"Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him."
1 Kings 19:18 (NASB)
Hymn: "May Jesus Christ Be Praised" Joseph Barnby, translated by Edward Caswall
Elijah has come from the destruction of the prophets of Baal and seeing the worship of God restored. In response, Queen Jezebel has threatened his life and he went into hiding and asked for death. This is the end of God's response to him. This passage is generally used to point out God's provision and care for Elijah, to address depression, to encourage those who feel they are failing or alone or hopeless. And all of that is there, and one of them is probably the actual theological point of the passage. But with today's readings, I was really hung up on that last line.
It can be easy to get so hung up on the great heroes of the Bible and the big name prophets and apostles that we forget that God is using a whole lot of regular people all the time. Elijah believed that he was alone among the remaining servants of God, but not only was that not true, but God was actively working with and could readily identify hundreds of people whose names do not appear in scripture.
One of the most notable churches in the New Testament in the church of Antioch, where the term 'Christian' was first applied and where Paul was accepted and then sent out. We don't know the names of the people who founded that church, though, nor do we have the names of the people who laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them out on the first missionary journey. But we know that Paul never forgot that the body of the church was important, active, and working.
"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them."
Acts 20:28-30 (NASB)
In his final address to leaders in Asia on his way to be arrested in Jerusalem, Paul's focus is turned to the safety of the people in the churches. Let's not overlook the fact that the enemy has reason to attack the people who sit in the pews, the laymen, the people who are not working in pastoral ministry or doing missionary work abroad. It is important that we support, encourage, and pray for our leaders; and it is just as important that we pray for and support and encourage one another. We should see the importance God places on each individual in the church, and seek to be useful to Him and to see how He is working through others. There is no Christian who too lowly or unimportant to be a great servant of Christ.
Are we seeing ourselves and our fellow church members as equal participants in the mission of the church? Are we devoting ourselves to the work with the understanding that God has something great for us, as well? Our leaders will struggle, as Paul and Elijah did, and they will need to be helped. Let us not lose sight of our own service to God and each other as we do so.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NASB)
At the time of the offering of the [evening] sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and [that] You have turned their heart back again." Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God."
1 Kings 18:36-39 (NASB)
Hymn: "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" Bernard of Clairvaux, Edward Caswall, John B. Dykes
I grew up in a church that was officially non-denominational and unofficially Pentecostal. Now, my journey from that to a Baptist understanding of things was complicated and involved a mix of theological examination and personal experience, but if I'm honest it was never the popular Baptist cessationism that appealed to me. I am, to this day, at best something of a 'soft' cessationist; I don't believe certain gifts only existed for the early church or that they have ever stopped*, simply that need for them has decreased and application has followed suit.
Today's reading, which included the story of Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal as well as the first sixteen verses of both Acts 5 and Acts 20 (it's odd how that one worked out, now that I think about it), involved a lot of miraculous activity. But it also pointed out some of the point of that activity. The thing is, we do not tend to see miracles in scripture as normative daily experiences for God's people. There are times of heightened activity, but these are in the midst of long periods with nothing much going on. Generations of corrupt kings sat on the thrones of Israel and Judah with little, if any, recorded intervention from God aside from His previously-given word. King David experienced the presence and guidance of God throughout his life and reign, yet aside from a handful of prophetic statements I can recall no miracles he ever witnessed off the top of my head.
But miracles, overt divine intervention, and great signs always accompany the work of God to call a people to Himself who were previously far from Him. Abraham and Sarah gave birth to a child they should not have been able to produce in order to begin the line of Israel, God judged Egypt with divine plagues to draw His people out of the land and then used incredible actions to show Himself to them and explain the promises they would receive and act on. Noah had his ark when the world turned against God and Elijah had fire from Heaven when Israel did the same. The coming of Jesus involved angels and a virgin birth, and His ministry was marked by miracles and signs which continued into the formation of the church and the spreading of that church to the gentiles.
I submit that, while it is always possible for God to use such signs wherever and whenever He desires, any drive we have for them may be misplaced. It seems far more likely that there will be miracles in the life of a missionary making first contact with a people who have never heard the name of Jesus than in our cushy little Christian-influenced cultures of the west. And woe to us if ever we're in dire need of such signs!
Rather than arguing over whether such gifts can and do still exist, we would be much better learning to see God's hand move whether with or without miracles. Let us learn to rejoice when God acts so openly in our lives, and trust His wisdom when we do not.
*The one objection I hear commonly to this idea is that, by believing in a closed canon, I must believe that the gift involved in writing scripture has ceased, so there must be at least one that was only for the early church. This is not the place to go into depth about it, but I would argue in basic terms that the writing of scripture is not itself a spiritual gift, but rather a function of a number of other gifts that can be and are also used in other ways, and as such ceasing that function does not require ceasing the gifts.
When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was [like] a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven [but You?]
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.
Psalm 73:21-28 (NASB)
Hymn: "Rejoice, the Lord is King" Charles Wesley, John Darwall
My wife got a new job, she's been there about two months now, and it is the first time in my life I've been above the poverty line. We own our own house now, which I never thought would happen, on a decent little portion of land. I'm writing this from my office now, which is a little mind-blowing. But I was poor for a very long time, and there's a part of me that wants to be bitter about all that I experienced leading up to this point, especially now that we're in a community apparently full of the economic class that both contributed to some of my problems and judged me for them.
Psalm 73 begins with Asaph making confession for his envy toward those who were more secure in this world than he was, especially the wicked among them. He describes the pleasures they enjoy, in contrast to himself, until he comes to the temple. It is here, encountering God, that he is reminded of the folly of seeking after riches, of the end that awaits those who put their stock in this world rather than in God. He talks about destruction and judgment, and sees that those who throw their lot in with this present world will perish with it. The psalm closes with him considering the lesson learned from this, the personal lesson. The lesson at the end is not a condemnation of the rich for their riches, though that happens elsewhere in scripture, but another confession and serious consideration of his own heart in light of what he's seen.
Judgment does await those who put their hope in riches, but this psalm calls on all of us to examine our hearts. There is always someone with more of what you value. There is always someone who seems further ahead. Are we bitter toward them? Psalm 73 says our bitterness makes us senseless, ignorant, "like a beast before" God. In the statement "whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth," we get to the core of the solution. God is our portion. He is not only all we need, but all we really have. Everything is from Him, everything is to be devoted to Him. He is to be the fullness of our joy, the highest pursuit of our lives. If we will keep this in mind, if we will fix our eyes on Him and not things of this earth, not only will we know we truly have all that we desire, but we will not be tempted to be bitter toward others.
O Lord, let us not be bitter when we see those with more than us, and let us not grow selfish with what we have. Let us always remember, in abundance or in poverty, that we have You, and that You are everything.
I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait,
And in His word do I hope.
My soul [waits] for the Lord
More than the watchmen for the morning;
[Indeed, more than] the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD;
For with the LORD there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
And He will redeem Israel
From all his iniquities.
Psalm 130:5-8 (NASB)
Hymn: "Jesus Shall Reign" Isaac Watts, John Hatton
It has been addressed a few times here, directly or indirectly, that a heart that lacks generosity does not adequately reflect the heart of God. This is repeated a number of times throughout scripture and was a major part of my reading for today.
If I had a dollar for every time I was told that I am functionally rich simply by living in the United States I could probably afford the life these speakers seemed to think I was living. But this is the avenue generally used to point out why we should be generous. God has given us so much! Put us in this land where we have a relatively comfortable go of it, He gives us wealth and health and status and all these other great things, how can we not give it away again? And everyone in the audience who has not been receiving wealth and health and status, while possibly eager to give what they can, find it hard to believe they are doing so out of some kind of abundance.
The universal of the Christian life is not the experience of this earthly life, but the greatest gift God gives. The passage at the top of this post claims God gives "abundant redemption." And so He does! Christ, in going to the cross, paid a steep price for our redemption, and has removed a great deal more sin from each of us than we may even realize. It is not just a bit of redemption that we must supplement, it is not just enough redemption to get us back to square one. God has provided an abundant redemption, one that covers over all our sin and brings us into communion with Him. We are called to be generous not because we have much by this world's standards, which we may, but because God has given us more than we could ever repay or fully grasp and has asked nothing in return but that we lean on Him in all our ways. Surely we cannot afford to be less generous than that.
So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
Luke 3:7-14 (NASB)
Hymn: "Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned" Samuel Stennett, Thomas Hastings
It is common to hear the United States referred to as a Christian nation. This idea is raised in contrast to Muslim nations overseas, it is raised to discuss laws that seem fitting for us as a Christian nation, it is raised to talk about our influences and our founding fathers and the basic thread running through our culture.
I submit that this is not only false, but dangerously so.
The danger lies in the fact that, when we allow ourselves to believe that our nation is itself Christian in some fundamental sense, we set ourselves up to blur the lines between our faith and our nation. Patriotism is seen as a Christian virtue, absolute support for the military and police seen as Christian practices, despite the fact that neither of these are given in scripture. We allow ourselves to believe that what the nation does is what Christianity looks like, that we can tell a Christian from a pagan by their voting record. Israel believed they would be blessed by God because they had Abraham as their father; Americans act as though we will be blessed by God by claiming Washington as ours.
Now, it is true that John the Baptist was preparing people to receive Christ, but his words should not be read as something we must do before coming to Him. Instead John here states that this is the fruit Christ will seek to have growing on His branches; that those who are His will be producing good fruit, fruit that bears evidence of repentance. How does John here summarize this fruit? It is an opposition to materialism, it is a free giving to those in need, it is being content with what you have and not bending situations to get you more than you need. Is this the fruit of our culture? Do we live in a nation where those who hoard resources are called to task? Does our culture encourage us to live in humble means and give all we do not need to those who do, do we receive daily messages praising restraint in getting more and more? Who blankets our magazine covers but millionaires and billionaires?
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, [and] which has been withheld by you, cries out [against you;] and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous [man;] he does not resist you.
James 5:1-6 (NASB)
When we allow ourselves to believe that this is a Christian nation, and thereby allow ourselves to believe that our nation somehow informs what our faith should look like, we end up practicing a faith that stands in direct opposition to the word of God. This culture is not Christian and trying to call it such spreads lies about what it means to be Christian. If we are to engage with the culture correctly, we must sever this notion and treat the culture for what it is. We cannot hope to grow as Christians, or show others what it means to be a Christian, if we are too blinded by our national pursuits to see the Christian life.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation