Thorny Days

“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure”

2 Corinthians 12:7

The intent of this part of Paul’s letter is not given so that we can rack our brains trying to work out what his “thorn in the flesh” was. Let us take it in its context which clearly identifies it with the temptation to pride and God’s means by which he assured Paul remained humble. Paul had been privileged to see special visions and receive special revelation from the Lord which had the potential to provoke pride. In God’s wisdom and grace there was some temptation remaining to Paul that reminded him of his past life in opposition to Jesus Christ (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15).

It may be that temptation to particular sinful thoughts and behaviour were brought to a sudden end at the time we came to faith or at some time later when we finally abandoned all to Jesus. For this grace we should be extremely grateful daily. However, it is possible that God does allow Satan to test us periodically in an area of sin that we would rather not still have. Like Paul, our requests to have the temptation removed seem to go unanswered (2 Corinthians 12:8). We can take encouragement from Paul’s experience and learn that this is God’s way of keeping us in the realm of humility and not being swallowed up in that powerful sin of pride.

We might ask how being tested can glorify God? Being tested is not a sin. Jesus was tested/tempted without sin (Matthew 4; Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). The Lord’s answer was given to Paul and he recorded it for our benefit: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (v 9). Paul acknowledges this by writing, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v 10). God’s grace is magnified in that though we are tempted, He gives grace and strength to resist yielding (1 Corinthians 10:13). In Romans 6 Paul gives an extended explanation. For our own benefit God may have chosen to allow a “thorn in the flesh” to remain for each of us. The purpose is clear – that we might remember where He brought us from and to keep us from being overcome with pride resulting from the glorious revelation He has given us and to keep us humbly walking with our God (Micah 6:8).

I’m Not That Bad

“… we preach Christ crucified: to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”

1 Corinthians 1:23

One of the most abhorrent and counter-cultural ideas in Christianity is that everyone is a sinner, and is freely offered forgiveness and redemption. Every “monster”, no matter what they have done, can be saved. Is there any sin that is too great for Christ’s atonement on the cross? No. Was his death sufficient to cover all the worst atrocities perpetuated throughout history? <strong>Yes, it was.</strong>(1 John 1:7)

This concept is anathema due to one of our greatest weaknesses – the persistent notion that at least we are “not as bad as those others”. After all, it’s insulting and degrading to be lumped into the same category as those we regard as the “worst of humanity”.

A certain man was quoted saying “Don’t compare yourself with anyone in this world. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.” (this quote is also attributed to another). This implies that we often sell ourselves short – by comparing ourselves at our worst, to others at their best. It has a grain of truth: that we fail to retain a right picture of ourselves. Although I expect the author of the quote did not intend it, a higher truth may be obtained from it: that we should instead compare ourselves with some One who is not of this world.

We ask the mirror on the wall, “who is the fairest of them all?” and the mirror replies, “You are the fairest” – but the mirror is merely parroting what we already believe to be true. The higher truth is that only through God’s eyes (as revealed in his Word) can we know ourselves truly. And only thereafter can we start to see our fellow humans in the right way as well.

We must let go of pride (Isaiah 5:21), and let go of condemnation (Romans 8:1). Instead of comparing ourselves to fallen creatures, we must set our eyes on the sinless one, Jesus, who has called us to Himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

Spontaneity

“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8

There are not many occasions in the Bible where God spells out so succinctly what He requires of us. Much of the rest of Scripture is given to reveal the myriad of examples of how to, and how not to, fulfil this requirement. Please notice that these are three things we are to do not to receive.

In this world we may want to be dealt with justly but the evidence is that this will not always be the case. Sometimes that is just as well! However, we are to always deal with others in a just and righteous manner regardless of how we are being treated. This is a description of the life of Jesus Christ in us.

Secondly we are to love mercy. When we are walking with Christ we will be as He is. He loved to show kindness to undeserving people and to forgive them when they wronged Him. We will know that we are spiritual people when we also gladly forgive those who have wronged us and no longer hold grudges. It is of no consequence whether the other person is merciful, kind or forgiving to us. If we are in Christ we will delight to show mercy and spontaneously forgive and show kindness.

To “walk humbly” is often misunderstood. In this context it is “walk humbly with your God.” This means to have a right perspective of the relationship between yourself and God. We can start by delighting in the fact that He is our Creator and Sustainer, Redeemer and Saviour. He is the One who is “all in all” and I am the one in need and who can do nothing of myself.

There is a counterfeit humility that parades itself but that has no place in the Christian’s life. Humility can never be consciously achieved because the moment we recognize it in ourselves, pride will sweep it away. Like all aspects of true Christianity the attributes of Christ are either in us spontaneously or they are not there at all. In reality we cannot manufacture Christ likeness. To say we can is to say that we can become a dog by acting like a dog. All that does is make us look foolish. The same is true in the spiritual walk with Christ, it cannot be faked and the fake cannot remain hidden.

Ministry or Manipulation

“Let each of you look out not only on his own interests, but also for the interests of others”

Philippians 2:4

There are only two kinds of Christians; but the word used to describe the two kinds may differ according to the emphasis of the writer or speaker. In this chapter Paul mentions both kinds and gives three examples of one of them.

He introduces the person who manipulates others in verse three, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit.” These people, mentioned again in 3:19, are only interested in their own position, power or comfort and manipulate others to achieve their goal. Phrases used by such people may include, “If you loved me you would …” or “You call yourself a Christian?” The motive is always the same – selfish ambition, earthly things and pride.

In contrast Paul gives three examples of people who did not manipulate but ministered to the needs of others in humble service at personal cost: Jesus, Timothy and Epaphroditus. He exhorts us to be of the same mind and develop the same characteristics. If we are abiding in Christ these characteristics will become more and more evident.

The key characteristic of Jesus that he mentions is humility. Although Jesus has the highest position; that of Creator, King of kings, Lord of lords yet he took on the form of a servant in order to redeem mankind. The cost to Him was the experience of the cross.

The main quality of Timothy that Paul mentions is also humility expressed through sacrificial service for others. People like Timothy were in short supply (v 20). Most Christians in Paul’s presence at the time were self-seeking manipulators (v 21). Timothy, on the other hand, had proven that he was one who ministered for the edification and benefit of others (v 22).

Epaphroditus is mentioned for his sacrificial service even though it nearly killed him (v 27). Clearly, this was an expression of humility also. Paul commends him for his labour as a “fellow worker and fellow soldier” who ministered to his need (v 25). Not surprisingly Epaphroditus was much loved by those to whom he had ministered before and they were greatly concerned at his ill health (v 26).

Paul’s desire for all Christians is that we have the same mind as Jesus, Timothy and Epaphroditus and, may I add, Paul.

Appealing to Pride

“We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God”

Daniel 6:5

Because Daniel was faithful in all his service and work (v 4) he was much liked by king Darius (v 3) and he was raised to authority over all other leaders and governors (vv 1 & 2). This aroused jealousy and greed in those under him and they formed a lobby group to plot his demise. They could find no just accusation against him to present to the king so they had to manufacture one and they knew that it would have to be in relation to his worship of his God.

Their scheme involved deceiving and manipulating the king by appealing to his pride. Satan has used this tactic frequently through history – because it worked and still works. Only a person who walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8) has any protection from this tactic.

Pride allowed the king to be deceived and manipulated into signing what was essentially Daniel’s death warrant. Satan’s goal has been and remains to utterly destroy Israel. If Israel is destroyed then Messiah will have no kingdom to return to and God will be proven unfaithful to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Protection of Daniel meant protection of Israel.

In recent years we have seen a lobby group seeking the demise of God’s faithful people. Like the governors of Daniel’s day they could find no legal reason to silence them so they sought to bring into being a law that would put God’s people at odds with the government. They deceived and manipulated political leaders and the people in order to have laws passed that they hoped would silence God’s people. Whether their appeal was to pride or greed in our politicians could be debated. Either way, the politicians wanted to be re-elected. Satan wants to destroy the faithful church as well as Israel.

Daniel was delivered from the lions’ mouths and the faithful church will be delivered from Satan’s power and from God’s wrath that is to come (Revelation 3:10). Those who plotted against Daniel were all destroyed (Daniel 6:24) as will all who plot against Christ’s church. To plot against Christ’s faithful church is to plot against the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Acts 9:1-5; Colossians 1:18) and, like king Darius, He will turn judgment back on those who plotted against Him.

Given Over

“So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels.”

Psalm 81:12

What could possibly provoke the Shepherd of Israel to say such a thing to the people He loves? The answer is in the earlier verses of the Psalm. Psalm 78 gives much more detail. The Lord had spoken to Israel through Moses and the prophets. They had His word but they would not hear or heed. Instead they preferred their own counsel.

Israel’s determination to do what was right in their own eyes led the Lord to cry out. “O Israel, if you will listen to Me!” (v 8). In the next verse we read that Israel had forsaken the first commandment which implies they had forsaken all Ten. Whenever we place our wisdom ahead of God’s word it reveals that we think ourselves wiser than our Creator. What an absurdity!

Sadly, we all too often hear that some in the professing church are doing the same as Israel. They take the counsel of men that is contrary to the Bible and, in so doing, they are claiming to be wiser and a greater authority than their Creator (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16, 17). The Bible is to be the measure of our lives. It is the height of arrogance for any created being to think that he knows better than his Creator. If people persist on this course Paul writes, “As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God give them over to a debased mind” (Romans 1:28).

What would have been if Israel had listened to and heeded the word of the Lord? “He would have fed them with the finest of wheat; and with honey from the rock I would have satisfied you” (v 16). Instead of receiving all the good things the Lord desired to give, their stubbornness to hear and heed the Lord meant that He gave them over to their own counsel and they reaped accordingly.

Christians are in a similar situation. The world is trying to coerce us into its mould and we must decide: will we hear and heed God’s word or will we arrogantly think we know better and accept the world’s counsel? Consider what would have been for Israel had they obeyed the Lord and what they suffered because of their arrogance. The church is also suffering because so many have replaced God’s word with their own wisdom and rejected the wisdom and authority of the Lord. “Oh, that My people would listen to Me” (v 13).

Stewards of Grace

“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. … that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 4:10,11

It has been said that each person should find out what they love doing and then find someone to pay them to do it. From a worldly perspective that seems like a good idea. For the Christian it is a little different. We are to discover what spiritual gifting God has given us and then develop it by use. In doing this we will discover that we love expressing the gift given and in the process bring glory to God. That doesn’t mean it will be without cost and hardship.

I have been asked by family members what I would like as a birthday gift and then they may choose from the items mentioned. The Bible reveals that we don’t get that choice. Each one’s spiritual gifting is at the sovereign will of God. Keep in mind that it is a gift not a reward.

Peter, the last New Testament writer to mention spiritual gifting writes that spiritual gifting is for the benefit of the whole body of Christ. Each one is to “minister it to one another.” Such gifting is not for the purpose of boasting in ourselves. That is pride and we know the origin of pride (Ezekiel 28). Spiritual gifting is not a reward for service but it is divine ability in stewardship to serve others. We will give account at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) as to how faithfully we performed this stewardship.

Spiritual gifting is an expression of the Divine attributes of Jesus Christ and leave no room for pride or boasting on our part. The exercise of spiritual gifting is all to the glory of God. As Paul wrote, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Paul and the other apostles all had spiritual gifting but exercised them for the benefit of the church and not for personal benefit. Often they paid a considerable price to enact this stewardship.

Peter writes, “… be clothed with humility” followed by, “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:5, 6). If anyone boasts with regard to spiritual gifting it reveals that they are out of fellowship with Jesus Christ and speaking on behalf of Satan. Of all people, Peter knew what it was to be humbled by God and he became a good steward of the grace gift that God had given to the church through him.

Seduced by Pride

“The king was greatly displeased with himself” Daniel 6:14

There will be times when we are displeased with ourselves – but will we seek out the root cause of those words or actions that brought about that displeasure? It is a lot easier to blame someone else, or sulk and have a period of depression until it becomes a distant and faint memory.

King Darius had brought about the downfall of the Babylonian empire. He attributed this to his own might and military wisdom. He established a new leadership consisting of people from the nations that the king of Babylon had conquered. He also attributed this to his own political wisdom.

Daniel was given the highest position in this new order but others were jealous of him. Since they could find no legitimate fault to present to the king they devised a way of creating a case for Daniel’s death. They appealed to King Darius’ pride. Their flattery found its mark in a proud heart.

Daniel had “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself” (1:8) and he would not waver from worshipping the one true God even under threat of death. The other governors, by appealing to the king’s pride, manipulated him into signing a decree that he alone should be worshipped as if he were God for thirty days. Flattery turned the king’s head so that he did not look at the consequences of his action.

Daniel was not moved by the decree. He knew the one true God and, like his friends (chapter three), he would not be persuaded or seduced into worshipping other than the Lord.

If we allow pride to have a toehold we will be vulnerable to being deceived and manipulated by others. We do need to encourage one another, but we also need to be able to discern between genuine encouragement and flattery. We also need to guard our hearts that we don’t allow even genuine encouragement to feed pride.

At the time of his seduction King Darius was not aware that it was the Lord who gave him the victory and the wisdom in establishing his rule. The Lord’s plan was for Daniel to be in the lions’ den as a means to open the eyes of king Darius. The moment in time was right because King Darius “was greatly displeased with himself” and was in a place of humility and repentance. As much as he tried he could not undo what he had done and this brought on a sleepless night of anguish. He did not try and blame someone else although he had that opportunity. He had been seduced by the leaders he had appointed and he knew that he alone was responsible for the pride in his heart.

After Daniel was safely delivered King Darius wrote, “I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God and steadfast forever” (6:26).

In this one event King Darius was saved eternally, Daniel was delivered and Israel preserved in exile in readiness for their return (9:2).

Thank the Giver

“Thus says the Lord, “You have sold yourselves for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money” Isaiah 52:3

When the Lord spoke these words through Isaiah to Jerusalem the people had turned to idolatry and away from knowledge of the Lord. This sounds much like our world today. As we consider how the Lord dealt with Israel we will gain an understanding of how He will deal with people now.

The book of Isaiah makes it clear that the Lord’s intent is to redeem Israel. By the time we get to chapter 51 the Lord is pleading with Israel to “Listen to me,” stated three times. God wants to be heard but the people were not listening. Our world is not listening to God’s word either. There are few who really want to hear what God has said.

For those who do listen there is another step. The Lord then says to Israel, also stated three times, “Awake, awake.” It is not enough to just hear what God is saying but to respond to it. As our world is today so was Israel then. People who expect utopia on earth without Christ are dreaming. Israel had tried everything to keep safe. They attempted to build their own military, they had paid tribute to other nations and they had bought mercenary armies and yet they still suffered. For all their attempts to buy freedom they had failed. The Lord says they sold themselves for nothing. Their treasuries were emptied for no gain. All attempts that people make to buy deliverance the Lord says are futile.

Many people seek forgiveness and salvation but they want to be able to boast that they achieved it by their own effort, merit and wisdom. Such is the nature of pride. Paul responds to this by writing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the Gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

It goes against pride but forgiveness of sin and salvation are a gift from God. The Lord says through Isaiah, “You shall be redeemed without money” (52:3). Israel will be redeemed as a gift from the Lord. In this we observe the Divine Nature of God. In chapter 53 the Lord describes how He will do it. That chapter is a description of Jesus Christ at His crucifixion and resurrection. In a nutshell we have it in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus Christ is the Gift. Those who receive Him are the children of God (John 1:12). Later Paul would write, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The Lord’s plea with Israel and with all people today is to cease futile efforts to buy forgiveness and salvation with money, by acts of righteousness, by personal achievement, or religious ceremony and ritual, and simply receive forgiveness and salvation as the Gift it is in Jesus Christ. There is only one thing left for us to do. When we have received a gift, we thank the giver.

Nipping At Our Heels

“Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live” Isaiah 38:1

In my teenage years I frequently and often worked in my neighbour’s dairy in school holidays and weekends. He had a black and white border collie dog named Rastus that had a particularly useful skill for rounding up the cows. At considerable risk he would nip the heels of a cow and then drop flat on the ground to avoid the inevitable hoof flashing over his head. For extra fun he would also have a swing on a cow’s tail. He lived to a ripe old age without ever being hit by a hoof. King Hezekiah had a dog nipping at his heels as well, a dog called pride.

The apostle Paul would later write, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain … I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:21-23). Paul’s desire was to be with the One he loved but he was willing to postpone that joy for the sake of the mission Jesus had given him. Let us compare that with King Hezekiah.

When Hezekiah was told of his impending death he went to the Lord asking for more time. We can discern his motive by his prayer. It was quite different to Paul’s desire. His request was based on his earthly position. He wanted to enjoy and boast of the earthly blessings God had given him in preference to the joy of actually being with the Lord. There is no suggestion that he wanted to remain for the sake of God’s will or God’s people.

This becomes even more obvious when the messengers from Babylon came to visit. He showed them “the silver and gold, the spices and precious ointment, and all his armoury – all that was found among his treasures. There was nothing in his house or in all his dominion that Hezekiah did not show them” (Isaiah 39:2). The dog named pride was nipping at his heels guiding him to a gate called “Stumbling” and he did not resist it. He boasted as if he had obtained all he enjoyed by his own effort. Pride will dog us all of our earthly lives so we need to learn how to recognise it and make our resistance effective.

We need to regularly check our motives as to whether we love Jesus Christ or just the blessings He gives. Hezekiah loved the worldly blessings in preference to the Giver of the blessings. Consequently he desired a longer life on earth absent from the Lord. In the end he lost it all and all the good he had previously done for Israel unravelled after he died.

What if the Lord should say these words to you today? As we consider our response we will discover whether it really is Jesus we love or whether it is just the blessings He gives. Will you respond like Paul or like Hezekiah? When it is Jesus we love we will readily receive His command to come home and ask for no delay. His timing will be perfect.