May 13, 2010

Is God Glorified Even When We are Disciplined By Him?

 Israel at Mt. Sinai

As we are living out and working out our salvation, we may find ourselves in challenging situations or even times when we are being disciplined by the Lord.  The Book of Hebrews tells us that this is always for our good. In fact, we have the promise that God causes ALL things (even what we would call the bad things) to work together for good to those who love God, and are called according to His purpose.

In Jeremiah 2, God in His complaint against the people of Israel recounts how he brought them through the desert:

“…through a land of deserts and of pits, Through a land of drought and of deep darkness, Through a land that no one crossed And where no man dwelt…” (Jeremiah 2:6, NASB)

Israel’s desert sojourn was God’s punishment for their disobedience and unbelief demonstrated in their refusal to go into the Promised Land.  They were to spend 40 years as nomads in one of the most hostile landscapes on earth; a place that “no one crossed and where no man dwelt.” 

Though the punishment was severe, it was not TOO severe; and though punishment was one goal, it wasn’t the only one. What good could come from this?  Even in this awful place, while the evil and rebellious died out or were killed by disease or other misfortunes, God still provided for their every need.  During that time they were sustained by food directly from heaven; their shoes didn’t even wear out. Even in this, God was being glorified.

This could not have gone unnoticed by nations on either side of the desert.  Consider what they must have thought about this people.  The Israelites, the refugees of Egypt,  were obviously surviving by  miraculous means by the hundreds of thousands in a hostile place where no one crossed or lived.  Food fell out of the sky for them; water came out of rocks.  Flocks of birds flew to their camp.  Anyone who attacked them was defeated or destroyed.  They were not only surviving, their population was growing. 

Consider what the surrounding nations must have thought watching this people become a nation out of nothing, in a place where there was nothing.  Is it any wonder that the fear of them was on all the surrounding nations?

Those paying attention to these events would have seen that the God of Israel was worthy of worship as the only true God.  They would have seen both His justice and His mercy.  God wasn’t just punishing a disobedient people that he scraped out of Egyptian slavery; He was also spreading His fame throughout the area and teaching His own people obedience and endurance.  Had those surrounding nations paid attention and understood, they could have shared in the blessings of Abraham.

We can take hope and comfort in this when we are suffering discipline or even just suffering:  nothing escapes Gods sovereignty, and nothing happens except by his permission.  Even our disobedience, for which we sometimes suffer His discipline, cannot thwart His good purposes or diminish His glory.

Scriptural References:  Jeremiah 2; Romans 8:28; Hebrew 12.

May 8, 2010

Lessons from the Life of Gideon 10: Full Circle

ephod
The battle was over. The Kings and leaders of the Midianite armies were dead and their armies dead or scattered.  The Israelite collaborators at Penuel and Succoth had been disciplined or executed.
Because of this miraculous victory the the men of Israel were ready to have Gideon be King over them (Judges 8:22).  Gideon refused in accordance with the instructions of Moses, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you. (Judges 8:23). 
Then we find one of the saddest words found in the annals of heroes of any era.  This word, where it is found in scripture, dealing with the affairs of God and men, usually brings no good with it.  The word: “YET”.
Gideon refuses to be made King over the Israelites and take glory that belongs only to God; however, (YET) he decides that he should get something for his trouble, (just to dedicate to God):
24Yet Gideon said to them, "I would request of you, that each of you give me an earring from his spoil." (For they had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.)
25They said, "We will surely give them." So they spread out a garment, and every one of them threw an earring there from his spoil.
26The weight of the gold earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the neck bands that were on their camels' necks.  (Judges 8: 24-26)
It is with the gold he receives that he makes an Ephod and sets it up in his home town, perhaps to commemorate the victory.  But it fell into use by the Israelites as an object of worship.
Pretending not to want to rule, Gideon has begun to deceive himself by degrees.  The account further says that Gideon had seventy sons by his many wives, (a sign of a ruler wishing to ensure his continued reign) plus one son by a concubine whom he named Abimelech.  The meaning of this name: “Father is King”. This Abimelech, in his lust for power and wealth, has his seventy brothers killed at the same time, and is himself later killed in a battle by a woman who drops a millstone on him. 
Even so, God allows Gideon to live to a ripe old age, and Israel has peace for forty years.  But as soon as Gideon is dead, the cycle that ends centuries later with the destruction of Israel and Judah begins again:
33Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, (R)that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made (S)Baal-berith their god.
34Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side;
35nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel. (Judges 8: 33-35)
In this we see the character and fate of the unchanged, un-regenerated heart.  No matter what good it may first intend, the end is always the same: evil.  Only when God has made us new creatures in Christ Jesus are we capable of not sinning (though we do).  And in the end, when we leave this body and live in His presence, we will finally be incapable of sinning.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission

Mar 10, 2010

Lessons From the Life of Gideon 9: No Neutral Ground


Considering the gracious leading and patience Gideon had received from God while in preparation for the great battle, it might seem ironic that Gideon would threaten (and carry out) such severe punishments on the residents of Succoth and Penuel for refusing to supply him and his men while they were pursuing the Midianites.
15He came to the men of Succoth and said, "Behold Zebah and Zalmunna, concerning whom you taunted me, saying, 'Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your men who are weary?'" 16He took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and he disciplined the men of Succoth with them. 17He tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city (Judges 8:15-17, NASB)
To help understand this, let’s take a look at the scene. First, we see Gideon and his 300 men (note that none had been killed because God was with them), crossing over the Jordan in pursuit of the Midianites. The enemy still fielded a sizable force of 15.000 men, even though 120,000 had fallen from internal fighting and at the hands of the combined forces of Israel that were mustered after the battle began.

Nevertheless they were fleeing before Gideon. The retreating enemy would have been visible to both Succoth and Penuel, even though it may have seemed to them like a vast pride of lions was being pursued by a little flock of goats.

Even so, the men of both cities responded to Gideon’s request for assistance, not with reluctance or even cautious aid, but with taunts. These were Israelites refusing help in the battle or even aid to their countrymen who were in harms way. While they may have believed they were preserving their cities by remaining neutral in the conflict, they actually became collaborators with the enemies of Israel. As a result, after the battle was won, the elders and men of Succoth and Penuel shared, in some measure, the lot of the enemy.

Mar 3, 2010

LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF GIDEON PART 8: Grace Learned

Jezreel Valley where Midian camped

Gideon had called for the people of Ephraim to cut off the retreat of the Midianites. They did so and captured and killed Oreb and Zeeb, two Midianite leaders. They brought their heads to Gideon, but were angry that he had not called them when he first went out to fight the Midianites.
1Then the men of Ephraim said to him, "What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?" And they contended with him vigorously. (Judges 8:1, NASB)
We are not told why the men of Ephraim were so angry with Gideon or why Ephraim and Issachar, who each had territory bordering on the Jezreel Valley, were not initially called, when the other territories adjacent to Manasseh (Asher, Naphtali and Zebulun) were.

Instead of rebuking them for their pettiness, Gideon wisely consoled them. The once cynical Gideon had learned by God’s example of patience and grace towards him.
2But he said to them, "What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? 3"God has given the leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb into your hands; and what was I able to do in comparison with you?" Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that. (Judges 8: 2-3, NASB)
It is important also for us to remember that we Christians have been graced by God, and that we must offer to others who offend us, anger us, or just plain annoy us, the same grace that we have received from God.
“7In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8which He lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7-8, NASB)
In Part 9: the aftermath. Why was there no mercy for the leaders of Midian and the two cities that would not help Gideon?


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission

Feb 1, 2010

LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF GIDEON: PART 7 The Battle of Harod Spring


There are times when we must fight. And there are times when we must stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. In either case, we dare not presume, but instead seek what God would have us do; because, in the end, it is the Lord’s will, not ours; the Lord’s victory, not ours; the Lord’s glory, not ours.

God had selected His Three Hundred. They took the provisions and trumpets of the rest of the men and Gideon sent the remaining men home, away from the field of battle. They would not even see it. (Judges 7:8)

After nightfall, the Lord encourages Gideon:

“Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp. So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp.” (Judges 7:9)
 An outpost is, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a “security detachment dispatched by a main body of troops to protect it from enemy surprise”. These were usually located some distance from the main camp. The irony of this definition, given what was about to happen should not be lost on us.

At one of the outposts, Gideon hears one of the men relating a dream to a friend that, according to this friend, is clear evidence that God intends to deliver the Midianite army into the hands of Gideon. It is possible that this dread was on the entire camp.

Gideon, now convinced that God is going to do what He has said, first (and this is important) WORSHIPS. He then returns to his three hundred and gives them the news. Dividing the 300 men into three companies of 100 each, he instructs them to do what he does when they reach the outskirts of the camp.

This is the plan: he and the men who are with him will blow the trumpets, and then smash the pitchers in their hands, revealing lit torches, and shout “For the Lord and for Gideon”.

They arrive on the outskirts of the camp, apparently between the outposts and the main body of the camp. The 100-man companies are placed in locations that are unspecified in the scriptures, but obviously not in the path of what would be the Midianite retreat. The time is approximately midnight (the beginning of the middle watch). It is possible that many, if not most of the camp is asleep.

Suddenly, at one end of the camp there is a disturbance. Three hundred rams horns screaming, men shouting and 300 blazing torches suddenly appearing from nowhere. A surprise attack! The outposts were supposed to prevent this!

Gideon’s men hold their positions (verse 21) and “the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled…” (verse 22).

After the Midianite army flees in confusion, killing each other as they go, Gideon summons the men from Naphtali, Asher and Manasseh (apparently the ones that he had previously sent home) to join in pursuit of the fleeing army. In the meantime, he also sends messengers to the mountain men that live in the hill country of Ephraim, instructing them to occupy all the watering locations in front of the fleeing army in order to cut them off from their water supply.

In the ensuing battle, two leaders of the Midianites are captured by the Ephraimites and killed. And then….someone’s feelings gets hurt. In Part 8 we will describe the end of the battle and its aftermath.

An entire book could be written using the illustrations about “fighting the good fight” and “standing and seeing the salvation of the Lord” in our daily lives. Applications of these principles would enhance our daily walk and fellowship with God and one another. We must be constantly aware, in every situation we are in, that we are here for the glory of God, and not for ourselves. In everything we must obey Him, whether in resisting evil in our lives or standing still (trusting Him) and seeing Him work His will in us rather than going to war, so to speak, with others on our own behalf.

But there is something far more important to see. In this account, there is an excellent illustration of our own salvation. In short, we, like the Israelites, have nothing to boast about; no strength for our own deliverance. We were lost and without hope in this world. We were rescued because of God’s mercy, and not because we were elite and needed by God. We stood still and saw the salvation of the Lord on our behalf.

6For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NASB)

Jan 2, 2010

LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF GIDEON PART 6: The Water Test

Picture this: a gang of 450 men invade your neighborhood. You go out to meet them, armed with a flashlight and a band instrument! As ridiculous as this sounds, it is precisely what God was about to instruct Gideon to do. He would take a band of three hundred men against one hundred thirty-five thousand.

A substantial force of thirty-two thousand men had arrived to join Gideon against the Midianites and their allies. God told Gideon there were two many men to give Midian into their hands, so He had Gideon instruct all those who were fearful to go home. (Judges 7:1-3) Two thirds of them, twenty-two thousand soldiers packed up and left for home. There were now 10,000 men left.

Again, God told Gideon that the force was too numerous. This did not represent, as one might suppose, multiple attempts by God to whittle down the forces until He got a number He could live with. This was for Gideon’s sake. Obedience, resulting from faith and trust, was being learned.

The account of the water test to reduce the force of Israel has often been used to encourage Christians to be alert, courageous and obedient, but was this the point of the test? Much has been written and preached about why God chose the men who lapped over the men who knelt to drink.

WAS IT BECAUSE THEY WERE THE MOST ALERT AND COURAGEOUS?

The alert guys, in my mind were the ones who, as they were in plain sight of the enemy, knelt down low to drink, not the ones who, ignoring their enemy put their hands to their mouths to drink. This concurs with Josephus, an Israeli general and historian who indicates that the most observant and alert knelt down out of view of the enemy and the others were tumultuous in their drinking. [Antiquities, Book 5, Chapter 6]

WERE THEY THE ELITE?

The argument that they were the “special forces unit,” falls short because they were outnumbered 450 to one. What difference would it make if they were the elite force against those odds? The elite forces concept would be contrary to God’s plan to remove boasting. The LORD needed these men to do something, and initially at least, fighting was not it.

If we read carefully the description of how the three hundred were to go into battle, we see the following picture: one hand would hold a jar with a torch in it. With the other hand, a trumpet (ram's horn). How would the sword held? As we will later see, in the first part of the battle, when God was delivering the Midianites into Israel’s hands, there was no need for fighting. The battle belonged to the Lord.

DID GOD NEED TO “FIND OUT” WHO SHOULD GO AND WHO SHOULD STAY?

This often gets overlooked: God told Gideon, “I will test them for YOU there.” This was God’s demonstration to Gideon of His sovereignty over the affairs of men. Otherwise, are we to think that God didn’t know how many men there would be that lapped the water? Could we argue that God would say to himself, " I hope we get the right number of men doing the right thing, you know, the elite guys. I'd hate to have to repeat this.”

WERE THE MEN MAKING A CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO BE A PART OF THE SMALLEST GROUP?

It had to take some time to water 10,000 men at the Spring of Harod. I wonder if the men saw Gideon separating out this small band of men who had been lapping the water, thinking that those men were going home while the large force would fight. If I was going to fight, I'd want to be a part of the larger division of soldiers, not the smallest. If I was Gideon, I would be tempted to say, "Guys, be careful how you drink!"

GOD AND HIS LITTLE BAND

A close look at the entire battle reveals that after God destroyed the largest force and the Israelites afterwards had joined the battle, the 300 who were with Gideon were tired, yet pursuing. They went on pursuing even though the people in two different towns refused to give them food and water. This took remarkable courage and stamina. God chose a few men who LATER demonstrated obedience, fearlessness and stamina.

WHAT IS THE REAL LESSON?

In trying to use the account of the water test to say something about the men God chose, we lose sight of the real lesson, which is not about the men, but about GOD.

It could be said that God chose the best and most courageous from the non-fearful 10,000; but not because of what was being demonstrated by how they drank. The test was not for God to find out anything about these men. He wanted a small force so the Israelites would not be able to boast. He got the exact number He wanted; no more, no less.

He allowed men to know the joy of having a part in His plan, but this was GOD’S choice, God's deliverance and God's victory brought about by His own supernatural means, for His own glory.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission