Facebook has been criticized for disseminating fake and misleading stories that are indistinguishable from real news. US President Obama said that these bogus news stories were a threat to democracy. Because Facebook’s algorithm is designed to determine what its individual users want to see, people often see only that which validates their existing beliefs regardless of whether the information being shared is true. Seven projects are underway to stop the spread of misinformation among Facebook’s 1.79 billion users. But deception isn’t new because Paul faced it almost 2,000 year ago.
The letter of 2 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were deceived by false teachings which were alleged to come from Paul. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see the need to stand firm against false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning.
Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time and in response to his preaching a church was established. After he left, he wrote them the letter of 1 Thessalonians to encourage them in the Christian faith. But some time later Paul saw a need to encourage the believers in Thessalonica once again as they were still being persecuted. Besides this, some of them thought the tribulation described in Revelation had already arrived and some had stopped working. So Paul wrote them another letter (2 Thessalonians) in about 51 AD.
Because some were deceived by false teachings, Paul urged them to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you” (2:15NIV). This letter can be divided into three sections: encouragement during trials and suffering; standing firm against false teachings; and don’t be lazy. God allows Christians to go through trials, suffering and persecution. Now Paul shows how we can cope in difficult times.
Chapter 1: Encouragement during trials and suffering
Paul thanked God for their increasing faith and love (1:3-4). Faith keeps us in contact with God and this leads to love for one another. In the first letter faith, love and hope are mentioned together, but here “hope” is left out maybe because they needed correction concerning the second coming of the Lord (1 Th. 1:3; 5:8). Their hope was not clear. So Paul writes to correct the situation.
They were doing so well that Paul boasted about their spiritual progress to other churches. Despite tough times of persecution and trial, their faith remained strong. By mentioning this in the letter, Paul is affirming their faith, love and perseverance.
Their endurance in the face of persecution was evidence that God was at work among them (1:5-7a)! They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith, but God knew that they could bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). People who are under pressure give up easily unless something is strengthening them. God provided strength so they could endure their suffering and persecution.
Paul points out three things about their suffering. First, it showed they were “worthy of the kingdom of God”. They had been made worthy by faith in Christ and this was evident in their endurance under suffering. The pattern is one of suffering followed by future glory. It is the same one that Jesus followed. The Old Testament prophets predicted; “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11), but they didn’t understand that these events would be separated by at least 1,900 years. The Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory, but instead He came in a humble way and suffered greatly. Whereas at His future appearing He will come in great power and glory. This pattern also applies to believers: Paul wrote: “… if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18).
Second, their suffering showed that their persecutors deserved to be judged. Because God is just, He will punish the persecutors—“He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you”. The Greek word translated “trouble” (1:6) means to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances or under antagonism (Vine). We know that God judges unrepentant sinners, both on earth when He “gives them over” to suffer the consequences of their sins (Rom. 1:24,26,28) and at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Third, their suffering showed that they deserved relief for their undeserved persecution. Because God is just, the punishment will be balanced with relief. The Greek word translated “relief” means relief from persecution. But, when will this all happen? It will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (1:7b-10). Christ is now hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him.
When will the Lord Jesus be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels”? As this hasn’t happened in the last 1,900 years, it is still future. Obviously, it’s a reference to the second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. In fact there are two main comings, the rapture when Christ returns to the air to take all believers, both dead and alive, to be with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:13-17) and the appearing when He returns to the earth in great power and glory to remove unbelievers for judgement (Rev 19:1-21).
The timing of these events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation: at present the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); then church in is heaven, which implies that the rapture has occurred between chapters 3 and 4 (Rev. 4-5); then there is tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); which is followed by the appearing (Rev. 19:11-21); and then the millennium (Rev. 20:1-7); and finally the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the rapture and the appearing are separate events is shown by their relationship to the tribulation. Christians are said to be “saved from God’s wrath” (Rom. 5:9) and kept from “the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10); for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). Of course, God’s “wrath” may refer to the tribulation (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:9-10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19) or to His eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the context is the tribulation. This is consistent with the rapture occurring before the tribulation—believers will be in heaven while the tribulation is occurring on the earth. This understanding is known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
On the other hand, the appearing occurs at the end of the tribulation. The tribulation is described in Matthew 24:3-28, and then the appearing in v.29-31. It is a time of awesome power and punishment of Christ’s enemies (Is. 66:15-16; Rev. 1:7).
When Paul writes about when this will happen (1:7b, 10), he means when it will be visible to all. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we know that when a believer dies they obtain relief and all their suffering and persecution has ended—they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). So, after death, believers enjoy relief in heaven, while unbelievers suffer in hades.
Two classes are marked for punishment. First, “those who do not know God” – these have rejected the knowledge of the true God that is revealed to everyone through creation and conscience (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:12-16). Of course, they may never have heard the gospel. But God has revealed Himself clearly to everyone that He is God. He is in charge of the world. Second, those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – these have heard the gospel of salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, but sadly they have rejected it.
These people are punished because God’s justice demands punishment for sin. The punishment is “everlasting destruction”, which means eternal ruin; and being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which means without Him forever. They will reap the consequence of their choice to ignore God.
The appearing will be a time of great glory and amazement. The Lord Jesus will be glorified and the spectators (those saved during the tribulation) will be amazed at what God has done in the salvation of believers—“glorified in His holy people”. God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well.
Paul prays that the believers may live lives that are worthy of their calling to participate in the appearing and to reign in the millennial kingdom (1:11-12). He asks for God’s power to enable them to obey every desire to do good and to carry out every deed prompted by faith. Here we see that God prompts such desires and deeds.
These are also difficult days and some are going through tough times. Let’s remember how Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere at such times. Be encouraged that if you hold out against the pressures and temptations of this life it is evident that God is at work in your life in developing character and maturity.
Like the Thessalonians, we can be so occupied with suffering or persecution that we forget about our hope for the future. Do we have a clear view of what we are waiting for? Present suffering will be replaced by glory in future. Do we have a vision of the rapture and the appearing? There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. It will be amazing and spectacular.
We can help believers who are going through tough times of trials, suffering or persecution by reminding them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. Be encouraged that God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. Give them a reality check. Help them see the big picture; the eternal perspective. Remind them that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”. This helps them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching which didn’t match what Paul had told them. A rumor was spreading about the end of the age.
Chapter 2: Standing firm against false teachings
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica (2:1-2). Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumor that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by” (see BRG, Darby, DRA, GNV, KJV, PHILLIPS, WYC). It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thessalonians 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth. The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic (2:3-5). He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (2:6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (2:9).
It is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people (2:7). The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (2:7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
So we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation (2:8), and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
The antichrist will work like Satan works (2:9-12). He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that these miracles prove that he is divine (2:10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (2:11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (2:12; Rev. 20:15).
So how does this evil work? In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works. It can use counterfeit miracles. Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive. And in those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica (2:13). This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them. This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (2:14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are involved; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them (2:13). On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (2:14). Also, the people needed to believe (2:13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul says that despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (2:15). In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defense and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word. Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly (2:16-17). Their greatest resource was God Himself. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9).
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Chapter 3: Don’t be lazy
There are different attitudes to work. Some work long hours, while others work as little as possible. Is work a vital part of our lives or just a consequence of the fall into sin? Next we see how Paul addressed laziness at Thessalonica. The third problem in Thessalonica was that some had stopped working because they thought the Lord was returning soon. Instead of working they were being lazy and disruptive in the local church. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been obeyed.
Paul now balances God’s provision for the Thessalonians with their responsibility to keep doing the things that Paul had commanded. It’s not good enough to relax and think that because God will look after us, then we can be lazy and ignore His commands. Christians need to be active, not passive. It’s doing the things God has commanded and continuing to do these things.
Ever since the days of Adam, people must work for a living. Adam had to work and take care of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). After the fall into sin this work became arduous (Gen. 3:17-19).
Paul now addresses the third major problem in the church at Thessalonica (3:6-13). It seems as though some of the Thessalonians thought the Lord was returning soon, so they stopped working and relied on others to support them. So they were idle instead of working and this lead to them interfering with other people’s affairs. What is a Paul’s solution to this problem? First, he says these people are out of line with what he had taught them (3:6).
Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they would not be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Paul was a tent maker by trade. Although he could have relied on the support of others for food, accommodation and money, he worked night and day to pay his expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding the new believers, he was probably making and repairing tents. Paul was self supporting; he didn’t seek funds from those to whom he was preaching the gospel. The reason he worked was so he wouldn’t be a burden to those who were poor and persecuted and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Now he urges those who had stopped working to follow his example (3:7-9). Although he had the right to financial help, Paul “did not use this right” of support in Corinth so that the gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 9:12, 14). Instead, he offered the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). He then gives another reason for supporting himself: Paul wanted to be a model for them to imitate; an example to be followed.
Next Paul gives further instructions about these people who were minding everybody’s business but their own (3:11-12). When they could no longer find any meaning in their work, they started messing in other people’s business, criticizing, grumbling, gossiping, and trying to control others. Paul commanded and urged them to get back to work to support themselves and their families. How they behaved would have affected their witness for the Lord. How could they urge people to get their spiritual lives in order, if they couldn’t get their physical lives in order?
Now we will look at how Paul advised then to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:10). Paul said don’t help them by feeding and supporting them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This is addressed to those who are “unwilling to work”, not those who cannot work. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should they eat. This rule was to stop them becoming busybodies that disrupt the local church. Does this conflict with the fact that Christians should be kind and loving? No, it is a tough love that draws a boundary against encouraging laziness. That’s why this section is titled, “Don’t be lazy”.
This was followed by further instructions on how to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:6, 13-15). Finally, Paul commands them in Christ’s name not to socialise with believers who refused to work and who were disrupting the local church. The Greek words used mean to “withdraw” from or “avoid” and to not keep company with them. It was to be a more distant relationship instead of a close one. This let them know that this behavior was not acceptable. The purpose of this discipline was to awaken their conscience to make them feel ashamed of their behavior and give them a reason to change it. They can still have some of the benefits of the church family, but their part is restricted until they repent and are restored to the close relationship.
Paul warns them not to take it too far, so they feel like an enemy. Don’t make them feel like an unbeliever, as they don’t deserve to be expelled from the church. In the case of expulsion, people are to be treated as an unbeliever; as though they are not in the family (Mt. 18:17). Note that the instruction was addressed to the behavior of fellow believers, not to the behavior of unbelievers.
Paul finishes reminding them of the Lord’s peace, presence and grace (3:16-18). They could have “peace at all times and in every way”, including when they faced the problems created by those who refused to work for a living. They needed this peaceful attitude as they addressed these problems. The Lord of peace was with all of them, including those who were idle and disruptive.
Paul worked hard night and day to support himself while he preaching the gospel. He was an example to be followed. Are we? What sort of a witness is our work? Do we support our families? Work is important because it gives a sense of worth and meaning in our lives. But there were believers at Thessalonica who refused to work and were disruptive busybodies in the local church. Are we idle?
Today we don’t face the problem that people are so ardently looking forward to the Lord’s return that they abandon their daily duties. Instead we are so busy with our business and money-making that we forget that the Lord could return at any moment. Nevertheless, the same principles apply in cases of disobedience. What would Paul say to us? Would it be that we work too much instead of not enough? Are we so busy with our things that there is little time for God’s things? Are we lazy, busy or too busy supporting our families?
Paul wasn’t lazy. Are we lazy or busy for God? Let’s be like Paul by being busy for God and busy supporting our families.
Lessons for us
Like 1 Thessalonians, this letter is occupied with the second coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. The anticipation of this time when justice will prevail, alleviates our suffering. It helps to know about the future. Let’s remind ourselves of the time when the Lord is going to return to right all the wrongs and end all the suffering. An eternal perspective can help us get through our daily life.
Paul also warned them not to be deceived by false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning. How do we distinguish between what is true and what is false? Let’s compare any new teachings with what the Bible says. Using reliable exegesis (interpretation) of scripture – see “Understanding the Bible”. And distinguishing between what a Bible passage meant when it was written and its application today.
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to without any adverse consequences. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, November 2016
Scientists have estimated that the number of stars in the observable universe is 7 x 1022, which is “7” followed by 22 zeros! This is similar to their estimate of the number grains of sand on planet earth of 7 x 1021, which is “7” followed by 21 zeros. These are big numbers!
Many years ago (about 2,100BC), God promised Abraham: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). He was given this promise (“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth”) before he had any children (Gen. 13:16; 15:5) and it was repeated (Gen. 28:14). Isaac and Jacob were given similar promises and Moses recorded them (Gen. 26:4; 32:12; Ex. 32:13). And its fulfilment was confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead (he was childless at 99 years of age), came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Heb. 11:12).
The Bible says that the Israelite population grew rapidly in Egypt (Ex. 1:7-12). Moses wrote that the promise was fulfilled when they were about to enter Canaan (Dt. 1:10; 10:22; 28:62). “The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Dt. 1:10). As there were about 600,000 men in the exodus, their population would have been at least 2 million (Ex. 12:37; 38:26). This shows that God keeps His promises.
The statement, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” was probably a metaphor or simile for a very large number. Apparently about 1,000 stars could be seen in the night sky in ancient times. But from the light in the night sky it is clear that there were more stars than this. The Bible says that although we can’t count all the stars, God can (Gen. 15:5; Ps. 147:4). Likewise for the grains of sand on the sea shore and the dust of the earth. In the ancient world these were symbols and illustrations of very big numbers. And modern science has verified that these are indeed very big numbers. In Abraham’s case they were symbols and illustrations of a large number of descendants.
For example the sand on the sea shore is used as a hyperbole for a large number (Gen. 41:49; Josh. 11:4; Jud. 7:12; 1 Sam. 13:5; 2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Ki. 4:20; Ps. 78:27; 139:18; Is. 10:22; 48:19; Jer. 15:8; Hos. 1:10; Hab. 1:9; Rom. 9:27; Rev. 20:8) or for something that is beyond measure (1 Ki. 4:49; Job 6:3).
We have seen that although the promise wasn’t fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, it was fulfilled at a later date. Likewise God has given Christians promises that He will fulfill after our lifetime. For example, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Also, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). This means that although we suffer in life, we are promised a glorious inheritance. Something fantastic is coming. There is a contrast between present suffering and future glory. The glory outweighs the suffering and it’s eternal instead of temporary. Like Abraham, we don’t see any evidence of this future glory now, but it’s assured.
Focusing on this promise helps us get through suffering and difficult times without giving up in despair. Then we can live in a way that glorifies God.
We have seen that God keeps His promises. Because He kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He will also keep this promise to His followers today.
Written, August 2015
Checklist in Hebrews 13
Before you climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge there’s a checklist that covers your: age, height, blood alcohol reading, pregnancy status, essential medication, and health. To climb the bridge, you need to satisfy all these requirements.
Today we are looking at a checklist given at the end of Hebrews that helps us to keep following Jesus and not turn back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish religious customs. Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. First, that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests (Ch 1-10). Second, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race (Ch 10-12). As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. Third, the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins (Ch. 1-12). Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.
As Hebrews was probably written to a church about AD 68, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.
Hebrews 13 begins with three outward things.
Love one another (v.1)
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.
The Greek noun used here is philadelphia (Strongs #5360), which is love among brothers and sisters in a family. It describes the connection and relationship that should be felt with all true Christians. Because God is now like our Father and we are like His children, all who have trusted in Him are like siblings in a spiritual family. That’s why we often call each other brothers and sisters. These metaphors should influence our thoughts and behavior towards each other. Paul wrote, “Be devoted to one another in love (philadelphia)” (Rom. 12:10NIV).
Do we feel the family connection with believers in our church? Do we feel the connection with other believers in our area? In our city? In our state? In our nation? In other nations across the world?
Practice hospitality (v.2)
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
The Greek noun translated “hospitality” (#5381) means friendliness shown to strangers. It’s providing them with food and shelter. The Bible also says “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” and “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Christians who were fleeing from persecution certainly needed hospitality. Jesus commended those who showed hospitality, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt. 25:35).
By showing hospitality, we can support God’s people and God’s servants. Abraham (Gen. 18:1-15), Lot (Gen. 19:1-17), Gideon (Jud. 6:11-24 and Samson’s father Manoah (Jud. 13:9-23) each showed hospitality to angels although they didn’t know who their visitors were at the time.
Do we show hospitality to Christians who are in need? Have we taken the initiative and invited them into our home? In this way we can share in their Christian lives and our family can benefit from the interaction. Do we show hospitality to non-Christians? Have we invited a non-Christian into our home over the past year? This can be a blessing to both families.
Practice empathy (v.3)
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Christians were imprisoned and mistreated during this time of persecution. Their colleagues were told to remember them in a particular way. The Greek text says “as being bound with them” in prison and “as also yourselves being in their body” when they are mistreated. This is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Paul expressed it as, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Previously they had “stood side by side” with those who were persecuted and “suffered along with those in prison” (Heb. 10:33-34). Also, Jesus commended those who visited prisoners, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:36). Ancient prisons didn’t give prisoners any food, so visits from friends were essential.
Do we have empathy for Christians who are suffering? Can we imagine what it is like walking in their shoes?
Hebrews 13 then addresses two inward things.
Be sexually pure (v.4)
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Before sin came into the world, God created marriage between a man and a woman. He wants us to hold it in high regard. On the other hand, the Bible says that sexual immorality is a sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Besides the problems it causes in this life, it brings God’s judgement unless one is pardoned through Christ’s death as our substitute.
A reason to honor marriage is because it is to be an example of the loving relationship between Christ and His bride the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage is dishonoured by adultery and sexual immorality, which is having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. Sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). God’s people need to exercise self-control in this area. After all, one of the gifts of the Spirit is self-control.
How are we influenced by the loose sexual standards in society today? What about pornography? If we are married, are we faithful to our spouse?
Be contented (v.5-6)
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
These Christians were tempted to want more money and what it can buy. Paul used the same Greek adjective (#866) to say that a church elder shouldn’t be “a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). He also learnt “to be content whatever the circumstances” and taught that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, which brings griefs and causes people to wander from the Christian faith (Phil. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10). Instead they were to be content with what they had, which was Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Verse 5 quotes Moses at the end of his life telling the Israelites that God would help them possess the land of Canaan, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:6). This strong promise is the key to being freed from the love of money. It’s realizing that God is always with us; we’re never alone.
Verse 6 quotes the Israelites giving thanks to God for deliverance from their enemies “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; He is my helper” (Ps. 118:6-7). Nothing can separate us from God and His love and His promise of eternal life. Likewise, Christians can trust God for their safety, protection and economic welfare. They shouldn’t fear financial loss or poverty. Instead trust God to take care of you.
If we believe the promise that the Lord is always with us and empowers us, then we will love one another, show hospitality and empathy, be sexually pure, and avoid the love of money.
Are we contented with what we have in life? Or are we discontent and influenced by materialism? Are we greedy? Are we afraid of the future? Or do we trust that the Lord is with us?
Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life like this.
Follow godly church leaders (v.7-8, 17)
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
They are given the example of godly church leaders to follow and imitate. In the past these leaders had taught them God’s word. The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They didn’t go back to their previous Jewish ways of worship. That’s the kind of faith to follow and imitate.
These leaders’ teaching and faith was based on the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v.8). This means that His character is the same, not that He does the same things in every age. As God, He has the same love, wisdom, righteousness, power, knowledge and plan. He never changes His mind because of unforeseen circumstances.
Church leaders are also mentioned in v.17.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Church elders are to care for (“keep watch over”) the spiritual welfare of the congregation. Elders are accountable to God at the Judgment Seat of Christ for this pastoral care. This is serious business. They will be asked, what did you teach? How did you live? How did you care for the lonely, the suffering, and the disobedient?
The congregation is to respect, trust and follow such godly leaders (elders) because of the work they do. This gives them joy and the congregation benefits.
If we are an elder are we a godly example for the congregation? Are we keeping watch over them? Do we pray for them regularly? Are we interested in their spiritual growth? Are we ready to give an account of our time and effort used in this task? If we are in the congregation, do we respect the elders? Do we pray for them? Are we willing to let them take an interest in our spiritual growth?
Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism.
Follow Jesus (v.9-12)
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (v.9-10)
Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.
Then it says “we have an altar”, which is a figure of speech (metonymy) for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Through it we can have forgiveness and hope. Instead of Jewish rituals and rules, we have Christ’s supreme sacrifice and the blessings it brings. All those involved with the Jewish religion had no right to the better things of Christianity (because they rejected Jesus as their Savior). They must first confess and repent of their sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood. (v.11-12)
Under the Jewish sacrificial system, certain animals were killed and their blood was brought into the most holy place of the temple by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin. The people’s sins were symbolically transferred to the sacrificial animal. The body of the animal was disposed of away from the temple (or “outside the camp”) (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:12, 21; 9:11; 16:14, 27). Likewise, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem at a place where criminals (those rejected by society) were punished (Jn. 19:17). His death enabled us to have our sins forgiven so we can be holy before God. It says that God can make us holy through the death of Jesus (“His own blood” means His death).
Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old ways of life? To the things that occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord.
Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices.
Suffering, praise and good works (v.13-16)
Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (v.13-14)
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (v.16-17)
Instead of offering sacrifices at Jerusalem, as Christians they were to offer three other kinds of sacrifices. The first is a sacrifice of suffering for Christ (v.13-14). Because Jesus suffered outside the city of Jerusalem to meet our need (v.12), Christians are urged to join Jesus in His sufferings (v.13). “The camp” represented their old Jewish religion centred at Jerusalem (for us it can mean our previous way of life before we followed Christ). The Jewish believers escaped from Jerusalem because they were persecuted and ridiculed by the Jewish religious leaders for following Jesus (Acts 8:1-4). They suffered insults and shame. As disciples of Christ they denied themselves, took up their cross and followed Him (Mk. 8:34). Likewise, to meet the needs of this world we need to leave our comforts and security. Instead of putting our efforts into building our lives in this world, which won’t endure; we should be putting them into heaven, which is everlasting.
The Jewish religion was centred on the city of Jerusalem. That’s where the temple was.
But Christians don’t have a special city on earth. Instead, they look ahead to the new Jerusalem (the coming city) where God and Jesus are enthroned (v.14). Unlike earthy cities, this city is permanent and secure. They long for heaven and its joy and eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:11). Because they are satisfied with all that God has done, they long to be with Him. They value the Creator above the creation. They’re only visiting this planet, it’s not their home.
The second is a sacrifice of words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus (v.15). It’s “through Jesus” because that’s the only way we can approach God (Heb. 7:25; 10:19-21). He’s our mediator. This is to be “continual” verbal praise, not just on Sunday. Every day of the week and in good times and bad times (Acts 16:23-25). It flows from our satisfaction with God and longing to be with Him (v.14). How can we creatively mention our faith in Jesus and God’s greatness and goodness in our conversations? Are our meetings God-centred?
The third is a sacrifice of good works (v.16). It says “to do good and to share with others” who are in need. This would include the things mentioned earlier in the chapter, such as using our time and possessions in loving one another, and showing hospitality and empathy. Living for others. Doing the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). Then a reason is given for doing this “for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. God is pleased with this sacrifice because when we live like this, we show that He is more valuable than the things of this world. If God is our treasure, we’ll serve Him by helping others instead of being devoted to the things of this world.
How do we rate on these sacrifices? Are we willing to suffer and be ridiculed because we are a Christian? What about moving outside our churches to evangelize our neighbourhoods, our cities, our nation and the nations of the world? Do we have a heart of praise? Do we live for others?
Up to now the book of Hebrews has been like a sermon, but it finishes like a letter.
Keep praying (v.18-19)
Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.
The writer appeals for their prayers. Because he says he has a clear conscience and desires to live honorably in every way, he may have been attacked by Jewish critics. As he also asks them to pray that he might be able to visit them soon, it seems as though he had been delayed. Perhaps he was in prison (v.23). Prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him.
Do we pray for others?
The writer now expresses his final desire and prayer for those he is writing to.
Recognize God’s work (v.20-21)
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
He calls God the “God of peace”, because through Jesus we can have peace with God. Our sins separate us from God, but through Jesus we can be reconciled and draw near to God.
The fact that Jesus was raised back to life after being in the tomb showed that His mission was accomplished – His death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity. Because of this we can share in God’s eternal covenant, which is also called the new covenant. A covenant is a promise, and because of what Jesus did, we know that God keeps His promises.
Jesus is called the “great Shepherd of the sheep”, which is a metaphor for a great leader of all the redeemed. Sheep need guiding to fresh pasture and protection from predators. Because He is alive, and because by His Spirit He is always with us, He can guide and protect those who follow Him.
His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out (also see Phil. 2:13). Doing God’s will is what pleases Him. Then they could be faithful and keep following and serving Christ and have inner strength and faith to persevere to the end (Jer.32:40).
All this equipping believers and pleasing God is achieved “through Jesus Christ”. It’s the same explanation as given for how Paul learnt to be content in all circumstances: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). That’s why Jesus deserves glory and praise for ever and ever.
Do we give Jesus glory, honor and praise as our great spiritual leader? Do we realize that God equips us and works in us? Are we like Paul whose goal was to please God (2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 1 Th. 4:1)?
We have seen that an understanding of the greatness of Jesus, the importance of perseverance and the danger of unbelief needs to be expressed by loving one another; showing hospitality and empathy; sexual purity; avoiding the love of money; following Jesus and godly church leaders instead of false teachings; persevering in the Christian faith by accepting suffering, by continual praise and by doing good works; prayer; and by letting God work though us.
In 1935 a Boeing B-17 aircraft crashed when being evaluated by the US Army. The crash was caused by pilot error. When they realized that flying the plane was too complex to rely on the pilot’s memory, they developed checklists to make sure nothing was forgotten.
Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Written, May 2015
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles
Recently a friend of ours died of leukaemia. His family cared for him while he was in palliative care. It was a hopeless situation. They knew he wasn’t going to be healed. Yet they prayed for God’s will to be done and the funeral was a celebration that he had been delivered from his suffering and was now with the Lord.
Jeremiah’s letter to Jewish exiles in chapter 29:4-23 shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate deliverance and restoration.
Jeremiah prophesized during the last 40 years of the nation of Judah (626 – 586 BC). At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. The Assyrians and Babylonians used their overwhelming military force to terrorize the people of the lands they invaded. They also took heavy tribute and deported masses of people into slavery. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jahoiakim, Jehoichin and Zedkiah. All of these kings except Josiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. At the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The prophets before Zephaniah announced God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. This was also Zephaniah’s message. Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies.
Later in Jeremiah’s period, Obadiah pronounces judgment on Edom, one of Judah’s closest enemies and predicts Israel’s restoration. Habakkuk complains to God because He’s doing nothing about the terrible violence, wrongdoing, destruction, strife, and injustice in Judah. He is perplexed when told that the pagan Babylonians were going to invade Judah. But God reassures him that the Babylonians will eventually be punished as well.
In the book of Jeremiah, he speaks out against the sins of Judah (Ch. 1-38). He warned them for at least 23 years (Jer. 25:2-3). The punishment for these is that they will be invaded by Babylon and taken captive. Chapter 29 is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to all the Jewish captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:4). After chapter 29, Jeremiah predicts that the Jews will be released from captivity and able to return to re-establish their lives in their homeland. He also predicts living under the Messiah with a new covenant.
The letter, written by one of God’s prophets, is comprised of commands and promises (Jer. 29:45-23). This means that it was a command to be followed by the Jewish exiles and promises they were to believe.
The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem three times. On the first occasion in 605 BC, Judah became a vassal state and paid tribute to Babylon and a group of people including Daniel was carried off to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:1-2). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem in 598-597 BC, replacing the king, taking tribute, and taking about 10,000 Jewish captives to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:8-17). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem again in 588-586 BC, destroying the city and taking more Jewish captives to Babylon, including the king (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Instead of being a nation, Judah was now a province of the regional superpower. The remaining Jews, including Jeremiah, fled to Egypt for safety (Jer. 41:16 – 44:30). This wasn’t unexpected because it was the ultimate punishment for breaking their covenant with their God (Lev. 26:31-33; Dt, 28:49-68). Everything that God had done for them since they left Egypt would be destroyed. The goal of the punishment is their repentance (Lev. 26:40-41).
So after being warned for at least 100 years, Judah has finally been punished for their sins. The captives in Babylon were suffering grief and loss, forced relocation and slavery. They probably feared the worst and thought their fate was similar to that of Israel in 722 BC. Over 136 years ago, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Israel and took captives and the people were scattered to other nations. That was the end of the kingdom of Israel and there was no way it could be restored. It seemed the same when Babylon invaded Judah. So the Jews in Babylon thought this was the end of their nation. They cried in despair as they were in a helpless and hopeless situation (Ps. 137:1). Jeremiah also lamented because he saw the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations).
Jeremiah also predicts the destruction of those who didn’t go into exile (v.15-19). It’s punishment for their disobedience. They didn’t deserve God’s protection like those sent into exile (Jer. 24:5-7).
What a surprising letter from Jeremiah! They are told to prepare for a long captivity (v.4-7) by settling down to live for a long time in Babylon. To establish families and raise children among themselves; but don’t intermarry with foreigners. God wanted them to grow in number, not dwindle.
Usually captives hate their captors. But the Jews are told to pray for Babylon! To pray for their enemy! To seek Babylon’s peace and prosperity so things will go well for them as well. To pray for the prosperity of their enemy!
What did the exiles think of Jeremiah? Whose side was Jeremiah on, first he says to surrender to the Babylonians and now when they are prisoners of war (POW) he says this? Has he lost his marbles?
Australian POWs in World War 2 endured hard labor working on roads and battling to survive the harsh Austrian winter. Under their German masters, it seemed a hopeless situation. But after 12 months they began receiving Red Cross packages with food clothes and medicine, which were like a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world. These helped many POWs to survive.
Through the fall of Jerusalem, the exiles learnt that God eventually judges sin (many died, others were POWs, some escaped and their capital city was destroyed). Also, what seemed to be the worst to the captives (being POWs), was actually the best because they would be kept safe in Babylon (most of the rest died). Also, they were to accept the situation that God had placed them in and not hope for something better.
Then God warns the exiles not to be deceived by false prophets who were prophesying lies in God’s name (v.8-9, 21). They contradict the words of Jeremiah (Jer. 27:16-22; 28:3). The captivity was to be 70 years, not two (Jer. 25:11-12; 28:3, 11; 29:10)! God’s prophets predicted disasters, but the false prophets predicted peace (Jer. 14:13-16; 23:17; 28:8). One of them sent a letter to the priests rebuking them for not putting Jeremiah in prison (v. 24-27). Because of their lies and adultery, Jeremiah predicted they would be put to death by the king of Babylon (v. 21-23).
Jeremiah tells the captives to not be gullible by believing their lies. Instead, they should ignore them and not listen to them.
After the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the Russians claimed that the missile was fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. They were telling a lie.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was to be discerning and listen to God’s prophets and not the false ones. They needed to know the difference between the two.
Next Jeremiah predicts deliverance and restoration for the exiles. He says that God will bring them back to their homeland after 70 years of exile. Those still alive at the time and their descendants would be able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the temple and the city walls. This restoration was predicted over 900 years beforehand (Dt. 30:3-5).
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:11-14NIV).
God hadn’t forgotten them. In fact He had planned their future lives. These plans were for their collective good, to prosper them collectively and give them a hope and future to look forward to. There was hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.
God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future (v.11) are described as their return to Judah from exile (v. 10, 14) and these plans were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11). So this promise has already been fulfilled.
God also predicts that by that time they will return to following Him once again. This implies that they will confess and repent of their sins. The Bible teaches that their restoration was conditional on their repentance (Dt. 4:29-31). This shows God’s mercy and His commitment to the covenant made with their ancestors.
Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has just been released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. He said the experience was a “baptism of fire” that helped him learn more about himself. It felt like a “near-death experience”, but also like a “rebirth” because he was given an opportunity to look back at his life.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was that repentance was the way to a restored relationship with the Lord and to their release from being POWs in Babylon. This repentance was essential for their deliverance and the restoration and rebirth of their nation.
They also learnt that their situation is never helpless or hopeless because God promises ultimate deliverance and restoration from whatever situation they are in. The way to optimism is to remember that God has plans for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.
What are the lessons for us today?
What’s changed since then? We are God’s people today, but we are not a nation with their own home-land like the exiles. 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.
The lesson that God eventually judges sin applies to us as well. People say, what’s God doing about the evil in the world? He seems absent. But the Bible says that He is patiently waiting for more people to turn to Him before He brings judgment (2 Pt. 3:9).
Also, what seems to be the worst for us may be the best because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He ensures that everything that happens to us is for our benefit (Rom. 8:27-28). That’s why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we would like it.
The lesson to accept the situation that God had placed us in and not hope for something better applies to us as well. Paul gives an example of this for marriage (1 Cor. 7:17-20). He also wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18).
Do we believe all we see on the internet? How gullible are we? How do we know what to believe? Do we compare what people say and write with Scripture? Because there are false teachers out there. In Jeremiah’s day they ignored gross sinfulness and said, God’s not going to judge us. They wanted God’s blessing without going through the suffering of the captivity. But the Bible teaches that suffering precedes blessing and glory, with Jesus the greatest example (Rom. 8:18; 1 Pt 3:18, 22). Christians should expect to suffer for their faith (1 Pt. 4:12-19). We should be skeptical of those who teach an “easy” Christianity that brings lots of benefits because our benefits are largely spiritual (Eph. 1:3-14). Also, beware of false hopes.
The lesson that repentance is the way to a restored relationship with the Lord applies to us as well. In the New Testament, God doesn’t promise to release us from our physical problems (if this happens it is a mercy), but deliver us from our spiritual ones. The steps of repentance include “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:7-10).
As God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future was fulfilled in 538 BC, this promise isn’t for us today. But what sort of plans does God have for us? We can ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5). Of course, He wants us to be faithful to Him in everything we do by following the commands and principles He gives for believers in the New Testament. We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.
The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we may have to go through suffering along the way.
We have seen from Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that God judges sin (which is why they were POWs), and cares for His people and warns them not to be deceived by false prophets.
It shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate spiritual deliverance and restoration.
Written, February 2015
Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
When I read Job and Psalms recently, I realised that Job and David both suffered life threatening situations and went through times of anguish and despair. In this article we look at David’s trials and troubles when he was a fugitive.
David’s burdens as a fugitive
David was a shepherd who became the king of Israel in about 1010 BC. But he had good times and bad times before this happened. In the good times he became king Saul’s musician and armour-bearer. Then he killed the taunting Philistine champion Goliath, married Saul’s daughter and was given a high rank in the army. Because of his military victories, he became a national hero.
ButSaul became jealous of David and when this developed into hatred, he tried to kill him. First he hurled a spear towards him on three occasions, which would have been terrifying as Saul was a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). Then he gave him a military mission hoping that he would die in battle. After these attempts on David’s life failed, Saul remained David’s enemy for the rest of his life (1 Sam. 18:28-29). Next, Saul commanded his men to kill David. They ambushed David’s house, but his wife helped him escape that night.
David’s life had changed drastically. He now feared for his life and was a fugitive on the run from Saul and his men (1 Sam. Ch. 19-30). David said, “there is only a step between me and death” (1Sam. 20:3). He fled to Samuel in Ramah where he was given refuge among the prophets (1 Sam. 19:18). When Saul discovered David’s whereabouts, David escaped to Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-9), and then to Gath among the Philistines and from there to the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1-4; 1 Chron. 12:8-18) where 400 men joined him and accepted him as their leader. David’s parents joined him too, but for their safety he took them to Moab east of the Dead Sea. A prophet then told him to move to the forest of Hereth. Meanwhile, Saul was so desperate that he ordered the murder of 85 priests and their families who had innocently given refuge to David at Nob (1 Sam. 22:11-19).
For a while, David found himself in the bizarre situation of fighting Saul’s enemies and fleeing Saul at the same time. David and his men drove the Philistines from Keilah (1 Sam. 23:1-14) and then moved to the hill country of Judah to escape Saul in the deserts of Ziph and Maon. When Saul’s forces almost caught David’s men, they were called away to fight the Philistines. Then David escaped to En Gedi on the Dead Sea. After Saul arrived with 3,000 soldiers, David went to the region of Maon once again. David spared Saul’s life on two occasions when Saul was hunting him (1 Sam. 24:10, 26:9). He was still loyal to the king.
David and his 600 men and their families then returned to Gath and settled in Ziklag because he thought he was safer amongst the Philistines. As Saul stopped searching for them, they were able to stay there for 16 months until Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 27:1-6; 31:1-6). David was probably a fugitive for about 4-5 years; assuming he was about 16 years of age when he defeated Goliath (2 Sam. 2:2,10; 5:4).
When David was on the run as a fugitive, he hid from his pursuers; Saul and his men. His life was in danger because Saul feared and hated him. Instead of addressing the Philistine threat, Saul’s attention was diverted to the pursuit of David.
David’s songs as a fugitive
Today we see people walking and running around with headphones listening to songs. Well David also had songs in his head, but he didn’t need headphones because he was a singer, songwriter and musician!
Here are some songs that David composed when he was a fugitive, which show his feelings and responses to his burdens of life.
Psalm 59 is a prayer for deliverance when Saul’s men ambushed David’s house (1 Sam. 19:11-17).
“Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense or sin of mine, LORD.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!” (Ps. 59:1-4NIV)
He trusts in God in such times of trouble and the song finishes with praise.
“I will sing of Your strength,
in the morning I will sing of Your love;
for You are my fortress,
my refuge in times of trouble.
You are my strength, I sing praise to You;
You, God, are my fortress,
my God on whom I can rely.” (Ps. 59:16-17)
Psalm 7 is a prayer for deliverance from one of Saul’s men.
“LORD my God, I take refuge in You;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.” (Ps. 7:1-2)
The song finishes with praise.
“I will give thanks to the LORD because of His righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the LORD Most High.” (Ps. 7:17)
In Psalm 56 David experiences waves of fear and faith as he seeks refuge from Saul amongst the Philistines (1 Sam. 21:10-15; 27:1-4).
“Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.” (Ps. 56:1-2)
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4)
In Psalm 57 David fluctuates between faith in God and fear of his enemies when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22).
“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in You I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings
until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me—
God sends forth His love and His faithfulness.
I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.” (Ps. 57:1-4)
Even though God and his enemies were ever-present, the song finishes with praise.
“I will praise You, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of You among the peoples.
For great is Your love, reaching to the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let Your glory be over all the earth.” (Ps. 57:9-11)
In Psalm 142 David is overwhelmed with stress when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22). So, he prays for deliverance.
“I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
I pour out before Him my complaint;
before Him I tell my trouble.” (Ps. 142:1-2)
“I cry to You, LORD;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise Your name.” (Ps. 142:5-7)
Psalm 54 is a prayer for deliverance when the Ziphites betrayed David twice (1 Sam. 23:19-28; 26:1-4).
“Save me, 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.” (Ps. 54:1-5)
He then offered praise and thanksgiving.
“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.” (Ps. 54:6-7)
Some other songs may have been composed when David was a fugitive.
Psalm 13 is a prayer for deliverance from his enemies.
“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But 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.”
So although David felt forgotten, depressed, humiliated faced the risk of death and defeat, he finished with praise.
Psalm 17 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies who had tracked him down.
“Keep me as the apple (or pupil) of Your eye;
hide me in the shadow of Your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.” (Ps. 17:8-9)
Psalm 31 is prayer and praise for deliverance.
“But I trust in you, LORD;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in Your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.” (Ps. 31:14-15)
Psalm 109 is prayer for God’s judgement of enemies.
“My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.” (Ps. 109:1-4)
Psalm 35 is a prayer to be rescued from those who taunted him. As usual, he finishes with praise.
“May those who delight in my vindication
shout for joy and gladness;
may they always say, ‘The LORD be exalted,
who delights in the well-being of his servant.’
My tongue will proclaim Your righteousness,
Your praises all day long.” (Ps 35:27-28)
Psalm 120 is a prayer for deliverance from lies and slander.
“I call on the LORD in my distress,
and He answers me.
Save me, LORD,
from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.” (Ps. 120:1-2)
Finally, in Psalm 22 David feels forsaken by God and rejected by people and surrounded by his enemies.
“Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.” (Ps. 22:12-13)
Lessons for the children of Israel
All these songs are recorded in Scripture for the benefit of God’s people. What was the lesson for the children of Israel in Old Testament times? As a fugitive, David’s life was in danger because he was outnumbered by Saul’s men and he was under continual stress. How did he handle this burden and the fact that his father-in-law hated him? He used the weapon of prayer to get God’s help; he said “Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). He dealt with his burdens by directing them to the Lord. So, he laid the situation before God, recalled who God was, what God was able to do, and his status before God. He requested God’s help, affirmed His power, and offered thanks and praise. It was a pattern of prayer and praise. After all, David said, “I am a man of prayer” (Ps. 109:4). He also said: “In the morning, LORD, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait expectantly” (Ps. 5:3). He prayed when his mind was clear and the temperature was cool. Being “a man after God’s own heart”, he was a model for the Jews to follow (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).
David’s suffering was also prophetic of the suffering of the Messiah; they both felt forsaken by God (Ps. 22:1; Mt; 27:46) and they were both taunted with “let God rescue him” (Ps.22:8; Mt:27:43). Jesus was a descendant of David who suffered, yet was innocent. Like David, He responded to His burdens with prayer and endurance.
Lessons for us
First, are we like Saul or like David? Who do we trust? Saul trusted himself, but David trusted in God. David knew that God created the universe and rescued his nation from slavery in Egypt. Do we realise that God created the universe? Through trusting in Christ we can be rescued from the consequences of our sinful ways and have peace with God. That’s real security.
Second, if we are trusting God, we need to be careful when applying Old Testament verses to us today because since then Jesus has come and the church has formed. God’s people today are Christians whose sins have been forgiven by the death of Christ and who live under God’s grace, not the children of Israel who lived under the Old Testament laws (Rom. 6:14).
Is David’s pattern of surviving burdens by prayer, praise and endurance consistent with the New Testament? Yes it is, but with the following changes because of what Jesus and the apostles taught:
- Like Jesus, we are to love and pray for our enemies, instead of hating them like David (Mt. 5:44). Although David did respect Saul as king of Israel.
- We shouldn’t pray vindictive prayers or seek vengeance on others like David in Psalm 109, but leave such judgment up to God (1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:9). Although vindictive prayers were proper for a Jew living under the law, they are not for a Christian living under God’s grace. The time of God’s vengeance will come after the church is raptured to heaven.
- Also, we should be willing to endure suffering, taunting and slander like Jesus did and not react against it like David (Mt. 5:11-12; 1Pet. 2:20, 23; 3:9)
- Today people are not our enemies like they were for David; instead it is our sinful desires that war against our soul (1 Pet.2:1). Our enemies are within; they are internal not external (Mt. 15:11, 19). They are spiritual not physical. Keep that in mind when you read the Psalms.
There are two similarities to note between today and David’s time:
- As Saul’s men followed David relentlessly, so our emotional and spiritual burdens follow us around.
- Prayer is still important for New testament believers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Like David, let’s be people of prayer.
So although our burdens are ever present, remember that our God is also ever present and that prayer and praise are essential for surviving the burdens of life.
Written, October 2011
Life inevitably has its peaks and valleys; its good times and its bad times; its easy times and its hard times. We all experience burdens of some kind. Life doesn’t always go the way we would like it to. In this article, we look at what the Bible says about how to survive the burdens of life, which may be our circumstances, or our perceptions, or our fears and anxieties. In particular, we will focus on the example of Job who lived about 4,000 years ago, after Noah, the global flood and the ice age, but before Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. He was a godly man with eight children who was wealthy with many animals and many servants.
One day his animals were stolen and destroyed by lightning, his servants killed, and his children all died in a tornado (Job 1:13-19). Next there was health crisis when his body was covered with painful sores. They itched so badly that he scraped himself with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:7-8). Because his wife couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much, she said “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9NIV). He was tempted to give up on God; but he did not.
What a catastrophe! He lost his family, his possessions, his health and the support of his wife. His life was “full of trouble” and he suffered alone (Job. 14:1). He asked “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?”He put his questions to God. He called out to God for relief, but his prayers weren’t answered (Job 30:20). His suffering was so bad that he cursed the day he was born and wished that he had died at birth because then he would be resting in peace instead of being in misery and turmoil (Job 3:1-26). He longed for death to release him from his difficulties and troubles. He was haunted by depression, mockery and pain (Job 30:1-31).
Job had a big problem. He thought his suffering was undeserved and unfair. Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. That’s why he protested to God. His burdens and emotional struggles raise questions such as: Why do godly people suffer? Will Job’s faith endure or will he give up on God?
Job’s friend’s response
Four of his friends seek to comfort Job. Their debate is given in Job 3-37. Their argument was: God is righteous; He punishes the wicked; if Job is being punished it proved that he is wicked. But this is poor logic. Evil isn’t always punished in this life and all human suffering is not a punishment from God. Not all suffering is a direct result of sin in one’s life. For example, God can use suffering to refine the character of the godly. Instead, his friends only thought of God’s justice and not His love and compassion.
But Job defends his integrity and strenuously claims his innocence (Job 27:1-6; 31:40). He is not a wicked person.
Finally God speaks. How will He deal with the problem of Job’s suffering? Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of questions that reveal His divine wisdom and power and Job’s insignificance.
The first series of questions address the fact that God provides the conditions for life on earth (Job. 38:4-38). The examples given include: He created the earth; He provided water in clouds, rain, hail, snow, the water cycle, and the sea; He provided light; and He provided the stars of the universe. Then God asked Job, “Were you there when I made this?”; “What do you know about the natural world?”; “Can you do what I have done?”. Scientists may understand aspects of how these components of our universe work, but God is their ultimate cause; He designed them and created them.
The second series of questions address the fact that God sustains life on earth (Job. 38:39 – 39:30): The examples given include: lion; raven, ostrich, hawk, and eagle; goat, donkey, ox, and horse. God asked Job, “Do you provide food for all these creatures?”; “Can you tame wild animals?”; “Did you design and create these creatures”; “Can you manage the creation as well as God does”? Of course, the answer is “no”! Job would have felt small and insignificant compared to God’s might.
Job’s first response
“Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:3-5). Overwhelmed by God’s divine greatness, wisdom and power, Job realised his insignificance. He couldn’t answer God’s questions, but he knew what the answers were. He felt so weak that he was speechless. But now that had no more to say, he was ready to listen to God.
God’s second response
Then God responded again by asking questions about two of the greatest creatures He ever made. People debate about whether these are mythical or real and living today or extinct. The Bible says that they were real and it is clear that was familiar with these giant creatures (Job 40:15). Their description matches those of the largest dinosaurs, which are now extinct. Contrary to what many scientists say, the Bible teaches that people were on the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Behemoth, which lived on the land, marshes and rivers, was “first among the works of God” (Job 40:19). This means that it was God’s best, chief, foremost, greatest and supreme creation. Metaphors are used to convey that its skeleton seemed to be as hard as iron (Job 40:18). God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. Of course, Job couldn’t control this monster; but God controlled the world.
Leviathan lived in the sea. “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (Job 41:33). “When it rises up, the mighty are terrified” (Job 41:25). Once again God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. If no one can stand up against it, no one can stand up before its creator. After all God made everything and runs the universe! God is much greater than any of His creation.
Job’s second response
“Then Job replied to the LORD: I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).
Job was overwhelmed by God’s power and greatness and he repented of his arrogance in questioning God. He was ashamed and sorry for the things he had said. So through his suffering he gains an accurate impression of almighty God and his own failures and limitations. He thinks more of God and less of himself. He accepts his place in the universe and submits to God’s will for his life. His faith endured the test of suffering. It proved that Satan was wrong; Job didn’t curse God in his afflictions (Job 1:11; 2:5).
Although Job was, “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”; his trials led him to repent of his arrogance and pride (Job 1:8; 42:1-6). This domonstrates that pride is the root of all our sin.
The Christian view of suffering
Now we look at what the New Testament says about when God’s people suffer. “They (our fathers) disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-12).
Christians are children of God; He is our spiritual Father. As human fathers discipline and train their children, so God disciplines and trains us. As fathers love their children and want the best for them, so God loves us and wants the best for us. Fathers train their children to become mature adults; but God trains us so that “we may share in His holiness”. His goal is that we may become mature as our life becomes purified and the fruit of the Spirit grows. The result of the discipline and training is pictured as a harvest. Crops are harvested when they are mature. Christians are mature when they practice love, joy, peace, forbearance (or patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and holiness (Gal. 5:22-23).
This discipline and training is painful like it was for Job. So the suffering that Christians endure isn’t punishment, it is training and education. In many ways it is “no pain, no gain”, because it is possible to go through trials and never have them do a thing for us if we complain all the time. But if we persevere, suffering leads to patience and hope: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3). Job persevered: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jas. 5:10-11).
Christians are to endure hardship and suffering because it is divine discipline, “God is treating you as His children” (Heb. 12:7). We are to “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). If we think of all the suffering that Jesus went through for us, then we won’t become weary and give up. It can sustain us through the burdens of life.
So, don’t give up in the tough times. Persevere and endure. Hang in there like Job and Jesus did. Remember it is training for your spiritual growth. Job said “He (God) knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So the Christian view of suffering is to never complain or give up in despair.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this? Firstly, the burdens of life don’t necessarily cease at death. Although God has provided eternal life for those whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, this is only available to those who have repented and turned to trust in God’s provision like Job did. That is the only way to survive the burdens of life in the long term. The future is dark for those without God in their life. They are not survivors.
Secondly, we need to normalise burdens and suffering. Job suffered as a godly man. Even the godliest people suffer; it’s part of the normal Christian life. We need to expect it and not be surprised when it happens. God doesn’t always explain the reason for our suffering. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves because suffering is not necessarily the result of our sins, although it is a characteristic of our sinful world.
Thirdly, suffering keeps us humble. By enduring the burdens of life we can realise that God controls the universe, not us. We need to submit to His will, rather that demand that God submit to our desires. So, the suffering of the godly has a purpose, even though we often don’t realise at the time.
Fourthly, enduring suffering can be a great witness for the Lord. Job suffered. Jesus suffered. As a result, God was praised and served because He deserved it, no matter the circumstances, and not because of how they benefited, but despite the trials of life. Likewise, if we persevere in suffering, we demonstrate God’s worth. We are given the privilege of suffering for Christ and demonstrating our faith in God by enduring life’s trials (Phil. 1:29). What a witness that can be!
Fourthly, suffering develops endurance and perseverance. God’s discipline and training also helps our growth towards spiritual maturity. So, don’t give up in the tough times.
Fifthly, suffering tests our faith. Are we only serving God on the good times? That is a weak faith. Strong faith also serves God in the tough times; when you can say to God, not my will, but Yours be done. Because Job didn’t give up on God, he was an example of great faith.
Don’t be misled by people like Job’s friends who say if we follow them we can be exempt from suffering. That we will be healthy, wealthy and wise instead of suffering the burdens of life. No one is exempt from the burdens of life, particularly the godly.
Finally, those who are suffering don’t need advice. They are on the road to maturity. So don’t feel sorry for them but join them and like Job we may learn more about God and more about ourselves in the journey.
That’s how the Bible says we can survive the burdens of life.
Written, September 2011