Monday, February 29, 2016

"What happens when you substitute 'religion' for the one true God?"

Day #61

Scripture Reading:  Judges 17 - 21 ...

People are so easily deceived into believing that religion is what you and I decide it should be.  Such thinking inevitably begins with the rejection of God's Word and goes from there.  Any "god" will do, any religion will do ... we'll just make it up as we go.  So when people and churches today begin to pick and choose what they want to believe from the Bible, and when they want to mix all religions together to come up with something that will not offend anyone and "just bring people together" ... the book of Judges describes in gory detail what happens next.

These chapters describe those who were called to be "the people of God" - Israel.  The twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob (whose name God had changed to "Israel"), were nearly settled in the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But all was not well.  The tabernacle, where the people were supposed to worship the one true God, was tucked away in Bethel (20:26-27), with the Ark of the Covenant, but the people went on about their lives as though God were some lucky charm.

In chapter 17, a man named Micah "bought" a priest, one of the Levites, who were chosen by God to serve at the tabernacle.  He accepted the gods of Micah and used them to worship "the LORD," the true God ... the ONLY God.  When the men from the tribe of Dan came and discovered that Micah had a priest "all to himself," they took him, along with the idols he had made.  They said, "Isn't it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man's household" (18:19).  That was like asking, "Isn't this sin better than that sin?"  Disobedience to God is just that ... and it is defined by God and not by men.  Then the men of the tribe of Dan "set up for themselves the idols" (18:30-31) and claimed to be worshiping the LORD!

What follows in chapters 19-21 is some of the most despicable behavior described in Scripture.  The men of Gibeah were like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we know what God did to them.  Some have said that this was what men did in those days and how they treated women, but this is not the case.  These men claimed to know God, but they didn't!  They had long since substituted religion for the worship of God.  When the Levite cut up the woman and distributed pieces of her body throughout all of Israel, the Israelites acted all "holy" and came against them.  They said, "Surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel" (20:13).  But what followed was a picture of the problem that was taking place in those days.

War broke out between the army of the tribes of Israel and the army of the tribe of Benjamin.  The Israelites asked the LORD who should go up to fight against their brothers, the Benjamites, and supposedly the LORD told them, "Judah."  So they went to fight against them, but 22,000 Israelites died.  The next day they asked the LORD again and He supposedly told them to go fight again.  This time 18,000 more Israelites died.  Then they went to Bethel and "inquired of the LORD" (20:27) and God supposedly told them, "Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands" (20:28).

So the Israelites defeated the Benjamites and killed 25,000 of their brothers.  Then they felt guilty that the men who had survived from the tribe of Benjamin had no wives to become a tribe again, so they killed all the men and women of Jabesh Gilead (the only ones who had not participated in the war), and took the young virgin women and gave them to the men of the tribe of Benjamin.  And when they needed a few more, they helped them steal them from the city of Shiloh.  And what is even more incredible is people trying to explain this behavior.

God gives the explanation four times in these chapters:  "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).  Religion in the place of the worship of God leads to all sorts of sinful behavior that defy explanation, except for the depravity of men who are deceived by Satan himself.  God did not tell the Israelites to go up against their brothers.   If that had been the case, 40,000 of them would not have been killed in two days.  They convinced themselves that God told them to do what they already wanted to do.  So it is with most, if not all, of the religious wars of our day.  Men want to fight.  There are times when governments must fight to defend the lives of those they govern.  God has ordained government to punish wrongdoers and to defend the innocent (Romans 13:1-8).  But religious wars fought "in the name of 'god'" lead to the type of mass murder that is going on throughout the world today, as it was in the days of the Judges.

As Christians we are not called to be pacifists, but we are called to recognize that as followers of Christ we must know His Word and seek His will in our lives as His people.  "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit."  Power and deception make horrible partners.  The solution ... the ONLY solution, is the return of the true King, who will destroy all His enemies with His righteous judgment and anger, and usher in His eternal kingdom.  Those who claim Jesus as King today must watch and wait, as we serve and work, proclaiming His truth, loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us.

God's plan was unfolding, even during the period of the Judges.  These things are written for us as warnings not to do what they did ... not to mix religion with the worship of the one true God ... not to mix the worship of other gods with our worship of the LORD, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  Jesus is the King of kings and the LORD of lords; there is no other king.  And He WILL reign over the nations, and His kingdom will never end.  Worship God today and proclaim the good news of His grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus!

"Our Father in heaven, how horrible to see the depravity of mankind and the foolishness of men who declare that they are worshiping You as they worship idols made in their own image.  Give us wisdom for this day in which we live, as we read and believe Your Word and as we seek Your guidance throughout our lives.  Give us strength to be ambassadors of a kingdom this world knows nothing about, and to stand firm in the face of adversity.  This we pray in Jesus' name, Amen"

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"'Vengeance is Mine!' says the Lord"

Day #60

Scripture Reading:  Judges 12 - 15 ...

PEOPLE!!  How does God put up with us?!  The consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God have plagued the world since Adam and Eve first sinned against God in the Garden of Eden.  Being blind to the truth about God and focusing on the physical world rather than the spiritual world, people throughout the centuries have continued to look for strength and power in all the wrong places.  Instead of seeking God, living by faith, trusting God’s wisdom and truth, obeying God’s commands, people go their own way and think that somehow they will be the first to avoid the consequences of God’s judgment that we all deserve.  Such foolishness abounds as much today as it did in the days of the Judges.

The Judges, Israel, the Philistines and Samson ... they were all characters in a real-life drama in which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was at the center.  We have seen that this roughly 300-year period in the history of Israel revealed both the depth of mankind's depravity and the wisdom, power, mercy and grace of God as He brought judgment on Israel's enemies and, at times, upon Israel, yet continued to save a remnant who believed and trusted in Him.  Unless God determines to show His favor upon individuals or nations, we remain in a spiritual darkness that overwhelms the soul and leads to despair.  This explains the state of many people you know, who are living around you, perhaps even in your own home.  This explains the actions of people at work or school or in positions of authority.  As you read the book of Judges you see not only what life in Israel was like, but what life in the nations around Israel was like!  PEOPLE!!

It would have been easy for Israel to be overcome by their enemies at any time during this period.  They had no central leadership among the twelve tribes, they had no unified commitment to worship the one true God, who had brought them into the land in fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they had no unified army to fight against their enemies.  They were utterly and totally helpless ... EXCEPT for the God who had chosen them out of all the nations of the world to be His own possession.  God had promised to bring the Savior from these people, from the tribe of Judah, so He now preserved them, saved them, even from themselves! 

The Judges whom God raised up and empowered were extremely flawed people for the most part who, like Samson, made serious errors in judgment. Yet, a clue to God's work during this period is found in Chapter 14, verse 4, as God chose Samson to lead Israel:  "His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel."  When you and I do not understand why certain things happen among the nations of the world, it is good to keep in mind that God sees a much bigger picture than we do.  He is at work in a thousand ways “behind the scenes” to accomplish His purposes.  And He uses even the evil of leaders and armies to bring to pass all that He has promised to do.

The Philistines (who lived in the land presently occupied by the Palestinians - the Gaza Strip), were a thorn in the flesh for Israel.  We will hear more about them in the future (Hint:  Goliath was a Philistine!).  Having occupied the land before God brought Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land, the Philistines were continually opposed to Israel and were at this time exercising authority over them, making life miserable for the tribes of Israel.  Not much seems to have changed in our day!!  Isn’t it amazing that this battle continues after more than 3,000 years?!!!

It was God's intention and desire to deal with the Philistines and to point those in Israel back to Him.  "Judgment" and "vengeance" are not words used today when referring to the God who reveals Himself in His Word, in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the world around us.  But God has not changed.  The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35:  “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:  ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  God is storing up His wrath, but judgment WILL come!

So why all of the bloodshed?  Why did God use people like Samson to bring judgment on peoples and nations?  All of this points to God's plan to bring HOPE, to bring salvation - deliverance from His wrath ... through the death of His own Son on the cross.  It is the cross of Jesus Christ that stands as the centerpiece of God's plan to gather a people for Himself from every people, tribe, nation and tongue.  No other religion - NONE - either understands God's holiness and His just wrath and judgment, or understands God's mercy and grace in providing a Savior to take the place of those who are chosen by God to be His special people.  What is sad today is that many in the church who claim to believe in this one true God do not truly know Him or honor Him as God.  Instead, they question the justice of God and refuse to believe that God will ultimately bring His vengeance upon anyone!

John's Revelation, the conclusion to God's prophecies about the future, displays clearly what God is about to do ... much as He did to the Philistines ... but we are told by many today that the book of Revelation is symbolic and is not to be taken literally.  Here is truth:  There is one God.  He is God in the Old Testament, during the time of the Judges; and He is God in the Gospels, as He sends His Son to take upon Himself a human nature to seek and to save the lost.  He is God in the New Testament, as the Gospel of grace is spread throughout the world, He is God today, as He withholds the final judgment until the last of His sheep is found ... and He is the God who will release His wrath in full measure on all those who have rejected Him and His offer of salvation in His Son, the only HOPE ... Jesus Christ!

Learn from these pages of history from the past.  Receive God's offer of forgiveness today as you come to Him through faith in Jesus, and find peace, hope and joy ... for a lifetime ... and MORE!!

"Heavenly Father, YOU alone are God!  I praise You because You are worthy of praise.  You are perfect in all Your ways and You rule over all You have made.  Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever!  Thank You, Father, for the gift of Your Son and for Your amazing, amazing grace.  In Jesus' name, Amen" 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Don't do that!"

Day #59

Scripture Reading:  Judges 7 - 11 ...

Gideon’s “fleece” became known throughout the world for centuries as a method for determining God’s will in your life.  You “put out a fleece,” you take a step in a certain direction to see whether or not that’s the way God wants you to go.  In other words, you put God to the test to see if what He has already said in His Word applies to your current situation!  Many think this is a good thing, but in the case of Gideon, and some of the other “judges” of Israel, the result was often a hesitant obedience that brought negative consequences in one form or another.  Delayed obedience reveals a lack of faith in God’s Word and often leaves room for people to manipulate God’s direction.  It’s like saying, “I’ll pray about it,” when you already know what God wants you to do.

Those who know the book of Judges know that the cycle during this period of Israel's history repeated itself often:  Israel sinned against God by worshiping other gods, God sent their enemies to oppress them, they eventually cried out to the LORD for deliverance, God sent them a "Judge" to lead them into battle and delivered them from their enemies.  Israel worshiped the LORD ... for a time ... then the cycle repeated itself again.  For many people today who claim to believe in God it seems that not much has changed.  Some try to make deals with God during times of crisis and then return to their former way of living.  Consistent obedience is the result of the new birth, of the work of the Holy Spirit within those who are truly God’s people.  Examine your life to make sure you are not caught in this cycle of disobedience and discipline because in truth it is a cycle that results from unbelief!

When reading the book of Judges you should not expect to see devotion to the LORD rising from the masses.  You may remember Judges 2:10:  "After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel."  Even the Judges that God used to deliver His people were very flawed people and did some horrible things in the name of God.  Their way of life was certainly not pleasing to God and it was a dark time, not only in the history of the world, but in the history of Israel.  The fact that God used such people to bring deliverance to Israel should not lead us to think that God somehow approves of such actions.

All of this was still preparation for the time of the kings of Israel, which would point to the coming King, the Messiah, Jesus.  Human nature, left to itself, reveals exactly what we read about in Judges.  People refuse to worship the one, true God, their Creator.  The vast majority of people in the world remained in utter spiritual darkness, even up to the birth of Jesus some 1300 years later.  God explains this time in the New Testament, in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10:

"I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ!   Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert" (I Corinthians 10:1-5).

Then Paul goes on to say, "Now these things occurred as examples to keep US from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.  Do not be idolaters, as some of them were ...  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did ... We should not test the Lord, as some of them did ... And do not grumble, as some of them did" (I Corinthians 10:6-10).

"These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!!" (I Corinthians 10:11-12).  This is the context for a very familiar verse, I Corinthians 10:13 ... a verse that talks about temptation.  When you read the book of Judges you see human nature giving in to every temptation imaginable (and some unimaginable!).  And things have not changed with regard to human nature on this side of the cross.  What HAS changed is the pouring out of the Spirit that produces a heart change in the lives of believers.

Satan, the world and our own flesh tempt us continually to turn away from God, to go our own way and do our own thing.  It is THIS temptation that is spoken of in verse 13:  "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."  The judges of Israel were able to deliver them from their visible, outward, worldly enemies, but they could not deliver the people from their inward enemy, their own sinful nature.  Only Jesus Christ, the promised Savior, could do that through His death and resurrection.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, God gives to believers today the power to overcome such foolish and obvious temptations ... idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord, grumbling and complaining against God.  Yet, still today there are those who turn to other gods, who seek pleasure in the things of the world and who question God when things do not go their way.  As difficult as it is to read the book of Judges and to witness the depravity of those who were called to be the people of God, except for the grace of God through our risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ and the work of His Spirit within us, our lives would not look any different!

God's judgment would fall on them, in this world and at death.  How much more will God's righteous judgment fall on those who worship other gods and who turn away from Him today.  HE alone is God; there is no other, and He alone is worthy of our worship, praise and service.

"Heavenly Father, we acknowledge that sin lies within us and it is only by Your grace through faith in Your Son, Jesus Christ, that we can draw near to You for forgiveness and life.  Father, begin with me ... fill me with Your Spirit and empower me to overcome the sin that remains in me, so that I may love You, worship You and serve You with joy, rejoicing in Your goodness and love and living to make You known in the world, for Your glory.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Friday, February 26, 2016

"A generation who knew not the LORD!"

Day #58

Scripture Reading:  Judges 1 - 6 ...

The fact that there is only one true God used to be accepted as truth by the majority of those in our nation.  Religious “diversity” has perhaps been commonplace in other nations of the world, and to some extent in our own, yet something "new" has occurred in the past few decades: a turning away from the one true God, our Creator, who has revealed Himself in His creation, in His Word and in His Son, Jesus Christ. More and more and more people believe that it doesn't matter what you believe ... or IF you believe.  All of this points to one of two things:  judgment from God ... and/or the soon return of Jesus and God’s final judgment on the world. While that doesn't sound like much of an option, it is the reality of God's dealing with those who turn away from Him.

The first few chapters of the book of Judges explain this disastrous shift in Israel, the nation that had been chosen by God to display His wisdom, holiness, power, justice, truth and faithfulness.  Chapter one records that when the tribes of Israel first entered the land God had promised to them, "the LORD was with them" (1:19,22).  But then the Israelites disobeyed God by failing to drive the people who lived in Canaan out of the land, as God had told them to do.  God told them, "They will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you" (2:3).  This may be hard for some people to accept.  What right did the Israelites have to this land in the first place? That question continues to be asked today!  The answer is in Genesis 12-17:  God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendants.  How could God do this?  Questions such as these often arise because people have not read the Bible and do not know the God who is holy and just, and who carries out judgment on those who do not worship Him.

The simple reality facing our world today is that the majority of people in every nation, including our own, do not know God!  It is impossible to understand God's judgment unless you believe He is worthy of worship and perfect obedience, and that those who worship other gods bring His just judgment upon them.  When you understand that, you quickly realize the implications of Judges 2:10:  "After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel."  This was a people who had received every possible blessing from the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and had then disobeyed His Word and turned and worshiped idols, the gods of the nations around them.

God brought judgment on Israel ... but He did not abandon them.  Now we read, "Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them" (2:15).  Having the one true God fighting against you is a scary proposition.  Still God showed His mercy and grace.  Chapter 2 reveals a cycle that continued for some three hundred years.  As the people of Israel turned away from God, He sent enemies against them.  Then they were oppressed by their enemies and cried out to the LORD, and He heard them and sent "Judges" to deliver them.  But as soon as God saved them from their enemies, they settled into their everyday lives again, forgot about the LORD, their God, and turned once again to idols. 

The “judges” themselves were sinful people who sometimes obeyed God and sometimes went their own way.  God used them to deliver His people, but when the judge died the people once again “did evil in the eyes of the LORD.”  God sees the way people live.  He sees your sins and He sees mine.  And sin deserves God’s judgment.  From time to time God would give them a period of peace, yet they would inevitably return to their evil ways.  We’ll talk more about Gideon tomorrow, but the clear pattern of Israel and their leaders was one of sin, judgment, crying out to the Lord for help, God’s deliverance, peace ... and then the cycle would start all over again. 

How much like them are people today?  So many claim to believe in God, to know God, even to worship God, yet they live on this merry-go-round of spiritual death where God is treated like a lucky rabbit’s foot when troubles come, but otherwise ignored and put in the drawer for safe keeping until the next crisis occurs.  How foolish to worship the idols of the world around us, to give in to the temptations of the flesh and the world.  John writes in I John 2:15-17:  “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

Since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God has sent the message of salvation throughout the world, beginning in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and extending throughout the nations.  Is there a nation today where the Gospel has not been proclaimed?  There is one true God, one Savior, and one way to come to God - through faith in Jesus Christ.  Those who believe are saved, no matter what nation they live in or what language they speak, or what race they may be.  But those who do not believe will face God's judgment.  God could not and did not ignore the sins of Israel, and He cannot and will not ignore the sins of the people of the nations in our world today. 

God's wrath and judgment are already being seen in many ways in our nation and the nations of the world.  Only repentance, confessing our sin and turning from it, placing our faith in Jesus Christ, can bring God's forgiveness and even deliver a nation from His judgment.  The same is true for you!  God knows those who are His and calls us to come to Him, to worship Him, to serve Him, to proclaim His name and to trust Him ... as we wait and watch for His judgment to come.

Find your hope in the LORD, the God of Israel, the God of all who believe in His Son Jesus Christ, the only true God.  He is worthy of your praise, your worship and your love!

"Father, help us to teach our children to know You, to love You and to serve You!  Pour out Your Spirit upon those who are truly Your people today, that we may be faithful to You, our God.  Forgive us our sins and renew our strength to serve You and to proclaim Your name to the nations.  In Jesus' name, Amen"