Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 12

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‘Yodh’

Is there a difference between optimism and hope? “Both optimism and hope,’ explains Miroslav Volf (Against the Tide), “entail positive expectations with regard to the future. But…they are radically different stances toward reality.” Optimism is looking at past or current conditions and mapping out likely positive future occurrences based on those experiences. It is based on circumstances and situations. Hope, in contrast, explains Volf, “is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” Yodh, the tenth stanza of Psalm 119, illustrates for us what hope—not optimism—looks like.

Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. / May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word. / I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. / May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant./ Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. / May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. / May those who fear you turn to me, those who understand your statutes. / May my heart be blameless toward your decrees, that I may not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:73-80).

The psalmist has had, or is currently experiencing, troubles of some sort. He’s suffering. He’s been “wrong(ed) without cause” and “afflicted.” He’s a rational person and there is no good reason to be optimistic based on his situation. He cannot extrapolate any realistically good outcome from his current experience with any sense of reliability. Optimism has failed him.

But listen to the hope infusing this segment of the psalm—words like “rejoic(ing)”, and “delight” explode the myth that pain removes dignity from life. Rather, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist looks to his Maker, the LORD God, to be faithful to His promise to be loving and compassionate to him. He is comforted by this relationship of love that God has initiated; he rests heavily on the faithfulness that defines God.

Circumstances have no power over the lives of those who entrust themselves to God. This is the most freeing truth the Biblical text communicates. While optimism can too easily shift to become despair, anchoring our hope in a loving God brings lasting peace and a solution to the dilemma ‘How do I live victoriously in the midst of suffering?’

It all comes back to promise. The faithfulness of God is always expressed and communicated to us in the form of promise. The psalmist recognizes this and reminds himself and God with the phrase “according to your promise.” And what is this promise? It is the theme that runs throughout the Bible from start to finish, spoken and respoken in many ways. An earlier psalm phrases it this way: “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17b). The promise is Jesus whose purpose was and is to bless all peoples through His work on the cross—the unthinkable death of the Author of life bringing unimaginable life to those who were enslaved by death. He is Promise and He is Hope.

The result of living life with hope is a greater awareness of God’s thoroughgoing involvement in our daily lives. We become more aware that He made us with all our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social complexities. We become more resolved to submit to God’s ways (vs.73), more sensitive to encouraging others (vs.74), more open to God’s faithfulness, compassion and love in the midst of suffering (vs.75-77), more faithful in obeying God’s precepts (vs. 78), more connected to others who also fear God (vs.79), and more wholehearted in relationship with God (vs.80). Hope restores our humanity to us through the perfect humanity of Christ.

God never gives us second best. That is why hope beats optimism every time. Promise gives a preview of how life not only ought to be, but will someday truly be. Hope in the Promised One will take even the worst of our suffering and transform us into people with the character of the perfect God-man, Jesus.

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 1

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Introduction.

At one hundred and seventy-six verses, Psalm 119 is a marathon-length inscription among the Bible’s collection of ancient Hebrew poetry. Its length alone is enough to keep even the most devoted of Psalm-lovers decidedly busy elsewhere.

Daunting as the psalm is in length, its form is also singularly baffling; it was constructed along Hebrew alphabetical patterns that mean nothing to modern English readers like you and me. The ancient acrostic must have been intriguing for those who could appreciate its rhythm and rhyme in its original form but it’s lost on us. We are not able to grasp the linguistic play on words that would have accompanied the lyrical song.

There is a third reason to avoid the Psalm, if it comes to that. It is unabashedly repetitious. It tells us in dozens of ways how the psalmist feels, thinks, and acts (or wishes he could act) in regard to the driving theme, the concept of God’s morality. True, there is some variety; he uses several carefully chosen synonyms to describe the many facets of God’s moral nature. But what if we’re left feeling cornered, discomfited, even shamed to see we have disregarded such lofty maxims? Or worse, we might have no defense after one hundred and seventy-six verses other than to conclude that God’s moral Law is to be fully obeyed, something of which we fear—even know—we are incapable. Reading the psalm might imply moral liability. Wouldn’t it be better just to align with the axiom, “Ignorance is bliss”?

But we’ve come to recognize that ignorance is a shallow sort of bliss. A God-perspective on life, though, marks humans who are deliberately seeking the goal—dare we call it bliss—God designed for us. That is precisely why God ensured the psalmist would write Psalm One Nineteen: to present to our eyes a picture of the goal of human living that radiates with something amazing and quite beyond us—God’s plan for us. And God has good plans for you and me. It’s as if we’ve come to a door with a nameplate over it marked “The Real You and Real God Meeting Place.”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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…” (Jeremiah 29:11-14a).

We’ll find that in some ways the psalmist has only a glimpse of that goal. But it’s an important glimpse. Jesus Himself was the one who would come centuries later and open the door wide for humans to access that goal.

“Jesus came, in fact,” explains author N.T. Wright in his book After You Believe, “to launch God’s new creation, and with it a new way of being human, a way which picked up the glimpses of “right behavior” afforded by ancient Judaism and paganism and, transcending both, set the truest insights of both on quite a new foundation. And with that, he launched also a project for rehumanizing human beings, a project in which they would find their hearts cleansed and softened, find themselves turned upside down and inside out, and discover a new language to learn and every incentive to learn it.”

So as we enter on this journey through Psalm 119, let’s go as seekers—explorers with hearts of hope and with eyes open to a future where God makes it possible for us to ultimately live, dare we imagine it, as rehumanized human beings.

The door is about to swing open.

 

WHO IS JESUS? #4

Deity

Who in this entire world, foolish or wise, can say with complete sobriety and truthfulness, “My decisions are right”—always right? Never wrong, never contestable? In John’s gospel (8:16) the Apostle records Jesus making just such a claim. “(My) decisions,” says Jesus, “are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me” (John 8:16). It’s a bold claim—and offensive if it is not true. Beyond that, isn’t it a bit confusing to hear Jesus defending the validity of His decisions based on the company He keeps?

The fool thinks he is right—and surrounds himself with like-minded friends—but finds himself amid a cluster of falling dominoes because he has not truly considered the consequences of his thoughts. The madman thinks he is right because his rationality is based on illusions of identity—of grandeur, victimization, or some other self-deception—and has a somewhat more limited scope of friends perhaps because his grasp of reality obstructs relationships.

C.S. Lewis’ memorable alliteration concludes that to make such a claim as “my decisions are (always) right” a man must be either a liar, a lunatic, or—the only other option—Lord. Jesus is claiming to be LORD—Master of omniscience and supreme authority on everything from environmental to ethical decision-making. He is claiming deity, isn’t He?

With complete candour, Jesus gives this alibi as His defense: “I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me.” It’s an interesting defense. Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is saying here.

Firstly, Jesus is saying that He has the complete endorsement and corroboration of God the Father authenticating every thought, word, and action He undertakes. Every intention of the Father for earth and its inhabitants, claims Jesus, is embodied in me. Taken in context with everything else we know about Jesus through the gospels, it is not incoherent to believe He is speaking the truth. We ourselves cannot imagine claiming that role, but it is not inconceivable that Jesus can and does.

But secondly, Jesus is not only the absolute representative of the Father—in office and in character—but He is saying He is deity Himself.

“I and the Father are one,” Jesus would later spell out, and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Apostle Paul would also explain it this way, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col.1:15). In declaring that He stands with the Father, Jesus is asserting His privilege as the visible second Person of the triune God. As the Son, He is inextricably bound to the Father and the Holy Spirit as a member of the incomprehensible One God.

The Jewish rulers understood what Jesus was claiming by saying He stands with the Father. Their attempts and eventual success in killing Jesus was their response, in their words, “because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). They displayed the ensuing results of disbelieving Jesus’ claim to deity—they attempted to completely remove Him from their world. The modern expression of this reaction is to maintain that He never existed, He was merely a good man, or that He is dead and irrelevant to our present world.

But if we choose to accept that Jesus’ claim to be the visible image of the invisible God is believable, how will that affect our lives? There is no guesswork left but to determine that our full loyalty, obedience and worship should be focused upon Him.

The gospels are rich with Jesus’ wisdom, practical guidance and overt commands waiting to be applied to our hearts and lives. There are more than enough to keep us busy for the remainder of our earthly days. It will not be a burden, but rather a joyful process enabling us to gradually build lives of Christlike character. This is what Jesus intended by coming to earth. This is how He wants to bless each and every one of us. So let’s pick up our Bibles, dust them off if necessary, and begin to pour over, reflect upon and apply everything the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) record Jesus as saying. If He is God, we owe it to Him.

(Photo Credits: By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29114992; By ESO/A. Fitzsimmons – http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1320a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26190225; By Hernán Piñera from Marbella – Locked in his world, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42201535)

 

 

WHO IS JESUS? #1

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The Light of the World

“Jesus,” claimed Mikhail Gorbachev, “was the first socialist;” “Christ,” claimed Vincent van Gogh, was “a greater artist than all other artists;” “The Lord,” penned Adolf Hitler, “(advanced a) terrific…fight for the world;” and “Jesus,” claimed Albert Einstein, “is too colossal for the pen of phrase-mongers.” The list goes on. Those who have heard of Jesus have formed opinions about Him that run the gamut. Are they right? How do we know?

The Gospels give us the clearest picture of who Jesus is. In particular, the last forty-seven verses of John chapter eight give us a window into who this unique man claimed Himself to be. These claims tell us how He Himself viewed His identity and purpose. As a primary source, this chapter gives us a firsthand understanding of the true persona of Jesus without the distortions—well-meaning though they may be—of individuals who claim to know something about Him. So, who is Jesus?

I am the light of the world,” begins Jesus (John 8:12). “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

The central theme of the Bible describes a conflict between goodness (describing God) and evil (describing all that rebels against God) occurring in the spiritual realm, which has infected and influenced humanity and the material world. The concept of ‘light’ used in the Bible characterizes the former, and ‘darkness’ symbolizes the latter.

Jesus not only associates Himself with the light side of this conflict, He claims to be the light. The phrase “I am the light” is a thinly veiled self-description of Deity. Further, Jesus makes a bold claim—even a promise—that those who follow Him will access complete immunity from the darkness of rebellion against God. Instead, followers of Jesus will have the Creator of life as their personal protector and moral guide in this life, and enjoy eternal life to come.

To “never walk in darkness” may remind us of God’s historical judgment upon the enslaving nation of Egypt c.1500 B.C. when, through His representative Moses, God imposed a three-day plague of darkness, while the Israelites continued to experience the usual diurnal rhythms in the communities in which they lived. Later, as the Israelites journeyed on their exodus from Egypt, God is described as going ahead of the procession “in a pillar of fire by night to give them light” (Exodus 13:21).

Like all peoples then and now, though, the Israelites were unable to maintain God’s high standards for the light of moral goodness. In spite of God’s provision of a leader, a Law, and a supernatural phenomenon to guide them, the people failed repeatedly and miserably to experience real personal transformation. The core human problem of the ubiquitous sinful human nature remained a barrier to the goal of moral excellence God designed all people to have.

Jesus’ reintroduction of the light and darkness issue emphasizes and foreshadows His long-planned solution to the problem: through Jesus’ redeeming self-sacrifice on the cross, his forgiveness and subsequent indwelling of any who would become His followers, the new children of God will never again walk in darkness. Jesus claims His rightful role as the Source of light and invites His listeners to respond as ransomed new creations with ever-increasing characteristics of light. This invitation exists for all people today. We may even say this is the core task of each human being: first, to hear Jesus’ claim to be the source of all that is true and good, and secondly, that we turn from the inborn tendency toward moral rebellion and darkness, choosing rather to entrust our transformation to Jesus, the light of the world.

 

(Photo Credit: By United States Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang – This Image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID 050118-F-3488S-003 (next).This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. See Commons:Licensing for more information. http://www.af.mil/weekinphotos/wipgallery.asp?week=97&idx=9 (Full Image), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1234235

 

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 12

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Interpreter.

When the HSBC’s slogan ‘Assume Nothing’ was mistranslated as ‘Do Nothing’, business slackened significantly—it took $10M of rebranding to restore customer confidence in the misrepresented company. When Pepsi’s tag line ‘Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation’ was translated into Taiwanese as ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead’ the company was left with a big promise to fulfill. And when the Parker pen company advertised ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’ came out in Spanish as “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant’ more than a few eyebrows were raised. Knowing the intended message matters.

In contrast, Jesus was the perfect interpreter; His life on earth performed the unique task of interpreting God’s true intentions for planet earth in general and for the human species in particular. Chapter twelve of Matthew’s gospel describes for us some of the difficulties Jesus faced when the messages of the self-appointed interpreters of the day clashed with His message. A quick summary would be: The religious teachers of the day demanded the people obey the letter of the Law; Jesus taught His followers (through parables, teachings, and example) to be moved by the Spirit of the Law.

“Look!” scorned the Pharisees, following Jesus into a farmer’s field like vultures encircling their prey. They had seen Jesus allow His disciples to glean grain kernels from a field to take the edge off their hunger. “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

They followed Jesus into the local synagogue, finding an opportunity to bait Him. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they challenged, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.

When Jesus left the synagogue, the Pharisees also slipped out, dogging him like hounds on a scented trail. Hearing the people rejoicing over the healing of a blind and mute demon-possessed man, the Pharisees then grumbled, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

“Teacher,” they sneered, having missed the action, “We want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

For anyone else it would have been exhausting dealing with the bitter denunciations of the gatekeepers of Jewish Law and culture. For Jesus it must have been heartbreaking. He knew the heart of the Law like none other. He had come from the Father, having created all that is in existence; the moral standard by which His creatures were designed to live had been misinterpreted until the Lawgiver Himself had become obliterated by the power-hungry Law-keepers. The understanding of the moral nature of God was being deliberately twisted, distorted and skewed to benefit the ulterior motives of those who considered themselves experts of the Law. The Pharisees were mistranslating ‘Assume nothing’ into ‘Do nothing.’

How did Jesus respond?

To the issues of misrepresenting Sabbath Day requirements for eating and healing, Jesus replied, “(I am) the Lord of the Sabbath” and “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” We can imagine how that enraged the Law-keepers—who was this man, claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath and telling them what was good?

But Jesus wasn’t finished correcting their misinterpretations. The hunted became the hunter as Jesus faced the Pharisaical pack and confronted them with the seriousness of their errors. Jesus would not take issue when people attacked Him personally. But when they went so far as to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in His miracles, assigning the power rather to the work of Satan, Jesus took exception. “Anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit,” Jesus warned, “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Jesus said much more to them, not mincing His words as He cut to the heart of their problem. Their hearts were cold to God. Everything that comes from a heart cold and closed to God results in misinterpretation of God’s words and God’s ways—worse, it ultimately results in that person becoming completely hardened and unable to accept the greatest miraculous sign given to the world—Himself, God incarnate, paying the debt for our moral crime by accepting an unjust execution at our hands.

We do well to take Jesus’ words to heart. How often have we misinterpreted Jesus by acceding to His goodness as a moral teacher while denying His ultimate sovereignty over our lives? We are often tempted to interpret His words in a way that preserves our autonomy, but is that what He intends for us? Let’s dust off that old Bible, crack it open, ask for His Spirit’s presence and wisdom to interpret for us what He means, and then obey Him. Then ‘Assume Nothing’ will never be misunderstood as ‘Do Nothing’.

(Photo Credit: elspeth-itsamystery.blogspot.com)

News That Moves Us

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Terrorist attacks on Paris. Syrian refugees. Lufthansa pilot-forced airliner crash. The top news stories of 2015 have been about tragedies. When we hear about calamities and catastrophes, we are shocked; we are shaken out of our own comfortable routines and forced to pay attention to the hardships and extremities of others. The response of many countries to help resettle Syrian refugees forced from their own war-torn country shows that some news moves us enough to cause us to act.

It’s worth taking a look at this phenomenon—not necessarily of the refugee situation, or of attacks of some people against others—but of news that moves us. What is it about certain news that causes us to be willing to change our routines, our norms, and even our foundational goals for the sake of others? What is it that causes us to make a paradigm shift in our thinking and behaviour as a result of some news?

I believe news only changes us when we see its relevance to our own lives. When we see or hear news that rings true and that strikes a resonating chord with us, we are changed. Our thinking changes, our emotions often express that change, and our behaviours change.

The Bible talks about this same phenomenon.

God made a promise thousands of years ago to the human race. It was spoken specifically to Abraham but it referred to every one of us who would ever live. That promise was the epitome of news. The bottom line of what God said to Abraham was, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This wasn’t a vague blessing bestowed by a benevolent but somewhat passive divine being upon His vast creation. It was news that God had begun a series of intricately timed occurrences that would culminate in an outrageous event: His own incarnation as one of us—for the express purpose of rescue. Why rescue? Think hard and deep.

Think about life. Think about the times you’ve messed up—we all have. Think about what it could be like if it was perfect. God designed life to be perfect for us, but we are a rebellious lot, to be truthful. We need someone to rescue us from ourselves, and Jesus is that Someone.

If that news strikes home, if it pierces to your very soul and is more relevant to you than anything else on this planet, then you’ve heard news that will move you. It will move you to entrust the remainder of your days and your eternity to Him. It will move you admit daily that you fall short of His hopes for you, but it will allow you to submit yourself to His gracious work changing your character to become like His—true and honest and good. It will move you to love God and love your neighbour in ever-expanding ways.

Sadly, not every one of us will benefit from this news. Like the many who ignore the plight of Syrian refugees, turn a blind eye to the hurting in the world, or give nothing more than a passing glance at the real cause of this world’s turmoil, the good news of Jesus will not take root in everyone’s lives. God gives us a choice. He presents it as news in the best way each of us can understand and leaves the response to us.

Honestly, our worst response is to reject the offer, to ignore it, to try some other means of finding relief from our troubles or to hide them altogether. But our best response is just to simply trust Him—to say it, to think on it and to act on it. That’s when God’s good news moves us the way it was intended to.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s amazing news.

(Photo Credit: “International newspaper, Rome May 2005”. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg#/media/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg)