Thursday, December 14, 2017

LET THE WEAK SAY, "I AM STRONG"?

Popular choruses and church benedictions seem to be magnets for verses out of context. One of the more recent ones is the popular chorus, Give Thanks. The verse, the only verse, is a simple expression of thanks to God for having given Jesus Christ, His Son. We can all sing that with enthusiasm. It’s the refrain that gives some of us pause. It is expressed as though it were a scriptural benediction: “And now, let . . .” The first problem is there is no such benediction in Scripture.

The second problem, the more important one, is that the first part of the sung “benediction” is wrenched out of Joel 3:10 –Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, 'I am strong.' " (NIV, NKJV, KJV, emphasis added) A cursory reading of the context of Joel 3:1-16 reveals that the above quotation is not a benediction! It is a taunt to the pagan nations to muster all their armies, all their strength, and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, that is, the Valley of Decision, where they will be judged.

Now I can hear the explanations and objections: Didn’t the Apostle Paul say, God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong”? (1 Cor. 1:27) And, We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong (even less applicable!)? And there’s Paul’s own testimony, when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul’s wish for the Corinthian Christians was that they be spiritually strong and “complete” in Christ: For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.(2 Cor. 13:9)

The concept of spiritual strength versus fleshly weakness is scriptural, but in the popular chorus, we sense more than a whiff of charismatic doctrine, especially when we sing on: “Let the poor say I am rich”! But that’s another issue entirely. Christians certainly do possess spiritual riches because of what Christ has done for us. But there are thousands of professing Christians who believe the atonement of Christ entitles us to all manner of physical and material blessings. But the New Testament does not support such notions. New Testament benedictions always speak of spiritual blessings, holy living, and heavenly hope.

Misquoting Scripture can be embarrassing. A beautifully carved plaque in a memorial chapel displayed this verse: “. . . absent in body but present in spirit” – 1 Corinthians 5:3. In context, the Apostle Paul was urging the church in Corinth to discipline an immoral member. Here’s the complete verse: “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” (1 Corinthians 5:3)

There was a time when liturgical churches closed services with the following portion of Genesis 31:49: The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.” Eventually some ministers discovered that in the context this was a malediction, not a benediction! Jacob and Laban didn’t trust each other, so they set up a heap of stones as a witness if either passed over it to harm the other. The ignorance still prevails: I saw an ad for a necklace with that very sentiment engraved on it! You might want to consider the context before you give it to your loved one for Christmas or your anniversary.

I can’t help thinking that behind all the misuse of Scripture verses is an appalling ignorance of the Bible as a whole, and the false idea that the Bible is a collection of aphorisms and benedictions. I’ve written before about the danger of bibliomancy, taking verses out of context for guidance and decision-making. The Bible is truly God’s unfolding drama of redemption. It is meant to be read in its entirety, and each book in its context. Only then will the Scriptures transform lives.


In the meantime, my voice will drop out whenever the congregation starts to sing, “And now let . . .” 

Monday, November 27, 2017

MOSES'S FUNERAL PSALM

It seems that Psalm 90, “A Psalm of Moses, the man of God,” is irresistible to ministers preparing a funeral message. After all, our minister’s handbooks all recommend it. The psalm does have some memorable verses on God’s eternality and man’s mortality:

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust
And say, Return, O children of men.
For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or as a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:1-4)

I always think of Isaac Watts’s great hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, when I read those verses. Then there is that reality check about the nature of old age:

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)

All of the above are quite appropriate at a funeral, when everyone is forced to reflect upon the relative brevity of life. But there is more to that psalm, and the diligent pastor is loath to take verses out of context. That’s when we run into verses that disturb the atmosphere of comfort:

For we have been consumed by Your anger
And by Your wrath we have been dismayed.
You have placed our iniquities before You,
Our secret sins in the light of Your presence.
For all our days have declined in Your fury;
We have finished our years like a sigh.
(Psalm 90:7-9)

Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?
(Psalm 90:11)

Anger, wrath, fury? Hardly comforting to a grieving family! And what about the unbelievers who inevitably attend the funeral of a staunch Christian? Well, maybe they need to hear about God’s wrath, but is this the right venue?

While pondering this psalm and its dubious use in funerals, I thought of the historical context in which it was most likely written. It is regrettable that this psalm is rarely expounded in all its fullness.

The first thing that ought to raise a question is why Moses, of all people, a man who lived to be 120 years old, would declare that a man’s years are seventy or eighty? When did Moses witness great numbers of people dying by age seventy or eighty? The obvious answer is during Israel’s wandering in the Sinai wilderness.

Israel had come to the southern border of the Promised Land, but they were hesitant to enter. They wanted to send scouts, one from each tribe, to spy out the land (Deuteronomy 1:22). All of those scouts except two, Joshua and Caleb, brought back a bad report on the land God had promised to give them. The negative report prevailed and the adult population refused to enter the land. In consequence of this lack of faith and obedience, God’s sentence was passed:

'None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.' "So the LORD'S anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed. (Numbers 32:11-13)

The total number of men twenty years old and older at that time, minus Joshua and Caleb, was 603,548. That means that during the forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness, the nation would average over 1,200 funerals a day! And that was only the men. In addition to judgments for particular acts of rebellion, Moses witnessed the once hearty soldiers, all once fit for war, aging and weakening. He observed that by age 70 most were finished, but some were stronger and struggled on till 80, stooped and aching. And this end was the judgment for their disobedience, their failure to believe God. They were literally “consumed by (God’s) anger.”

Commentators have rightly seen a universal principle these verses: death is God’s judgment for man’s rebellion in Eden. Verse 3 clearly refers to Genesis 3:19 (though a different word for ‘dust’ is used): “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Moses’s witnessing of death in the wilderness caused him to reflect on that tragedy in the garden and its universal consequences.

 But the Bible makes a distinction in the case of God’s redeemed saints:

Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones. (Psalm 116:15)

Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight-- we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:21-23)

Derek Kidner observed: “In an age which was readier than our own to reflect on mortality and judgment, this psalm was an appointed reading (with 1 Cor. 15) at the burial of the dead: a rehearsal of the facts of death and life which, if it was harsh at such a moment, wounded to heal.”[1] Psalm 90 has been a part of both Jewish and Christian funerary liturgy for centuries. 

Still, Psalm 90, Moses’s Funeral Psalm, needs to be presented in its context. Though death is a universal result of sin having entered the world, it is not God’s wrath that ushers one of his beloved saints into heavenly fellowship with Him.





[1] Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THANKSGIVING: THE KEY TO MENTAL HEALTH

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Every age has had its share of anxiety ever since the tragedy in Eden. But everything is moving faster in our hi-tech era, and that increases anxiety. We feel as though we're always behind.

Medications and treatments for anxiety and depression are a big business, but people are as stressed out as ever. What's the cure? Well, before we can cure a disease, we need to properly diagnose it. The Scriptures make it clear that anxiety and depression are spiritual problems. So the cure for them must also be spiritual.

Jesus recognized our natural propensity to worry when he encouraged his disciples to give their anxieties to God and trust Him to provide for all their needs (Matthew 6:25-34). He also urged us not to "borrow trouble" from tomorrow: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:34)

The Apostle Paul in the passage quoted above, specifically addresses the problem of anxiety, and he gives us a succinct prescription:  "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God."  First there is a request: Take your anxieties to God, let Him know what's troubling you and ask for His help. Then, and most importantly, thank Him for all that He has already done and for whatever He chooses to do in the present and future. It is a well-established fact that thankful people are less anxious than ingrates! 

We have so very much to be thankful for. As you read this, God has given us another day to enjoy our family and friends, to work and provide for our families, to enjoy our hobbies and recreation, to wonder at the beauty of His creation, to share His blessings and salvation with others. How thankful we should be!

When we follow God's prescription, God guarantees the results: "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.



Monday, October 30, 2017

THE EVANGELIST WHO INFLUENCED PATRICK HENRY

In a Presbyterian meeting house in Hanover County, Virginia, a bright young boy listened intently to the preacher, trying his best to absorb every word. He had too. For he knew that his mother and older sister would quiz him on the sermon during the carriage ride home. That boy would grow up to be the eloquent American patriot Patrick Henry, who would credit that influential preacher for much of his oratorical skill, as well as his view of liberty. That preacher was Samuel Davies, acclaimed as “the outstanding preacher of Colonial America” and “the animating soul of the whole dissenting interest in Virginia and North Carolina” (Sweet, 65).
            In the struggle for religious liberty in the American colonies, two Welshmen stand out: Roger Williams in New England (see Ninnau July-August 2015) and Samuel Davies in Virginia and North Carolina.
            Samuel Davies was born November 3, 1723, to David and Martha Davies, Welsh Baptists of New Castle County, Delaware. The Davieses were deeply religious, and Martha named her son after the prophet Samuel with the hope that he would enter the ministry. Yet when Samuel was of age, the Davieses lacked the finances for a university education, so they sent him to be tutored by the Rev. Samuel Blair in Blair’s academy in Faggs Manor, Pennsylvania. Blair’s institution was one of several disparagingly dubbed “log colleges.” The first so-called Log College was founded in 1735 by the Rev. William Tennent to educate his younger sons and other promising young men for the ministry, one of whom was Samuel Blair. After Blair assumed a pastorate in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he opened an academy similar to Tennent’s. Samuel Davies was to be his most renowned graduate and leader of The Great Awakening in the Southern Colonies, particularly in Virginia.
            The Anglican Church had held official status in Virginia since its founding, receiving tax support from the colonial legislature. Dissenting religious groups were tolerated, but their right to formal worship was effectively denied. In 1743, the colonial legislature of Virginia licensed Presbyterian “reading rooms” in Polegreen and three communities in and around Hanover County. Samuel Davies was commissioned as an evangelist to Virginia in February of 1747, and at age twenty-three he set out for the South with his bride of four months, Sarah (Kirkpatrick). Davies was determined to minister to folk of any denomination, preaching in dissenting communities and evangelizing wherever the opportunity arose.
            In September of 1747, tragedy struck: Sarah Davies died in childbirth only a month before their first anniversary. The loss hit Samuel so hard that he began to believe that he, too, always of frail health, might not have long to live. That thought drove Davies to redouble his evangelistic efforts. By 1748, Davies had set up his base of ministry in Hanover County, Virginia. In October of that year, he married Jane Holt from a prominent Williamsburg family. They would have six children together, one dying at birth.
            In the 1740’s, Davies was the only revivalistic – “New-light” or “New Side” – Presbyterian preacher in the county. There were, however, a few traditional – “Old Side” – Presbyterians, who presented little threat to the Established Church. Davies was determined to avoid conflict with the Established Church clergy, so his sermons were free of rancorous rhetoric or attacks on other denominations. He focused, instead, on careful exposition of Scripture and clear presentation of the Gospel. The strategy worked, much to the chagrin of the same Established clergy Davies had studiously avoided attacking. In 1752, Commissary William Dawson wrote the following to the Bishop of London:
The Dissenters were but an inconsiderable number before the late arrival of certain teachers from the northern colonies. . . . But since Mr. Davies has been allowed to officiate in so many places . . . there has been a great defection from our religious assemblies. The generality of his followers, I believe, were born and bred in our communion. (Cited in Sweet, 66)
            Davies would eventually establish seven Presbyterian congregations in five counties and win greater religious freedom for dissenters of all denominations.  Through his legal astuteness, he was able to secure in Virginia the application of England’s Toleration Act of 1689. His advocacy of the principles of the “free-born mind” or “liberty of conscience,” after the model of Roger Williams, eventually led to the establishment, after Davies’ death, of Virginia’s Declaration of Religious Rights (1776) and Statute for Religious Freedom (1786).
            Few colonialists, especially in the South, questioned the propriety of that “peculiar institution” of slavery, nor did Samuel Davies oppose it. He did, however, conduct a vigorous and extensive ministry to the slave population. Unlike the Baptist and Methodist missionaries who focused on a personal experience of salvation alone, Davies insisted that slaves be taught to read since an understanding and application of the Bible was essential to the Christian life. Davies himself estimated that he had ministered to over a thousand African slaves and had baptized hundreds. African converts were admitted into his congregations and were permitted to preach. He even wrote specific hymns for African ministry. The Negro spiritual, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian in My Heart,” is believed to have been inspired, if not composed, by Samuel Davies.
            In 1753, Davies accompanied fellow Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent on an eleven-month fundraising tour of England and Scotland on behalf of the College of New Jersey, an outgrowth of Tennent’s Log College, during which Davies preached sixty-three times. The mission raised six thousand pounds, including a large contribution from the grandson of Oliver Cromwell.
            In 1759, Davies was offered the presidency of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University in 1898), succeeding Jonathan Edwards, who had died after only six weeks in office. At first Davies demurred, believing someone else more qualified, but he eventually accepted. Davies’s own tenure was also to be short. He died on February 4, 1761, at the age of 37.
            Few American ministers have had as much impact on the formation of the yet-to-be-founded United States of America as Samuel Davies. Davies influenced not only the eloquence, but also the principles of the noted orator and patriot Patrick Henry. Davies’ fight for religious liberty in the middle and southern colonies, formed the groundwork for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
            As for Davies’ spiritual contribution, historian William Sweet sums it up well:
“Among the many prolific eighteenth-century preachers, few if any can be read more profitably today than Samuel Davies.” (Sweet, 70)

Resources
Sweet, William Warren. Revivalism in America. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965.


First published in Ninnau, Sept-Oct 2016. Copyright 2016 by Thomas L. Jones.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Writer's Best Reward

I’ve written a lot of articles for publication, and for some I've even been paid. My articles have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Naval History, Birds & Blooms, Reminisce, and many other periodicals. But my most valued compensation for an article came from a piece I wrote for a Sunday School bulletin insert. The article was about how God opened the mind and heart of an Italian man, resolving his doubts and producing faith in Christ. What touched one reader, though, was not the story itself, but a Scripture passage I quoted at the end: Deuteronomy 29:29 – "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
            Soon after the article appeared, a lady wrote to the editor with this message: “My husband and I have been going through a difficult time lately, and I felt sad and confused. When we got home from church, I took out the Sunday bulletin insert and read the article by Thomas L. Jones. When I got to that verse from Deuteronomy, my sadness lifted and my joy returned.”
            The editor of the periodical forwarded the letter to me, and I have cherished it ever since. Like any other rational person, a writer would like to believe he is making a difference in this world. Writers seek to do it through words – words crafted into sentences and paragraphs that we hope will convey coherent thoughts. Getting those words into a publication with a large circulation is gratifying in itself. We think about all those potential readers. But the writer has no idea how many recipients actually read his article. Unless someone writes in response.
           This is even more true for blog posts. In the case of a subscription periodical, we can be reasonably sure the subscribers at least looked at the periodical. But the statistics page on the blog site can be discouraging! Some "hits" I get appear to be sites that sell ready-made essays to students!
              Since I get no monetary compensation for my blog posts (I gave up “monetizing” a long time ago because of objectionable ads), my reward is learning that something I shared on my blog helped someone in some way. Getting feedback makes my day, and it spurs me on to write more. My thanks to those who have shared! I love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

BIG SAUL AND LITTLE SAUL


Big Saul started out as Little Saul. Little Saul started out as Big Saul. Both were of the tribe of Benjamin. The first Saul considered that pedigree a little thing; the second Saul considered it a big thing. The first Saul exalted himself to his own destruction; the second Saul abased himself to his own salvation and exaltation. The first Saul feared the people; the second Saul feared only God.
            King Saul is memorialized and honored in Jewish history as Israel’s first king. Yet the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a man of poor character, devoid of a personal relationship with Yahweh, God of Israel. He was superstitious, paranoid, and vindictive. He constantly relied on his own devices and feared the disapproval of men. In the end, King Saul consulted a medium for guidance since the LORD had abandoned him.
            Saul of Tarsus, on the other hand, began his career as an honored leader of Pharisaic Judaism in the 1st century A.D, a disciple of the renowned theologian Gamaliel. This Saul took pride in being of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). His zeal for what he considered to be the truth of God moved him to persecute the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Saul considered to be a threat to the covenant faith of Israel. After his encounter with the risen Jesus, however, Saul of Tarsus cast off all honor and prestige, preferring to be known as Paul, his Greek name meaning “little.” (See Philippians 3:4-14; Acts 13:9ff) Though persecuted relentlessly, Paul committed himself to the Lord (Acts 20:22-24; Philippians 1:19-21). Paul, “Little Saul,” sought no approval from men (Galatians 1:10, 15-24).
            Jesus said, "Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12), and “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  No two men in Scripture illustrate this contrast better than Saul Ben-Kish[1] and Saul of Tarsus.





[1] Our English Bible identify Saul as “son of Kish,” which was one hyphenated surname in the Hebrew: ben (son) + Kish, hence, Ben-Kish. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Essential Key to Spiritual Understanding

"If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself." (John 7:17)

 A willing heart of obedience is an absolute prerequisite for understanding God's Word.  Only to an obedient heart does God make known his most precious truths.  That person "comes to understand, to comprehend" (Greek ginosko) the teaching of our Lord.  The Pharisees were not willing to do what God might reveal to them, so God would not illuminate their minds to understand what Jesus was teaching.  They felt they could judge God’s Word, rather than letting God’s Word judge them. 

In 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul says, "But the natural (soulish) man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.  15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one."  But the Corinthian Christians were neither "natural," that is, unsaved people, nor spiritual people: they were "carnal" (fleshly) Christians, infantile in their understanding of spiritual truths.  So they could not fully comprehend the deep things of God.  Paul says he had to feed them with "milk" and not "solid food," because they were not able to digest it.

Christians whose focus is still on themselves--on their own desires, their own ambitions, their own pleasures--are still "fleshly" and are not able to receive the rich doctrines of God's Word.  And this fleshly attitude results in "envy, strife, and divisions" (1 Corinthians 3:3). 

Only when we have a true heart of complete obedience will God open our spiritual eyes to the most precious riches of His Word.  We need the heart of Samuel who said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” 

Let’s pray with the “sweet psalmist” David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.”  (Psalm 139:23-24)