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In the Far North July 31, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on the Psalms.
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“Fair of height is the joy of all the earth — Mount Zion in the far north;

the city of the great King.”

(Psalm 48:3 [verse 2 in English])

What does the psalmist mean when he speaks of Jerusalem as “in the far north”? Surely, Mount Zion is not in the far north, nor is it even in the northern portion of Israel. One could perhaps assert that Mount Zion is in the northern portion of the region of Judah, though that still does not seem to fit the reading of the text. Some commentators have suggested that this is a reference to the Temple being in the north-eastern corner of the city of Jerusalem, but again, such a reading seems out of place with the lofty language of the text.

The phrase, “the far north” is used 5 times in the Old Testament. Three of those cases are found in Ezekiel (38:6,15; 39:2) and seem to be used in a literal sense, speaking of the tribes from the far north that God would bring down and use to judge Judah for its sin. The fourth use of this phrase, though, is found in Isaiah 12:13. Here we find a more figurative use of the language. In this passage, God is speaking judgment upon the “son of Dawn,” or, in Latin: Lucifer. It speaks of how he is fallen from heaven (verse 12) because he set in his heart to ascend to heaven, above the stars of God, to set his throne on high — “in the far north.”

Thus, in Isaiah we find the phrase speaking not of the earthly mountain of God, but of the heavenly reality that the earthly mountain is meant to reflect. Again, that fits the context with the verse that has gone before, speaking of the glory of God’s dwelling place — a spiritual dwelling place represented on earth in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple located on Mount Zion.

This phrase, then, sets the context for that which is around it. “Fair of Height,” or perhaps we might say, “Majestic,” is the joy of all the earth. Why is God’s eternal throne room the joy of all the earth? To quote from Psalm 117 — because God has been faithful to us — God’s own. The pagan idols cannot bring blessings to the pagan peoples and thus the pagan peoples can never be a source of joy and blessing to the world. But God’s people can be and in fact, that is part of the promise that God makes to Abraham — that the world will find their blessings in his seed. Why, because the God of Abraham is not an idol made by human hands — he is the one who made human hands in the first place. He is the God who sees, who hears our prayers, and who acts in the world of men. Thus, part of our message to the unbelieving world around us is and must be, “if you seek joy in your life, come to my God and find it.”

Who then is the Great King? It is God himself. Psalm 47:2 speaks of Yahweh as the Great King over all creation and similarly, Psalm 95:3 speaks of God as the Great King over all the Gods! God is enthroned in Zion (Psalm 9:11), above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6), and he does so forever (Psalm 9:7). Thus, even when the Temple was torn down, God remained enthroned…why? It is because the throne in the Temple is nothing but the shadow of the eternal realms on high — in the far north (figuratively at least).

Greatly is Yahweh to be Praised! July 30, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Psalm 24, Devotions on the Psalms.
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“A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Qorah. 

Great is Yahweh and very much to be praised — 

In the city of our God and on his Holy Mountain.”

(Psalm 48:1-2 [verse 1 in English])

The greatness of the city of God is not found in the construction of human hands; it is not a work of men. We may admire the works of a man’s hands or the designs of his mind, but if such works drive us to worship, we are idolaters indeed. God has erected his city, kept safe from defilement, imperishable and unfading (1 Peter 1:4) until that time and day when our Lord returns again, condemns the wicked to eternal judgment, and reestablishes the heavens and the earth…then the New Jerusalem of God’s making will descend upon the redeemed earth of God’s remaking (2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 21:9-11). Then the Bride — the Church redeemed through the ages — will indeed sing praise to God in the city of our God on his Holy Mountain.

In the meantime, we are given a foretaste. The Sons of Asaph writing praises to God for his redemption even of their own family and indeed, in light of their own service in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. Jerusalem in the days of Solomon was meant as a picture…a foretaste…even a “type” of what this new creation and the New Jerusalem would be like. Yet, like all shadows, they dissolve under the light of day — in this case, under God’s judgment on the people for sin and idolatry.

The sad thing is that many, in their quest to experience the source of the type, fall in love with the type itself, settling for the picture and placing their hope in that which can and will never reveal the glory of God. Indeed, though the city was a special place even to this psalmist, it was not special in and of itself; it was special to him for that is where God dwelt. It is God’s presence that made Jerusalem glorious and that made Mount Zion holy. And when God removed his presence, the glory of the city faded fast.

Where now then does God dwell? Certainly he no longer dwells in temples made of stone or in churches made of brick and mortar — he is the creator of the universe, what house shall we construct to contain him (Isaiah 66:1). No, we are told that the Holy Spirit dwells in believers…indeed, making us even temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). No longer do we need a physical temple to mark the worship of God and no more do we need to make sacrifices — Jesus has done so once and for all time (Hebrews 10:10). Our sacrifices of praise are not constrained to the locality of a building and our lives lived out as living sacrifices, people consecrated to God’s service, take place in all of the world. Our lives are lives to be lived out in worship because God dwells within us as believers in Jesus Christ.

And, thus, when we gather to celebrate as a holy convocation on Sundays, we exalt like the psalmist here not because of the beauty or location of our building, but we exalt because God is with us and in our midst…little mobile Tabernacles and Temples gathering to give praise to God’s holy name and to remember the mighty works of our God. Indeed, Great is Yahweh and greatly is his name to be praised…but no longer just in the holy temple, but whenever God’s people gather in his name and especially when we mark that great and glorious day when our Lord and Savior raised from the dead as a promise and as a downpayment, that we too will also one day emerge victorious from the grave to the praise of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Reality of Grace in You July 28, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, particularly the ones in Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with your spirit.”

(Philippians 4:21-23)

And thus the Apostle Paul concludes his letter to the Philippian church. As we noted at the beginning of these reflections, Paul is writing from Rome during that time when he is in prison, awaiting his trial before Caesar. Yet, these words remind us that he has been busy as well, for there are many Christians attending to him in prayer and fellowship, even some believers who are in Caesar’s household. The greetings of believers, no matter where they are from, is always a sweet thing.

The final words is both a common “benediction” at the close of Paul’s letters (see 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Philemon 25) as well as a statement of assurance that God’s grace is with these saints in Philippi. Grace can only come from God himself, but the actions of the church affirm that reality. This it is both a wish and a statement of affirmation. May such be said for all of our churches.

To God be the Glory! July 24, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“And my God will fill your every need according to his abundance in glory in Christ Jesus. And to our God and Father be glory from the ages to the ages, amen!”

(Philippians 4:19-20)

Amen. May God get the glory for all things, may he reveal his glory in all things, and may he be glorified for all things as they honor his name, now and forevermore, amen. Loved ones, this is what it is all about; here is the meaning in life. God is to be glorified and the glory of the things of this world pale in comparison to the glory of the risen Christ. What more can you desire? What more can you need? Nothing.

Paul also assures the church that God will provide for their every need. Not necessarily for their every want, but God will provide for their every need. So, too, he does the same with us. Why do we worry and fret about the things of this life? Our heavenly Father knows our needs and will provide them out of his grace. Instead of worrying, pursue God’s calling on your life and his Kingdom, trust the details to him. The pagans have the right to worry but the Christian (though we often worry) does not have that right for we have a God who knows our needs and who is capable of filling them.

Paul is wrapping up his letter to the church and what better way could there be to end? To God be the glory, great things he has done!

Finances and Visits July 22, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“I have all I need, even in abundance. I have been fully provided for, having received from Epaphroditus that which was from you, a fragrant offering — a pleasing sacrifice — acceptable to God.”

(Philippians 4:18)

I think that we need not emphasize once again the significance of Paul being satisfied with whatever provision God had provided him and being grateful for the blessings sent to him through the church in Philippi. He was not a man who was always “wanting more” (apart from of the Spirit); he was a man who desired to serve and who trusted that God would provide for his physical needs.

Many of our translations have taken to rendering the first word of this verse as, “I have received payment…” or something akin to that. The Greek word in question is ajpe/cw (apecho). While the term can refer to receiving payment for goods or services offered, it can also refer to having enough to meet one’s needs at the moment — context simply determines how the word is used. Given all of the language that Paul has employed across the preceding verses, it seems odd for him to change gears and start talking about making payments, thus here I have chosen to render it as “I have all I need.”

Americans have gotten accustomed to throwing more money at a difficult situation in the belief that all problems are caused by a lack of funding. Please do not misunderstand, neither I nor Paul are saying that financial gifts are unimportant. Oftentimes those financial gifts, when rightly applied, can go a long way. At the same time, blindly throwing money in a given direction is often foolish and wasteful. And instead of just sending money in Paul’s direction, they sent money with Epaphroditus, a faithful believer and representative of the church, not only so that Epaphroditus could ensure that the funds arrived safely, but so that Epaphroditus could minister to Paul and serve alongside of him for a season. As we read the text of this letter, it is clear that while Paul has appreciated the financial support, what he valued most is the partnership in ministry that the presence of Epaphroditus represents.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if each of our churches that support missionaries with our finances, would have people from the church who were committed not only to praying for the missionaries but also who were committed to making an occasional visit to the missionaries as they serve on the field to work alongside of them, engaging in the ministry. Not only would it encourage the missionary workers, but it would also strengthen the vision of the congregation toward missions…reminding people that our work does not end at the borders of our communities…but that we are to make disciples of every nation. Indeed, perhaps in doing so, the missionary update letters back to our congregations might start looking more like Paul’s letter to the Philippians than a form letter that gets sent out to those who fund the missionary’s work.

True Ministers vs. Prosperity Ministers July 21, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“Not that I seek out the gift, but I seek out the fruit which abounds to your reckoning.”

(Philippians 4:17)

Here is the difference between Paul and the prosperity ministers of every age. Both receive the gift of the faithful gladly, but Paul is clear that seeking out the gift is not his intention; the prosperity ministers of todays age and every age are blatant in their seeking of the gift. Paul accepts the gift not because it will bring him comfort, but that he can use the gift to further the Gospel. The ministers of the prosperity gospel do seek their own comfort and revel in it. In receiving the gift, Paul is essentially giving it away for the building up of the kingdom; prosperity ministers keep the gift…to borrow the language of Jude, they are shepherds who only feed themselves (Jude 12).

But how is there a reckoning that is applied to us? Do we really earn merit from God? Not in the sense that you are likely thinking, we do not. Surely the most we can apply to ourselves is that we are unworthy servants (Luke 17:10). At the same time, being faithful with what you have and using it for the kingdom is a mark of a true believer (Matthew 25:40). Further, those who are faithful with the small things that are entrusted to them in this life will be given more responsibility (in this life — Matthew 25:21; Luke 16:10). Thus, the reckoning is that this church has been faithful in the work to which has been given to them not only in Philippi but also in the broader ministry of Paul the Apostle (and perhaps even others!). And the honor due their faithfulness will not be taken from them.

The question remains as to what motivates and drives each of us. Do we earn and gather money and gifts for our own comfort or to build the kingdom? Do we look inwardly and seek comfort or do we look outwardly and sacrifice the things of comfort for the spread of the Gospel? The latter is not an option for us if we are Christians. The bottom line is that God has called us to a task and that task is not one of personal comfort. Plus, why should we settle for the comforts of this fallen world? Of what account are they in comparison to the glories of heaven?

Be the Body July 08, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“Nevertheless, your work was beneficial in sharing the tribulation with me.”

(Philippians 4:44)

While affliction…tribulation…is often a tool that God uses to refine his people and his church, the scriptures also insist that we not seek to do so alone. Part of the reason for being a part of the body of Christ is that when one portion suffers the others are able to walk alongside of the one who is hurting and minister to them. Whether this is a result of tragedy, trial, grief, challenges, etc…, this is one of the tasks to which the church must rightly apply itself. As Paul writes, when one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Though separated by distance, this church sought to live this principle out along with the Apostle Paul…and not just as a matter of principle once Paul was arrested, but as Paul will later write, throughout his whole ministry. And their compassion for Paul was sincere; a matter of love, not a matter of duty.

For all the emphasis that Paul places on the believer imitating him as he imitates Christ; this church also leaves us a wonderful model to follow: be a body not just with those in the pew, but also with your pastors and missionaries. Rejoice with them when there is reason to rejoice, but weep with them when there is cause for grief and suffer with them when suffering and tribulation arise. Minister to those who minister to you and serve them who serve you. Be the body, don’t just talk about it.

Initiated into Excellence and Failure July 07, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“I also know how to be humbled and I know how to excel. In anything and in everything I have been initiated. Either food or hunger, excellence or failure, I can do all things in the one who strengthens me.”

(Philippians 4:12-13)

I expect that it is a fair statement to say that Philippians 4:13 is one of the most misquoted verses of the Bible. This passage is not stating that I can win an NFL contract just because I have faith (truly, I don’t have the skills!) nor is it even stating that Paul can be content in all things, though that statement is closer; the difference being that contentment often implies a degree of acceptance toward one’s situation.

In context, Paul has been stating that there is no circumstance that he fears — whether hunger or an abundance of food — whether success at what he does or failure (at least by human standards) — that he can face all of these things in the power of the one who strengthens him…namely, Jesus Christ.

How often we are tempted to judge success and failure solely on human terms. I recall when I began doing homeless ministry while in seminary, we initially envisioned that we would see revival on the streets of Jackson, MS. We didn’t and the temptation was to be discouraged. At the same time, God used this experience along with our initial setbacks and failures, to teach us an important lesson. My success or failure is not found in numbers nor is it found in terms of one’s fame or reputation; my success is found in whether or not I am being faithful to what God is calling me to do. Regardless of the fruit I see around me, the fruit that is most important is the fruit of my own obedience.

And that, loved ones, is the heart of Paul’s message in these words. The important thing is obedience. And if we face hunger or abundance, human success or failure, whether we are humbled or lifted up…the question that we must ask ourselves is whether we are being faithful to God’s call upon our lives. If we are being faithful, we can face all of these things that the world might throw at us in the strength of the Spirit. If we are not faithful, these things (even human success) will crush us under their weight.

A note should be made in terms of the word “initiated” as Paul uses it. This is the Greek word mue/w (mueo), which is understood to refer to being initiated into or made part of a group of people. The term is only found here in the New Testament, but is also found in 3 Maccabees 2:30 where it is used to refer to one who has learned the rules for living within a particular community. Today, we often use the term “initiate” to refer to one’s entrance into a secret fraternity or organization, but that is not so much the way the term was used in Paul’s era. In Paul’s era it referred to one who was not new to a given lifestyle…Paul was no amateur at ministry and in doing so, had faced plenty and hunger and he had faced successes and failures. Yet, Paul persevered in the strength of the Spirit. That is what it means to say that he had been initiated. Indeed, we should not forget that our Lord, too, endured both good times and bad times, successes and times of great humiliation and suffering, yet was infinitely faithful to the task for which he had been sent — and praise the Lord for that success!

Concern and Contentment July 03, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“So, I rejoice in the Lord greatly for even now you have blossomed in your thoughts for me. You did think about me, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I am in poverty, I have learned in everything to be self-sufficient.”

(Philippians 4:10-11)

I have ranted more than a few times in this series of reflections about our modern Bible translator’s tendency to express the idea of thinking and reasoning in terms of feelings and emotion. In verse 10 the word in question is frone/w (phroneo), which means to think or to form a reasoned opinion. Yet, as we have often seen, the ESV, the NIV, and the NASB have chosen to use the term “concern” and the KJV and NKJV have used the words “care.” While it is most certainly true, given all that Paul has already written, that when the Philippians thought about Paul and about his situation, these thoughts did evoke concern, that is an inference from the text, not what Paul wrote. Further, while we might also argue that concern should be considered a thoughtful activity, in our culture it often is nothing more than an emotional response to difficult events in the lives of those around us. So, concern is not out of line, yet the concern that is being expressed is a thoughtful concern based on reasoning through the situation their beloved friend, Paul, was in.

The last clause in verse 10 is a little awkward in English. What does it mean that they did think about Paul but lacked opportunity? The Greek word that is translated as “opportunity” is ajkaire/omai (akaireomai), which refers to the time or opportunity to act upon something. In this case, to act upon what they perceived that Paul had need of while Paul was in prison. So, he is saying that he is aware that they had been thinking of him all along, but now, in sending Epaphroditus with their love gift, they had opportunity and acted upon the thoughts that they had.

Paul reminds them that he has not been utterly impoverished but in all things he has learned to be self-sufficient (he has a marketable trade that he often used to provide for his own needs). Many of our Bibles, again, translate this as “content,” conveying that in all situations Paul knows how to be content in his trust for God…that is certainly what is being communicated in the two verses that follow this one…but not so much here. This term only shows up once here in the New Testament, but also shows up 5 times in the Apocrypha as well as once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which helps us to discern its meaning. Literally, the term aujta/rkhß (autarkas) is derived from the Greek words aujto/ß (autos — or self) and ajrke/w (arkeo — meaning to be satisfied or to have that which is sufficient for one’s needs) — thus, “self-sufficient” as has been suggested by some scholars.

When looking at the Old Testament and Apocryphal uses of the term, it seems to be used in one of two ways, either to refer to being satisfied with the provision given (content) or that of being able to endure hardships. Thus, the idea of contentment is a legitimate translation of the term as reflected in most of our modern translations. At the same time, one must ask why Paul what Paul is doing during these times of hardship — namely, we know that he is working to provide for his needs (see Acts 18:2-3 and 2 Corinthians 11:9). One might argue that I am inferring just as I charged many of our translators of doing when they rendered “think” as “concern” above, and that charge would be accurate were the literal meaning of the term not before us, which reflects the idea of self-sufficiency.

The purpose of this point is not to parse hairs but to illustrate that Christian contentment does not mean that we sit back and just rest in whatever circumstances we may happen to be in. No, as a Christian, when we are in need (real need that is), we should strive to meet that need with the skills that we have or even by learning new skills.

In many cases, Christian missionaries were expected to learn a trade before they went onto the mission field. It was a means by which they could support themselves in the context and culture that they were ministering. For many small Christian churches today, pastors are bi-vocational, providing the majority of their own financial needs through a trade while serving a church that is not in a position to support them (this I did in my first calling right out of seminary). It is certainly the right of the pastor to have his needs provided by his flock (1 Corinthians 9:18, 1 Timothy 5:17-18), but because of the needs of the congregation, it is also his right to refuse that compensation. Too often Christians fall into the trap that conveys almost a poverty mindset — God will provide so I can be content! Indeed, God does provide, but often he provides through the sweat of our brow and the labor of our hands. In the end, we need to be content, but recognize that often our contentment comes through work.

Active Learning July 01, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“Those things that you have learned and taken and heard and seen in me, engage in these things. And the God of Peace will be with you.”

(Philippians 4:9)

The idea of the disciple being an imitator of Christ by being an imitator of Paul is a theme that we have already seen in Philippians and that is common to Paul’s writings. But notice just how specific Paul is when he speaks of this here. Paul speaks of those things that the Philippian church has learned from him — their reception of Paul’s verbal instructions is in sight here. He goes on to speak of that which they have taken from him. Some of our Bibles render this as “received,” which is an equally legitimate rendering of the Greek word paralamba/nw (paralambano). I prefer to translate this as “take” in the context of learning, though, for while “receive” can be understood in a more passive sense, “take” is always understood in a more active way. It is not good enough to passively receive the instruction that Paul offers, but we must be prepared to actively engage with the ideas that Paul presents and apply those ideas to our lives and situations. Further, Paul says to learn even from those things that have been seen and heard in him.

Paul goes on and says, all that has been learned in this sense…it is this that the people of the church are to live out in their lives. For many professing Christians, faith is practiced in a more passive sense. Yet, Biblical faith is lived out in every aspect of one’s life. For many more professing Christians, the corporate worship of God’s people begins when they walk through the church doorway on Sunday mornings. Yet, imagine how different our witness would be if we saw all of the week as a time of preparation for that Sunday service of worship? Think about how much more people would get out of the service and the sermon if Christians spent the night before praying that God would help them understand both the Word and its application in the Sunday message — and then if they took notes and actively tried to live out those things that were applied from the text! Oh my, would our churches and our public witness be radically different if we engaged in this way.

So, what of this language of the God of Peace? Often peace, when referred to in this way, refers to peace from the oppression of evil. And, while the enemy will attack at every corner when the Church is faithfully being the church, God will be faithful as well and preserve his own even in the midst of trials and tribulations. So, be of good cheer, learn from Paul’s words and example and live out those things in life and while the enemy will be relentless, God is infinitely greater than all the power at the enemy’s disposal.

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