Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Context Matters!

This last Sunday I felt God strongly impress on me to teach on the context of Jeremiah 29:11. Most Christians know the verse and have probably used it, or had it used with them, to bring comfort and assurance. The verse goes: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

I am not sure why God wanted me to spend a Sunday morning on it, but I believe that the use of that verse (so often out of context) as a blanket promise or assurance from God underscores a dangerous "fast food" mentality among us that wants quick verses, quick broadband, quick meals, and quick spiritual maturity. I believe we are heading into harder and harder times to be a true follower of Jesus, and I believe it is important going into them to know the full context and precepts of the promises from God we are so quick to lay hold of for ourselves or offer others as comfort. It is kind of like when I was in the military—we tested our vehicles and weapons systems thoroughly in peace time so that in war we knew exactly what they could and couldn't do. War is not the time to find out you had a false confidence or assurance in something!

In Jeremiah and other books God repeatedly warns against false prophets, and listening to false prophets, who declare "Peace, peace" when there will be, instead, very serious consequences if the people don't turn from their direction (see Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11, and 23:16-20 for a few examples). We as Christians must, I believe, be careful not to deliver (or accept for ourselves!) false assurance in the guise of God's Words to people that may, instead, need to be corrected and encouraged to turn and repent.

So, as I share briefly about Jeremiah 29:11, realize this need to look closely at verses we are so familiar with might apply to many other verses besides it. And, a closer examination may not necessarily mean we lose confidence in a promise—we may actually gain confidence if we come out assured we are, indeed, the intended audience and we have met the precepts laid out around it in the verses not quoted so much.

In a nutshell, after King Josiah died God's people fell very quickly away from God. God repeatedly warned them against their direction, but they continued until He drew the line and basically told them it was too late, He was going to raise up Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, and they would be taken under Babylon for 70 years (see Jeremiah 25:1-11). Then, in Jeremiah 27, God then warns other nations of the severe penalties if they don't serve Nebuchadnezzar and put themselves under Babylon's yoke ("I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand."—vs. 8) He then warns His people that they will share the same fate if they, too, don't submit to His declaration or correction and punishment, "Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, 'You shall not serve the king of Babylon,' for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you" (vs. 12–14).

So, when we arrive at Jeremiah 29 there are two very different groups among God's people! There are those who have submitted to His correction (like Daniel and his friends) and are in exile—exactly in a place God told them to be!—and those who are resisting His yoke and correction and remaining in the place they are. To the ones resisting and not submitting God sends very strong words. Starting with verse 16 it says, "thus says the Lord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten . . ." and it goes on from there.

However, to the ones, who are submitted and where He wants them to be, God has Jeremiah write to them the following:  . . . to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. "For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (verses 4–14).

What an amazing promise and hope Jeremiah 29:4–14 would have been to those in exile, where God wants them and submitted to Him! It would be a promise they could hold to and teach their children and look to and stand on. It had precepts about how they were to live, how they were to handle teaching they were given, and how they were to seek Him, but, being right where He wanted them and obeying His precepts, His promise to bring them back after seventy years and His promise of, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." would have been an amazing comfort to them! One they could stand on, from a God who does not lie!

But, it must be said again, that promise wasn't for everyone of His people! As we saw, in the very same chapter He sends very harsh and dire words to the one who were not submitted to His yoke and correction and not in the place He wanted them! For them to stand on the Jeremiah 29:11 promise, or for someone to even offer it to them, would be a devastating lie leading to further entrenching in sin, not the repentance required. It is, I believe, a warning for us all. Given a promise from God we can stand on it with all confidence—but we MUST be assured it is for us and we have met the conditions of it, or we will be lured (or lure others) into a false comfort instead of a required adjustment, and that can be very, very dangerous!

Friday, February 22, 2013

It Matters to God . . .

As I was teaching the youth group about faith last night I was struck anew (afresh?) by something in Hebrews that isn't often talked about (at least in my experience). We assert, of course, from 2 Corinthians that as Christians we walk by faith and not by sight, and then we begin with Hebrews 11:1, the classic definition of faith, which says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." When sight (the world, its wisdom, its declarations, its definitions, our physical circumstances, etc.) come into conflict with God's Word or what we know to be true about His nature, goodness, power, trustworthiness, love, etc. then, by faith, we choose God's Word or promise or leading and not sight as how we will walk.

Often from there we head into Hebrews 11:6 which tells us, "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." Clearly we must believe not only that He exists (even the demons do that), but things about His nature and character—as any good relationship requires. Then Hebrews 11 opens up into an amazing Hall of Fame of faith of Old Testament people that walked by faith. It is an incredible chapter which leads into the encouragements to us in the chapters that follow it.

But, so often it seems that we skip, or simply quickly read over, Hebrews 11:3 which God deemed important enough that He put it almost immediately after the definition of faith and as the first "requirement" or "by faith . . ." that He lays out. Before Abel, or Enoch, or Noah, or Abraham, or Sarah, or . . . He says, "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." As the most foundational and basic beginning of walking by faith God says that by faith we understand that He created the Universe—what is seen—from nothing, by His word. Talking about Abraham, the father and model of our faith, Romans 4:17 says of God that He, ". . . calls into existence the things that do not exist."

Clearly the realization that God calls into existence, from nothing, that which is His will is a critical component of our faith (I'll share why I think that is in a minute). And that helps us see why the literal Genesis account is so attacked by Satan, causing it to be disregarded and mocked among non-Christians and often added to or taken away from by Christians. If God places so much emphasis on it, it makes sense Satan will realize how important it is. Even among many Christians who deeply love God there has come a compromise on it, or an adding to it.

Satan knows that our stand on Genesis has the potential to define our faith stand and he will do, I believe, all he can to draw us from the utter simplicity and beauty and truth of Genesis 1, read in its most basic and obvious way. Just like someone trying to get a pet to swallow a pill who knows enough to cover the bad thing (the pill) in good things (cheese or ground beef), Satan knows he won't get Christians to say the Bible is wrong, so he'll cover the lie with enough truth to get us to swallow it. It might go something like, "God created everything (truth). God spoke it into being in the beginning (truth). God is God of Creation (truth). And then He used evolution or millions of years to bring us to where we are today (lie)." There is so much "God" in that whole thing that it is easy to start to swallow it. I know I did for many years.

Even a subtle compromise like that starts to undermine faith, which can cripple a walk that is supposed to be based on faith and not sight. Even subtle compromises like that start to anchor us in "sight" in contradiction to God's Word. Even a subtle lie like that gets us to start to look around and see what God "used" to make things like they are. And here is why I think it is so dangerous, and why I believe God stands against it in His Word.

1. It undermines faith in God's Word. We start to feel an obligation to mesh God's word to what we think "science" tells us. We start to think that God left all this stuff out of His Word in Genesis 1, and later in life when we desperately need to trust God's Word and promises there is that seed planted that there might be a, "Yeah, but . . ." somewhere hidden in that promise or in our ability to trust what God says. The reality is that any time we begin to feel obligated to condescend God's Word to "science" we have begun our fall, or the fall of people who trust us as teachers and mentors. Because, that same science has no room for miracles, parting of oceans, resurrection from the dead, the reality of angels or demons, eternal life, etc. To be a consistent person you must be consistent (that's obvious) and that means that if purported "science" trumps God's Word for you in one area then it is only a matter of time until it erodes into other areas, if not for you then for people you are influencing.

2. We start to subtly believe God needs "things" or "situations" to build or bring about His solutions. We then start to look around us in the "impossible" situations in our life and look for what He might use to bring about the solution. The reality is, in many cases, there is nothing in the physical we see that He can use. Our situation looks impossible. It is then we must have absolute, unshakable faith that our God speaks and from nothing comes forth His will. It is then we must walk by faith, and not by sight, but if we have somewhere started to believe He needs to take things that are to make new things we will find around us no hope.

It is so, so clear from God's Word that He wants us to walk by faith. To do this He wants us to understand that His Word trumps all sight and wisdom of the world, and that He requires nothing but His Word and our faith to bring about from nothing His will and solutions (remember Sarah, in Hebrews 11:11 who, by faith, received the power to conceive—her faith met God's promise, and the "impossible" happened). I personally believe that an undermining of Genesis 1 in people's minds is one of the very first and most critical places of attack of the enemy and it is proving devastating to the faith of many, especially youth standing what feels like alone and naked in our "hallowed" halls of education. If God put a clear reference to Genesis 1 as His first "By faith . . ." in Hebrews 11, shouldn't we, too, put a high priority on it?


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