Monthly Archives: February 2016

Discipleship – Making the Commitment

Nehemiah: The Pursuit of Vision and Purpose

Nehemiah was the cup-bearer to King Artexerxes (465-423 BC), a position of honor and responsibility.  It is surprising that a captive Jew might attain such a position.  But like Daniel, God’s people are often people of true quality and receive honors and responsibilities above their station.  “The world has yet to see what God can accomplish through one man completely dedicated to him.” (D.L. Moody)  “Not our ability but our availability is what God wants.” God can elevate us far above ourselves.

There are at least three things we see in Nehemiah and in all truly significant people:  Vision, Decision, and Determination.

Vision

  1.  He hears of the dilapidated state of Jerusalem and the down-beat condition of the people.
  2. He is deeply touched by concern for the cause of God.
  3. The king notices his agitation.  He flashes a prayer to God.  He envisions the restoration of the Holy City.  Everyone needs a vision of something so grand, so mobile, so God-glorifying, that it will exhaust every resource.  Vision beyond our means.  Then we pray for the means to fulfill the vision…and then pray for even broader vision, and so on.  Pity the one who has everything to live with and nothing to live for.  The worst thing for us are to have goals so low that we reach them.  There is no grander vision than the coming of Christ’s kingdom, the saving of souls, the obedience to God’s word and will.  This is discipleship and the best of all lives.
  4. The king grants his request.  God uses the king to establish His kingdom.  “All things are yours”….to be used in Christ’s service.  Radio, TV, transportation, language, science…all at our disposal for Christ.  Artexerxes even places his troops in Nehemiah’s hands.  So God honored the vision of Nehemiah.  And so he will honor ours.

Decision

  1.  Consider again Nehemiah’s flash prayer.  No matter how his dream burned within him, he would not even speak of it until he had prayed.  Beware of any decision made without previous prayer.  (Jehoshaphat and Ahab).  So often we decide something, then almost as an afterthought ask God’s blessing.  The true disciple is a follower of God, not an arm-twister.  All of life comes down at last to “Not my will, but thine be done.”   One of life’s most difficult assignments is that we learn to wait for God to show us the way.
  2. Once the way is opened by God, Nehemiah acts at once.  Many a cause fails because of an apathetic beginning.  There was a godly resoluteness in Nehemiah.  The thing was right, the way was open…so begin!  No decision is worth anything until we act on it.
  3. Nehemiah acted fearlessly.   He dared to believe that if his dream pleased God, and God opened the way for him, and gave him the means (timber, letters, etc.), then God would sustain him.  The greatest deterrent to the coming of Christ’s kingdom is not the enemies of it but the timidity of its citizens.  We sometimes feel an inferiority complex against a “macho” world.  But “if God is for us who can be against us?”  “Fear not little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
  4. His arrival at Jerusalem and the solitary night-ride.  Recognize the value (even necessity), of some solitude in your life.  Nothing will come of your God-implanted dream of service for him if you do not spend time alone with it in his presence.  Vision cannot grow when dimmed by trivial pursuits and trivial distractions.
  5. Notice also his motives in making the grand decision. (For no vision is better than its motivation.) Nehemiah was concerned for God’s people, the city itself (God’s cause in the world) and for the moral decay in the city.  There was nothing selfish in his vision, or in the decision to act upon it.  It was all for the sake of God and his people and cause.  There is nothing great or noble about a selfish person.  A man all wrapped up in himself makes a pretty small package.  Greatness grows out of devotion to God and others.  The first step in being great is realizing that Christ saved us not to safeguard ourselves but to expend ourselves for him.  We can never be right for ourselves until we are right for Christ and his program.

Determination

  1.  Determination is proportionate to the intensity of our sense of being called to something noble, grand, godly.  The more certain we are of the grandeur of our vision the more valuable we become to God and others, and of course also to self.  And the more certain we also become that the vision is worth our all, which develops in us the quality of purposefulness or determination.
  2. Satan is a hard loser, and will oppose everything noble and godly.  We will experience this in our discipleship and service to Christ just as did Nehemiah, and probably some of the very hinderances with which he had to contend, such as ridicule, physical force and threats, dissension and unrest amongst his fellow workers, a plot for violence against him and slander.
  3. The importance of a wholesome self-image.  “Should such a man as I flee?”  “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down.”  This is not arrogance; it is self-respect, self esteem in the best sense of the term.  A self image derived from the assurance that he was pursuing a grand, God-implanted dream and was therefore a valuable person.  We all need a self-image developed out of a high sense of calling and seeing our role in life in relation to God’s grand Christ-program.

In all this, Nehemiah was God’s man of the hour.  A man of vision, decision, and determination – the three qualities needed by every person, every church, every cause (Christian school, for example) that would be valuable in God’s world and work.  He was a man of godly courage, clear sense of right and wrong, unfeeling devotion to the will of God, and of complete dependence upon God alone.  The men the world cannot move are the men who can move the world, and under God Nehemiah was such a man, a powerful example to us.  God accepted both Nehemiah and his contributions.

A true disciple is, among other things, a person of vision and purpose.  Purpose that cannot fail because it derives from Christ.  And Satan may be a hard loser, but never mind; Christ is a sure winner, and in him we are “more than conquerors”.  With God’s blessing Nehemiah built the city, and with God’s blessing our discipleship will build Christ’s kingdom.  The world may have its dreams and purposes but our dreams and purposes are those that Christ worked for and stood for, and when we have declared them to the world we can humbly but confidently cry:  There!  Can you beat that?

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Moses: The Making of a Disciple (cont.)

The Providential Element.

We are his workmanship.  Beware of belittling yourself by comparing yourself to others.  Each of us is one of a kind, the product of special providences of God.  Consider Moses as a case in point.  It’s almost as if Satan says: Very well.  He’s in the palace.  But now we have him where we can use him after all.  We’ll train him in the best of everything that is Egypt, and get him to use it all as the successor to Pharaoh, and he’ll be invincible in carrying out the original idea of the edict (see last post).

And so Moses was trained in military skills, administration and statesmanship, law and writing.  What a coup for Satan if all this could have perverted Moses and made him a force against Israel.  But God again turns the tables, and the very skills Moses learned under the aegis of Egypt become the qualities that enabled him to lead Israel and make it invincible.

In our lives also, God is full of surprises.  Far from perverting Moses, Satan must watch helplessly as God uses all these means to prepare Moses.  What has been your special training, and how do you see the over-ruling providence of God in it?  Do you recognize his providences as preparatory to your discipleship?

The providential element is always both gracious and unassailable.  As Joseph says to his brothers: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  Do not be dismayed or discouraged by anything.  (Romans 8:28)  Do not identify exclusively with either your victories or your defeats.  God wants us to crank both our highs and lows into a view of self that believes it is all part of our being enriched for his service.  (Luke 22:31,32)

The Personal Element.

Amazing providences alone are not enough.  There must be a deeply vital “I-thou” confrontation, an arrest by God.  This began already in Egypt with an awareness of the “antithesis,” accepting the stigma, sifting the values and developing a self-image. (Hebrew 11:24-27)

It was greatly intensified at the burning bush.  God identified himself as “I AM”.  God then characterizes himself with “I have seen…”  God continues by asserting himself:  “Go to Pharaoh..”  He then commits himself:  “I will put forth my hand….”  Finally, God provides for Moses’ inability:  “Aaron your brother…”

All this has gone into the making of Moses.  God refused to use the man of Exodus 2, and instead hand-crafted the man of Exodus 3.  Every disciple in some way or other will discover in his or her life the basic elements in the making of Moses.  By nature we fit the picture of Exodus 2; only grace and the redeeming work of God in Christ in us can bring us to the burning bush, and from there to our mission in “Egypt”.  We are responsible for recognizing, understanding, accepting and utilizing God’s workmanship in ourselves.  And all praise and glory belong to him.

With our God in sovereign control of all things and fashioning us to be fitting instruments in his service, we dare commit ourselves to him as disciples, and experience the best of all lives for Christ.

 

Discipleship – The Best of All Lives

Why not call this “Christianity” instead of Discipleship?  Because the word has been watered down until it is not always understood as it was in Acts 11:26.  “Discipleship” is a more confrontative and challenging term, and cannot be so glibly claimed today.

The following number of blog posts will be devoted to different aspects of Discipleship as seen through characters from the Bible.  Note that there will be only one New Testament disciple in the series reviewed in these posts.  That is because Old Testament saints were disciples as well as New Testament people.  All of God’s people of all time are or must become disciples, in the essential meaning of the word.

For discipleship is not something we also are, as one may think of ego in relation to career.  As if a bricklayer were also a disciple.  Ideally, we are disciples who are also bricklayers, or whatever.  All of life is a religious act.  “For me to live” is not to lay bricks, but personhood is realized not first of all in our career but in our position before God in Christ.  That is the qualifying factor in us, making all of life subject to Christ, making all of life informed by Christ, sanctified and ennobled, given purpose and value.  That’s what you see in disciples, and that’s the best of all lives.

It’s not only the best of all lives; it’s in fact the only real life there is.  All else is at best only existence, and at worst, death.  Only in Christ shall all be made alive.  Besides this, discipleship involves four additional elements:  1.  A ready and total recognition of the imperious claims of God in Christ.  2.  A commitment to learning to recognize and pursue the divine will and purposes under which we are called to live and serve.  3.  Acceptance of life’s challenges and sufferings, blessings and opportunities, with a victorious faith in God through Christ.  4.  The resolution and faithfulness to exhibit Christ in all our relationships and personal qualities by our witness and life-style.

Each of these elements will appear in the characters with whom we will seek to identify in our next studies.

I.  Responding to the Sovereign:  Moses, The Making of a Disciple

Already in Exodus 2:11-15 is a hint of Moses’ dream of liberating Israel.  But it was ruined by his approaching it as an Egyptian rather than as a disciple.  His basic presuppositions as to method, resources and authority were all worldly, not godly.  Hence, God rejected his efforts, and Moses is exiled.  Still, he was God’s man of the hour, and God would not discard him.  God had grand purposes for Moses.  He would be used, but only after God had fitted him for all that was at stake.

Each of us, like Moses, is a special product of divine workmanship, prepared for God’s special time.  The same factors are at work in our being made disciples.

The Cosmic Element

In Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the male babies born to the Hebrews, we see the clash of cosmic forces:  Satan and Pharaoh vs. God and Israel.  The edict is absolutely fundamental: Satan’s desperate, grisly attempt to stop the redemptive swell that will whitecap at calvary.  He knows by now the Redeemer is to be born from Israel.  Therefore, destroy all males, prevent any more births, stop the Seed of the Woman.  Later, God shows Satan his folly by revealing that the Seed is to be born of a virgin anyway! (By the way, Satan is the “cosmic idiot”, fighting Sovereign God.  But he can’t help himself.  He HAS to play the cosmic fool, for sin has done its work in him.  An angel sins; he can’t be anything but a devil.  A human sins; he can’t be anything but a rebel – until divine grace breaks through.)

Long before Psalm 2 was written, it is being worked out in Egypt.  We are part of a “Pharaoh’s edict” work, a part of a Psalm 2 world, and our call to service and discipleship must be seen in the light of cosmic issues.  We are called to fit into the supernatural, behind-the-scenes warfare, and we will not fully understand our calling and the importance of our discipleship if we fail to see this.

The divine supremacy:  He that sitteth in the heavens….will laugh them to scorn.  The Virgin birth is the divine laughter at the impotent edict.  Our discipleship also is divine laughter at the counsel against the Lord and his anointed.

Moses’ rescue:  Another echo of the scornful laugh of God.  Pharaoh decrees all boys shall be thrown into the river to be destroyed.  God counters by placing this special boy in the very palace of Pharaoh, to be prepared in a special way for God’s victory over Egypt.  In a way, a cosmic joke.  But far more:  God’s sovereign overruling of the strongest anti-Christ forces in creation – Satan and Egypt.  Moses is to face cosmic odds, but God is backing him up with cosmic will, power, and purpose.  If Satan and Egypt cannot prevent discipleship, nothing can.  The purpose of God is impregnable.  And, in that purpose, so are we.

 

Bible

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It occurs in the longest book in the Bible (at least as far as number of chapters is concerned) and is located in the center of the Bible.  When I teach children how to find books in the Bible I tell them if you want to find Psalms you open right in the middle of the book, right in the center or heart of the word of God.  Verse 33 says “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end.”  And verse 89 reads, “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.”  There are many other references throughout Psalm 119.

Without further adieu, I would like to talk about the Word of God and its qualities.  I suppose I could have labeled it its characteristics but I like the word quality because it conjures value.  In the case of God we speak of them as His virtues.  The first quality then is the fact that it is a book.  That may seem to be a truism but we don’t often regard it as a book.  We think of it more as a fetish, an amulet or a charm, to be used in presidential inaugurations when they lay their hand on the Bible.  We talk about swearing on a stack of Bibles and that is the use we often make of it.  We should remember that having a lot of them around the house is valueless.  We need to use it properly and regard it as a book, to be used.  We must be wary of getting hung up on versions.  One might be more comfortable with a certain version but there is much to be gained by studying or reading from the different versions.  A couple of other quick points, which may be superficial, is that this book was written by many different authors, at least 40 of them.  It was written over 1600 years.  The authors didn’t know each other necessarily, there was no collaborations, they had no intention of writing a sacred book.  I mention all this because that is unlike the sacred writings such as the Koran, or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas of the Hindus.  This is a versatile, cosmopolitan book.  And that is what gives it relevance and applicability to all times and to all cultures and ages.  It isn’t that one man at one point in time sat down and wrote this book but that over a millennium and a half, all these different men, rich and poor, young and old wrote it.  It has got something for all of us.

Another quality is that it is errorless.  Now we have not always understood that matter of its infallibility as we should.  We have made the Bible to say things that it doesn’t, such as that the world is only 4000 years old which you don’t find that in the Bible at all.  So it has inaccuracies of our fabrication but for the rest, unlike other human books, it is completely free of error.  It means that God kept these men free from error so that we can depend upon the book, go to it for life and death help.  Which brings me to the most important quality of all and that is its inspiration.  This is something different from its infallibility or freedom from error.  They are related; if a book had error then it wouldn’t be inspired, it couldn’t be depended upon.  But all that being said, there are human books, I’m told, that are free from error.  They try to make the telephone book, for obvious reasons, free from mistakes and history books should be as well as mathematical or scientific books need to be.  They proof read them over and over so that they are free of error, but that doesn’t make them inspired, like the Bible.  We say Shakespeare was inspired, and he was.  Handel said he saw heaven open when he was writing The Messiah.  I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired.  But this is all kind of in quotation marks.  Inspired means simply that God is in it.  In-spirited.  That is what the word means.  His spirit is in it.  It is a lively book.  That is why Ken Taylor called his version, The Living Bible, which he took from Peter who spoke of it as a vibrant, organic sort of a thing.  (I Peter 1:23-25) James says the same thing in his first chapter.  (James 1:18)  So it has the life of God in it, it is like electricity that can vitalize any wire with which it is connected.  “Is not my word like a fire?” says Jeremiah.  That is how God breaths into us by means of His Word and we become partakers of the divine image.  Just think of it.  Sons of God.  Peter speaks of this in his 2nd epistle.  That’s what it means to be inspired, alive, has God in it.  Jesus was called “The Word of God.”  People refer to it as “The Holy Bible.”  What else do you speak of as being holy besides the body of Christ other than God?  Now you begin to see what Jesus meant when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my word shall not pass away.”  Obviously these Bibles will go up in smoke, so I’m not talking about the physical format when I say the Bible will last forever but the Word of God shall, even in heaven.

This book, because of what it contains and what it is, because it is God in paper, stereotyped divinity, determines the duration of the world itself.  It dominates world history.  Every human being is concerned about the end of the world, whether it will happen in our lifetime or the lifetime of our children, and there are many things that make it seem like it is immanent like natural disasters such as earthquakes and other less natural disasters that are man made or famine.  The reason we think about these things in this context is that they threaten our individual lives.  Jesus says that these things happen in every generation to make them think about their personal finiteness and the end of the world, but he goes on to say  “don’t be all shook up” in Matthew 24.  Jesus says there is one thing that will mark the end of the world and that is the global dissemination of the Word of God.  That is one measuring device that we can calculate and calibrate, like we do when we measure the distance of a trip…we’ve gone so far and we’ve got so far to go.   Sometimes we are looking for the anti-Christ, and John says even in his day that there were many anti-Christs, “we’ve got them already!”  So it isn’t this  matter of a final anti-Christ but it is the translation and the distribution of the Bible.  The simple purpose in prolonging and continuing and extending history is the propagation of the gospel.  This is why it is called the Latter Days.  After Jesus had done everything to save this world, then all that remained – which made it the Latter days, long or short – was to tell it all to all.  Now it doesn’t say that everybody is going to be converted, but that every culture will be confronted.  I thought at one time this meant that every dominant culture will be Christianized, like Russia once was.  But the Bible doesn’t say we can look for that in the case of every last nation.  It simply says that the Bible will be what it was intended to be, a confrontation, a savior of life unto life or death unto death.  So the purpose of disseminating the gospel is to give every nation a chance.  And it is in light of this book that everyone will be judged.  So the obvious implication is that if we want to bring back The King we need to get out the word.

With regards to our personal usage, we need to soak it up.  “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.”  We talk a good game, we have our Bible societies and our Bible schools, Christian schools that are based on the Bible.  But it is all just a waste of time if that is all it is.  We say, “Oh, of course it’s inspired,” but just let it gather dust and don’t learn it and love it, memorize it.  We can theologize and say “we just plumbed the deeps.”  But if we don’t learn the Word with our children and study it, then all the reading that we do of it and paraphrasing of it doesn’t matter if we neglect the Word itself; then it is of no great concern whether it is inspired or not.

Well the hardest part of all is that we have to live it.  Peter says, “[Since you have been born again by means of the word of God] rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”  Put it all away, be perfect!  He doesn’t say, “Do the best you can. The Lord will tolerate a little bit, 1%, a guy has to have a little fun.” No, he says “all…be like newborn babies, crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  “Then you will become a living stone in the great family in the household of God.”  “Let the Word of God dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms and Hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts unto the Lord and whatsoever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord.”