The Lord is Our Banner

Bible Studies for Life devotional originally published at the Biblical Recorder here.

Focal Passage: Exodus 17:8-16

One of the most iconic symbols in American history is the sculpture of the marines on Iwo Jima as they raised the flag of the United States of America. The flag symbolized victory, freedom and the power of the United States military. That picture aids our understanding of the concept of “the Lord is our Banner” In Hebrew it would read Yahweh-Nissi. A banner would be a military symbol that clearly identifies an army or a people. In the story of Israel’s battle with the Amalekites, Joshua led the rabble of former slaves to defend themselves. Moses watched from a hilltop overlooking the battle. As his arms were raised in prayer and dependence on God, Israel gained the upper hand. As his arms fell, Amalek gained the upper hand. Ultimately, Israel was victorious because God strengthened the armies of Israel against their enemy. It is interesting to observe the shared responsibilities in the battle. Israel fought. Men fell. Moses prayed. Moses lost strength. Aaron and Hur held Moses’ arms up. God gave Israel victory. The Lord is our Banner does not mean that we huddle in a corner hiding from our problems, enemies and difficulties. Rather, it means that we walk in faith and advance in dependence. We do ourselves no favors when we try to battle on our own strength. Rather, we gain victory when we look in faith to the Lord our Banner. More than a thousand years later God gave his people a glorious symbol of his victorious banner. When Jesus hung on that cruel Roman cross, he atoned for our sins and defeated our spiritual enemy. The cross of Christ is both historical reality and powerful symbol. We receive the victory of the cross not by fighting alongside our Savior, but by depending on the victory he won. Look to the cross as the symbol of God’s banner over you.

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God, Our Healer

Bible Studies for Life Devotional originally published here at the Biblical Recorder

Focal Passage: Exodus 14:27-29; 15:22-27

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you were in the Bible? Maybe you put yourself in the place of a disciple walking with Jesus? Or maybe an Old Testament hero like Moses or David or Daniel? At times I’ve wondered what it would be like to have existed in one of the Bible stories. There is actually a place for us in the Bible although it’s not very flattering. Truth be told, we are much like the people of Israel. Israel had just witnessed God sending plagues upon Egypt—ten of them. Israel had walked across the Red Sea on dry land. Israel had watched as God destroyed the Egyptian army with walls of Red Sea water. Even after those miraculous acts, Israel grumbled and complained faithlessly when they found a pool of bitter water in the wilderness. At Marah, Israel tested the Lord. Aren’t we much the same? We have been redeemed, protected, and provided for by God only to faithlessly grumble when something doesn’t go our way. If we find ourselves in the Bible, we are not the heroes, but the sinners. That is the point. Years later Jesus would face a similar situation to the people of Israel. He was also in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus to jump off the temple and show off God’s protection. Jesus replied, “Do not test the Lord, your God.” Jesus referenced the very text where Israel tested the Lord. They failed to trust God. We’ve done what they did. And that is why Jesus came, faced temptation, succeeded and ultimately went to the cross. We cannot obey our way into wholeness. We will never deserve the healing we need. But the healing and provision we need is available. It is available because Jesus refused to test the Lord, because Jesus obeyed perfectly when we disobeyed, because Jesus substituted his wholeness for our lack. Will you trust the perfect, risen Lord for your healing?

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Jesus Christ, our Provider

Originally published at the Biblical Recorder.

Bible Studies for Life lesson for March 4, 2018

Focal Passage: Genesis 22:1-14

Felt needs are important. We work in order to earn money to provide shelter, food, and clothing. Day to day we are hungry, thirsty, tired, frustrated, disappointed, discouraged, etc. and act to meet those needs. Sometimes, our felt needs can overwhelm us. In our text, Isaac said, “We have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham and Isaac had a need—a need they felt. Abraham responded, “God will provide.” Do you have Abraham’s kind of faith in God’s provision? Søren Kierkegaard, a Dutch philosopher/theologian of the 19th century, famously interpreted Abraham’s’ faith in this text as a “blind leap.” In Kierkegaard’s estimation, Abraham closed his eyes, stepped out, and happily landed in a place of God’s provision. I believe Kierkegaard’s claim is glaringly wrong. Abraham’s faith in God’s provision was anything but blind. God led Abraham, forgave Abraham, cared for Abraham, and gave Abraham and Sarah a child far after their days of childbearing were past. Abraham’s faith in God’s provision was based on years of God demonstrating his faithfulness. In that desperately poignant moment when Isaac was tied down on the altar, Abraham trusted God to the point of obedience. Then God stopped him and showed him a ram caught in a thicket. This story teaches us two things about God’s provision. First, there is nothing we can sacrifice, give, or do to earn God’s provision. When God stopped Abraham, he did not send him home. It is important that we see that Abraham and Isaac still sacrificed, still worshiped. God provided them to a ram to sacrifice so they could worship God. Second, we access God’s provision through faith. It was Abraham’s faith in God that led him to obey. If we want to experience God’s provision, we must have faith. God has already provided on the grandest of scales. He gave us just what we needed when he sent Christ to the cross. We access his provision by faith. And when we believe in the provision of God through Christ, we have a basis for trusting God to provide our felt needs as well (Romans 8:32).

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Douglas High School Shooting, Evil, and God

I was asked just this week my thoughts on the heinous act of evil perpetrated at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Where was God in the midst of such evil? That question has been asked time and again over the ages. Recent events return our attention to the problem of evil. The problem of evil itself is relatively simple to state, but has been profoundly difficult to answer. David Hume, following Epicurus, suggested that if God was not able to destroy evil, then he was impotent; that if God was not willing to destroy evil, then he was malevolent; and that if he was both able and willing, then why was there evil? Succinctly, Hume displayed the three main tenets that form the problem of evil: (1) God’s omnipotence, (2) God’s goodness and (3) the reality of evil. The problem of evil is an important question for the Christian worldview, but every worldview must provide an answer.

I freely admit that answering the problem of evil is difficult. We are forced to live with the tension between what the Bible teaches—God’s omnipotence and goodness—and the evil we see and experience. The Bible simply does not answer the question, “Why evil?” But it does provide an explanation for evil. In Genesis 3, we discover that God provided Adam and Eve moral choice. They were not robots or automatons. Rather, they were free beings who had a choice. They chose poorly. They sinned. And as a result, evil and suffering entered the world. Sin, evil, and suffering evidently play a role in the sovereign plan of God. Sin and evil reflect the reality of man’s moral choices. Sin, evil and suffering also reveal the vast depth, wonder and glory of God’s gracious love. Not only does God love man in spite of our sin, but God sent his Son to suffer because of our sin. God shows his love and grace through the passion and suffering of Christ that we may experience God’s forgiveness and goodness.

These tensions are real. Regardless of our biblical beliefs and Christian worldview, we must still cope with acts of murder, abuse and heinous evil. We ask, “What would possess Nikolas Cruz to murder so many people?” We could ask this same question of all the school shooters or acts of mass violence in recent memory. We could ask the same question concerning acts of abuse, war crimes, the Nazi killing machine or any number of other historical events of villainy. Even answers that reflect satanic evil and the sinful human heart seem somehow insufficient.

Maybe we could ask a different question, “What would possess assistant coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Aaron Feis, to shield students with his body to protect them? Why do we consider his sacrifice heroic?” It is clear that we as humans identify with acts of heroic sacrifice. Feis’ ultimate sacrifice was not some act of altruism, but it was genuinely good. If we are going to ask the question “Why evil?” we must also ask the question, “Why good?” Feis’ sacrifice, along with the sacrifice of other teachers at the school, touches us deeply. Could it be that their sacrifice is somehow representative of a greater sacrifice?

While the Christian worldview may not possess a complete answer for the problem of evil, it does provide something to give humanity hope. Prior to man’s fall into sin, God created mankind in his image. During the 6 days of creation, God called all that he saw, “Good.” His purpose in creation is good. Paul connected these themes in Romans 8 when he wrote,

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the create was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” – Romans 8:18-21

In other words, the evil we see and experience today is not ultimate. The Bible declares to us there is hope. Jesus came because of our sin to redeem us from our evil. And ultimately evil will be defeated and the goodness of God through Christ will reign forever. Even if all our questions are not answered today, we do not have to remain hopeless. Look to Christ who defeated evil on the cross. There is coming a day when evil will forever be vanquished and the glory and goodness of God will rule.

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The Global Gospel and Racism

The history of racism and prejudice in our country is a stain upon the freedoms espoused in the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal” and the Bill of Rights. In truth one of the great ironies is that a nation founded upon freedom would continue to enslave a people based on skin color. Leaving slavery as an institution was a failure of our nation’s founders. Their inability or the inability of the context to move them to act would result in a great Civil War where hundreds of thousands of Americans would die over the controversial issues of state’s rights and slavery. President Abraham Lincoln rightly understood that slavery was the central instigating factor of the Civil War even if it was not the stated cause. With his emancipation proclamation, Americans can be proud that the first vestiges of slavery were slashed out of our country. But it would be a century more before equality was granted. Rampant prejudice and racism permeated our nation. Not until the Civil Right’s movement of the 1960s did justice and equality come to the South and to the nation. Even today, more than 50 years after the Civil Right’s movement, we still deal with prejudice and incipient racism. It is not something that God tolerates and certainly not present in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a global gospel. In Acts 1:8 Jesus said that the gospel would go to the ends of the world. In Acts 10, the church experienced the first Gentile convert–Cornelius. God is not a respecter of persons. Heritage and color of skin are not factors in God’s great act of love upon the cross. Jesus came to die for the entire human race—all colors, peoples, languages, and nationalities. In Acts 10, we see the incipient racism of the Jewish people blown up by the glorious grace of a sovereign God through the universal message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I trust that we will not only witness the love of God in Acts 10, but the expected response to the gospel that we as its bearers must share to ALL who bear the image of God.

Peter’s vision in Acts 10 related to unclean foods. The Jewish people had received dietary laws from God as a means of spiritual distinction. But here in Acts, Peter saw unclean foods and was told to eat. Following Peter’s vision, Cornelius’ messengers reached Peter and brought Peter to preach to Cornelius, his family, and his friends. These first Gentiles would believe the gospel and receive the Holy Spirit. But what did the food have to do with the Gentiles receiving the gospel? Actually, the vision of food was very important.

John MacArthur observed:

Strict Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles. They would not be guests in Gentile homes (cf. v. 28) or invite Gentiles to their homes. Dirt from a Gentile country was considered defiled, and a Jew would shake it off his sandals before entering Israel (from which practice the expression ‘shake the dust off’ [Matt. 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; Acts 13:51] came). Jews would not eat food prepared by Gentile hands. Cooking utensils purchased from a Gentile had to be purified before being used. In short, Gentiles were considered unclean and their presence defiling (MacArthur, Acts, 291).

J.B. Polhill argued:

The Jewish food laws presented a real problem for Jewish Christians in the outreach to the Gentiles. One simply could not dine in a Gentile’s home without inevitably transgressing those laws either by the consumption of unclean flesh or of flesh that had not been prepared in a kosher, i.e., ritually proper, fashion (cf. Acts 15:20). Jesus dealt with the problem of clean and unclean, insisting that external things like foods did not defile a person but the internals of heart and speech and thought render one truly unclean (Mark 7:14–23). In Mark 7:19b Mark added the parenthetical comment that Jesus’ saying ultimately declared all foods clean. This was precisely the point of Peter’s vision: God declared the unclean to be clean. In Mark 7 Jesus’ teaching on clean/unclean was immediately followed by his ministry to a Gentile woman (7:24–30), just as Peter’s vision regarding clean and unclean foods was followed by his witness to a Gentile. It is simply not possible to fully accept someone with whom you are unwilling to share in the intimacy of table fellowship (emphasis mine) (Polhill, Acts, 255-6).

In essence, Jewish believers could not be distinct in their dietary laws and share the gospel or experience fellowship with Gentiles at the same time. So God sent Peter a vision declaring foods clean as he sent Peter to the Gentiles. Acts 10 boldly asserts that the gospel is intended for all who bear the image of God–for the world. Acts 10 also demands that we repudiate racism and prejudice. So let us, God’s image bearers and gospel ambassadors go to the nations with the gospel that is universal.

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February 7, 2018 · 3:58 PM

Confession is Built Upon Reflection

Just this week the Senate of the United States failed to garner enough support (60 votes needed) to initiate the ban on abortion for babies at 20 weeks. It was named the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. To me abortion itself is unconscionable. Life begins at conception. But this ban did not even aim at all abortions. It came about because infants in the womb can feel pain at 20 weeks. Our Senate could not even vote to ban the felt torture and eventual murder of unborn babies at 20 weeks. Our nation needs much repentance and confession.

We should not be surprised by such inaction. Confession and repentance begin at a place most people in our country have never been. When Nehemiah recorded in chapter 9 of his history the confession of the people of Israel, he began:

You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. —Nehemiah 9:6-8

The rest of the chapter reflects on the goodness and covenant keeping of God and the failures and sins of Israel against God. The people of God confessed and repented of their sins. But they did not do so in a vacuum. They confessed based on several important reflections:

  1. The LORD was Creator and Covenant-Maker.
  2. While God had always kept the covenant, they had failed over and over again.
  3. They desperately needed the grace and forgiveness of God.

As Christians living in a secular culture, we are witnessing the disintegration of moral standards. All too often we are either passively ignoring or even participating in that disintegration. While you and I should bemoan failures by our politicians to ban abortions at 20 weeks, we must not forget where confession begins. Confession cannot begin in Washington, Raleigh, Charlotte, or Wilkesboro because so many in our country are not able to make the proper reflections. Confession must begin with the people of God who know that the LORD is Creator and that he is holy. Confession must begin with those who have experienced his redemption even though we do not deserve it. Confession must begin with those who recognize their need for the grace of God.

After we have confessed, after we have repented, after we have mourned, and after we have celebrated God’s forgiveness, we can move forward. Where do we go with our country and our culture? We must reintroduce them to the LORD who is the Creator. We cannot expect the unconverted and secular to act with a biblical moral compass. But we can seek the LORD, confess our own sins, and with passionate witness declare the LORD of creation to a world desperately in need of knowing him.

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9 Ways Pastors can be Above Reproach and Avoid Scandal

Article originally published at the Biblical Recorder.

The patterns of sexual misconduct exposed in elite political and media circles are staggering. We are reaping the harvest of the “free love” movement in the 1960s and other decadent cultural trends. Nothing that has been exposed should surprise us, but it should sadden and sober us.

In both personal and public life, pastors should implement practices and standards that will help protect our ministries and churches from becoming accessories to sexual impropriety. Here are nine suggestions:

1. Set boundaries.

It is both virtuous and wise to avoid intimate conversations and extended times of being alone with members of the opposite sex who are not our spouses. Hold open-door meetings or use conference rooms with windows for meetings with volunteers or staff members. As pastors and ministry leaders, we are in positions of authority and influence, and we should embody a character of virtue and godliness. We must also not be naïve. We minister in an age where false accusations occur. It is nearly impossible to be accused of impropriety if you are never in a compromising situation.

2. Use proper vetting.

Make sure all those who work with children and students have background checks and undergo a waiting period for service. As shepherds, we are responsible to protect the sheep. We should take seriously the processes and protections we put in place to make our churches safe.

3. Pursue accountability.

While we can guard against engaging in wrong behavior, we cannot fix the sinfulness within our hearts. We should preach the gospel to ourselves regularly (read Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp) and pursue holiness. We should also have accountability relationships. Personal accountability draws appropriate attention to our sinfulness, leads us to confession and functions as a discipline that will help us walk in holiness.

4. Know the legal requirements.

It is important to know what you are required to do legally should you or someone in your church face an accusation of abuse or harassment. You need to know your ethical and legal obligations to protect the victim and inform the authorities. The umbrella insurance company for your church is a good place to begin with appropriate policies and measures regarding these issues as it relates to staff and volunteers.

5. Avoid a cover-up.

While we must handle accusations with discretion, we must not cover anything up. We are children of the light, and we should not be afraid of addressing things in the light. We should properly address any accusation of misconduct with a thorough process of internal investigation, as well as informing the proper authorities.

6. Focus on your marriage.

It should go without saying, but the greatest protection against impurity and misconduct is a healthy marriage. Your spouse is to be your lover and defender. A marriage functioning as God intends discourages misconduct. Also, you should trust your spouse’s discernment regarding people in your circle. A healthy, trust-filled marriage is a safeguard against sexual impurity.

7. Watch your speech and jokes.

Inappropriate jokes and crude comments have no place among the body of Christ. As leaders, we must be careful that we don’t get so familiar with staff, friends and church leadership that we joke or comment inappropriately. We must remain above reproach in our speech.

8. Consider the consequences.

An accusation or an event of harassment in your setting could have catastrophic ramifications for your church. While I don’t believe that we should worry or dwell on “what ifs,” we must not stick our heads in the sand and hope things work out for the best. We owe it to our congregations to plan ahead and create protocols that could prevent such an issue.

9. Pray for God’s protection.

In all our planning and preparing we must not forget to pray. We should pray for wisdom for our church leaders. We should pray that holiness would permeate our speech and actions. We should pray that God would protect the children and families in our congregations. We should pray that perpetrators would be confronted. We should pray that victims would experience restoration.

What other practices have you implemented that help us avoid misconduct or harassment?

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