"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Month: September 2011

The “Why?” of Death

Why do the good die young?

You’ve heard the question posed in different ways at different times concerning different people in different circumstances. The words may vary slightly, but the core query is the same.

Isaiah answers the question this way:

“The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.” (57:1-2)

At some level the righteous die as a merciful act of a gracious God seeking to minimize their interface with evil as it manifests itself on this earth, in this life and in our sinful flesh. God, at a predetermined time and place and in a specific set of circumstances which He deems wise and appropriate, calls His people home. He does so that they might “be spared from evil,” “enter into peace” and “find rest.”

Why then? Why were they left to experience _______? Why not earlier? Why not a little longer? Why? Why? and WHY?

I don’t know (Deut. 29:29).

But what I do know is that at the end of the chapter the prophet adds a balancing perspective concerning the wicked.

In this life: “the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud.” (v.20).

And he adds: “‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’” (v.21)

No peace. Not in this life. Not from this life. Not in the next. Not ever.

We serve a mysterious, merciful God. One who sent His own Son into this evil word, designating him as Savior. He did so that “through him [He might] reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20)

Run in repentance and faith to Jesus. By His grace find peace with God. By His grace live well to his glory. As His child know that “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)

The Ministry vs. The Advance of the Gospel

I’ve been reflecting of late upon Philippians 1:12: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”

For several days the Lord has hit my “pause” button over the phrase “to advance the gospel.”

I’m beginning to realize that, while I am called to “the ministry,” so little of my life “in the ministry” makes any direct contribution “to advance the gospel.” I do all kinds of things that qualify as “doing the ministry,” but which contribute little “to advance the gospel.”

Tangentially perhaps. Maybe, via a series of logical connections, an individual might reasonably build a case that most of the things that occupy my time in one way or another “advance the gospel.” But did the Apostle intend for us to expend so much mental effort to justify our labors? Is that what Jesus wants?

The power of what Paul was saying—both for himself and for the Philippians believers to whom he wrote—was that there was a direct connection between his difficult circumstances and the “advance [of] the gospel.” That relationship is, then, the conductor that carries the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16) not just forward to the unbelieving, but backward to Paul and the Philippian believers, giving them hope, strength, patience and joy to live through the circumstances and embrace them as a meaningful part of their calling.

So from that I have had this thought (and I think it is forming into a conviction) …

For one called as a disciple of Jesus and into His service, the further away from the “advance [of] the Gospel” our activities are, the less satisfying they are, the more draining they become and the more discouraged we become.

So, I review the things that “the ministry” has required of me this week (and its only Tuesday!). I realize I’ve spent most of my time dealing with things that I can make a case for as a necessary part of being “in the ministry.” But it takes some doing to make any valid connection to what they have to do with the “advance [of] the gospel.”

As a sustained experience this produces exhaustion, discouragement and a host of other negative emotions and thoughts.

Lord Jesus, help me to “do the ministry” in a faithful and responsible way before you as the Chief Shepherd and before the flock which you have called me to tend. Please also enable me to ever increasingly give myself to those things which enable the advance of the Gospel. In this way give me energy, strength, faith and joy. I ask this for your glory, amen.

Our Reward = His Presence

“So what do I get from this deal?”

We’re a bottom line kind of people. We want to know. Reward may not be our only motivation, but still …

God’s people have always wondered this. So I go God’s way and then what?

When God appeared to Abram he was quick to let him know what he could expect out of this Master-Servant relationship: After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’” (Gen. 15:1, NIV; cf. KJV, NKJV).

God was quick to inform Abram that there would be a reward for trusting and obeying God. In using the word “reward” God chose a word that probably was “a term for a mercenary’s pay” (p.241, Genesis: A Commentary, Waltke).

It is an interesting choice of words, for at the end of chapter 14 Abram had just returned from defeating the four kings who had raided and plundered and kidnapped the peoples of the area around southern end of the Salt Sea. Abram and his people utterly defeated these kings and “he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people” (14:16). He immediately tithed of this plunder (vv.17-20). Then he refused to take even a little of the ninety percent that remained—“…lest [the king of Sodom] should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’” (v.23). He continued, “I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me” (v.24a).

So Abram refused to get rich quick. Immediately God appeared and said (in essence), “Sign on with me, Abram, and you will be rewarded.” And, said God, “You won’t be disappointed!” Indeed, He emphasized the value of the reward twice over by saying the reward would be “very great.”

So what did God promise Abram he’d get out of a lifestyle of leaving everything to obey God? Abram’s reward would be God Himself. The Giver is the greatest and ultimate (and, indeed, the only really important) gift.

The text of Genesis 14:24 twice utilizes an interesting word that designates a “share of the booty.” The word shows up elsewhere in the Old Testament again emphasizing that God Himself is our very great Reward.

God brought the psalmists to the place in life where they would confess that their great hope and reward in this life and the next was simply the favor and presence of and relationship with the Lord Himself.

  • The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot” (Psalm. 16:5).
  • My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psa. 73:26)
  • The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep your words.” (Psa. 119:57)
  • I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” (Psa. 142:5)

The last of these was written “when [David] was in a cave.” Saul had attempted to take his life. God’s promises of kingship seemed impossible to realize. Life had crushed out of David all hope of the rewards one might expect in this life. Life may take everything from you, but it cannot take your immediate fellowship with the Lord. He is the one thing circumstances and evil people cannot take from you. You may surrender your enjoyment of His fellowship, but it cannot be taken from you. At the apparent end of it all, David delighted in the only real reward there is–enjoyment of the presence and favor of God.

There is another man in the Scripture who was brought to a similar place. His name is Jeremiah. He is sometimes referred to as the Weeping Prophet. Jeremiah was given the task of sharing the Lord’s heart and speaking the Lord’s word in the darkest hour of Judah’s history. He watched as the nation fell, the city was destroyed, the temple burned and its treasures plundered by the Babylonians. He watched what appeared to be the incineration of all the Lord’s promises to His people.

Before these things befell the nation, Jeremiah cried out to God’s people on His behalf and begged for their repentance. In doing so he more than once reminded them that God Himself is their Reward—“he who is the portion of Jacob” (Jer. 10:16; 51:19).

But they would not listen. Discipline came. The nation fell. Jeremiah was left standing amid the burned over remains of God’s chosen dwelling place, Jerusalem. In his grief and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Jeremiah wrote five funeral dirges. They remain for us in the Old Testament book of Lamentations. At the heart of those five mournful songs of grief Jeremiah speaks of our only hope:

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:19-24)

When all else is gone, God is not. When all other reward for following Him seems to have evaporated, when it seems not to pay for trust and obey, God Himself—the immediacy of His presence, the knowledge of His nearness—is our Reward. That means, of course, that even when it does seem to pay to follow God—when His favor is manifest in finances and favored relationships and physical health—He is still our Reward. To paraphrase Phil Visher, the founder and genius behind the Veggie Tales phenomenon, He who has God and every possible earthly blessing He can bring has no more than he who has God alone.

I don’t know how well it appears to pay to follow God in your life right now. You might be flush with earthly blessings untold. Perhaps not. Either way, can you say, “The LORD is my portion”? Don’t be seduced by the “stuff.” Don’t be soured by the apparent lack. Have or have-not, God, His presence, the immediacy of His favor and love is your share of the inheritance, your share in the booty, your very great reward.

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