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Sunday, March 24, 2019

James, Day 9: James 1:21-25 - Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?

Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?
James, Day 9

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
- James 1:21-25, ESV

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." I don't know where I first heard that expression, but it has stuck in my mind over the years as a motivation. It's simple and has limited effectiveness, and tends to promote a level of self-righteousness and arrogance when it is effective. I can feel really good about myself and look down on others who do less because I did something that "if it was easy, everybody would do it."

Is that the kind of thinking behind James 1:21-25 and God's admonition to us to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only"? Is God just saying to us: "Look, I know it's not easy, but it's time to buck up and "git 'er done"!"? No, it's not that simple.

First of all, God is challenging us to see sin for what it is, and not to be fooled by the deceptions of our enemy. What is sin? One of the tricks of our enemy is to minimize and justify sin: "Well, it's just a little . . . " And God calls us to identify sin for what it is: filthiness and rampant wickedness. All sin is defiling and evil; it's not some little, light thing.

Sin is deceiving, and when we give in to the voice of sin in our lives, we are deceiving ourselves. We are living a lie. So, James calls us to "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." This is where we must begin: It's not a simple matter of trying harder. We first have to begin by rejecting deception, including self-deception, and humbly receiving the truth of God to our souls.

But receiving the word with meekness bears fruit far beyond mere head-knowledge. When we have received the word with meekness, our hearts are transformed from the inside out. We then recognize God's moral law for what it is: "the perfect law, the law of liberty." 

What does the world and our sinful flesh tell us all the time? "Sin is freedom, and God's law is restriction and limitation keeping us from that freedom." But that's a lie, isn't it? Of course it is. Sin is the real bondage, and God's perfect law is the real way to a life of liberty!

How do we learn this truth deep down inside? Only by walking in the law of liberty, by living according to the word, by being doers of the word and not hearers only. So, hearers of the word are those who give superficial assent to the word of God, but who don't really believe deep down that God's word is truly the path of life.

Once we receive the implanted word with meekness, really trusting God, we will know from the depth of our souls that this is the word of eternal life, this is the law of liberty, and we will desire to walk in it. And as we walk in it, we will experience the blessed freedom of living according to the word, and we will be even more encouraged and strengthened to walk in the light of His truth.

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." Turns out, that's not really true, because our problem is fundamentally not that God's word is hard, but that we don't really believe it is good and freeing. So, it's not a lack of effort but a heart-blindness to the truth that is our biggest obstacle. So, more that big spiritual muscles, we need clear spiritual sight and humble hearts to see and know and receive the truth, that we may walk in it.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

James, Day 8: James 1:19-20 - Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 
- James 1:19-20, ESV

I have a confession to make: Sometimes I act like I know better than God. God says certain things very clearly in His word, and I believe His word is truth, but sometimes I live my life as if I think I know better that what the plain Word of God says.

Take today's passage, for example: Could I possibly be the one man whose anger might actually produce the righteousness of God, if I try hard enough? No, of course not. My human anger is as impotent as everyone else's human anger when it comes to producing lasting spiritual fruit. So, why do I get angry at my children and think I can force them to be righteous, not through the fear of the Lord but through the fear of Dad?

So, it's time for me to once again re-read these very familiar verses and confess to God my frequent prideful disregard of them. And it's time for me to hear the wisdom in them afresh. "Every person" includes me and you, all of us. We are called by God to be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Why quick to hear? Because when we listen, we actually learn new things. We are open to new information and might learn something that would change our perspective a bit or help us grow in empathy or understanding.

We should be slow to speak because, in humility, we should count what others have to say as more valuable that what we have to say. Our words can wait until we have heard the whole story from the other side.

Slow to anger? Yes, we should be slow to anger because our anger is ultimately impotent. It has limited effectiveness to get some things done which have some limited value. Too often, though, it causes more pain and hurt and loss than whatever short-term gain it seems to produce.

Do you know what all of this really requires? It requires eyes of faith to see that God is already at work in the situation that is causing us frustration. The situation may seem out-of-control to us, and we may be tempted to want to lash out and grasp control of it. The truth is, of course, that it's not out-of-control at all, is it? God is always in control, and God is always at work.

For us to listen is to show faith that God may have something to teach us, For us to be slow to speak and slow to anger is to show faith that God's purposes will stand and His hands will hold the situation in faithfulness and love, even when we can't see how. And that's ultimately that call of James 1:19-20. These aren't just verses to shame us into submission, but they're calling us to a deeper trust of God and an abiding peace found only in Him. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

James, Day 7: James 1:18 - Why Were We Saved?

Why Were We Saved? 
James, Day 7

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. - James 1:18, ESV

Last time, we discussed how important it is in teaching our children to address the question of how. But, of course, we all know that every child's favorite question is not how but why. Each of my three children went through a phase when their mouths often opened with the words, "Daddy, why . . . ?" or sometimes "Daddy, how come . . . ?"

"Daddy, why is the grass green?"
"Daddy, why do birds fly?" 
"Daddy, home come we can't fly?" 

And then there's the loud one in the middle of Wal-Mart, "Daddy, why is that man so fat?" 

As children of God, we often want to ask our Heavenly Father, "Why?" Most of the time, God doesn't answer and we can't even handle the answer. John MacArthur said in a sermon that God trying to explain why to us is like trying to pour the Atlantic Ocean into a Dixie Cup. 

Sometimes God does tell us why, so we'll understand His purposes when we need to know them. James 1:18 answers two different why questions about our salvation. Or, you could say, it answers the question, "Why were we saved?" in two different ways: What was the cause of our salvation? and What is the purpose for our salvation?

So, what was the cause of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved not by our own will nor by our own power, but, James says, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth." It was His will that was the origin of our being brought forth to eternal life, and it was His word of truth that actually brought us forth into eternal life. Thus, our salvation is the work of God just like creation was: God willed, God spoke, and it was good.

And what was the purpose of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved by God "that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." This one's a bit more complicated. What does it mean? Well, Romans 8 tells us that God is going to redeem all of creation when Jesus comes again, and that all creation is groaning in eager expectation as it waits for this final redemption. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruit of the new creation. Then, when Jesus comes again, His trumpet call will raise us to eternal resurrection life. We will be the first thing Jesus brings to perfection, in body and soul. 

How incredible is that? God desired to save us, so He spoke the word of truth to our hearts and saved us. He did this so that He could bring us to eternal life, body and soul, at the coming of Jesus, as an eternal display of His saving power and goodness. Wow! That's a much better answer to the why question than anything I ever told my kids!       

Monday, March 18, 2019

James, Day 6: James 1:12-18 - How Can We Remain Steadfast Under Trial?

How Can We Remain Steadfast Under Trial?
James, Day 6

"Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures."
 - James 1:12-18, ESV

I must admit that, as a father, I have not always been patient and clear in explaining to my kids how to do what I'm asking them to do. I'm usually very clear on what I expect them to do and even on why I want them to do it (which is not always "Because I said so"). Unfortunately for them, knowing what to do without knowing how to do it can lead to a lot of frustration.

Many Christians feel this way about their Christian lives, about living faithfully for the Lord according to the Bible. Many of us often know better what we're supposed to be doing than exactly how we can go about doing it.

Today's passage has a great example of this: "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial." So we know what we're supposed to do: remain steadfast under trial. We're even give some incentive, some motivation: "for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life." That sounds wonderful, but how are we supposed to remain steadfast under trial? Well, the rest of the passage tells us how, if we read it carefully and thoughtfully.

One thing that helps is to know that the Greek words for trial and tempted here in this passage are the same. So, to stand under trial means to stand in the face of temptation. When the time of trial or temptation comes, the first thing we need to make sure we don't do is blame God. We may not do so openly, but if we're grumbling in our hearts against the Lord for His providence, we're essentially blaming Him for putting us in a situation where we've been tempted. And if we're blaming God, that means we won't be looking to Him for help and deliverance in our trial.

So, once we stop blaming God, we need to take a good look at ourselves and see which desires within us are being triggered by the temptation. What longing in our hearts is responding in the time of trial to make it a temptation and draw us away from remaining steadfast? Once we can identify this desire, we can confess it to the Lord and ask Him to help us look to Him to meet that longing.

Next, we need to give thanks to God for His goodness. In the midst of every trial, God provides good resources for us, things to help us or strengthen us. Sometimes intentionally giving thanks for our blessings opens our eyes to the good things God has given us.

So, we don't blame God, we identify and confess our desires, we give thanks for our blessings, and we look for God-given resources. Then, we remember that it is God's power that has saved us and His power which will keep us.  We remember and we openly confess, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." We didn't save ourselves through our words; God saved us through His word. He who saved us will keep us, so we can bear fruit for His glory.

So often, in the hour of trial, I am tempted to be self-pitying and complaining. I feel sorry for myself and I quietly accuse God of wrongdoing in His providence. If I am going to stand strong, I must learn to reverse this sinful reaction to trials and instead give thanks, seek help, remember the goodness of God, and accept responsibility for my own sinful foolishness. When I look to the Lord in these specific, practical, honest ways, then I stand strong and remain steadfast under trial, in His strength and never in my own. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

James, Day 5: James 1:9-12 - What Really Matters in the End?

What Really Matters in the End?

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
- James 1:9-12, ESV

When I was a kid, I thought The Dukes of Hazard was great television, and I thought McDonalds was a great place to go out to eat. I didn't know what was really valuable then.

So much of the trouble we encounter in life stems from not valuing what is truly valuable. We tend to be distracted by things right in front of us, by the immediate and the material. Whether it's the tyranny of the urgent or the snare of materialism, our sinful hearts tend to be drawn to things that just don't matter that much.

James tells poor Christians to boast in their exaltation, that God reached down in His grace to save them and lift them from sin and death and give them forgiveness and eternal life. Then, he tells rich Christians to boast in their humiliation, the fact that they are spiritual paupers in the eyes of God, bankrupt and helpless apart from the riches of God's grace.

Why does James tell the rich and the poor to boast in different aspects of their salvation? Because each would be tempted to lose perspective in different ways. The poor would be tempted to think that God was against them because they were poor, so James reminds them of their exaltation. The rich might be tempted to think they were special in God's eyes because they had money. They needed to remember their humiliation without Christ.

Then James gives both rich and poor the basis for the right perspective: All human flesh and human accomplishments fade away so quickly. None of it really matters much for long. James is making an allusion to Isaiah 40:6-8:

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (ESV)

As temporary as the things of this world are, the crown of life which God alone can give is unfading and glorious. For those who belong to God and who persevere in faith by His grace, we receive the best and most lasting treasure, eternal life with God Himself. And that alone is something truly worth living for. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

James, Day 4: James 1:6-11 - What Does It Mean to Ask in Faith without Doubting?

What Does It Mean to Ask in Faith without Doubting?
James, Day 4

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
 - James 1:6-11, ESV

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I married a little girl in my neighborhood. I don't even remember her name, but I have some vague memories of the wedding, attended by the neighborhood kids. I think somebody told me I was supposed to kiss the bride and I said, "Eww. Gross" or something like that.

Now, obviously, I didn't really get married as a child. We were just pretending. We had none of the required elements of a real wedding. It was no more real than the guns we used to play Cops and Robbers.

Some people's ideas of praying in faith have about as much to do with the Bible as my childhood wedding had to do with real marriage. So, what does it mean to ask God in faith with no doubting? It doesn't mean that, if you really want something (like a new Lexus or a trip to the Bahamas), you should just ask God for it and truly believe that you have it. That's unbiblical nonsense.

In the context of James 1, James is talking about praying for wisdom, which we saw last time is a deeper understanding of God's will as revealed in the Bible. So, we are to ask God for wisdom in faith without doubting. That means we are to trust God fully, relying on the goodness of His character and the truth of His word, not questioning His goodness or His word to us.

Further evidence that James is not talking here about praying for material possessions, or for any of our outward physical conditions, comes from looking at verses 9-11. Here James instructs those who live in poverty and humiliation to rejoice and to boast in God's love for them, knowing that all external manifestations of well being fade quickly and matter little. Likewise. the wealthy person should boast in his humiliation, that he is utterly poor and needy in the eyes of God in every way that truly counts for eternity, just like everyone else is. 

To pray in faith is to pray trusting in God and confessing God's truth to be the real truth. Part of this truth is that the state of our souls is of infinitely greater importance than the state of our bank accounts. To use "praying in faith" as a tool to try to get more of the passing pleasures and fading riches of the fallen world is to profoundly misunderstand the whole purpose of prayer and faith. We are to see God's way, as revealed in His word, to be the path of true and eternal riches. This is real faith, and this leads to strength and stability in all the changing circumstances of life.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

James, Day 3: James 1:5-8 - Do You Really Want Wisdom?

Do You Really Want Wisdom?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
 - James 1:5-8, ESV

When I was a kid, I often had no idea what I really wanted. As the youngest of four children, I sometimes just wanted to have or do whatever my older siblings had or were doing. At school, I wanted to be accepted by the other kids in my classes, so I often wanted to do or wear or have whatever I thought might gain me acceptance by my peers. It took me a long time to figure out what I really liked and what I actually wanted. Even then, I later realized that many of my desires were foolish, selfish, and short-sighted.

Living as sinful people prone to foolishness in a sinful world in rebellion against God, one of our greatest needs is for wisdom. When Solomon prayed for wisdom, the Lord commended him and answered his prayer. Here in James 1, God promises to give wisdom to anyone who lacks it and asks it of Him. 

What is being promised here? Is God telling us that if we're ever wondering what we should do, we can just pray to Him and He'll tell us what we should do? Is this a blanket promise for infallible divine guidance, a can't-miss guidance system for all of life's tough choices? No. What's promised here is much better. God will give us wisdom, but we need to make sure we understand what we really need and what we need to admit before we can receive it.

What we really need is wisdom. Wisdom is not "always knowing the right thing to do," as most people think of that concept. Many people want some sort of guidance from God that will always direct them down the right path in life, as defined by their expectation that they would have an easy life with abundant blessings and minimum problems. When they pray, "Lord, which job should I take?" they often mean, "Which job is going to pay me the best, be most satisfying, and have the fewest problems?" None of this type of guidance is ever promised by God, and none of it is real wisdom.

How can I say that? Because if this picture of maximum benefits and minimum problems was the picture of a blessed life of wisdom, then neither Jesus nor the Apostles lived blessed lives of wisdom. They all encountered lots of problems, trials, temptations, rejection, and hardship. In the end, most of their lives ended in poverty and violent death. And yet, they had wisdom and they were truly blessed.

So, what is wisdom? Wisdom is living life in harmony with God's will, living according to God's design and purposes, for His glory and kingdom. Wisdom is living well, not as the world or our selfish flesh defines it but as God alone defines it. 

Do we want this kind of wisdom? Only if we want to live for the glory of God and our eternal joy in Him and not settle for anything less. 

What do we need to admit before we can receive this wisdom? We have to admit that we don't have it and neither does the world. We have to admit that we need the Lord alone to give us this wisdom. And if we begin by refusing to look to ourselves or to the world, we are already on the path of wisdom. 

The path of wisdom is laid out by the Word of God, and we are guided along it by the Spirit of God. By trusting in God and following His word as led by His Spirit, we can grow in true wisdom. And as we grow in true wisdom, we live life as God has intended and we are truly, eternally blessed.   

Thursday, March 7, 2019

James, Day 2: James 1:2-4 - How Can We Rejoice in Trials?

How Can We Rejoice in Trials?

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
 - James 1:2-4, ESV

Have you ever had an overly chipper Christian shower you with religious platitudes when you were really hurting? How did it feel? Didn't you just wish they would be quiet and leave you alone? One such platitude that well-meaning Christians can thrown around in times of suffering is made up of the first four words of James 1:2: "Count it all joy!"

You lost your job. Count it all joy!
Your wife is diagnosed with cancer. Count it all joy! 
Your teenage driver totals your car. Count it all joy! 

Not exactly the most helpful phrase to hear when you're hurting, huh? So, is this what James is doing in James 1:2? Is this just the Bible equivalent of "Don't worry, be happy!"? No. What James is saying in James 1:2 is much more profound and revolutionary than a throw-away platitude about having a good attitude.

The word James uses that's translated as "count" is a word of command and rule. It can mean to make a judgment or issue a command. James says to take the trials we face and essentially issue a verdict about their nature and purpose. We are to examine these trials by the rule of faith and make an assessment, a judgment: These trials are really good things and in them we can, by faith, find reason to rejoice.

Why? Because they're fun? No. Because they're making us rely on God more, which is making us more stable and steadfast, and that is making us more complete, making us what we're supposed to be.

As believers, we are not supposed to be the helpless victims of our external circumstances. We are not supposed to be happy only when we get lucky and get nice things, and we're not supposed to be dejected and despairing when things don't go our way. The more we rely on ourselves, the more we live exactly like this, and we are unstable and unfruitful.

If we will live by faith, we will take command of our assessment of things. We will not just react emotionally but judge faithfully and always make the verdict that God is good and that He is in control of everything, for His glory and for our ultimate, eternal good. To live this way is not to be glib or trite, it is to be stable and steady in the face of trials because of a willingness to submit to God and assess our situation in the light of His power and goodness. 

It reminds me of taking my children to get vaccinations when they were little. My kids hated the needles and the pain. They squirmed and cried and looked at me like I was a monster for making them submit to such ill treatment. But I knew the pain was for their protection. I knew the trial was making their immunity more complete. I never asked my children to enjoy the needles. That would have been mean. But I did ask them to trust me, and I did reassure them that I loved them. Will we trust God and His love, just as I asked my children to trust me and my love?         

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

James, Day 1: James 1:1 - Who Are the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion?

Who Are the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion?

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

 - James 1:1, ESV

Did you ever read someone else's mail by mistake? We sometimes get our neighbor's mail accidentally delivered to us, and sometimes I don't realize it's not mine until after I open it. It's mostly junk mail, and I've gotten more careful, but it's kind of shocking to start reading something only to realize that it's not meant for you. 

James addresses his letter "to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion." This is very similar to the way Peter opens 1 Peter: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood." These greetings - "twelve tribes in the Dispersion" and "elect exiles of the Dispersion" - are very Jewish greetings. The twelve tribes refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Dispersion refers to the Jewish diaspora, the scattering of God's holy nation that began with the Assyrian conquest around 702 B.C. 

So, are the letters of James and 1 Peter written to Jewish people? Are we reading someone else's mail when we read them? No. These letters are written to believers in Jesus, to Christians living among the world. Peter goes on in his letter to remind his readers "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers," something he would not have written to Jewish people, but to Christians who had formerly been pagan idolaters.

The fact that Peter and James can write to Christians using such Jewish greetings is another of the many indications given throughout the New Testament that we who believe in Jesus are heirs of the covenant of Abraham. We are children of the promise, members of God's chosen people. We are the holy nation of God. 

Why is this important? Because whenever we read any part of the Bible, if we believe in Jesus and belong to Him by faith, we are never reading someone else's mail. We are never eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. We have been grafted by grace into the one olive tree of the people of God, to use the language of Romans 11, and we are heirs of all of the promises of God. 

This is incredibly encouraging because it means that the whole story of the Bible is our story. It also means God's plans and purposes have not failed. It's not that the whole Israel Project failed, and so God switched to Plan B and started the Christian church. Rather, Jesus the Messiah was the plan from the beginning. Israel's story in the Old Testament led up to Jesus, and the church's story in the New Testament continues the story of Israel with every promise fulfilled in Christ.

I remember when I first understood this truth, it opened up previously closed passages in the Bible to me. In the Psalms, when I read of Zion and Jerusalem and Israel, I was now singing these songs as an insider and not just listening in on someone else's praises and promises from the outside. So, if you believe in Jesus, you are part of what Galatians 6:16 calls "the Israel of God." Rejoice! And read the Bible as one who belongs in the story from beginning to end. 

For More on This Topic: 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Hosea, Day 24: Hosea 14 - How Can We Return to the Lord?

How Can We Return to the Lord? 
Hosea, Day 24

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
    for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words
    and return to the Lord;
say to him,
    “Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good, [or: "receive us graciously']
    and we will pay with bulls
    the vows of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
    we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
    to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

I will heal their apostasy;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom like the lily;
    he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
    It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
    from me comes your fruit.

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them,
    but transgressors stumble in them.
- Hosea 14, ESV

In 1517, the Protestant Reformation began with these words:
  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
That's the first thesis in the famous 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. 

Luther was right. Jesus calls every believer to a life of repentance. To repent is to return to the Lord. Because we are always sinning and always straying into idolatry in our hearts and minds, we must always be returning to the Lord. But how can we do so faithfully and fruitfully, and not just as a fake reaction in a time of crisis? We all know of people who have called out for help to God in the midst of a crisis and have not really been sincerely returning to Him. How can we do better and return to the Lord rightly?  

Thankfully, Hosea 14 gives us clear instructions on how to return to the Lord, along with loving and compelling reasons to do so. God tells us how to pray:

1. Pray for forgiveness: "Take away all iniquity"
2. Plead for God's goodness: "Receive us graciously" (I'm following the KJV, NASB, and NIV here)
3. Resolve and pledge to obey the Lord: "We will pay with bulls the vows of our lips
4. Turn away from trusting in the world: "Assyria shall not save us"
5. Reject idolatry: "We will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands"
6. Trust in the goodness of God: "In you the orphan finds mercy"

This is a wonderful pattern of prayer, whenever we come under conviction for sin or realize we have been trusting in worldly things or idols of our hearts and minds. God promises to answer this kind of prayer: "I will heal their apostasy. I will love them freely." 

In all that we have seen of the Lord's goodness, persistent love, gracious kindness and all that we have seen of our own sin and stubborn idolatry through our studies in Hosea, this is a fitting way to conclude. So, let us return to the Lord and rest in His goodness and His redeeming power. 

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Hosea, Day 23: Hosea 13 - Why is God Our Only Savior?

Why is God Our Only Savior? 

But I am the Lord your God
    from the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
    and besides me there is no savior.
It was I who knew you in the wilderness,
    in the land of drought;
but when they had grazed, they became full,
    they were filled, and their heart was lifted up;
    therefore they forgot me.
So I am to them like a lion;
    like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs;
    I will tear open their breast,
and there I will devour them like a lion,
    as a wild beast would rip them open.

He destroys you, O Israel,
    for you are against me, against your helper.
Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities?
    Where are all your rulers—
those of whom you said,
    “Give me a king and princes”?
I gave you a king in my anger,
    and I took him away in my wrath.

The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
    his sin is kept in store.
The pangs of childbirth come for him,
    but he is an unwise son,
for at the right time he does not present himself
    at the opening of the womb.

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
    I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
    O Sheol, where is your sting?
- Hosea 13:4-14, ESV

What is a savior?

Yesterday, the San Diego Padres agreed to pay Manny Machado $300 million to play baseball. Why? Because the team is hoping the superstar player will be the savior of a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2006. Meanwhile, Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is being hailed as the savior of the brand-new Alliance of American Football, having invested $250 million in the new league.

In the ancient world, gods were seen as saviors because they were thought to provide the things people needed to live: Baal, the storm god, sent the rain. Ashera, the fertility goddess, provided abundant crops and children. Other gods were seen as saviors because they could stop plagues or locust swarms.

Yet God says to Israel, "I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me,     and besides me there is no savior."  Here's what we need to see: What was true for ancient Israel is just as true for us today.

Believers today are constantly tempted to assign a limited role to God in our lives and our salvation and to look to other so-called gods and saviors for the things we really want and think we need. We'll trust God for the forgiveness of our sins and for our future in heaven, but we will look to the world for money, food, pleasure, entertainment, etc.

The problem for ancient Israel and the problem for us is the same, and it's a two-fold problem:

1. We're confused about what our real needs are. So, we think we need all sorts of things that we don't really need. Modern advertising and our instant-gratification society have only made our natural impatient selfishness even worse.

2. We forget who supplies all of our real needs and who gives us everything good in life and in eternity. So, we think we get some things for ourselves, the world gives us some other things, and then God gives us some eternal, spiritual things - like forgiveness and heaven. But that's not what God says. He gives us everything good, in life and in eternity. We have nothing good but what He has provided.

Ultimately, our biggest needs are for our guilt to be removed and for death to be defeated. The biggest problem all human beings face is death, and death is a big problem because of sin. If we keep this reality front and center in our thinking, it helps bring perspective to our daily concerns and it helps us remember that only God can solve our biggest problems and thus meet our greatest needs. And He has done so gloriously in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is our forgiveness and who is the overthrowing conqueror of death.

The next time you worry or are anxious, remember how much God was willing to sacrifice to solve your greatest problems and meet your greatest needs. Then, reject the false promises of a fallen world and trust every care you have to Him alone!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Hosea, Day 22: Hosea 12 - What Are the Dangers of Prosperity?

What Are the Dangers of Prosperity?

The Lord has an indictment against Judah
    and will punish Jacob according to his ways;
    he will repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
    and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed;
    he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
    and there God spoke with us—
the LORD the God of hosts,
    the LORD is his memorial name:
“So you, by the help of your God, return,
    hold fast to love and justice,
    and wait continually for your God.”

A merchant, in whose hands are false balances,
    he loves to oppress.
Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich;
    I have found wealth for myself;
in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.”
I am the LORD your God
    from the land of Egypt;
I will again make you dwell in tents,
    as in the days of the appointed feast. - Hosea 12:2-9, ESV

In 1990, during my junior year in high school, Calloway had a mega-hit song with "I Wanna Be Rich." It's kind of embarrassing now, but I remember being 16 years old and singing along - 

You see I want money, 
lots and lots of money.
I want the pie in the sky,
I want lots and lots of money,
so don't be asking my why.
I wanna be rich

Some people might say, "What's wrong with that?" Well, plenty, of course! 1 Timothy 6:9-10 says, "those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils."

So, wanting to be rich and loving money cause a whole host of problems for people, but does that mean it's wrong to have wealth? No. Some of the God's people in the Bible were very wealthy - the Patriarchs, Joseph, David, Solomon, Daniel, and others. Yet prosperity often caused snares for God's people, too. Solomon married foreign wives, who led him into idolatry. Esau and Jacob fought over their father's wealth. 

Here in Hosea 12, we can see three clear problems related to Israel's prosperity:

1. Indifference: Israel's wealth made them indifferent to the words of the prophets. As God was pleading with Israel to repent, Israel's response was callous: "Ah, but I am rich! I have found wealth for myself." They simply didn't care about the prophets' words. 

2. Idolatry: Israel's prosperity also led them to practice and tolerate idolatry. Their wealth had led them to make a covenant with Assyria and to establish trade with Egypt (see v. 1). These kinds of alliances and trade relationships usually involved worship of the gods of the other lands, and this may have been how the gods of Assyria and Egypt made their way into Israel. 

3. Injustice: In addition to indifference and idolatry, Israel's prosperity also led them to cheat the poor. God calls Israel "a merchant, in whose hands are false balances" and who "loves to oppress." The quickest way for the wealthy to get wealthier is to cheat the poor out of what little wealth they have. 

Most of us are prosperous and wealthy, by the standards of the broader world and of history. We may not feel wealthy, but we really are. So, we should ask ourselves: Am I falling into any of these patterns? Am I growing indifferent to the conviction of God's Word and Spirit? Am I tending toward idol-worship in my pursuit of wealth? Am I unconcerned for the dignity and humanity of the poor? As we examine our hearts before the Lord, may He grant us repentance, so that we may use His blessings for His kingdom and glory and not our own!  

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hosea, Day 21: Hosea 11:8-12 - Why Doesn't the Lord Give Up on His People?

Why Doesn't the Lord Give Up on His People?

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion;
when he roars,
    his children shall come trembling from the west;
they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
    and like doves from the land of Assyria,
    and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord.
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
    and the house of Israel with deceit,
but Judah still walks with God
    and is faithful to the Holy One.
- Hosea 11:8-12, ESV

After several chapters of stinging indictment and stunning judgment, God pulls back suddenly in Hosea 11 and asks:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?

My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;

If you've been reading along and taking the previous chapters seriously, you might want to ask, "Why??" We've seen clearly how much Israel deserves condemnation. We've seen how utterly unfaithful, ungrateful, immoral, and unrepentant Israel had been and continued to be. Why not simply wipe them off the map and start again with someone else?

The living demonstration God gives in the opening chapters of His relationship with Israel only serves to drive the point home: Gomer is a serial adulteress, bearing children with other men, running away from Hosea, and ending up for sale at a local slave market. Honestly, if you were Hosea's friend and he came to you for advice, what would you tell him to do? Wouldn't you say, "Hosea, buddy come on, man. Let her go. She was never faithful to you and she'll never be faithful to you. She put herself in this mess. She deserves it."? I'm pretty sure I would say something like that if I had a friend in Hosea's position.

But, as God says, in verse 9 - "I am God and not a man" - God is not like us. When God sets His heart on someone and chooses them to be His own in love, His love does not change. His love remains steadfast and strong, stronger than death. And so God will not utterly destroy His people. 

But how can He not? How can He spare such a wicked, idolatrous, immoral people and remain a just and holy God. He will not abandon His love for His people, but neither will He abandon His holiness. So, how can He save a wicked people? Well, verse 10 tells us it will happen "when He roars."  

Because I love The Chronicles of Narnia, verse 10 is one of my favorite verses in Hosea. I can just picture the risen and triumphant Aslan roaring and summoning His troops for battle against the White Witch. I'm sure C.S. Lewis must have been inspired by Hosea 11:10 when he wrote this wonderful scene for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

But when did God roar? When did His children come repentant and returning to Him? Like every other good promise in the Old Testament, I think Hosea 11:10 is pointing to Christ. Jesus said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32, ESV) Jesus was talking about His death on the cross. 

When Jesus came, He demonstrated the love of God by pursuing His own. His engagement with the Samaritans, many of whom became believers in Jesus, was His fulfillment of today's passage. Ultimately, His loving pursuit of His people led Him to the cross, where God's justice and holiness could be satisfied, the sins of God's people washed away, and God's love set free to draw all of His chosen ones to Himself. 

On the cross, God roared, sin died, justice was satisfied, and love was set free. So, why doesn't the Lord give up on His people? Because He loves us, and unlike man, His love never changes. And how can God be right and just in never giving up on us? Because of the full redemption price paid for us on the cross. Praise the Lord for such perfect justice and unfailing love! 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Hosea, Day 20: Hosea 11 - What is the Connection Between Israel and Jesus?

What is the Connection Between Israel and Jesus? 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more they were called,
    the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
    and burning offerings to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
    I took them up by their arms,
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness,
    with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
    and I bent down to them and fed them.
- Hosea 11:1-4, ESV

Hosea 11:1 is one of the most controversial verses in the Bible. In Matthew 2:13-15, we read of Joseph's flight to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (ESV)

Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 and saying that Jesus' escape to Egypt was the fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy. Critics of the Bible say Matthew is misquoting Hosea, and even believers struggle to understand how Hosea 11:1 could be viewed by Matthew as a prophecy of the Messiah. 

To understand why Matthew is not misusing Hosea 11:1, we have to understand the connection between Israel and Jesus in the Bible. You probably know Jesus was Jewish, a descendant of Abraham from the Tribe of Judah. You probably also know that He was the long-awaited Messiah, the promised Holy One of Israel. But the connection between Israel and Jesus in the Bible is actually much deeper and richer.    

In the deepest and truest sense, Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel, and Israel was the foreshadowing of Jesus. Israel was called to the son of God and the light of the world, but as a nation, they failed miserably. They were a disobedient son, and their light was actually darkness. God had graciously established and led them, but they had walked away again and again. 

And so Jesus came to do all that Israel had failed to do. Jesus came to be the true Israel of God, the Son of God and Light of the World. And at every point where Israel failed, Jesus brilliantly succeeded, even in coming up out of Egypt. Israel came up out of Egypt, guided and protected by God, and they wandered away in unfaithfulness. Jesus came up out of Egypt, guided and protected by God, and He honored God and follow Him faithfully all of His life. Thus, He fulfilled Hosea 11:1 in a way that Israel never did. 

Yet we should not think simply that Israel failed and Jesus succeeded. We should see that God foresaw and foreordained all of this from the very beginning. In other words, God always knew Israel would fail his mission and that Jesus would come to fulfill it. So this makes all of Israel's history a dark foreshadowing of the brilliant dawning of the Light of the World. 

In the Tabletalk devotional on Hosea 11:1, Ligonier takes the unpacking of this verse one step further:

"The good news of the gospel tells us that we can be the true Israel of God as well. If we are in Christ, we share in the privileges and relationship He enjoys as God’s true Son. We are not sons of God by nature; rather, we are sons of God by adoption, His beloved children in Christ. As such, we inherit all of the promises given to old covenant Israel. Those promises of God that Israel would rule over her enemies and enjoy abundant covenant blessings (for example, Isa. 14:1–2)—those promises are for all of God’s people, the true Israel of God consisting of Jews and Gentiles who are united to Christ by faith alone. In Him we are the true Israel of God, heirs of the glorious destiny promised to God’s old covenant people (Zeph. 3:14–20)." 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hosea, Day 19: Hosea 10 - How Should We Respond When God Takes Away Our Idols?

How Should We Respond When God Takes Away Our Idols?

Israel is a luxuriant vine
    that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
    the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
    he improved his pillars.
Their heart is false;
    now they must bear their guilt.
The Lord will break down their altars
    and destroy their pillars.

For now they will say:
    “We have no king,
for we do not fear the Lord;
    and a king—what could he do for us?”
They utter mere words;
    with empty oaths they make covenants;
so judgment springs up like poisonous weeds
    in the furrows of the field.
The inhabitants of Samaria tremble
    for the calf of Beth-aven.
Its people mourn for it, and so do its idolatrous priests—
    those who rejoiced over it and over its glory—
    for it has departed from them.
The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria
    as tribute to the great king.
Ephraim shall be put to shame,
    and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.

Samaria's king shall perish
    like a twig on the face of the waters.
The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel,
    shall be destroyed.
Thorn and thistle shall grow up
    on their altars,
and they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,”
    and to the hills, “Fall on us.”

Ephraim was a trained calf
    that loved to thresh,
    and I spared her fair neck;
but I will put Ephraim to the yoke;
    Judah must plow;
    Jacob must harrow for himself.
Sow for yourselves righteousness;
    reap steadfast love;
    break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the Lord,
    that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.

- Hosea 10:1-8, 11-12, ESV

D.L. Moody famously said, "The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible." And while I'm not sure I agree 100% with that statement, it does express an important truth, which I might put this way: If you belong to God and you give your heart to idols, you will find that your idols will draw your heart away from the Lord, or else the Lord, in love, will take away your idols.

So, if the Lord loves you, He will take away your idols, if you don't repent and surrender them first. Now, having the Lord take away your idols is a painful process. Hosea 10 describes it in graphic detail. A deeply rooted, dearly cherished idol is not one we give up easily. And when God takes it away, it disrupts and upends our entire lives.

Think about it: If your career is your idol, so that you find your self-worth and identity in your job and salary, you can either repent and submit your career to the Lord, or He may lovingly take it away from you. That would not be easy. Yet God has had to do that for His people again and again, and it is something He does in love. Nothing can take His place in our hearts and lives without disastrous consequences.    

How should we respond if we see God taking away our idols? Israel responded by wailing for their idols and rejecting the Lord as their ruler.  That was not a good response. It certainly did not help their situation any. 

Instead, God told Israel what they should do, and it's the same word we need to hear:  

Sow for yourselves righteousness;
    reap steadfast love;
    break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the Lord,
    that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.

The New Testament uses slightly different language to communicate the same truth to the church:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. - Galatians 6:7-9, ESV

So, when God takes away our idols, we need to realize that we've been sowing to our flesh and we have been reaping corruption. We need to start sowing to the Spirit instead. That is, we need to start sowing righteousness. What does that mean? Hosea unpacks it: Break up the fallow ground and seek the Lord.

I'l put it another way: If God strips our idols from us, we can either cling to our idols or we can begin to cling to the Lord. We can either bemoan the loss of our idol, or we can thank the Lord for loving us enough to take away something we were unable to give up. We can turn to Him in thankful praise, knowing that the loss of our idol was His act of love for us.

The Lord loves you too much to leave you alone in the grip of your self-destructive idol. And that's wonderful good news, even when it hurts. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hosea, Day 18: Hosea 9 - Why is it Good for Sin to Have Heavy Consequences?

Why is it Good for Sin to Have Heavy Consequences? 
Hosea, Day 18

Rejoice not, O Israel!
    Exult not like the peoples;
for you have played the whore, forsaking your God.
    You have loved a prostitute's wages
    on all threshing floors.
Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them,
    and the new wine shall fail them.
They shall not remain in the land of the Lord,
    but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
    and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria.

The days of punishment have come;
    the days of recompense have come;
    Israel shall know it.
The prophet is a fool;
    the man of the spirit is mad,
because of your great iniquity
    and great hatred.

They have deeply corrupted themselves
    as in the days of Gibeah:
he will remember their iniquity;
    he will punish their sins.

Like grapes in the wilderness,
    I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree
    in its first season,
    I saw your fathers.
But they came to Baal-peor
    and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame,
    and became detestable like the thing they loved.
Ephraim's glory shall fly away like a bird—
    no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!
Even if they bring up children,
    I will bereave them till none is left.
Woe to them
    when I depart from them!

Ephraim is stricken;
    their root is dried up;
    they shall bear no fruit.
Even though they give birth,
    I will put their beloved children to death.
My God will reject them
    because they have not listened to him;
    they shall be wanderers among the nations.

 - selected verses from Hosea 9, ESV

Imagine a husband who goes to his wife and tells her, "I no longer feel like being faithful to you. I'm going to go out to bars and clubs to pick up other women. Sometimes I will go home with those women and, at other times, I will bring them home here. But I still want to be married to you and to continue on like a normal married couple."

Such a husband would be horrible and would not be worthy of the title husband. Do you know what would be even worse? A wife who would accept that from her husband and go on living with him as though nothing were wrong. Such a response from a wife would not be love but hatred, an utter indifference to whether her husband is faithful or not.

The Lord said He was Israel's husband, her faithful covenant protector and provider. Yet Israel decided to be a spiritual prostitute. Even more insulting than her unfaithfulness to the Lord was Israel's expectation that the Lord would continue to bless, protect, and provide for her, just as He always had. If He agreed to those terms, what kind of husband would the Lord be?

Have you ever suffered serious consequences from your sin? I know I have. At the time, such consequences were unwelcome and bitter to take. Yet, looking back, I now see that the Lord was loving me through those consequences. He was turning me from my sin to repentance. He was drawing me back to Himself.

Are you in a place where you think you're getting away with your sin, suffering no consequences from repeated willful disobedience to the Lord? If so, you should be very concerned. Your heart is hardening toward your Lord. Sin is becoming easier, and your love for Christ is growing cold. Cry to God for the mercy of repentance, the grace of a broken heart.

If you are suffering some deep consequences for your sin, don't take this as rejection from God but as love. He is breaking you so He can heal you. Turn to Him for the mercy you need. Don't ask for relief from the consequences but for forgiveness for your sin. See your sin as the problem and the Lord will respond with loving mercy. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Hosea, Day 17: Hosea 8 - What's the Difference Between True and False Worship?

What's the Difference Between True and False Worship?

Set the trumpet to your lips!
    One like a vulture is over the house of the Lord,
because they have transgressed my covenant
    and rebelled against my law.
To me they cry,
    “My God, we—Israel—know you.”
Israel has spurned the good;
    the enemy shall pursue him.

They made kings, but not through me.
    They set up princes, but I knew it not.
With their silver and gold they made idols
    for their own destruction.
I have spurned your calves, O Samaria.
    My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
For it is from Israel;
a craftsman made it;
    it is not God.
The calf of Samaria
    shall be broken to pieces.

For they sow the wind,
    and they shall reap the whirlwind.

Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning,
    they have become to him altars for sinning.
Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands,
    they would be regarded as a strange thing.
As for my sacrificial offerings,
    they sacrifice meat and eat it,
    but the Lord does not accept them.
Now he will remember their iniquity
    and punish their sins;
    they shall return to Egypt.
For Israel has forgotten his Maker
    and built palaces,
and Judah has multiplied fortified cities;
    so I will send a fire upon his cities,
    and it shall devour her strongholds.
 - Hosea 8:1-7, 11-14, ESV

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism, a classic work that was based on a very simple premise: Christian churches that deny the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, that deny the reality of miracles and question the reliability of the Bible, and that preach a moralistic do-goodism instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are not actually Christian churches. Instead of calling themselves Christian, they should drop the name as an inaccurate and dishonest label and call themselves something else.

In Hosea's day, the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes who followed Jeroboam and broke away from Jerusalem and the House of David, called themselves worshipers of Yahweh, the covenant people of God, heirs of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet, they worshiped golden calves at Bethel and Dan, they called on the gods of the surrounding nations, they did not have Levites teaching the law to the people, and they engaged in rampant immorality. And so Hosea told them they could no longer consider God to be their God and should no longer expect any protection or blessing from Him as His people. In short, though they called themselves the people of God, they were not. They were "Not My People." 

Yet the people of Israel called upon the name of the Lord. The golden calves Jeroboam set up in Dan and Bethel were not representations of foreign gods; they were ways of worshiping Yahweh, the one true God.  Jeroboam set them up because going to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple would have drawn his people's hearts back to the House of David, his rivals for the throne. It was politically expedient to give the people new places to worship, and it was culturally relevant to set up statues. After all, the other nations worshiped their gods with statues, so why not Israel?

When we understand this background, Hosea 8 then becomes for us a good test to evaluate whether our worship of God is truly honoring to Him and accepted by Him or not. Could we be guilty of false worship? How do we know?

1. True worship is based on God's commands, and false worship is based on people's ideas. God's commands regarding worship had become strange and unknown in Israel:

Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands,
    they would be regarded as a strange thing. - v. 12

Most evangelical Christians today probably don't even know that God commands certain elements in worship:

  • The public reading of Scripture
  • Preaching of the Word
  • Prayer
  • Singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
  • Confessing our faith
  • Taking up tithes and offerings 
  • Baptism
  • The Lord's Supper

These elements can all be understood as either prayer or proclamation: We are praying to God, sometimes in song, or He is speaking to us. (You can read more here.) Other clever ideas may be entertaining or fun things to do, but they are not Biblical worship.

2. True worship is faithfully offered to God alone. Israel was condemned because they transgressed their covenant with God and they sought the help of other nations. This usually involved worshiping the gods of these foreign nations, as a sign of loyalty to them. 

Whenever we are tempted to find our security or identity in things other than God, we are being drawn to idolatry. We are giving our worshipful trust to something other than God - politics, education, wealth, acceptance by the culture, etc. Each of these things can at times ask us to violate our covenant with the Lord, to break His commands. We must remain loyal to Him and reject their false promises and our heart's idolatrous ways.  

Conclusion: To be God's holy people is to be called and marked by Him for Him alone. We cannot look to the world for patterns of worship or church life, and we cannot trust in the competing gods of the world. Our worship must be based on God's word and offered to Him alone, for He alone is worthy! 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Hosea, Day 16: Hosea 7 - What's the Difference Between Feeling Sorry and Repenting?

What's the Difference Between Feeling Sorry and Repenting?
Hosea, Day 16

when I would heal Israel,
    the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed,
    and the evil deeds of Samaria,

But they do not consider
    that I remember all their evil.
Now their deeds surround them;
    they are before my face.

For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue;
    all night their anger smolders;
    in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire.

Woe to them, for they have strayed from me!
    Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me!
I would redeem them,
    but they speak lies against me.
They do not cry to me from the heart,
    but they wail upon their beds;
for grain and wine they gash themselves;
    they rebel against me.
Although I trained and strengthened their arms,
    yet they devise evil against me.
They return, but not upward;
    they are like a treacherous bow;
their princes shall fall by the sword
    because of the insolence of their tongue.
This shall be their derision in the land of Egypt.
- selected verses from Hosea 7

"You're not sorry. You're just sorry you got caught!" 

I don't know how many times my parents had to say this to me when I was growing up. One thing I do know now, which I would have vehemently denied as a child: They were almost always right. 

In Hosea 7, God is saying something very similar to Israel. It's evident that Israel is very upset about the consequences of their sin and the discipline God has sent them. They are described as crying, wailing, and being angry. But despite the intense negative emotions, Israel is clearly not repentant. So, what's the difference? How is repentance different from being sorry or angry?

Well, we need to know the answer to this question because God calls us to repent, and we are tempted to make the same mistake I made so often as a child: Thinking that being upset or angry over the unwelcome consequences of our sin is the same thing as actually repenting of our sin. 

From Hosea 7, we can identify three key differences between being sorry and repenting:

1. Repentance takes seriously the reality that God sees and remembers our sins, that our sins are before His face.  In verse 2, God says of Israel:

But they do not consider
    that I remember all their evil.
Now their deeds surround them;
    they are before my face.

For all of their emotional distress, Israel denied the root cause of their problems and ignored the reality of their sin before the Lord. Repentance does not deny or minimize the reality of our sin and its ugliness before the face of God.

2. Smoldering anger and tearful sorrow are not repentance. We should be angry at our sin, but very often, if we're honest, we're just angry that we're suffering, and we feel our suffering is unjust. So, in such cases, all the tears and intense emotions in the world don't mean anything because they're misdirected. They may even be directed at God: "Where is God? How could He let this happen to us?"

3. Repentance speaks the truth about God and resolves to obey God. It does not lie about God and plan evil against God.  This may seem obvious, but our hearts are very deceitful, and we can often fool ourselves into believing wrong things about God, things directly contrary to His word. If our thoughts about God are wrong, then our actions toward God are bound to be wrong, too. We need to make sure that our thinking about God is coming from the Bible and not from our own emotions or our culture.

The good news in Hosea 7 is that God is ready and willing to forgive and heal His people. That's what makes their stubborn lack of repentance so frustrating. God would heal and God would forgive all their sins, if only they would turn to Him. So, let's not follow their poor example, but let's heed the voice of the Lord. Let's hate our sin itself and not its unwelcome consequences. Let's accept the discipline of the Lord and confess our sin to Him, that He may heal and He may forgive.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Hosea, Day 15: Hosea 6:4-10 - Why is Religion So Awful Sometimes?

Why is Religion So Awful Sometimes?

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
    I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
    there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for a man,
    so the priests band together;
they murder on the way to Shechem;
    they commit villainy.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
    Ephraim's whoredom is there; Israel is defiled.
- Hosea 6:4-10, ESV

Blaise Pascal famously said, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." Yet Pascal was a deeply devout Christian man. I'm a pastor and a student of history, and I have to agree with Pascal. Religion has been and often still is a toxic force for much evil in the world. Edgar Allen Poe was not a devout Christian, and he said, "All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.” I would simply insert the term man-made before religion and agree with what Poe says.

James 1:2 says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." So, not all religion is bad. Certainly we can look at the world and see much good being done in the name of the Lord: hospitals, schools, adoption agencies, foster care programs, homeless shelters, food pantries, shelters for abused women, and more are all being run by people in the name of the Lord.

So, what makes the difference? Well, here in Hosea 6, we get some insight from the Lord's perspective on toxic religion and what God desires instead. Here in these verses, we see that corrupt and vile religion is fickle, formalist, and financially driven.

1. Religion is awful when it is fickle:

Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes early away. (v. 4)

God's people would return to Him at times and pledge their loyalty to Him, only to turn away at the slightest provocation and temptation. How often do we turn aside from our loyal love to the Lord for some small, petty temptation?

2. Religion is awful when it is formalist:

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (v. 6)

God's people thought that, as long as they were going through the formal motions of their religion, they would be accepted by God. But God desires steadfast love and the knowledge of God much more than sacrifices and burnt offerings. God isn't impressed with ritual. He wants our hearts. He isn't impressed when we check all the religion boxes; He wants us to know and love Him.

3. Religion is awful when it's financially motivated:  

 As robbers lie in wait for a man,
    so the priests band together;
they murder on the way to Shechem;
    they commit villainy. (v. 9) 

The priests are here compared with a band of robbers. They valued profit more than human lives. Can church leaders today be driven by what increases attendance or boosts giving instead of what is actually faithful to God's covenant, what is loving to God and His people?

When we think deeply about these three realities, we will see that they rear their ugly heads again and again among God's people. The outward forms of our sin may change, but the heart of the matter remains the same. The Lord is calling us to know Him, love Him, and be loyal to His covenant and His kingdom. How are we responding to His call?