Monday, August 27, 2012

Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me. (Saul becomes Paul)

Hello everyone.  Sorry about the week of silence.  I assure you it wasn’t intentional.  I thought about you each and every day, but I never could quite put words together to summarize and extend last week’s lesson – that is, until yesterday.  I had a song in my head – “Spirit of the Living God.”
            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
            Melt me.  Mold me.  Fill me.  Use me.
            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.

We’re moving past our study of Jonah and Nineveh, but the question that Jonah prompted isn’t answered or forgotten with the turn of a page or two:  As ministers of the Gospel (which each and every believer is called to be), what responsibility do we have to those with whom we’ve shared God’s Word – as Jonah shared it with the people of Nineveh?

To help us get a better grasp on God’s answer to that question, last week we began looking at the apostle Paul.  Specifically we looked at his life as Saul – starting with Acts 13:1-2, but quickly jumping to Acts 22 where we read Paul’s first-hand account of what God had done for him.  The process started with melting. 

MELT ME.  MOLD ME.  In Acts 22:4-16, Paul – arrested by the Roman army and consequently in their protective custody – testified to the story of his own conversion (originally told in Acts 9).  Saul literally melted to the ground on his way to Damascus when confronted by Jesus Himself.  Over the next 10-12 years, God continued the process of melting away the old Saul and molding him into His “chosen instrument … to bear [God’s] name before the gentiles and kings and the descendants of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

FILL ME.  Part of the prophecy Ananias spoke over Saul in Acts 9 was recovery of his sight.  He also said that Paul would “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (vs. 17).  We see (vs. 18) that Saul received his sight and wasted no time being baptized, but I find it very interesting that we‘re not told that Saul was immediately filled by the Holy Spirit.  I’m not saying Saul didn’t receive the Holy Spirit upon his baptism in Damascus!  Rather I’m saying that there is a difference between a new believer receiving God’s Spirit and one being “filled unto all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).  So if Saul wasn’t immediately and completely filled with the Holy Spirit, when did it happen?  I’m not sure when it happened, but we know it did.

I told you that we started last week in Acts 13:1-2.  If you read on, we get a glimpse into the first days and weeks of Saul’s first missionary journey (10-12 years after his conversion).  It is in Acts 13:9 that we read the name Paul for the first time in Scripture.  It slips by almost as an after-thought:  “Saul, who is also called Paul …”  But an afterthought, it definitely is not.  Saul is never again used (except with Paul referring to himself before this moment in time).  Coincidentally, or NOT, it is also the time we read of the definite fulfillment of Ananias’ prophecy – that Saul would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17).
USE ME.  Vessels are filled to be used.  In that moment, Saul – the re-formed (Yes, I know it isn’t hyphenated; it’s play on “mold me.”) Jewish Pharisee – came face-to-face with another Jewish man who was “perverting and making crooked the straight paths of the Lord and plotting against His saving purposes” (Acts 13:10).  I imagine it was like looking at himself in the mirror.  It had taken years for God to melt away Saul’s old self, mold him into God’s chosen instrument, and fill Saul to the point of overflowing with His grace and power.  Now instead of being the one with blinded eyes, God gave Paul eyes to see into the dark soul of Elymas.  God used Paul to blind the eyes of this self-proclaimed wise man.

Scripture suggests that Elymas’ blindness was temporary (Acts 13:11), but we never again hear from Elymas to know the end of his story.  Saul had come full circle and was beginning a new one – his first missionary journey – as Paul.  I wonder who God used to restore Elymas’ physical sight.  I wonder if, in receiving back his physical sight, God restored Elymas’ spiritual sight as well – molding, filling, and using him to further advance His kingdom and glorify His name.

…In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to travel with Paul on his missionary journeys and check on the churches he ministered to through his letters.  I hope you’ll join us!

            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
            Melt me.  Mold me.  Fill me.  Use me.
            Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Weight of the World (Nahum)

In the last month, God put something on my heart.  This past Sunday was the day to do it.  From the moment I woke up, God allowed me to physically feel the weight of my burden.  I had an ache in my chest a heartache, I guess one that pressed down more and more throughout the day.  Late in the day, I finally surrendered myself to the burden God had placed on my heart.  ‘Surrendered’ does not carry a positive connotation in our culture.  Society tells us that only the weak – the powerless surrender, and yet in surrendering to God’s will in that moment, empowerment is what I felt.
Nahum begins the book that bears his name with these words:  “The burden of Nineveh” (Na 1:1a).  Like my burden, I first read this to be something that weighed heavily on Nahum, but when I looked up the Hebrew word Nahum used, it was not a “burden” in the sense of being weighed down.  His burden was “the thing to be lifted up” (Na 1:1a, Amplified).
Years before God gave Nahum words to speak, Isaiah prophesied about the coming judgment on the Assyrian nation for its oppression of God’s people.  One verse stuck out to me as particularly interesting given the opening words of Nahum’s book:  “And it shall be in that day that the burden of [the Assyrian] shall depart from your shoulders…” (Isa 10:27a).  (For those of you who aren’t sure how we got from Nineveh to Assyria … we have been in Assyria all along.  Nineveh was a great city in the nation of Assyria.)  The burden would depart from Judah’s shoulders when Nahum lifted it up to God.
In the Bible the shoulders are a symbol of power and strength, the second half of Nahum 1:1, tells us that this book was a “vision” (i.e. a revelation from God).  In lifting his burden from his shoulders, Nahum himself was given power from God power to prophesy regarding future events concerning the nation of Assyria and its coming destruction.
There are times in our lives when we feel that we carry the weight of the world on our own shoulders.  The problem is that God did not create us to do this.  If we insist on carrying our own burdens, He will allow us to feel the weight of it until we come to a point of lifting it up to Him through Jesus Christ. I wonder what burdens are weighing you down burdens from which God desires to release you.  Lift them up to Him today.  He’s big enough!
            “Casting the whole of your care (all your anxieties, all your worries, all your 
           concerns once and for all) on Him, for He cares for you affectionately and cares 
           about you watchfully.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

So close ... and yet so far (Jonah 4+)

The book of Jonah ends so abruptly that some of us may have turned the page looking for Jonah’s response to God’s question in Jonah 4:11 (last verse in the book of Jonah):  “And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons not [yet old enough to] know their right hand from their left, and also many cattle [not accountable for sin]?” (Amplified Bible).  If we did – turn the page, that is – we would not have found Jonah’s response to God’s question; rather we would have run head-on into the book of Micah.  Maybe Micah is a continuation of Jonah?  The first few verses of Micah 1 show that isn’t true.  So what’s the rest of the story?!
To get our first clue, let’s go to Matthew 12:38-42.  Take a minute to read it.  You can use if you don’t have your Bible with you.
In these verses, Jesus first references Jonah.  Jonah’s is the only sign Jesus will give to them.  “For even as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (vs. 40).  Going into verse 41, we see that Jesus extends the parallel to include Nineveh as well.  “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this evil generation and condemn it” (vs. 41, emphasis mine).  Two things struck me in this verse.  (1) I started wondering about the word “condemn.”  It seemed strange to me that people spared from punishment would be so quick to condemn others.  Hmm…
Let’s take a quick trip over to Matthew 25:31-46 – another passage talking about the judgment.  This one says that Christ will separate His sheep from the goats (vs. 32-33).  When the sheep are welcomed into the eternal kingdom, they don’t stick their tongues out at the goats.  They don’t even do a victory dance.  We’re told instead that they wonder aloud why they have been granted such a privilege.  The goats on-the-other-hand protest their sentence of punishment (vs. 44).  Can’t you just imagine it?  When Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, it was a tricky test.  Come on in.”, the herd would have started pointing fingers (or hooves) at each other, comparing crimes … how one wasn’t nearly as bad as the others!
Back to Matthew 12 and the second thing that struck me in verse 41...  (2) Nineveh (and for that matter the queen of the South, vs. 42) would “stand up with this evil generation.”  With Matthew 25 fresh in my mind, I keep picturing a courtroom and hearing the phrase, “Would the defendants please rise.”  The words of condemnation from the people of Nineveh don’t come out of a place of righteousness [right standing with God]; rather they seem more and more to be a desperate attempt at mercy in the heavenly courtroom  – mitigating circumstances, if you will.
I know there are some of you out there saying, “But God spared Nineveh.  The book of Jonah says so!  You said so!"  Does it?  Did I?  Before you sign-off (never to return again), let’s finish Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 12.  Please read verses 43-45.  Jesus transitions from talking about Nineveh (and, yes, the queen of the South) to an illustration of an unclean spirit leaving a man.  The unclean spirit leaves (presumably by eviction), and everything gets tidied up.  The problem is that the space the spirit occupied is left empty.  After a while, the spirit does a drive-by – maybe for old times’ sake.  Seeing that nothing/no one has filled the vacancy, it breaks in; this time with friends.  “And the last condition of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Matt 12:45). 
I submit to you that that is exactly what happened with Nineveh.  The fasting and mourning (Jon 3) evicted the unclean spirits from the city, but when nothing filled the void, they were like foreclosed homes just waiting for squatters.
I ask you today, Are there areas in your life from which you have driven unclean spirits (addictions, attitudes, behaviors, etc.)?  If so, the spaces have to be filled with God’s Word.  The sword of the Spirit is the only weapon that can keep those things from coming back (Eph 6:17)!
Next week, we’ll be talking about what we know (beyond my hunches discussed today) about Nineveh’s fate.  The final words of Jonah 4 were so close … and yet so far.
(Chad, how’s that for a teaser?!)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Head & the Heart (Jonah 4)

This week we looked at Jonah 4, which contains Jonah’s response to God extending His mercy beyond the borders and people of Israel to Nineveh.
“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God revoked His [sentence of] evil that He would do to them and He did not do it [for He was comforted and eased concerning them].  But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was very angry.”
            (Jon 3:10-4:1, Amplified, emphasis mine)

Of all things, when studying for this lesson, I found myself wondering, “What is ‘it‘?” (i.e., “it” from verse 4:1).  What was it that made Jonah so angry?  Maybe it was what we talked about last week how readily the people of Nineveh accepted his message and repented of their wickedness.  I imagine Jonah getting all puffed up thinking about how much trouble God had gone to in order to get him to Nineveh.  If this mission was important enough to send a storm and then hijack a great fish for 3+ days until Jonah cried ‘UNCLE,’ he had better be ready for grueling days in this pagan city.

I imagine Jonah entering “into the city a day’s journey” thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be pretty, but obviously there’s no other man for the job!’ (Jon 3:4, dramatization).  Then Jonah opens his mouth having prepared himself for a hostile audience; instead, the king himself commands everyone (down to the cattle) to fast and mourn their sins by putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes.  To say their quick repentance was a let-down for Jonah is probably a gross understatement.

Can’t you just hear Jonah’s thoughts?!  ‘If the people of Nineveh were so ready to receive and accept Your word, then why was it so important that I deliver the message?!’  If we look closely at the remainder of Jonah 4, it becomes apparent that Jonah’s calling was as much (if not more) about Jonah and his own relationship with God as it was about the people to whom he would minister. 

Jonah’s journey to the city of Nineveh was just the beginning; God had another journey in store for Jonah.  It was only eighteen inches more, but it was “the longest journey a man must take … the eighteen inches from his head to his heart” (author unknown).  Jonah knew God – His nature, what He could (can) do (see Jon 4:2) – but Jonah’s knowledge of God held by the boundaries of his mind.  As Jonah sat east of Nineveh waiting for what would or would not happen to that great city, God used a gourd and cutworm to lead Jonah those last eighteen inches.