Monday, May 29, 2017

Be Still

Don Carson post:  Deuteronomy 2; Psalms 83-84; Isaiah 30; Jude

"FOR THE LORD GOD is a sun and a shield: the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. O LORD Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you" (Ps. 84:11-12).

Much of this psalm exults in the sheer privilege and delight of abiding in the presence of God, which for the children of the old covenant meant living in the shadow of the temple. "My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God" (Ps. 84:2). To have a place "near your altar" is to have a home, in exactly the same way that a sparrow finds a home or a swallow builds a nest (Ps. 84:3). "Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you" (Ps. 84:4; see also the meditation for April 17).

But what about the last two verses of this psalm? Don't they go over the top, promising too much? The psalmist insist that God withholds "no good thing" from those whose walk is blameless. Well, since we all sin, I suppose there is an escape clause: who is blameless? Isn't it obvious that God withholds lots of good things from lots of people whose walk is about as blameless as walks can get, this side of the new heaven and the new earth?

Consider Eric Liddell, the famous Scottish Olympian celebrated in the film Chariots of Fire. Liddell became a missionary in China. For ten years he taught in a school, and then went farther inland to do frontline evangelism. The work was not only challenging but dangerous, not the least because the Japanese were making increasing inroads. Eventually he was interned with many other Westerners. In the squalid camp, Liddell was a shining light of service and good cheer, a lodestar for the many children there who had not seen their parents for years, a self-sacrificing leader. But a few months before they were released, Liddell died of a brain tumor. He was forty-three. In this life he never saw the youngest of his three daughters: his wife and children had returned to Canada before the Japanese sweep that rounded up the foreigners. Didn't the Lord withhold from him a long life, years of fruitful service, the joy of rearing his own children?

Perhaps the best response lies in Liddell's favorite hymn:
Be still, my soul! the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul! thy best, thy heav'nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Friday, May 26, 2017

His Love

In the Name of the Lord

David Mathis:  One Essential Oil

Recently, the elders of our church gathered after the Sunday morning service to pray over a member who had received a difficult medical diagnosis. Complicating her condition was her upcoming travel to Haiti to work as a nurse on a short-term mission. After hearing the heavy word from the doctor, she still felt the desire to go, but now new concerns were in view: she would be in a foreign place, and quality medical help would be difficult to come by if her own unpredictable condition were to become problematic.
We sent word around to the elders to gather with her and her family after the service. As I’d done before, I picked through my wife’s collection of small vials, and grabbed the one essential oil for leadership in the local church: the frankincense we use for anointing.

One Passage in James

This was not the first time we’d gathered as elders to pray together for, and anoint, a member in unusual circumstances, and likely it will not be the last.
Such a practice may be strange to many of us who grew up in mainstream evangelical churches. Mark 6:13 mentions Jesus’s disciples anointing “with oil many who were sick,” but James 5:14–15 is the one passage that plainly prescribes this practice in the life of the church:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Five important points make this Christian anointing of the sick distinct from every other anointing.

1. Who should call?

Verse 15 makes plain that “sick” in verse 14 is not a common cold, stomach flu, or even influenza. We may be quicker today to consider ourselves “sick” than they were in the first century. Elder prayer is for those in some serious circumstance and unusually difficult straits. One commentator surmises that “this sick person is bedridden and potentially helpless even to pray for him- or herself” (242). Another provides five pointers in the text that the situation is serious: the elders are called to the sick person; the elders do all the praying; the person is said to be “worn out” or “exhausted” (the meaning of “sick” in verse 15); the elders’ faith is in view, not the sick person’s; and the elders pray over the (bedridden) person (194). (Note here, contra so-called “prosperity gospel” claims, this prayer of faith is not offered by the sick person, but by the elders.)
Calling for the elders is not the Christian’s first recourse with any form of sickness or discomfort. However, Christians do have a backstop within the local church for escalating and dire physical conditions. Such support is not in lieu of medical help, but an appeal to God in, alongside, and over it.

2. Who should come?

James 5:14 specifically mentions the elders of the church. The New Testament consistently and pervasively attributes formal leadership in the local church to a plurality of elders (Acts 14:2320:1721:181 Timothy 4:145:17Titus 1:51 Peter 5:15). It’s not elder (singular) — not one-man ministry — but elders(plural), a team of pastor-elders leading the church together.
“Elder” is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun pastor or shepherd in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). The same office is also twice called “overseer” in four texts (Acts 20:28Philippians 1:11 Timothy 3:1–2Titus 1:7). These are the formal leaders in the local church who don’t have authority or wield power on their own, but serve in a God-appointed, church-affirmed role in which they represent Christ to his church (to the degree they are faithful to Christ’s word), and the church to Christ.
Calling for the elders is the sick person’s way of coming to the church to ask for her collective prayer.

3. What should the elders do?

The elders should pray. The emphasis in the passage is on prayer, not anointing. “Let them pray over him, anointing . . .” The grammar of the passage communicates that the central reason the elders have come is to pray. Prayer is primary; anointing is secondary. Anointing, as we’ll see, accompanies prayer. The power is not in the oil, but in the God to whom we pray.
Note here that (unlike the Catholic sacrament of “extreme unction” which alleges its cues from James 5) the prayer, and aim of anointing, is for restoration to life, not consecration for death.

4. Why anoint with oil?

Here’s the part that can seem strange to some today. The problem is that we may never have considered the place of oil, and the act of anointing, throughout the Scriptures.
Throughout the Bible, anointing with oil symbolizes consecration to God (as in Exodus 28:41Luke 4:18Acts 4:2710:382 Corinthians 1:21Hebrews 1:9). The act of anointing does not, as some claim, automatically confer grace and remit sin. Rather, it is a “means of grace,” which accompanies prayer, for those who believe. Like fasting, anointing is a kind of handmaid of prayer, or an intensifier of prayer — a way to reach beyond our daily patterns in unusual circumstances.
Anointing with oil is an external act of the body that accompanies, and gives expression to, the internal desire and disposition of faith to dedicate someone to God in a special way. It is not here simply medicinal, as some have claimed, with our application today being to apply modern medicine along with prayer. Such a view overlooks the wealth of theology across the Scriptures about the symbolism and significance of anointing.
In fact, anointing is so significant that God’s long-promised King, who we eventually learn is God’s own eternal Son, is called Messiah in Hebrew, Christin Greek, which means Anointed. Christ himself is the greatest manifestation of consecration to God in his perfect human life, sacrificial human death, and victorious human resurrection from the grave.
So, here in James 5, as Douglas Moo writes, “As the elders pray, they are to anoint the sick person in order to symbolize that that person is being set apart for God’s special attention and care” (242). Anointing is not automatic in producing healing, but serves as a prayerful expression, and intensifier of our plea, asking God, and waiting for him, to heal.
If you ask, then, what kind of oil should we use, my answer would be, in light of the theology of anointing: not cheap oil. The very point of the oil is to symbolize the gravity and urgency of the occasion through lavishness and (appropriate) expense. This is not the place to go on the cheap end. The specialness of the act is tied to the preciousness of the oil.

5. How should they pray?

Finally, we have specific and important clarity about how the elders should pray: “in the name of the Lord.” The power is not in the oil or the elders or even in their prayers, but in God, in the name of Jesus Christ. When God answers with healing, he does so not decisively because of the oil or the elders, but because of the work of his Son, Jesus.
Which means the elders can pray boldly and with confidence. Where two or three elders are gathered for special prayer, there they should be expectant that God will move. The “prayer of faith” in verse 15 is simply the prayer of the elders from verse 14: the prayer offered in faith that can, and often does, heal.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Habits for Recalibrating Our Souls

David Mathis:  Set the Soundtrack of Your Mind

Leave your mind on autopilot, and distractions will dictate your life. Set your mind above, and God will.
The question is not whether you can control your mind. You can. You can defeat distraction. The question is what you will do with this God-given ability. To what north star will you regularly reset your orientation? If you choose to coast, and not make any specific effort to set your mind on anything in particular, your thoughts and meditations will go somewhere. Your mind will default to something.
Will we be preoccupied with a favorite sport or team, how we look, how much money we make, how well-known we are, what we’d like to buy or own, what improvements we’d like to make to our homes? Or will we put in the mental effort to make our mind’s “home” to be the things of God (Matthew 16:23), his Son (Colossians 3:1–3), and their Spirit (Romans 8:5–7)?
In other words, will we raise our sails to the winds of the world, and let our age of diversion slowly drive us away from what it means to be fully human? Or will we fight, in the strength God supplies, to reset our minds to what really matters?

Hear the Notes of Heaven

It’s one thing to identify the importance of regularly setting our minds on the things of Christ; it’s another to begin cultivating regular habits for recalibrating our souls. How do we put such mind-setting into practice today? How do we go about seeking things above in the everyday routines of our earthly lives, and in such a way that we make a difference for Jesus in this world?
One way to think of it is to ask this question: What is the soundtrack of your soul? What “music” do you hear in the spare moments of your day? Put another way, where does your mind go when it’s free from its docket of daily to-dos?
Your “soundtrack” likely is not the same throughout your whole life but changes from season to season, perhaps even week to week. But your soul is preoccupied with something underneath the tasks and events of each day. And where your thoughts run to when you don’t direct them is telling. Where your treasure is, there your mind will default in your free moments.
Some soundtrack plays in the background of each of our lives to which our minds regularly return. What if that soundtrack was the music of heaven?
Whatever your season or stage of life, consider three timeless principles for “setting your mind” on Christ and keeping his music playing between your ears.

1. Start the Song

What you habitually do first in the morning says a lot about you. What’s first on your list each day is what’s most likely to get done. So wisdom learns to literally put first things first on a day-to-day basis, and doesn’t leave true priorities to get shuffled away by the chaos and craziness of everyday life.
At the daily level, the first moments of our day are primed for a morning reset of our minds on Christ. Sleep restores the body, but it does not, on its own, restore the soul. When we awake from sleep, we find ourselves in need of recalibrating our hearts by setting ourselves afresh on things above, to ready us for fruitful engagement here below.

2. Sing Together

God has designed that setting our minds isn’t just an individual endeavor, but something to do together with his people — and not as icing on the cake. Setting our minds together is an essential ingredient in healthy Christianity. This can be daily with a believing spouse or housemates, or in family devotions, and it is the weekly reset of corporate worship in the life of the church.
Christians are instructed, in no uncertain terms, “to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25). When we gather to worship Jesus together, we are engaging in collective mind-setting on things above. 
It is tragic how many professing Christians consistently dismiss the transforming power of “setting our minds” together by minimizing the place of corporate worship. The effects on the health of our souls in “neglecting to meet together” is nothing short of devastating over time. One pivotal aspect of what we’re doing personally each week in worship is rallying together around what matters most — better, who matters most — as we set our minds together on Jesus. 

3. Tune Back In

Flowing from and reinforcing our daily and weekly resets, then, is finding fresh ways to come back to the soundtrack of the gospel as often as we can. Minds and hearts that are set on the things of God, Christ, and the Spirt want to develop the reflex to reset in the rhythms of life, not just once in the morning and once each week.
Perhaps it’s prayers of thanks before meals. Or a spiritually inspiring conversation with a believing friend, reminding each other of precious truths. It could be Christian substance you read in a book, or on your phone. Or what you listen to in the car, or while exercising or cleaning. A verse scribbled on a piece of paper to reference throughout the day may be part of the plan.
The key is not to try to live someone else’s plan, but to think creatively and find rhythms in your unique life to feed your soul and reset your focus. Learning to hit play in the morning, and to sing the music of Christ together with others each week, are powerful pieces to have in place. And as you find ways to regularly tune back in to hear a few bars or hum a few verses at various points during the day, you will find the music of Christ genuinely dwelling “in you richly” (Colossians 3:16), making you ready for the improv of everyday life.

Retell God's Deeds

ONE OF THE IMPORTANT FUNCTIONS of corporate worship is recital, that is, a “re-telling” of the wonderful things that God has done. Hence Psalm 78:2-4: “I will utter hidden things, things from of old — what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done.” Similarly, if more briefly, Psalm 75:1: “We give thanks to you, O God, we give thanks, for your Name is near; men tell of your wonderful deeds.” In fact, the New English Bible is a little closer to the Hebrew: “Thy name is brought very near to us in the story of thy wonderful deeds.” God’s “name” is part of his gracious self-disclosure. It is a revelation of who he is (Ex. 3:14; 34:5-7, 14). God’s “name” then, is brought very near us in the story of his wonderful deeds: that is, who God is disclosed in the accounts of what he has done.

Thus the recital of what God has done is a means of grace to bring God near to his people. Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.

The emphasis this psalm makes regarding God is that he is the sovereign disposer, the “disposer supreme” (as one commentator puts it). It is wonderfully stabilizing to us to rest in such a God. He declares, “I choose the appointed time; it is I who judge uprightly” (75:2). It is hard to imagine a category more suggestive of God’s firm control than “the appointed time.” Yet mere control without justice would be fatalism. This God, however, not only sets the appointed times, but judges uprightly (75:2). Further, in this broken world there are cataclysmic events that seem to threaten the entire social order. Elsewhere David ponders, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3). But here we are reassured, for God himself declares, “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm” (75:3). So the arrogant who may think themselves to be the pillars of society are duly warned: “Boast no more”(75:4). To the wicked, God says, “Do not lift your horns against heaven [like a ram tossing its head about in bold confidence]; do not speak with outstretched neck” (75:5).

Retell God’s wonderful deeds and bring near his name.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Declaring God's Power

“Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Ps 71:18)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Shout for Joy to God

Psalm 66
For the director of music. A song. A psalm.

1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth!
2     Sing the glory of his name;
    make his praise glorious.
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
    So great is your power
    that your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth bows down to you;
    they sing praise to you,
    they sing the praises of your name.”
5 Come and see what God has done,
    his awesome deeds for mankind!
6 He turned the sea into dry land,
    they passed through the waters on foot—
    come, let us rejoice in him.
7 He rules forever by his power,
    his eyes watch the nations—
    let not the rebellious rise up against him.
8 Praise our God, all peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard;
9 he has preserved our lives
    and kept our feet from slipping.
10 For you, God, tested us;
    you refined us like silver.
11 You brought us into prison
    and laid burdens on our backs.
12 You let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and water,
    but you brought us to a place of abundance.
13 I will come to your temple with burnt offerings
    and fulfill my vows to you—
14 vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke
    when I was in trouble.
15 I will sacrifice fat animals to you
    and an offering of rams;
    I will offer bulls and goats.

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God;
    let me tell you what he has done for me.
17 I cried out to him with my mouth;
    his praise was on my tongue.
18 If I had cherished sin in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened;
19 but God has surely listened
    and has heard my prayer.
20 Praise be to God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or withheld his love from me!

Connecting Praise to Righteousness, Worship to Obedience, Lord's Response to Clean Heart

Don Carson:  Numbers 24Psalms 66-67Isaiah 141 Peter 2

IN AN AGE OF MANY “PRAISE CHORUSES,” people are tempted to think that our generation is especially rich in praise. Surely we know more about praise that our stuffy parents and grandparents in their somber suits and staid services, busily singing their old-fashioned hymns.

It does not help clarity of thought on these matters to evaluate in stereotypes. Despite the suspicions of some older people, not all contemporary expressions of praise are frivolous and shallow; despite the suspicions of some young people, not all forms of praise from an earlier generation are to be abandoned in favor of the immediate and the contemporary.

But there are two elements expressed in the praise of Psalm 66 that are almost never heard today, and that badly need to be reincorporated both into our praise and into our thinking.

The first is found in 66:8-12. There the psalmist begins by inviting the peoples of the world to listen in on the people of God as they praise him because “he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping.” Then the psalmist directly addresses God, and mentions the context in which the Lord God preserved them: “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance” (66:10 -12).

This is stunning. The psalmist thanks God for testing his covenant people, for refining them under the pressure of some extraordinarily difficult circumstances and for sustaining them through that experience. This is the response of perceptive, godly faith. It is not heard on the lips of those who thank God only when they escape trial or are feeling happy.

The second connects the psalmist’s desperate cry with righteousness: “I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer” (66:17-19, emphasis added). this is not to say that the Lord answers us because we have merited his favor by our righteous endeavor. Rather, because we have entered into a personal and covenantal relationship with God, we owe him our allegiance, our faith, our obedience. If instead we nurture sin in our inmost being, and then turn to God for help, why should he not respond with the judgment and chastisement that we urgently deserve? He may turn away, and sovereignly let sin take its ugly course.

Our generation desperately needs to connect praise with righteousness, worship with obedience, and the Lord’s response with a clean heart.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Yet I Will Praise You

David Mathis:  Though You Slay Me

In the very midst of life’s deepest pains and most gut-wrenching losses, God loves to give a strange and wonderful gift. We cry out for healing, or relief, or some pressing change in our circumstances. Sometimes God answers those cries. But even more often, he gives us something more supernatural: praise.
For Shane Barnard, it came in the hospital room at the passing of his father. When the doctor informed Barnard and his mother that his father was dead, the flood of pain and shock came. Barnard’s mother wasn’t able to stand and began hyperventilating, so great was the pain and loss. As Barnard held his mother to comfort her, he says, as she wailed, she sang softly underneath her breath, the words of Job 1:21,
He gives, he takes, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Barnard remembers it as a beautiful cry, not only in her tone and pitch, but in her vocalizing her deep trust in God, even while neck-deep in the tides of pain and loss. It was “the most painful room,” says Barnard, “but there was so much joy” as they turned their hearts together to worship in the hardest moment of their lives — which became the inspiration for the song “Though You Slay Me.”
Though you slay me
Yet I will praise you
Though you take from me
I will bless your name
Though you ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

Great Pain, Greater God

It is supernatural — an evidence of the Holy Spirit at work — when praise wells up in our souls in the midst of our greatest pains. It is a taste of Job 13:15, where Job, in the vortex of such great sufferings, makes this beautiful declaration of allegiance to God: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”
By no means does such praise mean the pain is lessened. The hurt is every bit as real. But such a supernaturally inspired testimony to God does testify, Even as great as this pain is, God is greater. My desire to have this pain removed, or this loss restored, or these hurtful circumstances altered, must not eclipse my desire for the God who is powerful enough to remove it, or restore it, but is loving me in a way that is greater than I can understand.

Where Else Would We Go?

Such anguished allegiance brings to mind Peter’s great declaration to Jesus in John 6. There Jesus has just scared off a large crowd with some of his most controversial and misunderstood teaching in all the Gospels. The once-adoring crowds have raced for the exits. John 6:66 tells us, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” Jesus then says to his disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67). 
Peter answers just as powerfully as he does when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) — if not more powerfully, given these circumstances. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Most Precious Praises of All

So it is in our times of greatest pain and loss, when we do not curse the one who is in control, but instead fall to our knees and utter with Job: You gave, and you have taken away; blessed be your name, Lord. Though you slay me, yet I will praise you.
It is powerful to praise God in any season, but these are the most precious praises of all, when we cling to Christ in life’s most horrible moments, knowing that he has walked our path, felt our barb, received our nail, and that suffering is precisely the place where we will know him best (Philippians 3:10).
My heart and flesh may fail
The earth below give way
But with my eyes, with my eyes
I’ll see the Lord
Lifted high on that day
Behold, the Lamb that was slain
And I’ll know every tear was worth it all

Watch a special Desiring God recording of Shane & Shane singing “Though You Slay Me,” with a preaching excerpt from John Piper.