Friday, February 24, 2017

Paul I Recognize, But Who Are You?

          There might not be a more humorous story in all of Scripture than an account given in the 19th chapter of Acts where some “itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of Jesus over those who had evils spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus who Paul proclaims.’”  The evil spirit’s response was “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”
         After this the “man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:13-16). 
I should hesitate to make light of this since this, no doubt, would have been a terrifying event to observe.  In fact, Luke records that “fear fell upon” all the residents of Ephesus “and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled” (Acts 19:17).
It is no small thing to speak for God.  Those who do so ought to do so with quivering lips. 

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

How much greater judgment on those who might recklessly claim to have the office (not merely of teacher) but of prophet or apostle!  For prophet or apostle was not merely one who wrestled with the meaning of God’s word (the way we all might), they spoke God’s word as if they were an extension of the lips of God itself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Raising and Calming Storms
Psalm 107:23-32
Matthew 8:23-27

With Study Questions

Pastor Paul Viggiano
Branch of Hope Church
2370 W. Carson Street, #100
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 212-6999
Raising and Calming Storms
Psalm 107:23-32
Matthew 8:23-27

Those who go down to the sea in ships, Who do business on great waters, 24 They see the works of the Lord, And His wonders in the deep. 25 For He commands and raises the stormy wind, Which lifts up the waves of the sea. 26 They mount up to the heavens, They go down again to the depths; Their soul melts because of trouble. 27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, And are at their wits’ end. 28 Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, And He brings them out of their distresses. 29 He calms the storm, So that its waves are still. 30 Then they are glad because they are quiet; So He guides them to their desired haven. 31 Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men! 32 Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, And praise Him in the company of the elders (Psalm 107:23-32).

Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. 24 And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. 25 Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!26 But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 So the men marveled, saying, Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him? (Matthew 8:23-27).

A Charitable Spirit

         One of the younger members of our church recently sent me an article from a web-site entitled[1].  She indicated that many of her friends believed what was being taught in this short piece and wanted my opinion.  I would like to offer it.
         But before offering my thoughts (since there will be some disagreement with what the author writes) I bid a brief prologue toward a charitable spirit.  The woman who wrote the article has paddled through some rough waters and her thoughts of God contained in her paper have provided a sort palisade, if not stronghold, through her tunnel of affliction. 
Though there is perhaps nothing more precious (even critical) than right thoughts of God, we must recognize that the love of our heavenly Father is not curtailed by our inaccurate theology.  My children have now become old enough to understand and appreciate sacrifices that their parents make on their behalf—things they didn’t understand as toddlers.  But this does not mean that we didn’t love them and comfort them in their infancy.  And getting right down to it, ‘infant’ would be a generous description of even the wisest creatures grasp of the Almighty.
But our creaturely limitations should never be a license for lethargy in our understanding God and His requirements of us.  Let us heed the instruction of Paul to the Corinthians:

Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature (1 Corinthians 14:20).

All this to say that I don’t doubt that the woman who wrote this article is a sister in Christ and the object of God’s love and mercy.  And there is some wisdom and godly counsel in her words.  At the same time, I fear she is holding onto a branch which lacks depth of root—a branch she in turn offers her readers—other Christians seeking a foothold or harbor in their season of trial, pain, difficult or hardship—for this reason I offer the following—that our anchorage would be deep and solid.

Stop Saying That

         To summarize her thesis, she takes issue with the notion that everything happens for a reason.  She begins by recounting times in her life of heartache and despair, being met with the “Everything happens for a reason’ bomb.”  Many of us have been the recipients (and perhaps deliverers) of a flippant recitation of Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good…” while the blood is still flowing from the open wound of our friend. 
         Wisdom dictates that the “righteous ponders how to answer” (Proverbs 15:28).  “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious” (Proverbs 16:23).  “Judicious” yaskil includes prudence.  There is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).  Job’s friends were doing well until they opened their mouths.  Sometimes we need to sit with our friends in the ashes—silently.  Here I find myself in agreement with the author—at least in terms of timing.  But poor timing doesn’t speak to the veracity of the statement.  Is it true or false that everything happens for a reason? 

Limiting God

She then perhaps unwittingly limits God to our knowledge and imaginations.  She fires out the challenge that her well-meaning friend couldn’t “possibly imagine a reason for what just happened.”  That may be true, but the sovereign purpose of God in His decrees (what He has decided) and His providence (how He works out His decisions in history) is not limited by my imagination. 
Nonetheless I am not insensitive to the confusion.  I would like to know why God has plotted out this particular painful route.  And the answer is not always forthcoming.  We so often feel like the Psalmist:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord (Psalm 44:23a)?
         But my perception does not determine the reality, as the Psalmist will later convey.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills— From whence comes my help? 2 My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, He who keeps Israel Shall neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:1-4).

         From my perspective God seems to slumber—I want Him to “rouse” (Psalm 44:23b) Himself and offer me an explanation—wake up God and let’s talk!  God may at times reveal His reason for my affliction and sometimes He may not.  Or He may be continually revealing it and I’m simply too dim to grasp it.  But in none of this should we draw the conclusion that God’s providence is limited to my knowledge or imagination.  Simply put,

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).

I Could Find—I Could Treat

It was this dear sister’s frustration that led her to, what I would have to argue to be, smaller thoughts of God.  Add to this, we read of a bit of a fool’s errand she put herself on which added to her angst.  Her quest was summed up with the notion that if she could find the reasons or cause of her difficulty, she could “treat the condition.”
There may be some value, in a sociological and psychological sense, of discovering why certain things happen.  If sugar on the counter continually results in an ant problem, I have made a valuable discovery toward treating the condition.  But when we’re talking of the providence of God and the myriad of (as she accurately points out) undiscoverable reasons for things like cancer in children, death by auto accidents, rape, murder and other atrocities the if I could find the reason, I could treat the condition becomes woefully inadequate.  It is beyond us.
And even if we could find the reason, it doesn’t guarantee that we would be capable of treating it.  I, as a Christian, know very well why it is people die—it is a consequence of the fall.  But I have no power or ability to treat it.  I must go somewhere else to find a solution to that problem.  I do know who knows, and who has the power, to address and overcome it. 

Reason—Cause or Purpose

She finally draws the unwarranted conclusion that there “is no reason for why tragedy occurs.”  She presents an accurate and sagacious appraisal of the human condition and attitude: 

We assume that life is supposed to be easy and when things don’t go our way, we feel like we have been wronged. Human beings seem to have an innate sense of entitlement. We think that we are owed a pain-free existence.

But along with this she proffers a half-truth:

Sometimes bad things happen for no reason other than we are human beings having a human experience. Pain, heartache, grief, loss, disease and death are inevitable parts of the human experience. 

         It is true that pain, heartache, etc. are inevitable for humans.  But I would submit that it is not a biblical (nor comforting) understanding of the sovereignty of God that there is “just no reason” for our afflictions.  But here is something else critical to our evaluation of such things—what do we mean by ‘reason’?  Is it the cause or the purpose? An athlete might say the reason he is running sprints is because the coach told him to (the cause) or he might say the reason he is running sprints is to get fit (the purpose). 
         There may be secondary causes for our afflictions (the wind blowing a tree that lands on a house—the coach telling the athlete to run) but—and this is the critical and ultimately comforting testimony from the Spirit of God—God is the first cause of all things and He has a reason, and that reason includes cause and purpose.
         If you take our opening passages you will see all of this.  We learn in Psalm 107 that God “commands and raises the stormy wind.”  That is to say the Lord is the cause of the storm.  We learn in the same Psalm that “He calms the storm” as well.  This is portrayed later by Jesus in a very dramatic and an almost humorous fashion where we read of Him sleeping in the midst of the storm while His disciples panic.  A couple of interesting observations of this account in Matthew 8:
         First, they are chastised for their lack of faith—and this before He calms the storm!  You would think He would calm the storm then give the lesson, but sometimes it takes more than mere information for a true lesson to be learned.  The Scriptures teach that we are being conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), or as Paul put it in Galatians 4:19, Christ is being formed in us.  The theological term for this is sanctification (being made holy).  You might say that God is rewiring us right down to our DNA—soul, spirit, thoughts, passions, inclinations.  This can be very painful business.  Jesus was perfected through suffering[2] (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8), we should not think our own sanctification will be achieved in a pain-free environment.  Some lessons will only be learned during the storm.
         Secondly, as their fear of the storm subsides, another fear takes its place—they “marveled” at who was with them in the boat.  They went from a fear, astonishment or marveling at the storm to a marveling at the Christ.  Or to put it another way, they shifted their focus from the creation to the Creator.
         Revisiting the Psalm, we see this purpose here as well—to “see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep” that they might “cry out to the Lord in their trouble.”  The Psalm concludes by revealing the desired purpose of the entire enterprise:

He calms the storm, So that its waves are still. 30 Then they are glad because they are quiet; So He guides them to their desired haven. 31 Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men! 32 Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, And praise Him in the company of the elders (Psalm 107:23-32).

         Back to our sister’s take on our afflictions, she, like many Christians is willing to acknowledge that there is a God who calms storms, but does not want us to think that it is God who brings the storm in the first place.  To her credit, she challenges her readers to recognize that it is through and in the midst of tragedies that Christians have an opportunity to bring Christ’s “message of hope, grace, forgiveness and mercy.”
She is also correct (in a secondary sense) asserting that “What happened in the Garden of Eden is responsible for the human condition.”  But then she begins to sentimentalize God into something less than He is.  She writes, “God is not causing us to hurt. He is hurting with us.”  Jesus no doubt feels our pain.  The WLC teaches that He has “fellow-feeling with our infirmities.”[3]
         But it is a very unbiblical notion that, as she puts it, “there’s just no reason other than we are human and pain is part of the process.”  It is, no doubt, a hard teaching, but it is a source of great comfort for the Christian to know that there is a reason—a wise, holy and glorious reason.  The Lord is our teacher and all of creation and every event in it is His classroom.  And it is not, as the article teaches, God merely making the best of a bad situation—turning lemons into lemonade or seeking to unscramble the omelet.  God is never in the waiting room.  He doesn’t walk in after the hideous diagnosis has poured out of the doctors lips. 
Seeking to instill courage into the hearts of His followers, who would face the threat of death for their ministerial pursuits, Jesus taught that the sparrow does not fall “to the ground apart from your Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29).
The Will of God

         What is meant by the will of God?  Here we see another possible equivocation—that is, it can mean a couple of different things.  At the risk of turning this into a seminary class, this distinction is very important and commonly ignored.  Theologians make the distinction between the decretive will of God and the preceptive (or prescriptive) will of God.  The decretive will of God is His will in terms of events that happen—this includes every event that happens—sparrows falling to the ground.  The preceptive will of God relates to God’s rule of duty for His creatures—the call of love God and love our neighbors.
         The writer shares her efforts to comfort a friend who was suffering due to the recent death of a loved one.  Her friend just couldn’t understand how this could be God’s will.  No doubt well-intentioned, but highly off the mark she erases the decretive will of God from the entire equation.  In her understanding of God, cancer, murder, rape, pain, illness, disability and death are never God’s will. 
         The serious problem here is that when we remove the decretive will of God from the equation of human affliction and suffering, we place any redeeming quality squarely upon our own shoulders.  It is up to us, and us alone, to make sense of it all.  This is a burden my friends, that no man can life, except Christ Himself.  
         The author is not off when declaring that it is God’s will (in a prescriptive/preceptive sense) for us to walk with our friends through cancer—through the death, illness and pain. 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).

Creating Good

         But when God’s sovereign ordination of all events (events including peace and calamity—Isaiah 45:7) is rebuffed, all redemption, as the author will indicate, is left to us.  Her most chilling paragraph states this in no uncertain terms:

There’s hardly ever a justifiable reason for the bad things that happen in life. Tragic loss is not laced with inherent specs of good. I used to get so mad when people would say, “You can find good in every situation.” That’s just not true. There was nothing good about being raped. There is no good in murder or abuse. We have to create the good. We have to choose to respond in a way that brings good into an impossible situation. We have to choose to give purpose and meaning to our suffering (Emphasis hers).

         We should respond appropriately to the tragedies by which we are surrounded—but what a burden is promoted when it is up to us to “create the good.”  She suggests that “God can use our pain for a greater good if we choose to let Him in.”  So it all depends on me.  What if I’m just not very good at that! 
         Who is it that creates the good? 
         Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50).  His own brothers conspired to throw him into a pit (Genesis 37:24), sell him to the slavery of Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:27) and lie to his father about his being dead (Genesis 37:34).  This resulted in Joseph being Potiphar’s slave (a job which he handled quite well) but Potiphar’s wife wanted him.  When he refused to “sin against God” (Genesis 39:9) she weaved a lie about Joseph landing him in prison.  Eventually he ended up in the second most powerful position in Egypt and used his office to prepare the entire nation to endure a famine (Genesis 41:54).
         Through all this Joseph kept his integrity and we don’t read of him whining and whimpering.  He even used his power to help the very brothers who betrayed him.  But when their father Jacob died the brothers were worried that Joseph might forget his forbearance and lower the hammer (Genesis 50: 15).  But Joseph assured them,

But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph understood this while he rotted in prison and sat fearfully in the waterless pit.  He knew in whose hands all of history lay.  He wasn’t victim of his brothers, the devil or the random happenings of an ungoverned universe.  Joseph knew God was never absent.  God was His ever present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).  The very same events which his brothers performed with evil intent God performed for good.
         Were there not more than mere “inherent specs of good” when the Apostle Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” to buffet him?  Paul understood that the devil himself—the manslayer was a mere instrument in the hand of his Father in heaven to keep Paul from self-exaltation.  Paul knew of his inability to create the goodness—he boasted not in his ability to give purpose and meaning to his suffering.  He declared his own weakness—knowing God’s strength is perfected in our weakness.  Paul knew that “the poison of pride...cannot be cured except by poison.”  But poison in the hands of God is medicine.
The Heart of the Faith

         God’s sovereign ordination of tragic events and evil choices by sinful beings is at the very heart of the Christian faith—the cross of Christ. This was not God merely making the best of a bad situation.  Surely, evil men planned it.  Satan entered Judas to betray Jesus and the entire community consented to His death yelling “crucify Him, crucify Him.” 
Whose plan was the cross?  Was it the devil’s?  Yes.  Was it the Pharisees? Yes.  But whose plan was the cross?

For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur (Acts 4:27, 28 NASB).

         The cross was God’s plan; a plan which would save souls and be a glory to His name forever and ever (Revelation 4, 5).  The cross happened for a reason—both in cause and purpose.  We see the same unsearchable power and wisdom at work in that wonderful verse that we often quote so glibly, that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). 
Contained in this verse is the promise to those who trust in Christ, that everything does indeed have a glorious reason; that there is a God in heaven who “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).  God will not apologize for one second of the history He ordained.  When our eyes are opened, we will praise Him for every moment-even our darkest hour.  But let us be clear, it is a promise directed toward those who believe.  It is the Christian who can say with unwavering confidence “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)?

Questions for Study

    1.         Is theological accuracy necessary in order for us to be recipients of God’s fatherly affections?  Explain (pages 2, 3).
    2.         Why is a charitable spirit necessary in our discussions of the things of God (pages 2, 3)?
    3.         Do you remember ever saying/hearing the right thing at the wrong time?  Perhaps you can share your experience (pages 3, 4).
    4.         Is God limited by our knowledge or imagination?  How are we tempted to put parameters on God’s sovereignty (pages 4, 5)?
    5.         Is there value in finding the reason bad things happen?  What are the limitations of our ability of treating the condition (page 5)?
    6.         What are the two things ‘reason’ might mean?  In what sense is God the reason behind events (pages 5,6)?
    7.         What are the dangers of sentimentalizing God (page 7)?
    8.         There are two definitions for the “will of God.”  What are they and why does this matter (page 8)?
    9.         Why is it a critical error to suggest that there is no good reason that bad things happen?  What burden is placed on man with this (page 9)?
10.         Can you think of some examples of bad things ordained by God in the Bible for a good reason (pages 9, 10)?
11.         How does God’s sovereignty in evil events touch the heart of the Christian faith (pages 10, 11)?
12.         To whom is the glorious promise of Romans 8:28 directed?  Are you included in this (page 11)?


[2][2] This is not to say Jesus was sinful and made sinless but that His righteousness was made full or complete.
[3] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 39.