Father Abraham had a Son

(Please read Genesis 22:1-19 in your preferred Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare this study.)

Professional baseball has been played in America since 1875, but on September 14, 1990, something happened that has never happened before or since. Late in his career, Ken Griffey, Sr., who had been a key member of the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds years before, was signed by the Seattle Mariners. His son Ken Griffey, Jr. was just starting his major league career. In the first inning of a game against the Angels, Griffey, Sr. hit a home run to left center field. His son followed him to the plate and hit another home run to almost exactly the same spot. It was the only time a father and son had hit back-to-back home runs in baseball history. Ken Griffey, Jr. said later that his father greeted him at the plate by saying, “That’s how you do it, son!”

There are few joys that can compare to seeing our children and grandchildren succeed. Whether it’s on a ball field, at a music recital, in an academic competition, or, most importantly, in a spiritual setting, seeing a child demonstrate character and competence is a true pleasure. But this victory is not something that just happens. Every right performance, every victory over temptation, every accomplishment is the result of a concerted effort to prepare for the moment of challenge.

As we so often see in the Bible, this moment of high drama is written in an understated way, devoid of lurid details or a psychological exploration of the characters.  It’s easy to imagine Abraham’s feelings by projecting ourselves and our children into the narration, so we can guess at the surprise Abraham felt at the command, the dread he felt during the journey, the resolve he showed atop Mr. Moriah.

We need to remember that these things are not found in the Bible because the emphasis is not on any of the human beings, but on God.  Remind yourself that God is the hero of every historical account.  Though these verses are tense with drama, the point is that we do NOT center our attention on Abraham or Isaac, but upon God and what He is doing in them.

Just as the Bible is God-centered, so is biblical parenting.  One of places the Church and the world have erred is in making children the center of family life.  If we truly desire to have a home life that is at its healthiest and happiest, then we do the hard work of centering our focus on God and keeping Him in the middle of all we do in the home.

The best parenting is God-centered, not child-centered or self-centered.

Self-centered parenting reduces children to pawns we move about to inflate our ego.  The typical example is that of “stage parent” or expectations that children will follow their parents in choices of college and/or vocation.  Parents who are motivated to satisfy themselves through their children are prone to all kinds of abuse.

Though it sounds like a better situation, child-centered parenting is just as far from God’s will as self-centered parenting.  Children have a place in most families but it is never first place.  Children given too many choices, too much authority, and/or too much freedom are bound to be self-centered and godless adults.  A husband & wife constitute a family; children are additions to it.

The biblical standard is God-centered parenting.  It requires the most work and discipline, but provides the most joy and best results as well.

  1. Background: Isaac was the son of promise.

The promise was made in chapter eighteen when three angels came to announce to Abraham and Sarah that after decades of childlessness, they would be blessed with the birth of a son.  Biologically speaking, this was a miracle.

The promise was kept 25 years later, in chapter twenty-one, when Isaac was born.

  1. God gave Abraham a weird command (1-2).

While child sacrifice was common in pagan cultures, it was not Abraham’s practice.  For example, in Carthage, archaeologists have excavated a pagan temple to find remains of thousands of children sacrificed to false gods.

It was often a brutal, unmerciful form of killing:  hollow metal statues were heated by internal fires and then the children set in the red-hot hands of the idol.  Though we are at a time when God has not yet revealed His law forbidding child sacrifice, we can pretty safely assume it was not Abraham’s practice for two reasons: first, he had previously been childless; none to offer as sacrifices.  Second, God chose Abraham because he was a good man and child sacrifice was not the kind of thing good men did.

God knew this command would come at a high cost to Abraham.  We know this from what God said in verse two.

When He said, “YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY SON,” God is clearly not counting Ishmael, an illegitimate son born to Sarah’s maid, Hagar.  That was Sarah and Abraham’s ill-advised attempt to fulfill God’s promise themselves.  It led to bad blood (21:8-21).  It’s idiotic to think of children of “spares;” the loss of any child is great grief. Can we assume then an only child is especially hard to lose as there are no others to love?

God added, “WHOM YOU LOVE.”  How did God know this?  Obviously, God knows all hearts.  In Abraham’s heart He saw love for Isaac.  Because Abraham had waited SO VERY LONG for this son, God knew the idea of losing him must’ve been more difficult.  Add to all of this the fact that Isaac was understood to be the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is hard to receive a blessing and then have it unexpectedly taken away.

He clarified the means of offering Isaac: “AS A BURNT OFFERING.”  Animal sacrifices were a universal part of cultures of this time, but they had not been made into law by God.  Mercifully, the animal offered was killed first; not left alive to suffer being burned alive.  The Law was still several generations away, awaiting Moses the Lawgiver.  The procedure would have been something familiar to Abraham and Isaac too, as his question later indicates.

The reader is advised in verse one that this whole episode is God “testing” Abraham and we have the benefit of history to know how it turned out.  But Abraham did not know that, so these costs were very real to him and his feelings may’ve been very intense.

God knew Abraham’s heart; we rely on the text to show us that Abraham had deep love for his sons.  One indicator is the way he reacted to Sarah’s demands that Ishmael, the illegitimate son, be sent away: THE MATTER DISTRESSED ABRAHAM GREATLY BECAUSE IT CONCERNED HIS SON (21:11).

God reassured Abraham that it was OK to send them away because his descendants would be enumerated from Isaac.  God also reassured him with the promise that He would make a NATION out of Isaac too.

His distress may’ve been the thing that prompted God to TEST Abraham in this way.  If he reacted so strongly to the loss of Ishmael, how would he react to the loss of the legitimate son, Isaac?

Let’s take a quick break for a geography lesson.  Why go to MORIAH (2)?  The name meant “place of Yahweh’s provision.”  It was so named in verse fourteen.

The word “provide” figures prominently in this passage as it affirms our trust in God TO provide all we need.  When confronted with the surprising command, Abraham must’ve wondered how God would provide descendants if Isaac would not live.  For example, when Isaac asked about the sacrifice, Abraham affirmed his faith that God would provide one (8).

Why on a mountain (2)?  In most ancient cultures, mountains were considered sacred spots.  It was on mountain tops that altars were constructed, sacrifices were made and worship was offered.

Why end up in BEERSHEBA (19)?  The name meant “Well of Seven” or “Well of Oath.”  It was the place where Abraham made a treaty with Philistine leaders to ensure his family could live peacefully in the region (chapter 21).  Having gone to all that trouble, he chose to remain there.  It was “home.”

  1. Abraham prepared to obey (3-10).

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING (3) meant Abraham practiced obedience in time.  He didn’t wait for a convenient time or procrastinate.

God promised to show Abraham the place (2) and he did (4).  This revelation happened ON THE THIRD DAY after they left Beersheba.  We should not miss this detail.  Abraham kept the purpose of the long journey to himself and must’ve agonized inwardly over this long period.  Wow!

When they arrived, Abraham kept the servants at a distance (5), perhaps to prevent their interference.

Isaac was involved but not informed in this sacrificial offering (6-8).  I don’t know his age at this time, but Isaac was old enough to reason and express himself and had clearly been on these sacrificial trips before.

He went through a mental checklist:

Wood?  Check.

Fire?  Check.

The KNIFE (a special sacrificial one)?  Check.

The lamb?  Oops.  No lamb – no check.  Did dad forget the lamb?  Seems kind of important – better ask him about it.

Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question is a little evasive, but fits the theme perfectly: “God will PROVIDE the lamb, my son.”  Isaac apparently trusted his father, as the text makes clear that there was no more conversation about it (8).

How was Abraham able to do this?  Going by his actions, Abraham’s heart was resolved: his motive was to obey God .  Going by what Paul and James were inspired to write about this event, Abraham’s rationalization was theological: he trusted God to have the power to fix this.

Actions count and Abraham acted in obedience all the way.  He built the altar, piled the wood on it, tied Isaac up, the lifted him up on the wood and drew his knife.  That’s a lot of work to do and there is no sign in the text that he did it with a conflicted heart or mind.  He just obeyed.

  1. God blessed Abraham’s obedience (11-19).

God stayed Abraham’s hand at the last moment, sparing Isaac (11).  Rembrandt’s painting captures this moment brilliantly: the angel intervened to save Isaac.  Hundreds of years later, God would make this occasion part of His Law; in Exodus 13:1+15 he declared that the first-born were all His; a “sacrifice” that did not need to be executed because they were His already.

God explained Himself in vs. 12, 15-18.  This event not only tested Abraham’s faith, but reinforced his conviction that God would use Isaac to bring about the many descendants he promised.  The main point, however, is not about Isaac; it’s about Abraham and his faith.  Because he demonstrated to God that he did not value his son above God, God confirms His promises to Abraham:

He will be blessed (12:2).

His descendants would be innumerable (13:16; 15:5; 17:2).

They will possess the CITIES OF THEIR ENEMIES (12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8).

God would bless the entire world through them (12:3; 18:18).

God provided a substitute sacrifice (13-14).  Though a ram could naturally get caught by its horns in thorns, the fact that it was there exactly when and where it was needed, that is clearly supernatural.

Abraham perceived it this way and named the place to commemorate the event.

Theologically, we’re all in favor of the sovereignty of God until we have to change our plans or until we have to recognize that when God uses someone, it’s not always with their permission or approval.  It’s comforting to know that God is in charge up until the moment we insist on being in charge.

We can’t have it both ways, folks.  Since the Bible teaches us that God does not change and that he is in charge, we all have to face the fact that it is NOT all about me.  While human beings are the pinnacle of His creation, we bend to follow HIS will, not Him to follow ours.

What learned from Samson in the last five weeks is that God’s plan will be completed.  Whether we are pawns or a king, God is the hand that moves us.

In short, we need to build a bridge and get over ourselves.

James uses the account of Abraham offering Isaac as evidence to support his teaching that faith must be paired with works to be real.  We read in James 2:20-24:

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

This quote also gives us a third interpretation of the life of Abraham, how it was faith that motivated his obedience to God.  Even though Abraham could not, in the moment, see how God was going to work things out, he followed through and did everything God commanded.  That is how disciples behave: obedience comes before understanding, if necessary.

He Brought Down the House!

Please read Judges 16:23-31 in your Bible of choice.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Here’s a story illustrating the character of “macho men” like Samson.  It is a cautionary tale but entirely untrue.

“MISSING HIS LOVED ONE”

A husband went to the police station and told the officer on duty, “My wife is missing. She went shopping yesterday and hasn’t come home.”

The sergeant grabbed some paperwork and asked, “What’s her height?”

“Gee, I’m not sure. A little over 5 feet.”

“Weight?”

“Don’t know. Not slim, but not real fat.”

“Color of eyes?”

“Sort of brown, I think. I never really noticed.”

The sergeant sighed and asked, “Color of hair?”

“It changes a couple of times a year. Maybe dark brown, I can’t remember.”

“What was she wearing?”

“Could have been pants or shorts. I don’t know exactly.”

“Was she driving a vehicle or walking?”       “She went in my truck.”

“What kind of truck was it?”

“A 2016 Ford F150, King Ranch 4×4 with eco-boost 5.0 L V8 engine special ordered with manual transmission and climate controlled air conditioning. It has a custom matching white cover for the bed, which has matching aftermarket bed liner. Custom leather 6-way seats and “Bubba” floor mats. Trail King package with gold hitch and special wiring hookups, DVD with full GPS navigation, satellite radio receiver, 23 channel CB radio, six cup holders, a USB port, and four power outlets. I added special alloy wheels and off-road Michelins. It has custom running boards and indirect wheel well lighting.” At this point, the husband started choking up.

The sergeant consoled him, “Don’t worry buddy, we’ll find your truck!”

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/price-of-haircut–devils-barbershop-john-gaston-sermon-on-cost-of-sin-202944?ref=SermonSerps

There’s a modern day Samson, right? The point of Samson’s life is that God’s plan will be accomplished.  Our life will be vastly improved if we cooperate with His plan rather than oppose Him with our sin.

The end of Samson’s life accomplished more than the middle.

  1. V. 22 = the short-sightedness of the Philistines.

Satisfied with finally capturing Samson, the Philistines let his hair grow.  The point is not the hair, but obedience to God.  The text does not tell us how long Samson was imprisoned, but if the average person’s hair grows at a rate of eight inches a year, then some time may have passed.

  1. The Philistines held a party to mock Samson (23-25).

The five rulers of the capitol cities gathered to humiliate their foe (23).   Ostensibly, the party was held to OFFER A GREAT SACRIFICE TO DAGON THEIR GOD.  DAGON was an idol worshiped by more than one of the pagan cultures bordering Israel.  Every year at harvest time they held a national gathering in Gaza, so Samson may or may not have been the guest of honor at this party.

The real reason was to CELEBRATE, as they said, “OUR GOD HAS DELIVERED SAMSON, OUR ENEMY, INTO OUR HANDS.” Modern people tend to interpret events scientifically; we think about cause and effect.  Ancient people interpreted events theologically; struggles between nations were at the same time struggles between the gods.  Whoever won the war had the stronger gods.  However, the truth was that Samson’s capture was not Dagon’s victory; rather, God abandoned Samson to his enemies.

They gave Samson a bit more credit than he deserved: “WHO LAID WASTE TO OUR LAND AND MULTIPLIED OUR SLAIN” (24). We should remember 15:3-5, where Samson destroyed at least part of one year’s harvest.  The fire may’ve been widespread.  So he did lay at least part of their land to WASTE.  Regardless of the truth of these charges, it is clear the Philistine people hated Samson and celebrated his current low circumstances as just punishment.  Also in chapter fifteen, you recall Samson killed 1000 Philistines, which does qualify for at least part of multiplying their SLAIN.

It is certain they were in HIGH SPIRITS (25).  They demanded Samson be brought in to ENTERTAIN them.  The word translated as ENTERTAIN meant to “play with” or “amuse one’s self with” something.  This mocking and scorning of Samson is the first demonstration of how the Philistines really hated Samson.

What does the text mean when it says Samson PERFORMED FOR THEM?  It means Samson acted in much the same way a bear does when people stoop to abusing the bear in “bear baiting.”  Samson performed so well he literally “brought the house down.”

  1. Samson fulfilled God’s promise for his life in his death (26-31).

It appears Samson had something other than a good performance in mind (25-26).  Having been blinded (21), he could not pick them out himself, so Samson asked to be guided to the pillars that bore the load of the temple’s roof.  Archaeology has supplied evidence of ancient structures that were based on two pillars giving primary support to the roof.  In this instance, the structure was made more unstable by the weight of 3000 people on the roof.

The specific nature of this request indicates that Samson is thinking strategically again.  It would have been easy to hear the shouts of the people around and above him.

The text tells us that the temple was crowded with people, setting the stage for what would follow.  There were 3000 people just on the roof, THREE TIMES more than Samson killed with the jawbone of a donkey (ch. 15).  V. 28 is the second recorded prayer of Samson and he’s asking for nothing more than revenge. This is disappointing.  After all he’s suffered, Samson still doesn’t understand. The entire chapter is devoted to the acts of violence Samson perpetrated because he wanted revenge for various slights and offenses.  I’ll grant you having one’s eyes gouged out is a serious thing, but it’s not worth killing thousands of people.  The prayer is still very self-centered as well; the word ME is used three times and MY used once.  All of that in one verse.

In the final act of his life, Samson got the revenge he desired. What’s confusing is that Samson’s great strength returned, but the Lord is not credited with endowing Samson.  The Spirit is not mentioned in the way that he has been previously.  BUT, as this is the way it’s been done before, I think we can assume the Lord answered Samson’s request with a “Yes.”

What counts is the result: Samson used his strength to pull the temple down on himself and his enemies (29-30).  It was a murder/suicide that surely made the evening news.  Somehow Samson  moved the massive pillars off their bases with his bare hands.

His declaration “LET ME DIE WITH THESE PHILISTINES!” measures both Samson’s anger and his depression.  He did not want to live as a blinded workhorse, a helpless captive to the wrath and scorn of his enemies.

THUS HE KILLED MANY MORE WHEN HE DIED THAN WHILE HE LIVED is a depressing statement isn’t it?  Because Samson wasted the gifts God gave him, he accomplished more of God’s will by dying than he ever did in life.  In fact, some time later, the losses inflicted solely by Samson helped the Israelites defeat the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:7-14).

Verse 31 is Samson’s epitaph.  He got a good burial.  The words BROTHERS and FAMILY here convey a larger group than Samson’s parents.  A good number of Samson’s people braved the trip to Gaza to retrieve Samson’s remains.  I assume this was at some personal risk, even though Samson killed the entire Philistine government with his one act.  His was the third-longest judgeship over Israel, leading the nation – sorta – for 20 years.  (V. 31 is a repeat of 15:20.)

Here’s how Herbert Wolf summarized the life of Samson; “Samson was ranked among the heroes of the faith (Heb. 11:32).  Yet he failed to live up to his great gifts.  Unable to conquer himself, he was ruined by his own lusts.  He stands as a tragic example of a man of great potential who lacked stability of character.  Still, God in his sovereignty used him.”  (the Expositor’s Bible Commentary #3, p. 479.)

The end of Samson’s life accomplished more than the middle.

In a sermon preached last year, Pastor John Gaston asked a great question; “What’s the price of a haircut in the devil’s barber-shop?”  In Samson’s case, the haircut in question cost him his eyesight, his freedom, and ultimately, his life.  His last act of disobedience was the culmination of a lifetime wasting the gifts of God on self-centered and sinful pursuits.

It’s easy to criticize Samson because he makes it so easy.  His sins are gross and obvious and excessive.  But we need to be careful.  Just because our sins are subtle, concealable, and contrived does NOT mean they are any less deadly in consequence than Samson’s.  As with all persons whose stories are told in the Bible, we must hold them up as a mirror to our own souls and pray for God to reveal any similar shortcomings.  Sins like gossip, back-biting, complaining, and lying are no less deadly than any of the things Samson did.  God regards them as equally serious.

As we conclude this series on Samson, we will fail to put these chapters to godly use if we don’t compare ourselves to Samson.  For example, we are gifted by God.  It is not with supernatural strength, but we are gifted in many other, less spectacular, ways.  What are we – as individuals and as a church – doing with our gifts?

Can we honestly say that we are joyous partners with God in using His gifts to accomplish His will?  Or are we wasting our gifts and our time satisfying ourselves?  Do we serve God with our days or are we indulging in sin, making excuses and winking at our misbehaviors.

We’ve had our fun with Samson, rightly noting the ridiculous excesses of his behavior and attitudes.  We must end this series with unflinching honesty as we look to ourselves.  If we walk down Samson’s path, we must confess and repent and choose God’s way instead.

Samson Didn’t Know How to Pick ‘Em

(Please read Judges 16:1-22 in your Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Samson proves God will accomplish His purpose, but life is better when we obey Him.

Samson did not have success choosing the women in his life; he did NOT know how to pick ‘em.  Remember the Philistine bride he left at the altar in ch. 14?

Speaking of picking them, I read recently of similar relationship issues: a daughter texted her dad the following: “Daddy: I am coming home to get married soon, so get out your check book.  I am in love with a man who is lives far away, in Scotland.  We met on a dating website, became friends on Facebook, and had long chats on Whatsapp.  He proposed to me on Skype, and now we’ve had two wonderful months of relationship on Viber.

“My beloved and favorite Dad, I need your blessing, good wishes, and a really big wedding.  Lots of love and thanks, Lilly.”

The father replied with a text which read: “My dear Lilly.  Like wow!  Cool!!  I’d suggest you get married on Twitter, have fun on Tango, buy your kids on Amazon, and pay for all of it with Paypal.  Oh, and when you get fed up with this new husband, you can sell him on Ebay.  No need to thank me.  Lots of love, Dad.”

Today we’ll begin the final chapter of Samson’s story.  We’ll add two more sins to add to the tally, including the one that brought Samson to his end.

The story of Samson has had its humorous moments and we’ve had some fun pointing them out along the way.  But Samson’s life is also tragic; a tale of wasted time and potential.  He was gifted beyond most people in history, but taking his gifts for granted, Samson wasted time working for himself and disobeying God.

Let’s face a sobering fact: God is going to do what He has promised He will do.  We have the choice to join God in what He is doing or waste our lives on sin and selfish pursuits.  The choice is – as always – ours.

  1. Samson Sin #6 = Patronizing a Prostitute.

Samson made a bad decision and put himself in danger (1-2). Patronizing prostitutes is condemned in Scripture; it is morally dangerous.  For example, Proverbs 9:13-18 used a prostitute as a symbol of FOLLY and pointed out the foolishness of trusting one.  In 1 Corinthians 6:15-16, Paul singled out uniting with a prostitute as a particularly bad sin.  We have not seen in Samson much wisdom about relationships.  But this choice of partners is a new low in foolishness.

Samson put himself in physical danger by going all the way to Gaza, which was one of the capital cities of the Philistines.  It was surrounded by fortifications that worked to trap enemies INSIDE as well as to keep enemies OUTSIDE.  (That’s why the bit about the CITY GATE is important.)  Gaza was located 45 MILES from Samson’s home.  He really went out of his way to find trouble.

Verse two says THE PEOPLE OF GAZA WERE TOLD that Samson was within their walls.  Who told them?  Presumably, the prostitute or someone connected with her.  Or maybe Samson was so reckless as to make his presence public knowledge.  In either case, Samson’s enemies prepared to trap Samson in their city and kill him.  They surrounded the house and staked out the CITY GATE.

Having made these preparations, they then MADE NO MOVE DURING THE NIGHT, intending to kill him by day.  This seems like poor strategy to me, but they may have been so overconfident they believed they could afford to wait.  Or, more likely, they waited until the entire city was out and about; more people would see and applaud their vengeance against “public enemy #1.”

Samson relied on his strength to get out of danger and mock his enemies (3).  Samson was not surprised to find the enemy gathered outside the brothel.  He waited until the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, when sleep and boredom would distract the soldiers watching the house.

Demonstrating he was as stealthy as he was strong, Samson got out of the house and to the gates of the city.  There he yanked the massive gates out of the wall and carried them off to the top of a hill facing Hebron.

This is obviously a feat of supernatural strength.  Those gates, with all the connected woodwork, have been calculated to weigh between five and ten TONS.  Besides which, Samson carried them 36 miles and up 3,200 feet in elevation!

Why go to all that trouble?  Samson did this to rub the Philistines’ noses in their defeat.  They thought they had Samson dead to rights, but he made escape look easy.  Of course, we know this is another case of God bailing Samson out of trouble he’d created for himself.

  1. Samson Sin #7 = Sleeping with the Enemy.

What does the text tell us about Delilah (4+5)?  She lived in the Valley of Sorek, the same place Samson and his parents lived.  Delilah meant “amorous, temptress, delight, and devotee” in Hebrew.  This clue may suggest she was a temple prostitute.  Functioning as a priestess, Delilah may have used sex as a means of worshiping their false gods.  Just in case you thought Samson’s choice of the Gaza prostitute was the worst ever.

Samson FELL IN LOVE with her.  While this sounds different from vs. 1-3 and his engagement in ch. 14, it is clear that Delilah was still a bad choice for love interest.  Samson had “relationship issues.”

Samson paid no attention to his past (ch. 14) or present, and was thereby duped by Delilah (6-20).

The RULERS OF THE PHILISTINES have learned a lesson.  In chapter fourteen they threatened Samson’s fiancé.  Here, the made Delilah an attractive offer for her cooperation in capturing Samson. They each offered her 28 POUNDS of silver.  That translates into $7,804.16 in today’s market.  (That’s 28 lbs. X 16 oz. = 448.  448 oz. X $17.42/oz. = $7804.16.)  3:3 said there were 5 leaders of the Philistines, so that’s a grand total of $39,020.80!

Their aim is betrayed in the word SUBDUE.  In the original language that refers to subjecting someone to hard labor.  In my opinion, this is why the Philistines decided to capture Samson, not kill him.  Killing him would make a martyr of him and might cause the Israelites to revolt, but humiliating him might discourage resistance.

Samson’s first game of wits is recorded in verses six through nine.  Samson must’ve really been blinded by love; otherwise you’d think a question like Delilah’s in v. 6 would make a fella pretty suspicious.  Maybe Samson was suspicious, and that’s why he lied to her.

And what a lie.  What’s up with the BOW STRINGS?  Nothing.  My guess is he settled on the first thing he could think of that Delilah wouldn’t have in her closet.  We’ve already seen how clever Samson was with riddles and poems, so we know he can think on his feet.  Of course, the bowstrings weren’t at all effective in restraining Samson.

Later on, Delilah worked while Samson slept, but in this first game he is awake and allows her to bind him.  Why would he allow such a thing?

In the first three verses we saw Samson’s recklessness and arrogance.  It’s no stretch of imagination to see him as amused by Delilah’s actions.  That’s why I call these incidents “games of wits;” he was playing her.

Notice that when the trap is sprung (8-9), the Philistines are HIDDEN IN THE ROOM.  Though he might suspect the Philistines are using Delilah, Samson has no visual evidence.  (You’d think the feet sticking out the bottom of the curtains would be a dead give-away wouldn’t you?)

Samson’s second game of wits (10-12).  Though the text does not tell us any time passed between these events (just between the third and final game of wits – see verse sixteen), I have to believe that we’re looking at a set of events that happened over several days.  After all, what kind of lady has unused bow strings and new rope just lying about?

Just as Samson’s previous love interest had done (14:16), Delilah went into pout and nag mode (11); complaining, “YOU HAVE MADE A FOOL OF ME.”  Samson offered another lame lie.  NEW ROPE had already failed to incapacitate him (15:13-14), but Delilah apparently didn’t know that and fell for this second deceit of Samson’s (12).

Samson’s third game of wits (13-14).  Delilah makes it clear she doesn’t like being made a fool (13) but she makes it so easy for Samson.  He uses the number seven for a second time but gets closer to the truth by mentioning his hair.  This time Delilah waited until Samson slept to fall for the third lie.  When awakened, he jumped up and pulled his hair out and the loom apart.

Samson loses his wits (15-20).  Vs. 15+16 sound like 14:16; why didn’t Samson learn?  “YOU WON”T CONFIDE IN ME” is literally, “Your heart is not with me.”  That was true.  What he would not do for love, Samson finally did for relief from Delilah’s nagging; he told her the truth (17).  My guess is he tired of the game.  He was SICK TO DEATH OF IT.

Somehow Delilah was convinced that at last Samson told her the truth and she arranged her final betrayal (18).  The Philistines came back later (the fact that they’d left may imply they’d lost patience with her), with their bribe in hand and a barber in tow.  Why Samson trusted this woman enough to sleep around her is hard to explain, but he did it twice at least.  The barber came in and sheared Samson as he slept (19).

When she woke him, Samson, in his arrogance, believed that he was still invulnerable and would shake off the latest set of bonds.  Here’s a sad statement: BUT HE DID NOT KNOW THAT THE LORD HAD LEFT HIM (20).

Why did the Lord take His Spirit from Samson?  The better question is, “Why didn’t the Lord take His Spirit sooner?”  Samson’s character doesn’t bespeak someone worthy of all this divine assistance.  But rather than see this as a punishment, we have the benefit of hindsight and can see God had a higher purpose here: to get Samson in the middle of the Philistine leadership where he could do the most damage.  Once again, we’re seeing how God overcame the disobedience of Samson but still used him to fulfill the purpose He’d stated before Samson’s birth (13:5); to deliver Israel from the Philistines.

Later in Israel’s history, this same fate would befall King Saul for the same reason: arrogant defiance of God and taking His Spirit for granted (1 Samuel 16:14).  Both ended tragically.

The vengeance of the Philistines is terrible but short-sighted (21-22).  It was terrible to gouge out his eyes, chain him, imprison him, and set him to work grinding grain, which was humiliating because women and donkeys were used to run small and large grain mills (21). They literally added injury to insult by gouging out his eyes.  The Israelites counted blind people among lepers and others who were “walking dead,” not really people any more.

But they were short-sighted in that they didn’t have the barber come back to the prison; Samson’s hair started growing back again (22).  There was nothing magical about the hair.  The hair is not the point.  The point is obedience to the Nazirite vows that Samson had observed since birth.  The growing back of his hair is more like a symbol of Samson’s repentance.  At his lowest moment, Samson finally saw that cooperation with God was a lot easier than defying Him all the time.  It’s too bad he had to suffer blindness, imprisonment and the rest.  His life would’ve been so much better if he’d kept God as his focus instead of himself.

Samson proves God will accomplish His purpose, but life is better when we obey Him.

In a way, Samson is a symbol of what we men typically go through – we lose our hair and our strength at about the same time!

The irony of Samson’s life is that his great physical strength stood in contrast to his great moral weakness. The bottom line: don’t repeat Samson’s mistakes.

Turns Out You CAN Go Home

(Please read Matthew 2:19-23 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to do my research.)

Matthew 2:19-23  X  “Turns Out You CAN Go Home”  X  EBC = 12/25/16

One of the offbeat things that 2016 brought us is “fake news.”   This is something entirely fictitious masquerading as an actual news story.  People put this stuff on the Internet for various reasons, but the common factor is that it’s fake.

In case you missed it, there was an example of fake news in the Twin Cities just last week.  Some guy got it in his head that the new stadium was a waste of tax payers’ money and should be opened up as a shelter for the homeless on that especially cold night.  So he “tweeted” that it would be.

A friend of his “re-tweeted” this as if it were a real news item.  That fellow had 14,000 followers, many of who “re-tweeted” this item as if it really were accurate.  Announcers calling the Minnesota Vikings game on TV talked about it during their broadcast, and the whole messy lie took on a life of its own.

Other examples abound.  Fake News is nothing new.  Anybody here heard about Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds?”  It has been suggested that dead children and grieving mothers in ISIS video are just actors.

Having more access to information does not necessarily mean we have more access to the truth.  It means that, more than ever, we have to exercise good judgment to discern what is true.

As believers, we have an alternative to “fake news.”  For about 2000 years we’ve been calling it “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Stanley wrote an article entitled “Sick of fake news? Try the ‘good news’ about Christmas” for the London Telegraph.  I like his take on our more wholesome alternative to fake news.

“How do we test if faith is real? Look at what it produces. It is outwardly, indisputably more beautiful and magnificent than its secular alternative.   As my evidence, I won’t just cite the eyewitness accounts or the corroborating evidence from Josephus or Pliny. No, I cite love.

“You’ll think I’m mad. Love is just a concept, say the philosophers, or an evolutionary quirk, say the biologists. Society doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it; it’s out of style. The news, fake or otherwise, is dominated by evil.

Stanley cites a letter from an American agnostic who found a surprising alternative in Christianity: “Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family. We just finished watching a BBC miniseries about the birth of Jesus, which was so beautiful and moving compared to secular TV. My nine-year-old really enjoyed it.”

“That the events of two thousand years ago inspire all of this suggests, to me, that there has to be something to them. People wouldn’t turn their lives around over a myth – any more than the critics of Christianity wouldn’t waste so much energy trying to debunk a childish delusion. We do this big Christmas festival thing for a reason. Because deep in our soul, we connect the love on display in the nativity with our own needs and experiences.

“Some people have found 2016 depressing. It’s had its ups and downs. But evil trades in doubt and we should resist it. The fake news is that mankind is lost. The good news is that it can be saved.”

<Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/23/sick-fake-news-try-good-news-christmas/ on 12/23/16.>

  1. This event itself.

Verses 19-22 relate the third dream.  For the first and only time Joseph hesitated.  The angel’s message from God was simple; there was no longer any threat to the Christ-child, so it was time to come home.  King Herod died in 4 B.C.  This makes it possible that he did not live long after ordering the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.

By Herod’s own will and the prerogative of Caesar Augustus, Herod’s kingdom was divided between his surviving sons.  Matthew recorded Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judea (Jerusalem), Samaria, & Idumea (south).  His brothers Philip II ruled Galilee (north) and Antipas Galilee and Perea (middle).

The angel’s command was to go to THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which Joseph understood as being Judea, a province ruled by Archelaus.  Joseph was concerned about his family’s safety if they settled anywhere in Judea. He had good reason to be concerned: when Archelaus was king over Judea, he ordered the killing of 3000 people during the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  This massacre caused widespread rioting and got Archelaus in a great deal of trouble with Rome.  Later, in AD 6, a joint delegation of Jews and Samaritans went to Rome and pleaded Augustus to remove Archelaus from power.  Caesar agreed, and banished Archelaus to the frontier – the middle of Europe – in a place that would be called “Vienna.”  Archelaus was replaced by a governor appointed by Rome, which is where Pontius Pilate will come onto the scene when Jesus is grown to manhood and accused by the Jews of treason.  (Pontius Pilate was the fifth man to hold that title.  He was no great statesman and could be ruthless like Archelaus.)

Clearly, this account in Matthew 2 happened before Archelaus’ banishment.  No doubt reports of this grave abuse of power reached Joseph and other Jews living in Egypt.

God heard Joseph’s concern and sent a fourth dream, diverting the Holy Family to the province of Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, not Archelaus.  Antipas was no real prize either, as the Gospels tell us he was the man who would order the death of John the Baptist and interrogate Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

The fourth dream and Joseph’s compliance are recorded in vs. 22+23.  Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment: all these dreams.  Are you worried about sleeping?  Do you lay down and think, “OK, what’s it gonna be tonight?  More angels bossing me around?”  So the family settled in Nazareth.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like Nazareth is a new community, but Luke tells us it was the place from which both Joseph and Mary originated.

If you were looking for a place to “hide in plain sight,” Nazareth was a good choice.  It had a population of just 500-1500 people.

  1. The significance of the event.

The safety of the Christ-child is the most significant outcome.   Having preserved Him from Herod’s rage, the infant Jesus is now preserved from the lethal tyranny of Archelaus.

It proves that returning to Bethlehem was out of the question.  It was in the territory ruled by Archelaus and he was deadly crazy like his father.  It would have been the first place Archelaus would have looked if he followed up on his father’s bloody crusade against the new king.  Most importantly, growing up in Bethlehem was simply not God’s plan.

Another significant aspect of event is the fulfillment of prophecy (23).   Matthew is not directly quoting any single Old Testament prophet and that is why he used the plural term PROPHETS.  His statement is a summary and restatement of Scriptures he memorized from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament and that is a partial explanation why we can’t find this quote directly in the Old Testament.

Nazareth was an obscure town 70 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was a place of lowly reputation, especially among the city folk in Jerusalem.   For example, in John 1:46, Nathanael asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He found out something good had come out of Nazareth; Jesus.  He would go on to become one of Jesus’ disciples.  Another example: in Acts 7:25, when Christians were referred to as “the Nazarene sect,” it was intended as an insult.

Some people denied Jesus was the Messiah based on their false assumption that He was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.  It became a point on which they sneered at Jesus (John 7:41-43).

Finally, in this event some scholars see a repeat of the Exodus.  In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery to Egypt.  While it is true Jesus also came out of Egypt, but unlike the Israelites, He was tested in 40 DAYS, not 40 YEARS, and He was faithful to do the entire will of God.  He left Egypt a child, not a slave.  His mission was not to found a new nation, but appeal to God’s people to believe in Him as their Messiah and so be saved.

With more than a tad bit of cynicism, Arden Dier reported on a recent event that does not portend well for the new year.  This prediction is based on a relic that bears an odd resemblance to a “Magic Eight Ball.”

“According to legend, a woman collected the blood of Saint Januarius, or San Gennaro—the once pious bishop of Naples who was beheaded as Christianity was under attack around AD 305—and preserved it in a glass vial, reports Seeker.  Then a ‘blood miracle’ in 1389: the congealed blood liquefied. The archbishop of Naples now performs this ‘blood miracle,’ shaking the vial in front of thousands until the blood liquefies.  This occurs on three significant days each year, the most recent of which should have been Dec. 16. (Mount Vesuvius erupted on that day in 1631, and Naples was said to have been protected by the saint.) And yet last week, it didn’t.

“One website claims that when the blood miracle—which is ‘not quite sanctioned by the Catholic Church,’ per the Week—has failed to work, 22 epidemics, 19 earthquakes, four wars, and various other tragedies have followed. When the blood last failed to liquefy in 1980, an earthquake struck 30 miles from Naples, killing 2,400 people. The blood also remained congealed in 1939, the year World War II began.

“But ‘we must not think of calamities,’ says the local abbot, per the Catholic News Agency.  ‘We are men of faith and we must pray.’”

Whether this report worries you or not, having faith and praying is always good advice.  I can absolutely guarantee 2017 will be a good year if you commit to being more faithful and give more time to prayer.  It may not be “good” in the way you’re envisioning right now, because that’s up to God to decide.  But I hope we can all agree that any year which sees us drawing closer to God is a good year in the most important sense.

These first two chapters of Matthew are secretly about Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph.  We have seen how God guided Joseph by supernatural means – through his dreams.  It would be easy to be cynical and discount dreams, just as we might find the “Blood Miracle of Naples” to be a little hard to swallow.

Instead, let’s give credit to Joseph for being faithful and obedient.  Let’s give glory to God for the greater miracle of the life of Jesus.

Faithfulness or Unfaithful Mess? Your Choice. (Part Two)

(Please read Joshua 24:14-27 in your Bible.  I have prepared these remarks with the NIV.)

Faithfulness is a Fruit of the Spirit and is the only appropriate response to all God has done for us.

A politician said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”  The politician’s name was Abraham Lincoln and he made these comments in a speech in 1863.

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-jeff-simms-quotes-wear-judgment-privilege-13886.asp on 7/8/16.>

It sounds like the more things change, the more they stay the same.  For too long we’ve been operating under the mistaken notion that the human race is evolving, progressing, and improving our world.  I would say the violence we see reported anew almost daily argues against that notion.

We have changed many things but human nature is not one of them.  We have solved many problems, but sin is not one of them.  We have met some needs, but our need for God is one that we will never meet any way other than by faith.

As individuals, we are the sum total of the choices we have made and the choices others have made for us.  As we age, the effects of our own choices take on greater prominence than the choices of others.  In other words, we become increasingly responsible for the kind of person we’ve become.

What is true on an individual scale is also true on a national one: national identity is the sum total of the choices of its citizens.  It’s true that the choices of those in leadership positions have a greater effect on a nation’s character, but all of us contribute.

I mention all of this because we’re talking today about faithfulness.  Faithfulness is repeatedly making the right choices.  It is consistently choosing to obey God.

The Bible passage that most familiarly sets forth this matter of choice is Joshua 24:15, the centerpiece of the passage we’ve studied these two weeks.  Just as Joshua called the nation of Israel to faithfully obey God, this Scripture challenges us today to choose God.

PART ONE (See previous post.)

  1. The LORD has been faithful to you (1-13).

PART TWO

  1. You must choose to be faithful to the LORD (14-27).

Joshua called them to commitment in vs. 14-15.  Faithfulness features fear and service.

Some people are uncomfortable seeing FEAR of the LORD as a virtue.  They have such a benign view of God that they can’t see anything “negative.”  The Bible is clear that “respect” or “reverence” isn’t enough; a full understanding of God includes fear.  As Donald H. Madvig put it, “If we fear God, we need not fear his judgment,” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 368).

Motivated by fear and love, we are to serve God.  We must make sacrifices as necessary to do His will as soon as it becomes apparent to us.  ALL FAITHFULNESS is the objective. Being faithful requires us to keep our focus on God.

You can safeguard your faithfulness by trashing your idols.  In this situation, Joshua commanded them to dispose of the idols, the household gods that were taken from Egyptian households as plunder.

As previously stated with regard to the word FEAR, some people have trouble accepting that God is JEALOUS, but He makes it clear that He does not want to share us with false gods.  It’s for our own good to get rid of everything in our lives that will distract us from God, everything that threatens to take His place.

After all these people have been through and all the miracles they have seen, we think this ought to be a “no-brainer.”  It’s also strange that slaves would worship the gods of their oppressors, but it has happened throughout history.

Commitment is follow-through.  Human nature has not changed since that day at Shechem: true commitment still requires undivided loyalty.  Joshua called upon them to CHOOSE; did not make up their minds for them or even attempt to persuade them, other than sharing his choice.  Verse 15 is one of the most familiar Scripture and is often quoted because it is the essential commitment of faith: Choose your god.

The people committed themselves to serve God in vs. 16-18.  They realized God saved them from slavery. In gratitude they said some pretty impressive words:

– “FAR BE IT FROM US TO FORSAKE THE LORD TO SERVE OTHER GODS!”

– “IT WAS THE LORD OUR GOD HIMSELF WHO BROUGHT US AND OUR FATHERS OUT OF EGYPT.”

– “WE TOO WILL SERVE THE LORD, BECAUSE HE IS OUR GOD.”

However, these declarations of faith ring hollow in our ears because we’ve read the rest of the story and know that there were periods in their history when Israel served idols and not God.

Let’s be honest.  Are we any different?  Only if we choose to be.  We have to commit ourselves to the LORD & keep choosing Him to maintain our faith.

Joshua challenged their commitment and cautioned them about the wrath of God (vs. 19-20).  Joshua got in their faces!  He challenged them because he knew that a superficial commitment did no one any good and that he needed to move them beyond momentary emotion.

About Joshua’s theology: God is not only HOLY and JEALOUS and full of wrath against sin, but Joshua emphasized even exaggerated these parts of His character so that the people would stop to count the cost.  A spurious commitment that is superficial and ultimately results in backsliding and turning against God is as bad as an initial rejection of Him.

The people recommitted themselves in v. 21.  The people’s response is the more deliberate decision Joshua was working toward: they protested that they were serious and fully committed.

He made a covenant between God and the people (vs. 22-27).  The people served as their own witnesses. As they had agreed with this statement, their words were a vow to the LORD and would condemn them if they ever rejected God.

Joshua repeated himself in v. 23, demanding the casting away of all idols they carried out of Egypt.  This act was to be a demonstration of their sincerity.

I don’t know of any text that confirms that they did this, but they reaffirmed that they would serve the LORD only.

Joshua copied the Law that God gave them through Moses.  He made the rules clear to them.  Though v. 25 at first sounds like this COVENANT was something new with Joshua, we have no reason to think this was anything more than a reminder of what God had already revealed to Moses.

The stipulations of the agreement were recorded in a scroll called THE BOOK OF THE LAW.  That was one reminder of their oath.  Joshua set a LARGE STONE against an OAK TREE that stood near the place that was HOLY because God had met their forefathers there.  This was a second reminder of that oath.

Joshua knew the importance of memorials and visual reminders.  He’d made an altar on the Promised Land side of the Jordan (4:8-9).  He had already written the words of the Law on the stones of an altar erected on Mt. Ebal (8:32).

It is human nature to forget or be tempted to backtrack on the oaths we have made.  The intensity of emotions fade, so we need reminders.  The memorials were also important for future generations.  People who did not stand at that spot, who did not say those words would come along later and wonder how would they know these things were so?  Why should they fulfill oaths that others made?  These visual reminders would help.

Let’s conclude with the end of the story.  Several things happened after this pivotal event in the history of Israel.

First, Joshua sent them home – TO THEIR INHERITANCE.  It is, of course, a fantastic feeling to have these emotional, life-changing, “mountaintop” experiences.  The challenging part is taking it on into daily life.  To change the way we think, react, and interact with the little things of our world.

Second, both Joshua and Eleazar died.  These two leaders, representing the overlapping circles of civil and religious authority, were no longer available to lead Israel.  It was a rough and abrupt transition, no doubt, but new leadership was taking the people of God into a new day.

Third, the bones of the patriarch Joseph, which they had carried all the way from Egypt, were finally laid to rest in the exact spot where this meeting had been held.  This act of respect brought to a ceremonial end one era of the history of God’s people.  The past had literally been buried and the future lay ahead of them.

The last word of the book of Joshua is not the last verse.  Look at v. 31.  This verse summarizes the long term effect of the decisions made and oaths taken on that day.  What we see is that the generation who stood with Joshua at Shechem remained faithful to the LORD.  That is good news.

However, as we turn the page and get into the book of Judges, we see the following generations turning to idol-worship and sinning against the Lord.  Indeed, the history of Israel as preserved in the OT is very cyclical:

The people commit themselves to God.

=>

The people compromise & slowly turn to idols.

=>

Pagan nations take over & make them suffer.

=>

The people cry out to God & He delivers them.

=>

The people repent & commit themselves to God.

Good thing none of us are like that, right?  To me, this passage is about personal choice.  But it is also about helping others – particularly the next generation – make the same choice.  It’s not enough to keep the doors open and set the table, we must invite them to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).  Then, having tasted of the joy that is in Christ, we must help one another to fully commit to Him as Lord.

We must break the cycle of generations lost to the enemy by choosing to serve God and leading others to do the same!  If you will commit yourself to following God, please stand.

Why’d He Do It? Obedience.

(Please read HEBREWS 5:7-10 in your favorite Bible version.  I quote from the NIV.)

Jesus surrendered His life on the cross because He was obedient to the will of the Father.

In a recent interview, Dr. Robert Jefress was asked why he wrote his book, Not All Roads Lead to Heaven, he replied;

“A recent Pew Study revealed that 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions lead to eternal life. Some people might think that ‘surely the statistics among evangelical Christians is different.’ Not by much. A 2008 poll of 35,000 Americans revealed that 57% of Evangelical church attenders believe that many religions lead to eternal life.

“I’ve written Not All Roads Lead to Heaven to help Christians understand why this foundational belief of Christianity is so important, and to equip believers to share this truth in a compelling, but compassionate way. If we as Christians waffle and waver on this foundational belief, then we have absolutely no message to share with a lost world.

“Think about this. If the universalists are correct in saying that everyone is going to be in heaven regardless of what they believe, or the pluralists are correct that all religions lead to the same god, then the horrific death of Jesus Christ was completely unnecessary. The only reason Christ submitted himself to the horrendous experience of bearing the sins of the entire world is because his death provided the only way for reconciliation with God.”

<Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2016/02/not-all-roads-lead-to-heaven-an-interview-with-robert-jeffress/?utm_source=bg&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklybrief on 2/26/16.>

We shouldn’t think of this as something remote or academic.  Just this week I received a fund-raising letter from one of our American Baptist-related institutions, a seminary in Kansas.  This letter spoke approvingly of condolence offered to a student of the seminary that he would see his Muslim grandfather in heaven.  What is better – no hope, small hope, or a false hope?  I have contacted the seminary on the chance that I misunderstood the letter, but have so far not received a reply.

When the Church fails to obey the word of God, when we deliberately ignore the parts that make us politically incorrect, what hope do we have to offer the world?  Especially in this Lenten season of repentance, what purpose can repentance serve if all people go to heaven, regardless of their beliefs or deeds?

  1. Jesus lived a fully human life (7).

One of the places where the Gospel writers show the human side of Jesus’ life is in the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus’ struggle with His impending death was so intense that he sweated drops of blood (see Luke 22:44). This dramatic scene does not diminish the divine side of Jesus’ nature, it establishes the human side.  Even if we’ve never felt anything this intensely, we’ve all had strong feelings which should have lead us to intense prayer.

When you read what Paul wrote in verse seven, you get the sense that Gethsemane wasn’t the only time Jesus struggled with what God had planned.  This is implied in the fact that every noun in this verse is plural.  Gethsemane may have been the most intense time of struggle or the only time recorded in the Gospels.

At Bible study recently we talked about Jesus’ forty-day trial and temptation.  Surely that was a time marked by strong emotions and fervent prayer as well.

Jesus prayed fervently, and God the Father heard His prayers, but Jesus was not saved from death.  Let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as “unanswered prayer.”  God hears His children’s prayers and answers them.  BUT He never promised to say “yes” to all of them.  Even to Jesus, God the Father said, “No.”  He may have added, “Your death is my will.  This way you’ll save billions.”

The key phrase is REVERENT SUBMISSION.  It explains why Jesus’ prayers were heard: He offered them in respect (REVERENT) and obedience (SUBMISSION) to the will of the Father.

  1. Like all humans, Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered (8).

ALTHOUGH HE WAS A SON refers to Jesus’ divine nature and His status as the Son of God. Even though He could’ve pressed His advantage as the Son of God, Jesus did not short-circuit the will of God the Father.  He did not pull rank to get extra privileges, but did just the opposite: He drained the cup of God’s wrath, paid the penalty for our sin, and endured all the suffering of the cross, before and during crucifixion.

The phrase HE LEARNED OBEDIENCE causes us a little concern because we understand the Bible to say that Jesus was never disobedient.  We find an example of the sinlessness of Jesus just a few verse from our text: Hebrews 4:15 says, FOR WE DO NOT HAVE A HIGH PRIEST UNABLE TO SYMPATHIZE WITH OUR WEAKNESSES, BUT WE HAVE ONE WHO HAS BEEN TEMPTED IN EVERY WAY, JUST AS WE ARE – YET WAS WITHOUT SIN.  These verses do not contradict one another, they make the same point we’ve already observed: they affirm the humanity of Jesus without diminishing His divinity.

This expression does not mean that obedience was previously unknown to Jesus and He picked it up just in time to be crucified.  HE LEARNED OBEDIENCE means Jesus practiced obedience in the same way we talk about a lawyer “practicing” law or a doctor “practicing” medicine.  He put obedience to work for our sake.

FROM WHAT HE SUFFERED is the usual method we learn things: personal experience. Jesus’ sufferings are not limited to what Jesus suffered in the two days of His arrest and crucifixion.  This verse inculdes His life-long learning, several experiences of suffering.  What did Jesus suffer?  All the things you and I do; the Gospels state that Jesus was sad, tired, hungry, thirsty, etc.  He lived a fully human life.

  1. As the Son of God, His sacrifice saved us (9-10).

In a way similar to LEARNED OBEDIENCE, the phrase ONCE MADE PERFECT can be confusing.  Being MADE PERFECT is not a statement of Jesus’ moral nature: He was sinless.  I refer you back to HBS 4:15, quoted earlier.  Instead, this expression is a statement of the realization of God’s plan.

The word PERFECT is used in the Bible to refer to things that are completed. Verse nine then, refers to the cross as the time of Jesus being made PERFECT in the sense that God’s plan was completed by His sacrifice.  One of Jesus’ last sayings on the cross was, “It is finished.”  He could have said, “It is perfected.”  This word refers to a functional, not moral perfection.

The author cites two effects of Jesus’ perfect obedience.  One, HE BECAME THE SOURCE OF SALVATION FOR ALL WHO OBEY HIM.  We don’t have space to go into a detailed explanation of this, let us just observe that Jesus’ death paid the death penalty that we deserved so we can have eternal life instead.

The qualifier: ALL WHO OBEY HIM.  Jesus saved those who obey Him, who follow His example of obedience and REVERENT SUBMISSION to the will of God the Father.  Salvation is freely offered to all, but is effective only to those who choose to receive it and demonstrate the sincerity of their choice by being obedient.

Two, it is written that HE…WAS DESIGNATED BY GOD TO BE HIGH PRIEST IN THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.  Melchizedek is a person in the Old Testament of some importance.  Abraham, the father of all God’s people, gave tithes to God as he worshiped with Melchizedek.  He is also such a mysterious figure that some people speculate he may have been Jesus, appearing to be a human being.

To the Jewish Christian reader of Paul’s time, these references to the HIGH PRIEST and MELCHIZEDEK would’ve been very important as it show continuity between the Old Covenant and New.  To us it has a symbolic importance because just as the HIGH PRIEST was the mediator between God and man, so is Christ our Mediator.

The Screwtape Letters is a book of fiction written by C.S. Lewis. In the guise of a senior devil, “Screwtape,” writing to his junior tempter nephew, the great Christian author explores ways the devil tempts and distracts human beings from following God.  In this brief section he reveals the strategy of turning people away from God by using little things, things that compromise one’s faith eventually, but individually do not amount to much.

“The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

<From Compiled in A Year with C.S. Lewis, retrieved from http://links.biblegateway.mkt4731.com/servlet/MailView?ms=NTA3ODYwMzES1&r=MTI3ODAxOTkxODkwS0&j=ODYzMjQ5NzAzS0&mt=1&rt=0 on 2/26/16.>

Today we’ve seen that one of the things that motivated Jesus to surrender His life on the cross was obedience to the will of God the Father.  Jesus was also obedient when He brought sight to the blind, fed thousands, and did all the other miracles and teachings.  Surely those things were more pleasant than the cross.  But Jesus was obedient in ALL things, not just the pleasant ones.

As we follow His example, how can we do any differently?  When we gloss over or deny the central truths of the Bible just to fit in or make ourselves more comfortable, are we not disobedient?  If we will follow only on the easy, obvious, inexpensive, and convenient path, we will very soon disobey God.  Let us follow the example of Jesus and perfect the will of God in our lives by remaining faithful throughout our days.

An Unexpected Source of Strength

(Please read Nehemiah 8 in your favorite Bible.  The NIrV is cited in the following article.)

God gives joy as a source of strength.

In her book, Simple Words of Wisdom, Penelope J. Stokes described a scene in the 1997 film Amistad.  The movie recounts the true story of how a group of Africans who were illegally taken as slaves, escaped their bonds and took over the slavers’ ship.  They tried to return home, but were captured and brought to America where a legal battle occurred over whether they were property or not, and whose property they were.  A personage no less than John Quincy Adams argued for their freedom before the United States Supreme Court.

The scene to which Stokes referred is one that had a bit of humor in this very dramatic tale.  While the various sides were arguing about their fate in court, the Africans beheld a sight strange to their eyes – a group of Abolitionist Christians gathered to pray for them.  This group of men and women got on their knees, bowed their heads, and began to pray.

Seeing this, one of the Africans said, “It’s some sort of dance.”

“It can’t be,” another responded, “they look too miserable to be dancing.”  From that point on in the movie, the former slaves referred to the Christians as “The Miserable Ones.”

Stokes wrote that people in the theater laughed at that scene.  What makes me unhappy about it is my suspicion that people found that funny because they already shared that viewpoint.  In secular culture, Christians are seen as The Miserable Ones, judgmental and unfriendly.  This is, of course, to be blamed on bad theology in the Church, which places more value on being right than being righteous, on holiness without love, a graceless and mirthless misrepresentation of the Bible.  Here’s the truth: Joy is a sign of the reality of our faith.  It should be our characteristic emotion.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS:

A Comparison of Biblical Mentions of these Contrasting Emotions

JOY (218)

(With cognates enjoy (39), enjoyed (9), enjoying (3), enjoyment (4), enjoys (3), joyful (16), joyous (1), joyfully (11), overjoyed (5), rejoice (133), rejoiced (16), rejoices (18), rejoicing (24) and synonyms happy (24), happier (3), happiness (6), pleasant (20), pleasantness (1), please (115), pleased (78), pleases (40), pleasing (58), pleasure (34), pleasures (6), delight (69), delighted (15), delightful (4), delighting (1), delights (21), mirth (1).)

GRAND TOTAL on the SMILE side: 991.

SORROW (36)

(With cognates sorrowful (3), sorrows (4), sorry (2) and similar words like sober (2), serious (8), seriousness (1), grief (33), griefs (1), grievance (2), grieve (18), grieved (22), grieves (1), grieving (3), grievous (7), sad (9), saddened (1), sadness (1), distress (84), distressed (24), distresses (2), distressing (1), contrite (4), remorse (1), penitent (1), affliction (21), afflictions (5), woe (102), woes (2), dejected (2), adversity (2).)

GRAND TOTAL on the FROWN side: 367.

  1. The problem: a lack of joy steals our strength.

Their problem: the reading of the Law intimidated the Israelites.

First, some background on their situation.  The situation: because of their disobedience the people of Judah had experienced 70 years of captivity in a foreign country; Babylon.  In spite of pressures to conform to that foreign culture, they kept their spiritual and ethnic purity.  Just as God promised, they were freed and allowed to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem.  The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah detail the challenges the returning remnant faced trying to rebuild their city and nation.  Our passage takes place after the rebuilding of the walls, which sparked a renewal of interest in returning to their lost faith & rebuilding the temple.

Second, as the passage makes clear repeatedly, it was the reading of the word of God (THE LAW OF MOSES) that was at the center of this movement.  The people had an emotional (see verse nine), visceral reaction to the word; they took it seriously.  More importantly, they obeyed what they heard.  More on that later.

Our problem: we see joy as a benefit, not as a necessity.  Well, that’s half right.  Joy is a benefit.  It is something God gives to His people who will read His word, learn His will, and obey it.

But that’s not all: joy is necessary for life.  Not all people are naturally joyful, but joy is a mark of spiritual maturity for everyone.  Joy is not an “unrealistic” attitude or an avoidance of problems, but it is, instead, the reward for overcoming them in as positive a way as possible.

My problem: I let adversity get me down.  I mistakenly think that trials are the typical situation and joy the exception.  I focus on the problems and fail to see the solutions or the benefits.

  1. God used the leaders to encourage His people.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites corrected their understanding of the word and lead them in worship.  It is clear in verses seven and eight that the leaders were doing more than just reading the Word of God to the people; they were explaining it and enlarging their understanding.

Worship was part of the people’s response.  They feasted and observed the Festival of Booths all in the way God commanded (see verse eighteen).

If we support our leaders, we create a more joyous environment.  Negativity most often exists to serve selfish purposes, not divine.  It steals our joy and makes us nervous about our relationships.  In this passage, the people were attentive to the godly leadership they were receiving and supported their initiatives.  For example, it says in verse three that they built A STAGE so that their leaders could address the people.

How about me?  As a leader, am I characterized by joy?  Here are four questions that can be used to evaluate one’s own “joy quotient.”

– Do I look for and focus on the good in persons and situations?

– Do I live in the present moment, not dominated about regrets from the past or anxiety about the future?

– Do I laugh easily, deeply, and often?

– Do I value my relationships more highly than getting my way?

  1. The people responded with obedience and received joy.

They observed the feast and Festival of Booths.  Generally speaking, it’s easy to get people to join a party.  But they partied God’s way.

The Festival of Booths (“Tabernacles” or “Ingathering”) was commanded in Exodus 23:16. It was both an agricultural (firstfruits of harvest) and religious (a reminder of what it was like for Israel to live in tents for 40 years). It was also the end of the year in the Jewish calendar. These were understandable occasions for joy among God’s people, celebrations of the life of faith.

Turn your attention to your group – your business, family, or church – ask: are we characterized by joy?

We all come to understand that life is a mixture of emotions; sometimes joy, sometimes sorrow.  We also understand that one circumstance can create simultaneous feelings of joy and sorrow. (The older I become, the more often I’m mixed up!)  So when we note in this text that the people’s first reaction after understanding the LAW, was to weep, we can sympathize.  We’re not told why they were weeping, but it seems likely that when they heard the righteous demands of the Law, when they understood and felt the extreme contrast between God’s holiness and their sin, they despaired.  Their sorrow was regret for their failure to obey and the failure of their ancestors.

Whatever the reason for their weeping, you will notice the counterpoint, the multiple affirmations of joy:

– V. 9 = Sadness does not honor God. Also v. 10 = “THIS DAY IS HOLY, SO DON’T BE SAD.” Regret over sin and quiet reverence can be part of worship, but sadness is not.  Perhaps this is because it is contrary to faith in God who works everything out for our good.

– V. 10 is our key verse, with three affirmations.

– “GO AND ENJOY SOME GOOD FOOD AND SWEET DRINKS.” = It was a day of feasting, not fasting.

– “SEND SOME TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE ANY.” = Service – not selfishness – is a source of joy.

– “THE JOY OF THE LORD MAKES YOU STRONG.” = Joy makes us strong in every way.  It is empowering.

– V. 12 = They feasted and CELEBRATED WITH GREAT JOY.

– V. 17 = THEY HADN’T CELEBRATED THE FEAST WITH SO MUCH JOY FOR A LONG TIME. THEIR JOY WAS VERY GREAT.

Get the message?  God gave them joy as approval of their obedience and worship!

Where do I need to be more obedient to God? The bottom line is obedience.  We must obey God’s commands to us.

– First, it is the way we love Him.

– Second, it is the source of our joy.

Obedience can be motivated by duty or responsibility, but it is at its best and highest when we obey because it gives us JOY.

Too often people reject Christianity as sour and negative.  How sad.  How much responsibility do I bear for that characterization?  God is my constant companion and heaven is my destination!  No earthly sorrow can compare with that!  We ought to wear a genuine smile and radiate a transcendent joy that demonstrates the true STRENGTH of our faith!

  1. JOY is STRENGTH because…

It comes from our relationship with God.

It comes from our relationships with one another.

It encourages and empowers us to dream & dare.

It is contagious in a positive way.

It is an outward sign of spiritual maturity.

It helps us endure difficult seasons and motivates us to overcome obstacles.

It contributes to physical and mental well-being.

Of course, communicating this understanding of joy is a challenge, but that’s something every believer experiences.  Most commonly, we see this in the Sunday School classroom.  For instance, there was a teacher of a junior high class who was trying to illustrate what was meant by the word “miracle.”

“Boys and girls,” he said, “Suppose I stood on the roof of a ten story building, lost my balance and fell off.  Then all of a sudden, in mid-air, a whirlwind swept me up and brought me safely to the ground.  What word would you use to describe this?”

After an uncomfortable silence, a boy raised his hand and ventured a guess, “Luck?”

“Ah, it could be luck,” the teacher conceded.  “But that’s not the word I wanted.  I’ll repeat the story.  There I am on top of the ten-story building again, and I fall.  A whirlwind catches me in mid-air and places me safely on the ground.  Think now, what word would describe the situation?”

“Accident!” cried one girl.

“No, no,” answered the teacher.  “Listen carefully for the third time.  I’m on that same building, I fall and am swept to safety by a sudden whirlwind.  What word would account for my safely reaching the ground?”

The boy and the girl said, “Practice!”

Let me suggest to you that “practice” is the answer if joy is the question.  We must practice obedience to God first.  Then we must practice seeing ourselves and the world around us as God sees us.  Then we must practice the joy that will inevitably come when we have done the first two things.