Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Trials

Facing slander – Psalm 27

What’s the source for our confidence?

How do you cope with your fears and anxieties? Some take time out, or use breathing techniques, or face their fears, or imagine the worst, or look at the evidence, or don’t try to be perfect, or visualize a happy place, or talk about it, or have a meal, a walk and a good night’s sleep, or reward themselves. David, the shepherd who became king of Israel, experienced many dangerous situations. What can we learn from the poem that David wrote when he was facing slander (Ps. 27ESV)?

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall.

3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.

4 One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in His temple.

5 For He will hide me in His shelter
in the day of trouble;
He will conceal me under the cover of His tent;
He will lift me high upon a rock.

6 And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in His tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 You have said, “See my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
9     Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
O God of my salvation!
10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
but the Lord will take me in.

11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they breathe out violence.

13 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Context and chiastic structure

The context of Psalm 27 is given in Appendix A. The psalm is a prayer for deliverance from David’s enemies, who were liars that wanted to destroy him (v.12). The prayer (v.7-12) is preceded by saying that he relies on God (v.1-6) and is followed by confidence that His prayer will be answered (v.13-14).

According to Terrien (2003) Psalm 27 has a chiastic structure. However, I am not convinced by his subdivision of v.4-9a. Instead, I think that this modified version of the chiasm is more robust.

v.1 The Lord’s deliverance
   v.2 David’s enemies
        v.3 David’s confidence
             v.4-9a The Lord’s presence
        v.9b-11 David’s confidence
   v.12 David’s enemies
v.13-14 The Lord’s goodness

This pattern suggests that the Lord’s presence (as the central thought) is the source of David’s confidence of deliverance over his enemies.

A more detailed chiastic structure has also been proposed.

v.1 No need to fear
   v.2-3 Deliverance from enemies
        v.4 David’s request
             v.5-7 The Lord will lift me high
                     v.8 I will seek your face
             v.9-10 The Lord will take me in
        v.11 David’s request
   v.12-13 Deliverance from enemies
v.13-14 Wait for the Lord.

And a broader chiastic structure has been proposed.

v.1-3 David’s confidence
       v.4-6 David’s search for the Lord
       v.7-12 David’s search for deliverance
v.13-14 David’s confidence

Or,

v.1 Life
    v.2-3 Enemies
            v.4-6 Seek the Lord
            v.7-10 Seek the Lord
    v.11-12 Enemies
v.13-14 Life

So the theme of Psalm 27 is David’s confidence that the Lord will deliver him from his enemies. Although slander is the particular issue he is facing, the psalm could be applied to other difficulties and struggles people face.

Here’s an outline of what David is saying in this poem.

David’s security is in the Lord (v.1-3)

Although he is in a dangerous situation, David is not afraid because He trusts in the Lord of Israel. The Lord had a covenant with Israel and also made a covenant with David. Because of these covenants, the Lord provides David with guidance, deliverance and protection (v.1). He is confident that, no matter what the circumstances, his enemies will not be allowed to destroy him. David is confident because the Lord has rescued him from dangerous situations before (v.2). And because of David’s confidence in the Lord, he is not afraid. This section is a poetic expression of  David’s confidence.

The tabernacle is David’s stronghold (v.4-6)

At this time, God dwelt in the tabernacle (a special tent) in Jerusalem. It was the visible expression of God’s presence. David expresses a desire to live with the Lord in the tabernacle. But he is not speaking of literally dwelling in the tabernacle since only the priests could enter it. He wanted to be near God. His enemies will not be able to reach him because God will protect him. And when he triumphs over them, he will offer sacrifices and praise to the Lord.

David’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies (v.7-12)

After expressing his trust in the Lord, David prays for deliverance from the lies and malicious accusations being made by his enemies. God has helped him before, and now he needs that help again. Even if his parents and friends don’t help him, he trusts that God will protect him. He wants to know how God wants him to live and he wants to obey the Lord. So he wants protection, acceptance, and guidance.

David’s confidence is in the Lord (v.13-14)

David repeats his confidence that God will deliver him from his enemies. Meanwhile, he will rely on the Lord.

So the psalm testifies to the experience of God protecting David from worldly attackers, prays for God to do so again, and urges David to keep expecting God to do that (Goldingay, 2006). The lesson is that there is deliverance from danger (and fear) by trusting in the Lord. David trusts the Lord to help in the storms of life.

How do David’s poetic techniques help people to understand the message of Psalm 27?

The message in Psalm 27 is expressed in poetry rather than in prose. The poetic techniques used in Psalm 27 include, parallelism, repetition, metaphors, word pairs, and other figures of speech (Appendixes B-F).

Synonymous parallelism repeats the message using different words. It provides alternative versions of the message and so makes it easier to understand. Parallelism also makes the message more memorable and so easier to recall. The fact that it was sung would also make it more memorable and so easier to recall.

Repetition is when the message is duplicated, for emphasis. If different words are used, it also makes it easier to understand the message.

A metaphor is where one thing is compared to another by stating they share the same qualities. Metaphors help to clarify the meaning of the message and conjure up images, thoughts and feelings in a reader’s mind. Metaphors can also help the reader to visualise the situation.

So David’s poetic techniques help people to understand the message of Psalm 27 by making the message more memorable and easier to recall, and by clarifying the meaning of the message, and by conjuring up images, thoughts and feelings in a reader’s mind.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a poem (or song) worth? They say that memories last forever. As poems (and songs) can lodge in our memories, maybe a poem (or song) can be worth more than a picture!

The psalms were Israel’s pop (popular) songs. They reflected the history, culture and moods of the nation. These songs became embedded in their minds. I can remember the words of songs sung at least 50 years ago by the Beatles and Elvis Presley. When we hear some words or the tune of a song, we can recall the rest of the song. This shows how poetry in the form of songs can be remembered better than prose.

Lessons for us

But David lived about 3,000 years ago! What can we learn from a poem written so long ago? Despite our technological progress, we still face similar problems to David. Life can be a struggle. And we all face difficulties and injustice.

But there are some differences. We now live under the new covenant that began after Christ’s death and resurrection. And we have the extra revelation given by God through the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers. Today God doesn’t dwell in a building, but in the life of each believer. In this way, we can live permanently in God’s presence. Our body is the temple (dwelling place) of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). God has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Heb 13:5).

David’s greatest fear was losing fellowship with God. And sin can come between us and God. But if we confess our sin, our fellowship with the Lord can be restored (1 Jn. 1:9). A victorious life is based on a constant relationship with the Lord. Like David, our greatest desire as Christians should be to seek God’s presence, and to submit to His guidance.

Today we are promised deliverance from our problems and troubles in the afterlife, not necessarily in this life on earth. For example, Paul wasn’t delivered from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). But like David, we can pray in times of trouble. The Lord is the only reliable support when we face difficulties.

Nothing can separate a believer from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). This includes any difficulty or problem they face. Through Jesus we can have confidence over our fears. This is a God-centered confidence, and not a self-centered confidence. It teaches us to trust God so that we don’t have to fear.

Today, we can rely on the promise that God is with us in every situation, supporting us through the Holy Spirit. He helps us survive the storms of life and resist wrong responses to them by giving us supernatural power, love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). The Spirit provides the patience and courage we need to keep going and to follow God’s leading in our lives.

The lesson for us is that there is deliverance from danger (and fear) by trusting in the Lord. We can trust the Lord to help in the storms of life. That’s the best source of our confidence.

Appendix A: Place of Psalm 27 in the book of Psalms

Psalms is a book of prayer and praise in the form of poetry. They were Israel’s songs of praise and worship. It has been divided into five books:
– Book 1 (Ps. 1-41)
– Book 2 (42-72)
– Book 3 (73-89)
– Book 4 (90-106)
– Book 5 (107-150)

Psalm 27 is within a group of Psalms that have a chiastic structure (25-33).

Ps. 25 An alphabetic (22 verse) acrostic prayer
  Ps. 26 Prayer for vindication for living a blameless life.
    Ps. 27 Prayer for deliverance from enemies.
      Ps. 28 Prayer for deliverance from enemies.
        Ps. 29 Praise to the Lord for strength and peace in the storms of life.
      Ps. 30 Praise for being healed.
    Ps. 31 Prayer for deliverance from enemies.
  Ps. 32 Celebrates the blessedness of those with confessed sins & forgiveness.
Ps. 33 A 22 verse hymn of praise

Psalm 27 matches Psalm 31 in the following ways:
– The theme of both is an appeal against false accusers.
– His enemies are spreading lies (27:12; 31:18).
– He takes refuge in the shelter of God’s presence (27:5; 31:20).
– He mentions the “goodness” or “good things” of the Lord (37 ;13; 31:19).
– It concludes, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” and “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!” (27:14; 31:24).

But this chiastic structure across several psalms is subjective, as another chiastic structure has been proposed for Psalms 18-34.

Psalm 27 continues and fulfils the “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering” theme of the previous psalm (Ps. 26:1). And it shares a devotion to the tabernacle with Psalms 26 and 28.

Appendix B: Parallelism in Psalm 27

Parallelism is a feature of Hebrew poetry where the second line (colon) either repeats the same thought (that is in the first line) in different words (synonymous parallelism), or it has an opposite thought to the first line (contrastive parallelism), or completes the thought in the first line (synthetic parallelism). The pair of lines (bicolon) is called a poetic unit. Sometimes a poetic unit can be longer, say 3 (tricolon) or 4 lines (tetracolon).

For example:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1a)
is synonymous parallelism.
And, “For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
but the Lord will take me in” (Ps. 27:10)
is contrastive parallelism.

Psalm 27 has the following instances of parallelism:
– Seven pairs of lines in synonymous parallelism (v. 1a, 1b, 2, 3, 7, 8, 13).
– Eight three-line poetic units in synonymous parallelism (v. 4, 5, 6, 9a, 9b, 11, 12, 14).
– One pair of lines in contrastive parallelism (v.10).

The determination of the parallel poetic units is somewhat subjective being dependent on the Bible translation. For example, John Goldingay identified 21 2-line parallel poetic units, one 3-line parallel poetic unit, and one 4-line parallel poetic unit. This was based on his personal translation of Psalm 27. For example the Masoretic text has two tricola in v.11-12, whereas Goldingay has three bicola.

So the dominant structural technique used is synonymous parallelism. This means that most of the thoughts are repeated.

Appendix B: Key words in Psalm 27

The following key words occur in Psalm 27:
– His “enemies” and its synonyms (v.2, 6, 11, 12).
– “The Lord” or “O Lord” (v.1, 4, 6, 7, 11, 13, 14).
– The “tabernacle”, “house of the Lord”, “temple”, shelter”, or “tent (v.4, 5, 6).
– “fear”, with regard to his enemies (v.1, 3).
– “seek”, with regard to the Lord (v.4, 8).

So the key words relate to David not “fearing” his “enemies” because he seeks a relationship with “the Lord” (whose presence was expressed by the “tabernacle”).

Appendix C: Repetition in Psalm 27

The following examples of repetition occur in Psalm 27:
– “whom shall I fear” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” (v.1) and “fear” (v.3).
– “stumble and fall” are synonyms for the enemy’s failure (v.2).
– “seek” (v.4, 8 twice).
– “evil doers”, “adversaries” and “foes” (v.2) are synonyms for his enemies (v.6, 11).
– “sing” and “make melody” are synonyms (v.6).
– “Cast me not off” and “forsake me not” are synonyms (v.9).
– “Wait for the Lord” (v.14 twice).

These words are emphasised in the poem.

Appendix D: Metaphors in Psalm 27

The following examples of metaphors occur in Psalm 27:
– “light” refers to deliverance from fear of his enemies, who were like darkness in David’s life (v.1).
– “salvation” (v.1) refers to deliverance from fear of his enemies.
– “Stronghold” (v.1) refers to a refuge or safe place from his enemies.
– “stumble” (v.2) refers to being unsuccessful.
– “fall” (v.2) refers to being unsuccessful.
– “my heart” and “your heart” (v.3, 8, 14) means one’s innermost being or soul/spirit.
– “army” and “war” may be metaphors for great danger (v.3).
– “beauty of the Lord” refers to the attributes of the Lord.
– “the house of the Lord” (v.4) refers to the tabernacle, God’s earthly throne.
– “His temple” (v.4) refers to the tabernacle.
– “His shelter” (v.5) refers to the tabernacle.
– “His tent” (v.5) refers to the tabernacle.
– “hide me”, “conceal me”, and “lift me high” (v.5) mean to protect by putting him outside the reach of his enemies.
– “look upon” (v. 13) means “experience”.

Appendix E: Other figures of speech in Psalm 27

The following examples of other figures of speech occur in Psalm 27:
– “whom shall I fear?” is a rhetorical question (v.1). The answer is “No-one”.
– “of whom shall I be afraid?” is a rhetorical question (v.1). The answer is “No-one”.
“eat up my flesh” (v.2) compares his enemies to dangerous, hungry predators, like lions.
– “My heart” means “I”, which is a synecdoche.
– “all the days of my life” means as long as I live (v.4).
– “my head shall be lifted up” (v.6) refers to triumph over his enemies.
– “seek my face” (v.8) refers to praying to the Lord.
– “Your face, Lord, do I seek” (v.8) refers to him praying to the Lord.
– “Hide not your face from me” (v.9) means “do not reject me” or “do not forget me”.
– “Turn not your servant away in anger” means not ot deny justice to an innocent man (v.9).
– “my father and my mother have forsaken me”(v.10) could mean total abandonment.
– “The Lord will take me” means that the Lord will accept him as a son (v.10).
– “your way” (v.11) means “how you want me to live”.
– “a level path” (v.11) means to live a life that is pleasing to God in order to be blameless before his accusers.
– “In the land of the living” (v. 13) means during his lifetime. It means that he would survive the attacks of his enemies.
– “wait on the Lord” (v.14) means to rely on the Lord and wait for his answer to the prayer in v.7-12. Like Joshua he would receive divine aid to have victory over his enemies (Dt. 31:7).

Appendix F: Word pairs in Psalm 27

The following word pairs occur in Psalm 27:
– “stumble and fall” (v.2) describe the enemy’s failure.
– “my father and my mother” (v.10) describe his parents or family.

References

Goldingay, J (2006), Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1- 41 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms).

NET Bible notes.

NIV Study Bible.

Terrien S (2003), The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Eerdmans Critical Commentary).

Acknowledgement

This post was inspired by an Assessment Task in Dr Theron Young’s Australian College of Christian Studies course, “Wisdom and Poetry in Israel”.

Written, March 2019


Responding to external problems

What keeps you awake at night? According to the World Economic Forum, the biggest risks facing our world in 2019 are climate change, natural disasters, large-scale conflicts and cyber attacks. And many people struggle with poverty. David wrote many psalms in the Bible and it seems as though he spent many sleepless nights. One of the biggest problems he faced was that king Saul wanted to kill him. During this time period, David lived as a fugitive, seeking refuge in various places and moving around to avoid Saul and his men (1 Sam. 18-30). He feared for his life. Also, the Philistines were a perennial enemy of Israel and David faced them in battles. The best known of these is his victory over Goliath.

25 of the psalms are prayers by David for God’s help against his enemies. But most of these (84%) end up praising God and with an assurance that God has heard his prayer and will answer it (see Appendix). And only 8% have no praise or assurance. For example, in Psalm 54 David prays for deliverance from enemies (Saul’s supporters) who are trying to kill him (v.1-5NIV). The Ziphites betrayed David by revealing his location to Saul (1 Sam. 23:19-20). So David writes:

Save me (from enemies), O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.

David is in a desperate situation. But he knows that God can help him. So he doesn’t cry out in despair or give up in self-pity. The psalm ends with praise and thanksgiving because he is confident that his prayer has been heard (v. 6-7).

I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

The promise to praise the Lord is written from the perspective that God has already answered the prayer (David has been delivered from his enemies), even if the actual answer has not yet come. The freewill offering is a voluntary expression of thanksgiving.

We all have external things, circumstances or people that can cause us anxiety and worry. Like work, or education, or family, or relationships, or social media, or peer pressure, or even the weather. How do we respond to such external problems? Let’s be like David and not be ruled by our external circumstances. He was a man of prayer and praise. Then our external circumstances won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God.

The psalms were songs the Jews used for corporate worship. Can we block out our external problems from Sunday morning? Today we sang “Here I am to worship”. Are we always here to worship or do these things take us away? Is anything else more important than worshipping God?

Appendix: Psalms by David when he prays for deliverance from enemies

Psalm 3 Deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance when he flees from his son Absalom.
Ends with confidence in God (v.8).

Psalm 5 Morning prayer – for deliverance from enemies
Prays for help from evil enemies.
Ends expecting God’s blessing (v.11-12).

Psalm 7 The cry of the oppressed
A plea for deliverance from a Benjamite who probably supported Saul. And a plea for justice.
Ends in thanksgiving (v.17).

Psalm 12 Protection from the wicked
Prays that the poor and needy will be protected from the wicked.
Ends in assurance (v.7-8).

Psalm 17 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for safety and protection from wicked enemies.
Ends believing he will be vindicated (v.15).

Psalm 18 Praise for deliverance from enemies
Praise after being delivered from Saul and other enemies.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.46-50).

Psalm 22 Plea for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies and from intense suffering.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.22-31).

Psalm 27 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with confidence (v.13-14).

Psalm 31 Prayer and praise for deliverance
Prays for deliverance from deep distress because of his enemies.
Ends with praise for deliverance (v.19-24).

Psalm 34 Deliverance
Praise for deliverance from Abimeleck.
Ends with God answering prayers for deliverance (v.15-22).

Psalm 35 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with praise (v.27-28).

Psalm 54 God is my helper
Prays for deliverance from enemies (Saul’s supporters) who are trying to kill him.
Ends with praise and thanksgiving (v. 6-7).

Psalm 55 Cast your cares on the Lord
Prays for deliverance from a betrayer.
Ends with assurance that his prayer has been heard and will be answered (v.22-23).

Psalm 56 God is for me
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when the Philistines seized him at Gath.
Ends in thanksgiving (v,12-13).

Psalm 57 In the shadow of your wings
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when he had fled from Saul into the cave.
Ends with praise (v.7-11).

Psalm 59 The God who goes before us
Prays for deliverance from enemies – when Saul sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him.
Ends with praise (v.16-17).

Psalm 60 Prayer for help after suffering defeat
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with confidence in God (v.12).

Psalm 69 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends with praise for restoration (v.34-36).

Psalm 70 Prayer for urgent help
Prays for deliverance from those wanting to kill him.
The second last verse has praise for deliverance (v.4).

Psalm 86 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Praises God in the middle of the psalm (v. 8-10).

Psalm 109 Prayer for judgment of enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Ends in praise (v. 30-31).

Psalm 140 Prayer for deliverance from evil doers
Prays for deliverance from evil doers.
Ends with praise due to his confidence in God (v.12-13).

Psalm 141 Prayer for deliverance from evil doers
Prays for deliverance from evil doers.
Has no praise.

Psalm 142 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Has no praise.

Psalm 144 Prayer for deliverance from enemies
Prays for deliverance from enemies.
Praises God in the middle of the psalm (v. 9-10).

84% (21/25) of these psalms end with confidence in God (praise or joy) and assurance that the prayer will be or has been heard.  8% (2/25) expressed such confidence and assurance in the middle of the psalm. The remaining 8% (2/25) lacked any confidence and assurance.

Posted, January 2019

Also see: Responding to personal problems
Prayer and praise in times of trouble


Responding to personal problems

chemotherapy 3 400pxMy parents in-law are going through tough times with weakness because of chemotherapy and confusion because of dementia. We can all experience such internal problems, which can be physical or mental. After all, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33NIV).

Twelve of the psalms are prayers for God’s help for illness or depression (See Appendix; Ps 6, 13, 16, 30, 38, 41, 42, 43, 71, 88, 102, 116). In these lament psalms the psalmist brings their problems to God. But most of them (83%) end with praise to God. For example, Psalm 13 describes David’s suffering:

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts [he was depressed]
and day after day have sorrow in my heart [soul, spirit]?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes [restore me], or I will sleep in death [he feared death],
and my enemy [perhaps Saul] will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

He feels as though God is distant, that God has forgotten him, and that God is inactive in not punishing evil. And he suffered the constant humiliation of being on the losing side. But it ends with David’s joy as he anticipates God’s love and deliverance:

5But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for He has been good to me.

He is confident in God’s protection because of his past experience that God has been good to him. He feels assured that the prayer will be or has been heard.

How do we respond to personal problems? Let’s be like David and not be ruled by our personal circumstances. He was a man of prayer and praise who remembered God’s love and God’s deliverance. When we look to God to help us see beyond our troubles, they won’t dominate our perspective. Then our personal  circumstances won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God. And our feelings won’t stop us remembering what God has done or stop us praising God. So let’s remember God’s love and God’s salvation in all situations.

The Jews had to travel to Jerusalem three times a year for corporate praise and worship (Ex. 23:14-17; Dt. 16:16-17). We don’t have to travel that far, but the pattern set for corporate praise and worship in the New Testament for the Christian church is weekly. Let’s attend church regularly so we can offer praise and worship to God together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. And don’t stay away because of our feelings or personal problems. It’s only through God that we can see these in proper perspective.

Appendix: Twelve Psalms on God’s help for illness or depression

Psalm 6 Double trouble – Illness and enemies
By David.
David was weak and in agony due to illness. He prays for deliverance.
Ends with confidence that his prayer has been heard (v.8-10).

Psalm 13 How long will I suffer?
By David.
David was depressed. He prays for deliverance.
Because he anticipated deliverance, he finishes with an expression of confidence that he will be delivered (v.5-6).

Psalm 16 Trust in God when facing death
By David.
David continues to trust God when facing death.
Finishes with joy (v.9-11).

Psalm 30 A song of healing
By David.
A song for the dedication of the temple. David prays and praises for healing.
Finishes with praise (v.11-12).
“You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
    that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. (v.11-12)

Psalm 38 Prayer for deliverance from illness and enemies
By David.
David prays for deliverance from serious illness. Has no positive statements.

Psalm 41 Prayer for deliverance from illness
By David.
David prays for deliverance from illness.
Finishes with a doxology (v.13).

Psalm 42 Prayer and praise for the downcast
By the Sons of Korah.
Prays for deliverance from depression.
Ends in praise (v.11b).

Psalm 43 Prayer and praise for the downcast
Author unknown.
Prays for deliverance from depression.
Ends in praise (v.5b).

Psalm 71 Prayer for help in old age
Author unknown.
Prayer for help in old age.
Ends in praise v.22-24).

Psalm 88 Prayer for deliverance from constant suffering
By Ethan
Prayer for deliverance from constant suffering, near death. “Lord, you are the one who saves me” is the only positive statement (v.1).

Psalm 102 The prayer of one dying in the prime of life
Author afflicted and weak.
The prayer of one dying in the prime of life.
Gives reasons to praise the Lord (v. 25-27).

Psalm 116 Praise for deliverance from death
Author unknown.
Prayer for deliverance from death.
Ends in praise (v.12-19).

83% (10/12) of these psalms end with confidence in God (praise or joy) and assurance that the prayer will be or has been heard. The remaining 17% (2/12) lacked any such confidence and assurance.

Written, January 2019

Also see: Responding to external problems
Prayer and praise in times of trouble


Following Jesus in a hostile world

Floods 4 400pxIn the last few days, millions of people were evacuated due to floods and landslides in Japan. Tough times come to everyone at some point. Serious illness, disability, unemployment, financial problems, family strife, conflict at work, the death of a loved one. Life doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to. We find ourselves thinking, why is this happening to me? How could a loving God allow this hardship? Why aren’t you doing something about this, God?

And we wonder, how can we get through such difficult times? In particular, how can God help us get through hardship? In this article we’re going to answer this question from the letter of 1 Peter in the Bible. There will be three main  points:
– God helps us through the privileges of salvation.
– God helps us through Christ’s example.
– And God helps us through godly living.

Context

Peter was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. He was put in jail more than once for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:4). He knew that Christians had faced opposition since the beginning of the church. They were jailed and interrogated by the Jewish leaders and commanded not to speak about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42). These leaders seized Stephen and made false accusations against him and stoned him to death (Acts 6:8-7:60). Then “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1NIV). Some went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Saul made “murderous threats” against the Christians and went to Damascus to arrest them and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2, 21). Then king Herod arrested some Christians “intending to persecute them” and he executed James the brother of John who was an apostle like Peter (Acts 12:1-2). Paul also suffered for following Jesus (2 Cor. 11:23-26).

1 Peter is a letter from the Apostle Peter to Christians living in provinces of Asia Minor (now Turkey). It was written about AD 62, in the middle of the reign of Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians. You can see this on Peter’s timeline. These Christians faced threats, slander and the possibility of having to “suffer for what is right” and to “suffer for doing good” (1 Pt. 3:13-17). And they were being persecuted, which is described as to “suffer grief in all kinds of trials”, “abuse”, a “fiery trial”, “the sufferings of Christ”, being “insulted because of the name of Christ”, to “suffer as a Christian”, unjust suffering, and being wrongfully accused of wrong doing (1:6, 17; 2:121; 4:3-4, 12-16). This hostility towards Christians was being experienced across the Roman Empire: “the family of believers throughout the [known] world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9).

Peter timeline 700px

The purpose of the letter is to encourage them to persevere and endure in their trials and suffering and not give up.

1 Peter’s themes

Peter says that those following Jesus will face trials and suffering. It’s inevitable. They will “suffer for what is right” and “suffer for doing good”. They lived in a world that was hostile to Jesus. And so do we. Do you notice how often Christians are ridiculed in the media? So we will look at this letter as though it was written to us.

Responses to suffering 400pxThemes in 1 Peter 400pxIf trials and suffering are inevitable in the life of a Christian, what do we do about it? We have a choice to trust God and endure the suffering or go our own way into bitterness and resentment. Will we draw near to God or turn away from Him? These two responses are shown in the schematic diagram.

Peter says we are to prepare for suffering and hostility beforehand, and endure it by persevering in the Christian faith. He gives three ways to ensure endurance. These are: the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example, and godly living. We will look at these themes in turn and they are shown in the schematic diagram.

Prepare for suffering

Some people stumble in their faith when they are impacted by suffering. They think how can a good God allow such suffering?

Peter tells them how to get ready to face suffering because it’s coming (3:13-17; 4:2-6). When they face criticism and hostility they should, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15-16).

If we live in a wildfire (bushfire) zone, we need a wildfire (bushfire) emergency plan. If we live in a flood zone, we need a flood emergency plan. We need to get ready and be prepared. Likewise. Christians need to be ready to face criticism, ridicule and hardship. This means being ready to answer questions like. How can anyone believe in God after a disaster? Hasn’t science disproved God? Why would you read the Bible? Why do you go to church? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why don’t you sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend?

We don’t know when this situation will occur. Can we say why we are a Christian? Are there good reasons for what we believe? Have we thought through what we believe so we can testify to others? We need to know why we believe what we believe. Do we respect those we are witnessing to? Is what we say supported by a consistent life? We need to both show and tell.

So it’s good to prepare for suffering. But what should we do when trials and suffering appear?

Endure suffering

Peter also tells them how to cope with suffering (4:12-19):

  1. He says, don’t be surprised about suffering as a Christian. It’s not unusual. It’s the normal Christian experience.
  2. “All kinds of trials” can test our faith (1:6-7). Traffic jams, the slow queue at the supermarket, cancer, depression, mental illness, marriage problems, and hostility from others because of our faith, all test our Christian faith. Some of these things happen to us sooner or later. Hard times prove our faith is genuine. James says that the testing of our faith by “trials of many kinds” produces perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3).
  3. Also, suffering can train us and mould our character. Those who endure suffering are strengthened and become more spiritually mature (5:10).
  4. And suffering is temporary; “for a little while” (1:6; 5:10). It’s only for this life. “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10).
  5. Peter also says, “it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God … But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (2:19-20). God is pleased when we endure undeserved suffering without retaliation. “Endure” means to hang in there. To carry a heavy load without complaining. To be strong. God gives that ability. He does not want us to suffer from a sense of duty but from a conviction about His purpose for us. He wants us to patiently endure suffering even when we do good. How much hostility can we take? Are we resilient?

At the end of the letter, Peter says, “I wanted to encourage you and tell you how kind God really is, so that you will keep on having faith in Him” (5:12CEV). It was written to encourage them to endure and persevere in trials and suffering and not give up trusting God.

The summary statement for Christian suffering is, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19). Nothing can happen to us without God allowing it. He wants us to put our trials into His care. He will sustain us. “Doing good” means to the benefit others. Hardship isn’t an excuse for wrongdoing.

So it’s good to prepare for suffering, and to endure during trials. But Peter also reminds them of some other reasons for enduring and persevering in trials and suffering.

God helps us through the privileges of salvation

The first way that God helps us through hardships is through the privileges of salvation. Peter focuses on three of these: our secure future (1:3-12), our direct access to God (2:4-8), and the fact we are special to God (2:9-10).

We have a secure future

The Bible says that “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” Christians have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:3-4). And “this inheritance is kept in heaven [by God] for you”.

It‘s human nature to break promises. Governments make and break promises. Advertisers and politicians make and break promises. And people make promises to each other which are often broken. Many of these promises do not materialize. Thankfully, God’s promises are not like ours. Every promise He makes, He keeps. The promise of a secure future is certain to be fulfilled.

So Christians should be confident about their future. Their inheritance is guaranteed.
And God is protecting them until it’s revealed when Jesus comes back. This promise gives them joy even “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6). They have inner peace despite these trials.

We have direct access to God

Peter says that each Christian is like a “living stone” in a new building and Jesus is like the cornerstone. God builds this spiritual building by adding Christians to the global church. One day this building will be finished, then Jesus will come again. This spiritual house is like the temple in the Old Testament, where the priests had access to God. Today Christians are like these priests: they have direct access to God. They are “to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices” to God.

When a relationship breaks down and the couple have children, the Family Court may deny one parent contact with a child if there is a serious physical or emotional risk for the child. In this case, one parent has direct access to the child, but the other doesn’t. In the same way, Christians have direct access to God, they are no longer separated from Him. This means they can pray to God anytime. We can confess our sins to God, pray for others and offer ourselves to God.

We are God’s people

The Bible also says that Christians are God’s special people (2:9-10). They are “a chosen people”. Like the Israelites were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times, Christians are His chosen people today. They are “God’s special possession”. They are safe because of His protection. And their purpose is to praise God.

At the Australian State of Origin Rugby League Football game this week, supporters were praising their teams. And Queenslanders even think they are chosen people, but those from New South Wales don’t agree! Anyhow, this gives people an identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. In the same way, Christians have a special identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. So we can feel safe and represent God in our world.

So their secure future, their direct access to God, and their identity as God’s people helps believers to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. They don’t worry about ridicule or persecution. Besides these privileges of salvation, Christ’s example can also help.

God helps us through Christ’s example

The second way that God helps us through hardships is through the example of Jesus who suffered when He was unjustly crucified (1:11; 2:24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1). It’s mentioned in every chapter of this letter.

Jesus was a model for how to deal with a hostile work situation (2:21-25). After commending those who bear up “under the pain of unjust suffering”, and who “suffer for doing good” under harsh employers, Peter says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth’. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God] who judges justly” (2:21-23). Peter also says, “since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude [as Jesus], because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin” (4:1).

In Peter’s day, retaliating to a personal insult or injury was considered a virtue. Non- retaliation was interpreted as a sign of weakness. Our society is much the same. Our heroes tend to be those who fight back with physical strength or litigation. But Jesus didn’t do that when He suffered unjustly and for doing good. Instead He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). When He was falsely accused, insulted and abused, He didn’t retaliate. Instead, He left these things in the Father’s hands.

Christians should expect hostility because they follow Jesus. They should be prepared to endure trials and suffering. Believers have a choice between sin and suffering. If we live like an unbeliever, we can avoid hostility and suffering. But if we live in a godly way and not under the power of sin, we will face hostility. Do our friends know that we follow Jesus? Are we willing to endure ridicule because of this?

So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. Godly living can also help.

God helps us through godly living

The third way that God helps us through hardships is through godly living. The previous helps were what to know (doctrine), now they are told what to do (practice). They are instructed how to live and behave in a pagan society where they were misunderstood and insulted for their faith.

First, they are urged to be holy (1:13-2:3). God says, “for it is written [in the Old Testament]: ‘be holy, because I [God] am holy’”. This would have reminded them of the Israelites who were to be devoted to God and different from the other nations by following God’s laws for them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). Now Christians are to be holy and live for God and so be different to unbelievers.

The hippies who dropped out of society in the 1960s were counter-cultural. Today it might be those who aren’t online watching things like Facebook or Youtube. Or those home schooling. Or those in an outlaw bikie club. These ways of life and attitudes are completely different from those accepted by most of society. Likewise, God wants Christians to be different from our pagan society.

Christians are like foreigners on earth because our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom (2:11). We are to behave differently to our previous sinful lifestyle. God wants us to be like Him and He gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us. We are to be driven by the Holy Spirit and not the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). The standard for distinguishing what’s sinful and what’s holy is the Bible, because it’s God’s message to us.

An example of holiness is the fruit of the Spirit which is “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23NLT). What do we do with our sexual desires and how to we use our money? We are regularly bombarded with temptations by the media. How do we react to these?

Second, Peter urges them to show godly behavior in their relationships with others.
He mentions at least four areas of life where we should be humble, submissive and respect others. These are: towards governing authorities (2:13-17), at work (2:18-20), in the family (3:1-7), and in the church (3:8-12; 5:1-10).

The media often depict those in positions of authority as incompetent, disrespected, and corrupted. And if we criticize a teacher, a cop, or a spouse, it shows our lack of respect for authority figures. If we want our kids to respect us, we need to demonstrate that we respect others.

So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example and godly living can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering.

Enduring hostility today

Jesus faced hostility. Peter faced hostility. The Christians that Peter wrote to faced hostility. And today Christians face hostility. Since the times of Jesus, the world has been hostile to Christ and His representatives.

In our postmodern world, Christians are viewed as intolerant and unloving bigots because of their view on marriage, abortion and euthanasia. They are characterized by hate, fear, oppression, abuse, power, and violence. And Christianity is misrepresented and ridiculed. While non-Christians are seen as being tolerant and compassionate because of their love, justice and mercy.

How resilient are we? When trials and suffering come our way, do we choose sin or suffering? Trouble is meant to draw us closer to the Lord, not push us further away.

Peter quotes from the Old Testament to prove his point. We need to substantiate what we believe from the Bible. That’s why it’s important to read and study the Bible.

Summary

Our original question was, “How can God help us get through hardship?” To answer this we have looked at the letter of 1 Peter. And we’ve seen three ways that God helps us get through trials and suffering. He helps us through:
– The privileges of salvation – like our secure future, our direct access to God and being God’s people.
– Christ’s example, of enduring unjust suffering.
– And godly living, by being holy and respecting others.

Conclusion

Trials and suffering can cause us to sin and give up following Jesus. But God offers us the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example and godly living. Now we must use these to persevere in hard times and not give up.

Cave rescue 1 500pxIt’s the Football (Soccer) World Cup once again. But the team getting most attention last week was the one rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. It was a great example of perseverance, hope, heartbreak, and victory. Just like the way Christians should respond to a hostile world. They escaped a dangerous situation. But the Bible says that those who don’t follow Jesus are in a more dangerous situation. The letter of 1 Peter was written to those who followed Jesus. As we have seen, they have plenty of resources to endure tough times. To get these resources we need to realize that our relationship with God the Father is broken. And if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God. And He can become the cornerstone of our life.

Written, July 2018


Encouragement for tough times

call-to-prayer-400pxI’m currently visiting Morocco and France. The Muslim call to prayer (five times each day) and poverty are common in Morocco. About 1% of the people are Christians and most of these are foreigners. Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. So, it’s difficult being a Christian in Morocco. Although France is still culturally Catholic, most of the French are essentially secular (atheists). And less than 1% are evangelical Christians. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries.

There is a temptation to give up following Jesus in difficult times. But tests and trials of our faith are inevitable (1 Th. 3:3; 2 Tim. 3:12; Jas. 1:2-3; 1 Pt. 4:12-13). The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see that the prospect of Christ’s second coming encourages those facing adversity and trials.

Context

Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). After the jealous Jewish leaders started a riot, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea.

The believers at Thessalonica experienced trials, severe suffering, and persecution (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul wrote to them in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.

Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the Lord’s second coming; and living as a Christian. Firstly, their joy in the middle of persecution was an example to all the Christians in Greece.

Model believers (1:1-10)

Paul regularly prayed for these believers (1:2-3). They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith (conversion),” their “labor prompted by love (service)” and their “endurance inspired by hope (anticipation of Christ’s return)”. Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.

Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up. But Paul reminded them of two things (1:4-5). First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4).

The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified as the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word and acted upon it and it changed their lives.

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-9), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known.

The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many idols. Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).

They were also waiting for Christ’s return (1:10; 4:13-18; Jn. 14:3; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment. Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance despite difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.

What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:4-26) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (5:1-11; 2 Pt. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we meet? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.

Paul’s example (2: 1-12)

Paul preached in Thessalonica despite opposition from the Jewish leaders (2:2). Why did Paul persist in preaching the gospel to them despite its unpopularity? Paul says it was not for any of the three reasons given by the opposition (2:3-6). First, Paul was not a false teacher. He didn’t promote his private conviction, but instead preached God’s truth. Second, he didn’t encourage people to indulge in immoral behavior and do whatever they liked. Third, he did not deceive nor delude his hearers with fine words.

Then he told why they continued to preach even though it led to trouble: God had entrusted them with the gospel; It was God’s message, not theirs; They were not trying to please people but God; They knew that God’s opinion counted more than that of others.

Paul then countered two more reasons given by the opposition – flattery and greed. They never used flattery to influence others or to please people (2:5). They didn’t preach for money, even though they were entitled to support (1 Cor. 9:3-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-11). He said that God was his witness as only God can know our motives.

After dealing with the accusations against him, Paul gave more information about their behavior in Thessalonica (2:7-8). Paul’s team behaved like a nursing mother caring for her children. They were gentle, protective and loving. As a mother puts the interests of her baby ahead of her own interests, they put the interests of the Thessalonians ahead of their own. As a mother expends energy day and night for her baby, so they spent time and energy shepherding the Thessalonians. They cared about them individually. What a contrast to the false accusers!

Paul was a hard worker, a tentmaker by trade (2:9). He could have relied on the support of others, but he worked to pay his own expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding new believers, he was making and repairing tents. He worked so he wouldn’t be a burden to the poor and persecuted, and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.

Paul described their conduct in three ways (2:10). First, they were “holy” – set apart to God from sin. They had a good relationship with God. Second, they were “righteous” in character and conduct. Third, they were “blameless” towards God and people. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they had confessed and knew that “God … tests our hearts” (2:4). Paul set a high standard of integrity. This is the standard of living that we should aim for; not one of wealth, but one of integrity. It is the pattern of life of those who desire to please God.

Paul also coached like a father (2:11-12). In that culture the wife did most of the nurturing and the husband was responsible for the training. Paul’s goal was that they “live lives worthy of God.” This training was one-on-one discipleship: “We dealt with each of you.” A father coaching and training his children would include three elements: “encouraging, comforting and urging.” True discipleship takes time and patience. To grow to spiritual maturity, a new Christian needs all of these elements of discipleship.

What can we learn from Paul? First, he was an apostle. While we don’t have apostles today, as they were the founders of the Christian Church (Eph. 2:20), we do have elders to provide leadership in the local church. Second, Paul was a preacher, particularly to the Gentiles. The mission to spread the gospel is a responsibility for all believers, especially those with the gift of evangelism. Third, Paul was a teacher who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. Elders, preachers and teachers can learn from Paul who said he was a servant to the Church (Col. 1:24-26). He worked hard to bring people to the Christian faith and to help them grow in it.

Is our lifestyle drawing people to Christ? Let’s follow Paul’s example and live lives worthy of God. His key message was the gospel. His motive was to please God. His manner of living was one of courage, gentleness, hard work and holiness. He showed love to new believers. He was bold, honest, full of integrity, and a toiler. His speech and behavior brought glory to God. The Thessalonians became model believers by imitating Paul’s example. Whether we are elders, preachers, teachers or servants, we can all imitate Paul.

Paul’s joy (2:17-3:13)

Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!

Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.

Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.

Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were obvious. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter. They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9).

When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically (3:10-13). He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.

In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually. Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.

Making disciples was Paul’s passion. Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?

Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong during suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?

Living to please God (4:1-12)

Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God. These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. (4:2). They show us the way to live for Him.

God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional (at salvation), progressive and perfect (in heaven). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event. Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).

This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard. Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the pagans” who don’t trust God. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.

Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before” (4:6b).

We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord (4:7-10). Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.

Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another. Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.

Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ.

Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” He had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?

Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another (4:11-12). First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.

Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.

Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; and to “not be dependent on anybody”. Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.

The Rapture and the day of the Lord (4:13-5:11)

The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). But further teaching was needed on this topic. The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they miss Christ’s coming and His Millennial kingdom? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.

He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (4:13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care.

When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them to heaven with Jesus at the rapture (4:14).

The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the Greek word parousia (Strongs #3952). It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). So the Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once. When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth.

The sequence of future events can be inferred from the book of Revelation: at present the Church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); next is the Rapture, when Christ returns to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; then the Church is in heaven (Rev. 4-5); and the Tribulation is on earth (Rev. 6-18); followed by the appearing when Christ returns to earth in great power (Rev. 19); then the 1,000 year millennial kingdom (Rev. 20); and finally the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).

The Rapture (4:15-18) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever.

The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.

Likewise, the “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period (5:1-4). In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (5:2; Acts 2:20; 2 Pt. 3:10). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.

The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected (“like a thief in the night”), destructive (“destruction will come on them suddenly”) and inevitable (“and they will not escape”). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth. Paul likens it to the labor preceding birth. Once it starts birth follows soon after. So the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments. The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).

Paul said that there is a way of escape (5:4-5). The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,6,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments (5:9-10). Instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation. They will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled (5:6-8). We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.

Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord both conclude with: “Encourage one another” (4:18; 5:11). The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?

Living as a Christian (5:12-28)

Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church elders, other believers and God. The congregation was given two responsibilities about the elders (5:12-13). It was to “respect” them and “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else. Paul also encouraged them to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (5:23; Gal. 5:22).

Next Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. (5:14-15) We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-13). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that anyone “who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.

“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work. “Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. They need our encouragement, friendship and help.

Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”. The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.

It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving (5:16-18). Paul began with “Rejoice always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.

Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.

“Do not quench the Spirit” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church (5:19-22). This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to follow Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and follow the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.

“Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful (5:23-24). Paul prayed that their (progressive) sanctification (holiness) would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul. It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.

After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him (5:25-28). Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.

Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.

Lessons for us

Let’s read the book of 1 Thessalonians when life is bleak and we are facing tough times. It reminds us: to be good examples for other believers by imitating Paul and Jesus Christ; to encourage and disciple others in the Christian faith; to please God by avoiding sexual immorality; to eagerly anticipate the second coming; and to have godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church leaders, other believers and God. That’s how to keep following Jesus despite the difficulties of life.

The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven encourages those facing adversity and trials because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. This is important because it’s mentioned in each chapter of this letter (1:9-10; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23-24). Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (5:10-11). And it’s one of the greatest motivations for Christian service.

Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus. May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.

Written, November 2016

Also see these posts on 1 Thessalonians:
Model believers
Paul’s example
Paul’s joy
Living to please God
The Rapture and the day of the Lord
Living as a Christian


Responding to terrorism

france-Charlie Hebdo vigil 400pxPrayer calms anxiety & relieves stress

I’m in France where thousands rallied in the streets after the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in a massive nation-wide demonstration of solidarity. “I am Charlie” (“Je Suis Charlie”) signs are still posted on city buildings.

Some people felt helpless and feared for their safety. I was asked: “Are you still going to France?” How can we cope when we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles and tragedies? In this blog we see that Psalm 4 shows that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Context

Psalm 4 was written when the Israelites were living in Canaan under King David, one of their greatest kings. It was about 1,000 BC and before the division into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These are the lyrics of one of the songs they sang when praising God. So it has a poetic structure.

It was a model for the Israelites to follow, not a command or a report of events. As they sang it they would have been reminded to pray when they are in trouble. And that the fact that God would look after them and replace anxiety with peace.

The surrounding texts (Ps. 3 and 5) also cover the topic of praying for deliverance from enemies. It’s a major theme in many of the Psalms.

Lyrics

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?
Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies? Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the LORD. Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.
You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, will keep me safe” (Ps. 4:1-8NLT).

David addresses both God and David’s enemies in turn. He begins with a prayer of request for God’s help (v.1). Then he addresses his enemies asking questions, making statements, and giving advice (v.2-5). He seeks the Lord’s favor and praises Him for the change he has experienced already (v.6-8). David finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has already done (v. 7-8).

Trials

David has a problem. Although he was a godly king, some of his subjects were trying to bring him down by using slander, lies and false accusations to ruin his reputation (v.2). They were blaming David for the nation’s problems saying he should be replaced as their leader so they could have better times (v.6). It looks like he’s going to be deposed. This had been going on for some-time and there was nothing David could do about it (v.2). So he seeks relief from his distress. And prays for deliverance from these attacks.

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (v.1)
He knows that God is a righteous judge who knows the facts of the situation and isn’t deceived by David’s enemies. That’s why he goes to God for help. He wants relief from his anxiety and stress.

Then he names the problems and challenges the offenders.
“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.2)

This means that they have an opportunity to consider the situation, to acknowledge their part in it (their sins) and repent and change their ways. Obviously this didn’t happen because David needed to challenge them again (v.4-5).

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the people of France responded in public rallies. They didn’t pray to God or ask spiritual questions, because they live in a secular society that seeks all its answers in humanity.

We mightn’t be a king facing his downfall or someone facing a terrorist attack, but we all face trials, troubles and tragedies that worry us from time to time. How do we manage when these bring depression and anxiety and there seems to be no relief? Do we seek help? Or do we give up? Do we pray to God?

Trust

“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.3)
David warns his enemies that God will answer his prayer and intervene because he is part of God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites. So they should realise that their efforts to bring down the king will be futile. Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

“Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the Lord.” (v.4-5)
Then he tells them what to do. Instead of blaming someone else for their troubles, they needed to tremble with fear before God and change their sinful ways by meditating as they lay in bed and then repent of their ways and trust God.

His enemies needed to control their anger and not let it lead to violence. Paul told Christians they could be angry for God, but it should be limited and not carried over into another day (Eph. 4:26-27).

At night they were to think about the stupidity of fighting against God. This should lead them to acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sin. And “trust in the Lord”. David told them to offer sacrifices in the right spirit to demonstrate this change in their lives.

Offering animal sacrifices was part of a godly life for an Israelite. We live under a different covenant. The new covenant brought in by Jesus has replaced the Old Testament law. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

‘Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.’ (v.6)
Here David contrasts himself with his enemies. They are blaming David for their problems and are looking for another leader to replace the king, but David looks for God’s favor. He does this because He knows that God is the one we should trust in, not just another human leader. God is the only one who can bring lasting improvement in the situation. They seek all the benefits of a godly life, but they don’t want God.

A smiling face was a common expression for acceptance and favour. It was a metaphor for blessing and deliverance. Though many are discouraged, David asks the Lord to intervene and transform the situation. The opposite is to hide your face or turn your face from people’s need. In this case there is no blessing and no deliverance. David knew the image of God’s shining face from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26).

Australian Prime Ministers are usually replaced when their approval rating gets too low. Kevin Rudd’s rating dropped to 58% and Julia Gillard’s to 53% before they were replaced. But now her replacement Tony Abbott is rating at 50%! What a big change since he was elected 16 months ago in September 2013. In fact the two major national political parties in Australia have gone through 10 leaders in 10 years!

Are you like David? If you trust in God are you assured that He will answer your prayers?

Or are you like David’s enemies? Can you control your anger? Do you know that human solutions will disappoint if you ignore God? Are you willing to look at the sins in your life with a view to acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of them?

Triumph

“You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine” (v.7)
God has already answered his prayer by giving him inner joy even though He hasn’t been delivered yet. But he is confident that God will deliver him.

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (v.8)
We’ve now come to the end of the song. It began with David pleading to God to free him from his troubles and give relief for his distress. It ends with David sleeping well because he leaves his safety up to God. So his anxiety has subsided and been replaced with assurance and peace. He is confident of God’s protection. He found that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7).

A new mobile phone app enables children and other users to send emergency alerts and broadcast their GPS location to trusted contacts. It’s called Thread. It can connect users immediately to 911 (or 112 or 999 or 000) and their nominated contacts. It can allay someone’s anxiety and fears. Likewise, Christians have a hotline to God that can allay their anxiety and fears.

Have you accepted God’s provision for our trials, troubles and tragedies? Or do you face them alone?

What about terrorism?

Terrorists are enemies of particular groups of people. What else can we learn from what the Bible says about dealing with our enemies?

In Psalm 109, David uses strong language to ask God to judge and punish his enemies (v.6-21). He wants them to receive the consequences of their sinful behavior. He wants revenge. This language is acceptable for Old Testament times, but not now.

What’s changed since then? Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.

Our real enemy is Satan who directs the terrorists (Eph. 6:12). This means that it’s spiritual warfare that requires spiritual weapons. That’s why when facing all kinds of dangers and threats, the Psalmist could say “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” (Ps. 121:1). We need the God who made the universe on our side, because He’s stronger than Satan.

Do we have the same attitude as Jesus and Paul? Do we leave the problem of terrorism up to God? Do we pray to God about it? Do we pray for our enemies?

Conclusion

We have seen that David prayed for help and deliverance when he faced serious trials, troubles and tragedies. His song taught that God answers prayer and that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

When we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles, tragedies or terrorism we need to realize that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Written, January 2015


How to survive tough times

Fire damage - Oct 2013Recently we saw the terror and devastation of bush fires in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It was a tough time for those in the path of the fire. They didn’t get much warning and had to escape for their lives. Afterwards, some returned to see their house in ruins. They searched through the rubble to recover what they could. What if our house and belongings are destroyed in a fire?

How do we respond when our dreams are shattered? When our relationships break down? When our health is threatened? Or when we are overcome by the emptiness of loneliness? Do we plunge into depression, despair and discouragement when there is disappointment, stress or tragedy? What can help us get through tough times?

Some say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But we will see that this is not God’s way. Today we are looking at how to survive tough times. We will see from Ezekiel’s vision that, because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times (Ezek. 37:1-14).

In particular, so we can survive tough times we will determine: Who will God rescue? How will God rescue? And when will God rescue?

Context

Ezekiel was a Jew captive in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC was a tragedy for the Jews. Everything they lived for was gone and the Babylonian gods had triumphed over their God. They were devastated. The Bible says they had bitter memories in Babylon, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-4NIV). They could no longer sing the songs of Jerusalem or play their musical instruments. Jeremiah described their misery; “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 3:48).

The verses before the vision say they were scattered and in exile because of their murder and idolatry (36:16-21) and they also predict Israel’s restoration (36:22-38). The Jews will return to Israel from other countries. There will be a great spiritual revival and prosperity and other people will acknowledge God. God does the restoration, which is associated with their repentance. The words “I will”, are mentioned 15 times in 15 verses. He will give them a new heart, a new spirit and forgive their sins.

The verses after the vision also predict Israel’s restoration (37:15-28). The Jews from both Israel and Judah will return to Israel from other countries. They will have one king, “my servant David”, who is Jesus Christ, a descendant of David. They will live as God’s people and there will be no more idolatry. The result is that once again God will be their God and they will be His people (37:27).

The vision of the dry bones is about the restoration and revival of the Jewish nation because it’s mentioned both before and after the vision. After they were plundered, scattered and captured it looked like the end of the Jews. It was a hopeless situation. But God said no; I will intervene.

valley of dry bones croppedWho will God rescue?

Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of dry bones. They had been dead a long time. There was no life in them. Then God brings them back to life, first as a body lying on the ground and then as a body with breath that stands up. God says, “these bones are the people of Israel” and He calls them “my people” (v.11). They had been slain in battle and they rose as a vast army (v.9-10). It’s a picture of Israel’s army slain by the Babylonians.

What else do the dry bones symbolise? In the vision they say “our hope is gone, we are cut off” (v.11). The dry bones illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews in Babylon. They are over 1,000 km from their homeland and their capital city and temple has been destroyed. Although they are God’s special people they are spiritually dead with nothing to live for. Every day they are reminded of the demise of their nation and the Babylonian victory. They are captive in a foreign land with a foreign language (Jer. 5:15).

So, who will God rescue? His people. They will be rescued because they are God’s people, not because of anything else that they had done. Because of this promise they can survive tough times.

Hostages Tehran 1980 2In 1980, 52 Americans were hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran in Iran for 444 days. They were treated cruelly, beaten, placed in solitary confinement and threatened with execution. An American military operation planned to rescue them, but this was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft. In tough times we can feel like a hostage in a foreign land in a hopeless situation. It’s not unusual.

Christians are the people of God today (1 Pt. 2:9-10). The Bible says we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). And we will also be rescued because we are God’s people, not because of anything we have done. Like the Jews in Babylon, because of this promise we can survive tough times.

Now we know who God will rescue. But how will he rescue them?

How will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says how it will happen;“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (v.5-6). Also, “ I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). Notice that “I will” is mentioned 5 times. So it’s all God’s doing, they had no part in it. They didn’t deserve it. He rescues them when they are in a seemingly hopeless situation and unable to rescue themselves. He’s a God of grace. God does the restoration and brings them to repentance after Ezekiel called them to repent (33:11; 36:31).

In the rescue they would return to their homeland and there would be a spiritual revival. God used an illustration to help them understand it. He said, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them” (v.12). The rescue will be like a resurrection, where a dead body comes back to life. It’s a radical change, from exile to their homeland and from spiritual death to spiritual life. The prospect of the rescue gave them encouragement and strength to endure the tough times.

It’s all part of the big picture in the Bible of God rescuing people from their sinful ways. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, people are spiritually dead. At that time, God promised that He would defeat Satan. Since then He has carried out His rescue plan. For example, He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the times of king David, God promised the Israelites that a Messiah would come to lead them. He was the servant-king predicted by Isaiah (Is. 42, 49, 50, 52-53). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this Suffering Servant (Mt. 12:14-21). This shows why God will rescue. It’s because it’s His main plan for humanity and the universe. To restore it to be like He made it in the beginning. It’s part of His character. He’s a rescuing God.

God also promises that Christians will return to their homeland (Jn. 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21). But our home is not Jerusalem, but heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22-24). This rescue will include resurrection, when the dead come back to life (1 Cor. 15:50-55). And it won’t be a botched rescue, because it will be by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this way, Christ is our Rescuer and Savior. This promise helps us survive tough times.

What about the promise of spiritual revival? When a person turns around to follow Jesus, they undergo a spiritual revival. They are now “in Christ”, a new creation and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). Because of their spiritual revival, Christians can survive tough times (1 Cor. 10:13).

Now we know who God will rescue and how he will do it. But when will He rescue His people?

When will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says when it will happen, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel …  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). It’s when they return to their homeland and are spiritually revived. This happened in part when some returned to Israel in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. God used the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and allow these Jews to return to Jerusalem (Is. 45:1-8).

But the full extent of their restoration is yet to come; when their land will be like the garden of Eden (36:35), when all the 12 tribes will be united (37:15-22), and when their king will once again be a descendant of David (37:24-23). So there was a partial rescue after the exile, but their complete rescue is yet to come. Maybe this was illustrated in the vision when the bones came to life in two stages.

Mine rescue Beaconsfield 2In 2006, two miners were rescued from a gold mine in Beaconsfield in Tasmania after being trapped underground for 14 days. When we go through tough times, we can feel trapped in a dark place with no way out.  There were two stages to their rescue. First a 90mm hole was drilled to give them food, fresh water and for communication. Second a 1m hole was drilled to enable some miners to crawl in and get them out. In the first stage they were sustained. In the second stage they were released.

Likewise there are two stages to our rescue. First, through God’s power when we chose to turn around and follow Jesus, we are rescued spiritually. We change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Second, through God’s power when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord and when Christ returns our bodies will be resurrected and changed (1 Cor. 15:50-55). So the two stages of our rescue are a spiritual revival, which sustains us in tough times; followed by a homecoming, which releases us from the tough times. At present we are half way. We can look back to stage one and ahead to stage two.

So, because through Christ’s death and resurrection Christians have spiritual life which sustains us, we can survive tough times. And because of the promise of being with the Lord and released, we can survive tough times. Clearly we can only survive tough times, in God’s power.

If you lack this power to get through tough times, then this is a reason to turn your life around to follow Jesus. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is wrong because we don’t need to toughen up and work hard to survive tough times. Instead, let’s rely on God’s saving power in Christ and His sustaining power in the Holy Spirit.

It would be wrong to use Ezekiel’s vision to claim that God will remove our tough times on earth. Ezekiel probably died in Babylon before the partial return to the homeland (he would have been ~85 years of age if still alive when the first exiles returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC). Even though he didn’t reach stage 1 of the rescue, the promise helped him endure the tough times. Recently I spoke to a believer struggling with a chronic disease. He felt he had nothing to live for. He was disappointed in God, saying, “What’s God doing about it? It would be a great witness if I was healed”. In the Bible Abraham told the rich man in Hades, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:29-31). People are not convinced by miracles. How often do we pray for a miracle, when God promises survival through tough times on earth, not removal of these tough times? After all, we are in stage 1 of the rescue, not stage 2.

Because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times

So let’s remember the vision of the dry bones that came back to life. When they were doing it tough in Babylon in the darkest period of their history, God gave the Jews comfort and strength. Because He promised to rescue them, they survived the tough times. Some of them returned to Israel and Christ was born about 500 years later. After another 2,000 years more Jews have returned to Israel and it is a nation once again. And God has promised there will be a spiritual revival when they recognise Christ as their Messiah in a coming day.

Because God is a rescuer, we can survive tough times. We have seen:
– Who He rescues: His people. In future, all believers will be fully rescued from their tough times.
– How He rescues: by spiritual revival and bringing us home.
– And when He rescues: partially now and fully later.
He has already rescued us and promises to rescue us even more in the future. This gives us encouragement and strength. Remember this promise when you are going through tough times.

Because we know that God will rescue us, we can survive tough times.

Written, November 2013