence of him at work in your life, right? You’ve seen how his word is proven right time and time and time again, correct? You’ve seen in peoples’ lives what happens when they don’t stick to God’s plan, right?

So act on that faith. Do what God tells you to do, even if it sounds crazy at times. Don’t give in to the fear that people have around you. They’re afraid of what the Stock Market is going to do tomorrow. They’re afraid of who’s going to be sacked in the next round of lay-offs. They’re trusting in their own sound judgment to bring them through this next financial crisis. And just like the people of old, their idols are going to fail them in the end. Don’t be like them. "Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it."

You’re going to fear something. It’s either going to be what the crowd fears, or it’s going to be fear and trust in the Lord God Almighty. Which will it be?

Father, I’m going to trust in you and fear you. That means that ultimately I trust in no one but you. I’m making that commitment, and I’m trusting you to help me keep it.

[Jan 17]--Calling Things By Their Right Names

Isaiah 5:18-20

Do you know what a euphemism is? I’ve always loved those, haven’t you? We used to call them “garbage collectors.” Now they’re “sanitation engineers.” There’s a whole industry out there called “Political Correctness” that takes unpleasant realities and makes them sound a lot better.

I think that this one verse could solve so many problems in our society. Let’s take politics for a moment. How often have you wished that a person running for office would speak plainly? It’s not “revenue enhancement.” It’s “tax increases.” “Collateral damage” is another way of saying that a military operation has (hopefully accidentally) killed civilians.

It’s pretty often that people use language not to make their meaning clearer, but to obscure it. We can laugh about it at times, but today’s passage shows that the Lord considers callings things by their proper names to be pretty important.

The prophet pronounces God’s judgment (that’s what “woe” means) upon people who call evil good and good evil. Telling people what they needed to hear, that was “bad.” Telling people what they wanted to hear, that was “good.” Can we have some examples that I think are applicable in the modern day?

Let’s take the issue of abortion. Have you ever noticed that the people who advocate the practice (or at least want it legal) never actually mention the word? They use words like “choice” or “reproductive rights,” or "women's health," but rarely (if ever) actually use the term “abortion.” Another word you’ll never hear them use? “Child.” Or “baby.” If they ever have to talk about what's in the mother’s womb, they always refer it as a “fetus.”

Or take it into the realm of religion. If you tell someone that the only way to get into Heaven is by placing your faith in Jesus Christ, that’s being “judgmental,” or “shoving your religion down my throat.” If you tell them that the God who created us also has expectations of us, then you’re not “showing love.”

If you’re a believer and you’re feeling smug right now, don’t be. Christians can be pretty fuzzy on their terms as well. Here’s my favorite one: Using the term “mistake.” I'm sure you've heard it (or said it): “We all make mistakes.” My friend, if you accidentally substitute a “9” for a “6” in adding up expenses on a spreadsheet, that’s a mistake. If you plan to pick up milk in the grocery store and forget to do so, that's a mistake. If you lie to someone, that’s not a “mistake.” The Bible has several words for it: “rebellion,” “transgression,” “iniquity,” but the most common one is “sin.” It’s not a mistake. It’s not an error. It’s sin. Literally it’s “missing the mark,” like aiming an arrow at a target and missing it. God has a standard (which is perfection), and you missed it.

Jesus did not die for my mistakes. He did not bleed because of my innocent errors. He died because of my nasty, rotten, stinking, filthy sin. I need to call it what it is.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note. Jesus doesn't forgive mistakes. He forgives sins. He knows all about all the nasty things I’ve thought and done, and he forgives it all for the asking. But just like with Alcoholics Anonymous, you can’t do anything unless and until you admit you have a problem. And it all starts when you call things by their proper names.

Lord Jesus, please point out any areas of my life that are harboring rebellion. Help me to call it what it is, and accept your total cleansing. Thank you.

[Jan 16]--Exalted by What?!

Isaiah 5:11-17

If there’s one thing I think most Americans have no problem with, it’s the idea that God loves them. I know it’s the popular stereotype out there of a lost person who’s so burdened by guilt that they can’t fathom that he actually cares about them. Now, I grant you that there are people in the world who actually do feel weighed down by guilt and who have a deep sense of having offended the Almighty. But I think we’ve got the concept of the love of God down pretty well, for the most part.

We’re so used in this country to thinking of him as our buddy. That’s why I think it’s so important to read the entirety of the Bible, not just the parts we like. That’s also why it’s so important to read the prophets. If you can read the prophets and come away thinking of God as Santa Claus, then you haven’t been reading the same books I’ve been reading.

Of course, if you’re familiar with the prophets at all, then today’s passage sounds like a lot of others you might read in that section of the Bible. The Lord is angry with his people, he’s going to punish them, here’s how he’s going to do it, etc. But there’s one particular phrase I want to focus on in today’s passage, because it revolutionized my thinking about God, and I’m hoping it might do the same for you.

Read vs. 16 again, slowly. God will be exalted by his justice. Think this through with me, will you?

You’ve heard of The Purpose Driven Life? Great book and concept, by the way. But what about the Purpose-Driven God? What’s God’s purpose? What’s most important to him? Saving people? Showing them love? Well, that is important to him, but that’s only a means to an end.

The ultimate purpose of everything that God does is to gain glory for his name. Now, before you squawk at that and say “Well, that’s pretty vain and self-centered!” let me remind you of something. He actually deserves every ounce of glory that he gets. If all the angels and all humanity and all of creation bowed down to him and proclaimed how wonderful and great he is, it would only be what he rightly deserves.

So why was I saved? Because he loves me? Well, that’s part of it, but not the main or most important part. The reason I was saved was so that my salvation might glorify him. In Heaven, he'll be able to point to me and say “That’s how merciful and powerful and loving and gracious I am!” He can (and does) take the worst of sinners--what he finds in the bottom of the sludge of humanity--pulls it out of that mess, cleans it off, and turns what he finds there into a new son or daughter.

But that’s not the only way he gets glory. He's also glorified by his justice. His holy and righteous name is exalted by his justice.

Please don’t misunderstand me. If you’ve read this for any length of time, you know I believe that God doesn’t want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance. He wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he turn from his ways and live.

But that doesn’t change the fact that his punishment of sin shows how holy and righteous he is. I don’t know if he’ll ever do this, but picture this with me: He'll be able to point to someone in Hell and say “THAT’S how much I hate sin!!!” People in Hell will get precisely what they deserve, and that also displays aspects of his character which deserve to be honored and praised.

So how does this affect me? Because he could've chosen to glorify himself only through the punishment of sinners. But he's chosen--just on his own initiative--to also glorify and lift up his Name by pulling lost sinners out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. He's sovereignly chosen to being glory to his Name by turning damnable rebels into adopted children and heirs.

Aren’t you glad?

Yes, I am. Thank you. All praise and honor and glory and thanks belong to you. To you alone.

[Jan 15]--Swords Into Plowshares

Isaiah 2:1-5

I’ve mentioned this before, but let me reiterate: If you’re looking for a step-by-step chronology for the return of Christ and the end of human history as we know it, then you’re looking in the wrong place. I’m not going to delve into the details of eschatology; instead, I’m going to stick to some basic principles which just about any Bible-believing Christian can agree to.

Having said that, I think today’s passage can enlighten us on today’s world, and the one to come.

For over 60 years, the United Nations has been the last, best hope for peace in the world for a lot of people. It’s a place where nations can air out their differences without resorting to armed conflict. It’s a place where non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) can coordinate in order to provide things like clean water and medical supplies where most needed. At least that’s the theory.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Quite frankly, it’s usually a place where bad nations can pretend to be on the same moral level as good nations. Nations whose governments routinely imprison, torture, and murder dissidents can be on the U.N. Human Rights Council. And it certainly hasn’t prevented many conflicts, as far as I can tell.

I’m all for peace. I don’t like people getting killed. I don’t like seeing people suffer. So if anyone is trying to prevent things like that, then I applaud their motives.

What went wrong? To answer the question, let’s take the example of a doctor. If he examines a patient and gets the diagnosis wrong, then his efforts are going to be useless at best. At worst, he’ll have a dead patient. You can’t cure a disease if you haven’t diagnosed it correctly.

The point of the U.N. was so that nations could sit down and discuss their grievances with each other. But is a lack of understanding the cause of most wars?

Um, no. The cause of most wars is because evil people do evil things. It’s a heart issue. What James said about the micro situation in the churches is just as true in the macro level: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” That’s the problem.

This misunderstanding is so beautifully illustrated in their motto. They took as their slogan (so to speak) a verse from today’s reading, a promise that one day the nations of the world will “beat their swords into plowshares.” The nations will take all their resources which are used to kill people and turn them into more productive uses, like producing food.

That would be wonderful, but when is it going to happen? Once we all sit down and truly understand each other? No, it'll happen at the end of human history (as we know it) and Christ returns to set up his Kingdom. Until we see that happen, there will be no lasting peace in the world. Until the nature of mankind is radically changed (from the inside-out), nothing will really change on the outside either. When the nations of the world are willing to listen to what the Lord is saying (as pictured here), true peace will come. Not until then.

How does this apply to us?

First and foremost, we need to keep our expectations realistic concerning peace in the world. If you have a hundred people in a room, you know what you have? A hundred sinners. If you get 10,000 in a room together, what do you have? 10,000 people who have sinful natures whose first instinct is towards selfishness and other antisocial behavior. When you hear someone talk about the hope that we’ll eventually bring about a world without war or cruelty or poverty, you know that person is lacking in wisdom.

But I can’t leave on that note. Even if we aren’t going to see perfect peace in this world, we can see peace in our personal lives. Wherever our Savior reigns, there is perfect peace. In your home, in your family, and especially in your relationship with God, you can bend that sword into a plowshare right now. Just trust and obey, and you’ll see it.

Lord Jesus, that’s what I want in my life. I’m submitting my life to you, right here and right now. If there are any areas of rebellion, then I’m throwing up the white flag right now.

[Jan 14]--Come On, Let’s Talk This Over

Isaiah 1:16-20

Have you ever gotten debt collection calls? OK, I’m man enough to admit it: I’ve gotten more than a few in my time. I don’t for one second condone getting behind on your bills, but I've let it happen to me. You screen your calls and let the voicemail pick up whatever number you don’t recognize. The calls start picking up in frequency, until it seems like you’re getting one every ten minutes. And what do you do? You dodge them. You avoid them. You let them call and call and call, and you pretend that they don’t exist.

But then I gutted up and actually picked up the call, and usually—in my experience—they're willing to work with you. I mean, they’d rather get paid off in little increments than get nothing, right? I gotta tell you, there’s nothing like the relief of knowing that you’ve settled the issue.

I think of those experiences whenever I read today’s passage. The God of Israel had an official complaint against his people. They had entered a covenant, sort of a contract, and they were falling far short of what they’d agreed to. So the Lord was bringing them up on charges, and had issued a “warrant,” so to speak. They were ducking and dodging him like the debtor who’s screening his calls.

Can I remind you of something from the previous verses? These are not pagans. They are members of the nation of Israel. They were performing the religious rituals which he'd commanded. And as we saw yesterday, God was sick of their “worship.”

You see my friend, hypocrisy and going through the motions? That’s hiding from him. They were involved in a sinful lifestyle, but you don’t have to be living in blatant sin in order to be ducking God.

And the Lord is stretching out his hand to them, pleading with them. He’s saying “Let’s talk this out now before it gets any worse.

And what will be the result?

Your stained soul will be washed clean.

The nasty filth which has hung over you like a cloud will be gone.

He's offering not a temporary reprieve, but a full and permanent pardon.

You will know—not guess, not hope—but know that you’re forgiven.

How can he do this? How can he take me and wash me clean, remove my stain?

Well, Isaiah had some strong hints, but his hints eventually became flesh and walked among us.

The promises he made were fulfilled as a Man hung on a tree.

We’ll look more closely at those promises in a few days, but for now I want to issue a call. Hide-and-seek time is over. If you’ve been faking it, then you need to come to him. Talk it out with him. Maybe you’re not a follower of Jesus; in that case, this really applies to you. Quit dodging him. I promise that your situation will only get worse until you come clean. Please read this if you haven't done so already.

But maybe you are a believer. You’ve placed your faith in him, but the earlier fire you had is gone. You show up on Sunday, say all the right words, sing all the right songs, and then go home. Why are you doing that? Whom are you trying to kid? I promise you, God enjoys your “worship” even less than you do.

When are you going to stop screening your calls?

Lord Jesus, I fall so far short of your standards. I mess up—no, I sin against you so often. Please forgive. Please cleanse, as only you can.

[Jan 13]--When God Hates Your Worship

Isaiah 1:10-15

I remember reading one of the most shocking statements I ever read about worship a few years ago. Someone was writing about being bored in a worship service. The singing was boring, the announcements were boring, and the sermon was. . .well, you can guess. The guy writing this article says that he can almost imagine the Lord saying “You know, I think I’d rather be watching a Lakers game too.”

Sometimes I wonder about how God is reacting to our worship experience. Let’s be clear, though: If you’re bored, it’s quite possible that the problem is with you, not the leaders. If you haven’t been cultivating your personal worship time, your TAWG during the week, then don’t expect some wonderful time of meeting with him on Sunday morning. As one of my pastors liked to point out, your worship time on Sunday should be just a big continuation of what you’ve been doing during the week, except in a congregation.

But there is such a thing as a worship time which the Lord hates. I’m not talking about pagan worship or heretical worship. I don’t see anything in this passage that indicates that their theology was off in any significant degree. They'd been fulfilling the Law, at least as far as the ceremonies were concerned. He doesn’t complain about the lack of sacrifices or the lack of attendance at the religious festivals.

Before we go any further, we need to get past the notion that God is against rituals or ceremonies. I know that it’s popular to deride them or pretend that ritual=legalism. We aren’t required as New Covenant believers to observe the O.T. holy days, although I think it’s a great idea to be familiar with them, since they're shadows of the reality that is Christ. We need rituals. As Dennis Prager has noted, this is how the Jewish people have kept their identity and history over the last 4,000 years, despite everything that’s happened to them. If you don’t have rituals, you’ll forget the truth that’s been handed down to you. I mean, even in the Church Age we have what could easily qualify: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The words ritual and ceremony have bad connotations to modern ears, but they shouldn't.

But the problem here is that they were just going through the motions of worship. They were performing the sacrifices and ceremonies that God had commanded them to, but their hearts weren't into it at all. The shell was there, but the kernel was missing. There was no personal relationship with their Redeemer.

And the Lord hated it. He says that their religion was a “burden” to him. That’s the sad irony here: I’m sure the people who were participating in this “worship” were enjoying it about as much as a root canal, but the God who supposedly was the beneficiary, the object of this worship, was enjoying it even less.

You’ll see this again and again in the prophets. He hates to have people blatantly turning their backs on him, but he hates just as much—or maybe a little more—to see fake worship and hypocrisy.

But there’s a cure for this ailment. And that’s what we’ll look at tomorrow.

Father, I am so sorry for the times I’ve tried to impress others with my worship. There’s only One Person who I need to impress, and that’s you. Holy Spirit, please lift me up out of myself and into your presence. Thank you.

[Jan 12]--Rebellious Nation

Isaiah 1:1-9

OK, enough beating around the bush. We’ve looked at various topics surrounding the prophets, so now we’re going to take the plunge. We’re going to do some studies in Isaiah for the next few weeks. Of course, as I keep reminding you, this is a devotional, not a commentary. We’re not going to go over every verse, just some themes from his book that I’d like to cover.

I don’t know if I’ve shared this before, but Isaiah is probably my favorite book of the prophets. The main reason for that is its completeness. More than any other O.T. book, it tells us a lot about God, mankind’s sin, the hope of Messiah, God’s grace towards us, and even some very strong hints about the afterlife. In fact, it’s actually easier to list the things it doesn’t touch on. Romans is my favorite book in the N.T. (and actually in the entire Bible) for the exact same reason. Inside me there’s a systematic theologian that’s just dying to get out, I suppose.

Another odd coincidence concerning this book is the way it’s arranged. There is a very sharp break in tone about 2/3 of the way through it. For the first 39 chapters, the focus is on God’s judgment; there are passages which talk about grace and forgiveness and restoration, but the emphasis is on not-so-pleasant subjects. In the remaining 1/3 (27 chapters), the emphasis is on his grace, mercy and power on behalf of his people. Do you see what I mean by the coincidence? There are 66 chapters in Isaiah, and there are 66 books in the Bible, and the relative emphasis in each section is the same. I don’t put a lot of stock in it being some esoteric message, but it is an interesting thing to point out, and it helps keep a rough outline in our head.

Another slightly odd thing about the book is the placing of his calling. He goes for five chapters before he relates the story of his calling as a prophet in chapter six. He tells us quite a bit, as if he can’t wait to get the message out before he starts to talk about himself. I think we need to brand this on our foreheads (metaphorically): The message is infinitely more important than the messenger. We need to keep that focus.

So here’s a few points I’d like to make from today’s passage:

• You might've missed it, especially if you’re not too familiar with the Torah, but this is pretty important. Notice how he calls the heavens and the earth to listen to his complaint? Starting with the Law of Moses, this is a pattern in Scripture: A legal complaint or charge has to have two or three prosecution witnesses. When the Lord established his covenant with the nation of Israel, he called heaven and earth as witnesses. A covenant is an agreement, a contract. And Israel had not been keeping up to their obligations, to say the least. They'd broken God’s law, and even more important, they'd broken his heart.

• People love to emphasize how “judgmental” the God of the O.T. is as contrasted with the God of the N.T., as if they’re two separate Gods instead of one. But keep this mind: Behind every announcement of judgment is a loving God who’s reaching out to sinful people. He’s not willing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Or to quote another prophet, he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked man turn from his ways and live.

• I want to remind you, and I’ll keep doing it as long as it keeps coming up—God didn’t have to send the prophets. He was under no obligation to do so. He'd given the Law of Moses, so no Israelite needed to guess as to how the nation was doing spiritually. If he just destroyed the nation with no further warning, he'd be giving them precisely what they deserved.

• Anywhere this side of the Great Divide, all of his judgments are mixed with mercy to some degree. In the midst of this outpouring of his just anger on the nation, the prophet points out to them that the Lord was still leaving them some “survivors.”

As we go through the “harsh” passages in the prophets in the next few months, let’s keep these points in mind.

Father, I can personally testify that you've not treated me as my sins deserve. You're the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. I know that, and I’ve lived it.

[Jan 11]--Calling, Phase Three: Preparation

Isaiah 6:8-10

So we have the encounter with holy God, we have the necessary cleansing, and now comes the last phase. How does the Lord prepare his prophet?

This is one of the hardest concepts from the Bible to grasp, but it’s there, and we have to deal with it. There is a theological term for what God describes in vss. 9-10: Judicial hardening. Before we understand what it is, we need to clarify what it’s not. It’s not a case of God seeing someone who’s trying hard to follow him and obey him and please him and saying to that person “Tough luck, buddy! I'm closing the door on you right now!”

It’s the same idea of what the Lord did to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go, it’s not like the Lord made him do something he (Pharaoh) didn’t want to do. Pharaoh had already rejected God’s message multiple times. What happened after that--as best as we can understand--was that the Almighty confirmed the decision Pharaoh had already made. God chose not to rescue him from his own foolish choices.

It was the same here. Vss. 9-10 are ironic, almost like saying “Israel, I’m telling you to do this, but I know you’re not going to listen to me.” You might even say it’s roughly equivalent to “Go ahead, be stubborn!”

Before we move on from that point, we need to keep in mind what we saw with the story of Micaiah a few days ago: God will not leave himself without a witness. If someone wants to hear the truth, the Lord won’t leave them in the dark. He was under no obligation to send Isaiah at all. But he did.

But there’s more to this: a message for Isaiah as well. God was telling his prophet, right off the bat, that he (Isaiah) was going to be a failure, at least in some sense of the term. Getting the the nation at large to listen to him and repent? That wasn’t going to happen, for the most part.

If you ever get serious about sharing the Good News about Jesus with those around you, you really need to develop a “thick skin.” You’re going to be rejected more often than accepted. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but it’s one we have to absorb.

The good news (with small letters) is that God doesn’t count success with noses. He counts success by one standard: Obedience to what he says. If we do what he tell us to do, if we go where he tell us to go, if we say what he tell us to say, then we’re successful. Obedience doesn't lead to success. Obedience is success. 

Once again, I want to share one of my favorite sayings:

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, I want to be successful, please. Not by the world’s standards, but by yours. Because I’m not going to have to give an account to them, only you.

[Jan 10]--Calling, Phase Two: Cleansing

Isaiah 6:5-7

I think if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have some major problems with modern Christianity as typically expressed in America. Of course every culture has some sin issues and some blind spots, but since I’m an American, that’s what my focus is going to be on. If I was Japanese or Indian or Peruvian, I'd probably have gripes about those societies, or at least I hope so. Anyway, two big problems I have with American Christianity are A) Its lackadaisical attitude towards sin, and B) Its overemphasis—to the point of flippancy—concerning the intimate nature of our relationship with God Almighty.

The great thing is that whatever your problem, whether personally or as a national church, the Bible has the cure for you. The underlying problem is that we tend to focus on the problem we're the least in danger from. In a church that’s overrun by antinomianism, we like to just concentrate on passages which talk about the free grace we have in Christ. If we look hard enough, I'm sure we can find churches that are in danger of legalism, but I don’t think that’s the major problem in America.

The reason I bring this up is that today’s passage, actually all of Isaiah 6:1-10, provides a great corrective for what ails us. When we fall into the trap of thinking of God as our “Buddy” and our “Pal,” then the first few verses of chapter 6 should bring us back to reality. And today we see how God deals with the issue of sin in regards to his servants and representatives.

Now, let’s think a little deeper on this. Does God use flawed people? Well, considering that it’s either that or stick with using angels from the throne, then the answer is “of course.” But what about someone who has an area of habitual rebellion? What about someone who is actively being disobedient to something God has made clear? Does he use those people as well?

My friend, our Lord uses Satan all the time to fulfill his purposes. Once again, we need only see how he manipulated sinful people and (I believe) demonic forces to accomplish the Atonement. So of course he can use someone who’s actively in rebellion as a part of his plan.

But does he use rebellious people as his representatives? That’s the more pointed question, and as near as I can tell, the answer is “No.” In fact, he takes that rather seriously. According to Paul, what was one of the Lord's major indictments of Israel? “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Israel was supposed to be the Lord’s representatives on earth, and they brought shame to his Name.

If you want to be a representative of the Lord, then it starts with a true encounter with him. I don’t mean just a point in which you “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” I mean a point at which you come face to face with the otherness of God. He is holy. He is sovereign. He's the One before whom angels dare not bare their faces.

When you do, you’ll quickly go from point A) God is holy to point B): You are not holy. The closer you get to him, the starker will become the sin in your life. Sins that never seemed to be that big a deal will become much more heinous in your eyes. You know what’s happening? You know how when two people spend time together, they start to become like each other? That’s the same principle here: As you spend time with him, you’ll start to become like him, and part of that will be that you start taking sin more seriously, like he does.

It’s necessary. If you’re going to represent him, then he has to start cleansing you. But you might be saying “But I’m not a preacher or a pastor or an evangelist!” Oh, please. You think you’re getting out of this just because you’re a “lay” person? If you're a believer in Jesus, then he's appointed you as his representative. And just like Isaiah, he’s not giving you much of a choice. As someone once told me, every Christian is a witness. The only question is whether they’re a good witness or a bad one.

Lord Jesus, it’s painfully obvious that I have a long ways to go in taking my sin seriously. My sin is what nailed you to the Cross. My sin was the whip lashing your back. May I never take that lightly. If I’m going to be your ambassador, I need to start representing you a lot better.