Shout for Joy
We know that the apostle John was named "the disciple of Jesus loved" but we are not exactly sure why Jesus would designate one of his followers in that way. It seems to say that he loved John more than the other disciples but we know that could hardly be since divine love being perfect can’t be parceled out in degrees. I suspect that the descriptive grew grew out of John's intimate relationship to others. I think he was a bit of a mystic and had a rather unique way of putting his thoughts into words.
One example of this is found in his first epistle (2:7-8) where he tells his friends that the command he is writing is not a new one but the old one that they have had from the beginning. However, this old command is at the same time a new command "because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining" (2:8). So what we seem to have are two commands (the old and the new) yet they are the same. Hmmm. The old command is becoming the new command while remaining what it has been from the beginning.
John’s metaphor of light replacing darkness is powerful in its use of a natural phenomenon (the dawning of a new day) to picture the positive change when one turns to Christ. For John, it is the dawn of the new age that allows the believer to experience the true light of eternity. In the preparatory stage (before the coming of Christ) loving God was a bit more formalistic than personal. I don’t question the authenticity of the love of Old Testament patriarchs (who lived by the “old command”), it is simply that our fuller knowledge of God, made possible by the incarnation, provides a brighter atmosphere for Christian living. The “darkness” of a limited knowledge of God disappears when in the life of a believer the bright dawn of the eternal state begins.
The crucial event that made this possible was the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. With Christ the eternal enters time. Believers live in eternity already (they have passed from death into life”) although they are still trapped in the semi-darkness of the transition.
How then does the life of a person change when they open their heart to Christ? One particular quality that stands out in the passage under consideration is a love that expresses itself in obedience (vv. 3, 5, 6, 10). The dawning light of a new faith reveals one’s natural fixation on self being replaced with concern for others. The essence of the Christian faith being worked out in the lives of believers is the sensational power of a love that enables us to move from self-concern to the welfare of others. God has come into our world to make it possible for us to change forever the way we live, that is to love as God loves, to replace concern for self with a genuine concern for the other. John is right: it is an old command, but at the same time it is “new.” What will be normal in the future has become the expectation for today. The simple truth is that yesterday’s darkness has been replaced by tomorrow’s new light. The “Let there be light” of creation has become the “Let there be light” of salvation. Morning came with the historic advent of our Savior and keeps coming in the lives of those who turn to him. The light of love has, is, and will displace the darkness of sin. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (v. 5) – what happened; will on a daily basis overcome the lingering darkness of sin in the life of the believer – what is happening; and ultimately fill the universe with the bright splendor of eternal glory – what will happen.
In Psalm 108 the psalmist expresses thanksgiving to God for his unfailing love. He longs for the day when everyone on the earth will experience the divine encounter. The psalm closes calling for the music of triumph is to begin.
One interesting thing about this psalm is that it combines material from other psalms. This is somewhat unusual because most psalms were written for specific times or situations. But truth is not limited and is applicable to any number of similar situations. The greatness of God has an essential relationship to multiple aspects of life. The psalm pictures the greatness of God as expressed in his “unfailing love,” in his “splendor” that covers the earth, and in his presence that removes the need for any more help (see each in the verses below). God is great not only because he is a being worthy of exalted praise, but also because of his continuing involvement in the life and destiny of his people. It is what might be called a tangible greatness. It is real and is constantly seen in his contact with the believer. This is what moves the psalmist’s heart to respond as he does in today’s psalm.
The first commentary I was privileged to write was on the book of Philippians. It was early on in my professional life and I was thrilled to study at depth Paul’s great letter of Joy. If you mark favorite verses in your bible, then yours probably looks as messy as mine, especially Philippians. Consider chapter chap. 1 with its, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain;” chap. 2 and the marvelous poem that begins, “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;” then chap. 3 with its bright hope, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ;” and finally the counsel in chap. 4, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Apart from those notable verses there is a single verse in chapter 3 that has served me again and again throughout life as a guide for decision making. Paul has just written of his desire to fulfill God’s plans and press on toward complete maturity in Christ (2:12-14). And in that context he says, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (v. 15). This is a wonderful promise that if the desire of your life is to grow in likeness to Christ, then when you are facing a specific choice and are thinking seriously about heading in what he knows to be wrong way he will point it out to you. In other words, when it comes to moral decisions the obedient believer need not ever make a wrong decision. To obey is to listen and follow. He will warn us every time.
How does this work out in life? Let’s say that you feel yourself in love with a person of a different faith and he has asked for your hand in marriage. I believe that Paul’s words mean just what they say, “God will make it clear to you.” He will not stand by in silence when you are headed in the wrong direction. Note that we are talking about moral decisions, not incidental choices like whether or not I should have another cup of coffee. Or consider the decision about taking the really important job even though you realize that your time with family will be severely limited and that at such an important time in their lives. The promise means that God will let you know that you need to give this more thought. You can’t knowingly and enthusiastically make the wrong moral choice. I know that decisions can be complicated, but way down deep God will raise a red flag. And there are all sorts of red flags all the way from an uneasy conscience to some unexpected event in life that changes everything.
“But” you say, “all Paul is saying is that God will warn me and what I need is advice in making a decision.” That’s right, God didn’t take away our right to do what is wrong. If he did, then we would be moral robots. He chose us as children not toys that he can manipulate. We are made in his image and free will is close to the center of what that means. He planned that his children develop the moral stature that results from making right choices. He wants us to grow up to be like him. Of course, he did help us; he said, “I’ll always let you know if you are about to make a wrong decision on a moral issue.”
Choosing right over wrong is at the core of character building. Who we are, is the sum total of all the decisions that we have made. In one sense we forge our own destiny. God allows us this privilege because he wants his children to “look” like him. How gracious that at every point he guides. Let me say it again: “The obedient believer wont make a wrong decision” unless he refuses listen to God’s advice. It is a comforting truth that provides direction for every decision you will ever make. You will hear his voice providing direction in all the storms of life. The Good Shepherd is not asleep when the wolves are out looking for lunch.
Normally when we study Jesus we look at all the things that he said. We want to know what he taught about anxiety, forgiveness, love, and so many other important issues. And that, of course, is extremely important. But have you ever turned your attention for a time to how he lived out his daily life? We can learn so much from paying attention to the way he conducted himself in various situations, how he responded to those who opposed him, etc. To lose sight of this part of the story disturbs the balance between what he taught and how his teaching expressed itself in his relationship with others. So, let’s take a look at one incident that reveals so much about the man Jesus.
In Matthew 15 we have the story of Jesus feeding the 4,000. What impresses me is the way he continued to take the initiative. The text shows this so impressively. It was Jesus who did each of the following:
He called his disciples together,
He expressed sorrow for those needing food,
He asked his disciples about loaves and fish,
He told the crowd to sit down,
He took the little they had,
He gave thanks,
He broke the bread into pieces
He gave it to the disciples to be distributed.
Jesus was the one definitely in charge. Had he not taken the initiative it would have been quite a different story. What can we learn from the way Jesus responded to a crowd away from home and hungry?
One thing is that we are to be acutely aware of the needs of others. The developing problem may have passed through the minds of several of the disciples, but since the answer wasn’t obvious it was dismissed. They supported their inaction arguing that
(1) They were in a desolate place, and
(2) There was no way to get any food.
(Never mind that just a short time before they had watched Jesus turning five loaves of bread and two little fish into enough food to feed 5,000 men, to say nothing of the women and children who would have been there.)
That Jesus assumed leadership in this situation strikes me as important. Over the years I have tended to think of him more as responding to need than initiating action. I had the feeling that he was there to do the right thing rather than to trigger action. Obviously there needs to be a balance but at least on this occasion if Jesus hadn’t taken the initiative the 4,000 would have gone away hungry.
What the account suggests is that living like Jesus lived requires us to be increasingly aware of the needs of others and how they can be met. It is all part of the life-long reversal of self-concern that must be taking place in the heart of every true believer. One problem with self-absorption is that it blinds us to the needs of others. To be like Jesus is to get over self and step up to the challenge of caring for the other. That’s what Jesus did from his first day of public ministry all the way to that last day on the cross when looking down from the cross turned the care of his grieving mother over to the “disciple Jesus loved” saying, “Here is y our mother” (John 19:27). And that is the kind of thing we do if we are genuinely following him
Psalm 92 is a hymn of praise to God, both for his protection against the enemy and for his loving presence in their midst. Those who find themselves in corporate worship week after week will recognize many of the lines such as:
“Proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night”
“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree”
“He’s my rock”
For all who would worship the God of the Jewish-Christian faith, it would be well to take leave of the histrionics associated with so much of contemporary “worship” and spend time with the psalmists of old who under the guidance of God wrote songs of praise that we are still singing.
The contrast that runs through today’s psalm draws attention to the difference between the righteous and the wicked. The latter are like grass that springs up quickly, but soon withers and is gone. The righteous, on the other hand, are like the palm tree or the cedar in Lebanon in that they continue to grow year after year bearing fruit even in old age. They lift their voices in praise to God their protector in whom there is no wickedness.
If you don’t know what the problem is, you’ll never come up with an answer. I sense that a lot of believing Christians don’t understand why their life in Christ lacks the joy they understood would accompany faith. It seems that life has declared war on them and all they wanted was peace. But wait! That’s exactly what has happened. You nailed it on the head. Before faith we were relatively comfortable with the world in which we found ourselves. We understood that some things were right and other things were wrong, but in general we felt ourselves at home in a world that required no deep moral commitments.
But when we said Yes to the God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, a war broke out. Peter writes to his friends telling them to abstain from sinful desires that “wage war against your soul” (2:11). And there’s the problem – we’ve gone to war! Now the enemy in this war is not the world in which we live. Our opposition doesn’t comes from without, but from within. The enemy is sinful desire, and that is something we provide. Jesus lists twelve different “evil thoughts” that come from within and defile a person (Mark 7:21-22). So our war is a “civil war” – the worst possible kind! It is our old nature that attacks our soul (Greek, psyche, “the seat and center of the inner human life in its many and varied aspects” - BDAG).
Now that we understand who the enemy is – “the disordered natural inclinations” as the NLT put it – how do we do battle against them? How do we resist the very things that our own natural desires want us to do? It is helpful to understand that when we turned to Christ in faith we were granted a new spiritual life. That new life is empowered to successfully resist the demands of the old nature, but we are the ones who must constantly make the decisions. In every attack by the old nature we must decide to allow the available power of new life in Christ to rout the enemy. It always works! Someone put it this way. In each of us are two dogs, one black one white, always fighting. Which one wins? The answer is simple; the one we feed! So feed your spiritual life and you will win every skirmish against the old nature.
Every now and then a verse of scripture is so relevant to my specific life-situation that it just seems to jump right off the page. Most recently – in fact, this morning – it was Isaiah 50:4. Read it slowly along with me: “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”
While the statement in its Old Testament setting looked forward to the coming kingdom, the statement itself makes excellent sense in any number of contexts. The tongue! What an incredible blessing, what a dangerous ally! James, the brother of our Lord cautioned against this “fire, in a world of evil” that can set a great forest ablaze with just a small spark (3.6). No human can tame it; it’s a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). No wonder that centuries before, James wrote this sharp description of the tongue other writers were already recommending caution for this unruly rebel.
Before going further, however, we need to remind ourselves that when scripture speaks of the tongue it is not necessarily referring to what we have in our mouth for eating, but as to the tongue as our way of transmitting to others who we are inside. The actual tongue itself is not responsible for that quick negative response we made but later wish hadn’t.
We all recognize that there is another side to this unruly member of the body; it can function as a gift for “sustaining the weary.” Under the inspiration of the Spirit, Isaiah is encouraging us to have a “well-instructed tongue.” It needs to be taught, to have spent time learning about life, to have at least enrolled in and working towards graduation in the academy of life. While the tongue may still behave itself in the negative way described by James, that downside can be functionally overridden by the “new heart” that is implanted at the moment of salvation. It is this new heart that wants to “sustain the weary.” The new heart is constantly searching for new ways to be of help to others, to meet the needs of the disenfranchised and to encourage those who have grown tired on the long road home. And this calls for a “well-instructed tongue” – a tongue that understands why it does what it does and how to learn what it should do. Hopefully every church has a classroom where the new in the faith take such a course.
But then there is another kind of learning for the tongue and that is a Spirit guided awareness of when and how to speak. Sometimes silence is the best thing that you can “say.” Qualities such as friendship, concern, and love are quite often shared most effectively by a silent tongue. Needless repetition is known to serve the ego of those who feel compelled to let you know they have the answer. The “well-instructed tongue” knows what to say, and when to say nothing. After all, that is what it means to be “well-instructed.”
Almost every person is aware that the material world in which we live (and of which we are a part) is not the only world. This very awareness is part of that other world, a world without boundaries, one in which we are not limited in time or in space. “But,” you say, “That is merely the mind at work, the imagination.”
But wouldn’t mean that the material is creating the non-material? That seems a bit difficult for me. If there were two realms then would it not be more reasonable for the non-material to be responsible for the material? After all, it’s the sphere you hold to be unlimited.
I wouldn’t suggest that something like that is what Jesus had in mind when he was talking with Nicodemus (the Jewish scholar) about spiritual birth, but it does open the door to consider a sphere of being that is not material. That Jesus could perform miraculous signs led Nicodemus to acknowledge that God was somehow involved. But the question of being born again in order to enter the kingdom of God left him confused.
So Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, a person cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Physical birth results in a physical being; spiritual birth, in a spiritual being” (John 3:5-6, Jesus, In His Own Words).
I know that the expression “to be born again” has been used in connection with everything from used car sales to a new plan for vacationing, but Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. He was distinguishing between two realities, physical life as we know it and a new kind of life, spiritual. The first brings a child into our world and the second into the world best described as spiritual. Interestingly enough, as in physical life, so also in spiritual life — a person can’t experience the realm prior to being born into it. I encourage you to check it out because in both cases confirmation follows birth.
In Psalm 50, God calls his people back from their evil ways. They “hate instruction” (v. 17), “throw in their lot with adulterers” (v. 18) and “use their mouth for evil” (v. 19). A rather sorry picture of a nation belonging to God! Yet there is help because in verse 17 of the same Psalm, the author provides one of those clear and strong directives that when followed will change everything for the good. The verse says, “Listen, my people, and I will speak” (v. 7). Granted, it has a specific context in the Psalm, but like all trans-temporal statements it works in other contexts as well. Let’s see how it applies in our cultural setting.
It is clear that God’s people need to listen. So much of our life has to do with our narrow involvement with what affects us at the moment. “How did I do?” “Did you hear what I said?” “ I’d like to show you what I bought? What the Psalmist is saying to all of us is that it’s time to shift focus: We need to set aside fixation on self and turn our attention to concerns of greater importance. We need to listen – to others, but most importantly, to God.
And why is it that we seem to leave God out of so many of our learning experience? While we turn to him in difficulties that we recognize as humanly impossible to solve, we operate as though everything else can be solved without “bothering” God. I don’t want to repeat myself too often, but there is one basic reason lying behind every one of our problems and that is who we are by nature. In short, we are made in God’s image but we’re still rebels. It is reflected in everything we do. Not that it is necessary – as believers we also have a new nature – but who we are seems to determine what we do. That the devil himself is constantly at work trying to maintain control over all that we do, makes every situation something “humanly impossible to save.” I know that sounds a bit morose, but it isn’t the whole story. The bright side is that our real problem is not what we think it is, but what caused it in the first place. And that is what God would have us address. In our Psalm for today he says.“Listen.” He wants us to bring him into problem, recognize that he is with us in all that we face throughout the entire day. He has the answer, and says to us as we babble along, “Listen,” I have something to tell you about solving that problem.
When we “listen,” God will “speak.” It is important to remember that God is a gentleman and does not interrupt. He, as it were, sits there ready to say something, but we seldom give him the chance. So God, through Isaiah told the nation to listen to him and he would restore them from their desolate condition. He tells us to listen and he will show each of us how to solve that irritating problem while at the same time, be pleasing to God. Back in Navy days we would hear a phrase that alerted to something our superiors wanted us to hear – “Now Hear This!” And we paid attention. In your troubled moment, God is saying to you, “NOW HEAR THIS!
Can you hear him psalm 50 when he was calling his covenantal people to prepare for the coming judgment. As ruler of the universe he had no need for animal sacrifice. Can you hear him right now as he would like to direct you in that big decision you are about to make? “Listen,” He says.
Have you ever been reading the Word and suddenly a phrase or a clause will jump right out of the text for you? I’m sure it happens on a regular basis for those who read and meditate on scripture. I was reading in 1 John where the apostle is addressing himself to various groups within the Christian community (1 John 2:12-14). In the last verse he lists three reasons why he is writing to them: they are strong, God’s word lives in them and they have overcome the evil one. It is the second that caught my eye, “the word of God lives in you.”
God speaks and we are to listen. If a notable person in the field of athletics, higher education or politics were to announce an important occasion for Anacortes (that little jewel of the PNW) this evening, I would be there. I would want to learn what it was that brought him to our island. We tend to pay attention or not to a speaker on the basis of their understanding in areas of interest to us. Their “word” is important for us. We want to know what they have to say. But what if the speaker were God himself? Right! We would all be there scrambling for the best seats.
Well, God is speaking this evening, in fact, he has a matinee this afternoon. Even better than that, he is available for a private interview right now. Why is it that all too often we post-pone certain scheduled events, not an appointment with the doctor or a lunch with a friend, but those times we’ve set up to talk with God? The answer, of course, is that we are still burdened with an old man, a fallen human nature. Interestingly enough, that is precisely why we need to spend time with our Lord!
John says that God’s word “was living” among that group of believers in the Roman province of Asia, probably meeting in one another’s homes. But the Word was not living with them geographically but personal – he was in the heart of each believer. In his gospel John tells us that Jesus is that Word and that he came to dwell among us. Who Jesus is and what he taught can be said to be one, so for the Word to “live with us” is to say that in addition to his presence in the heart, what he taught has taken precedence in our life. It is central. It calls to be properly honored. Believers are people of Word; they read it, they live it. It is the dynamic that shapes their life in every area.
A number of years ago, Dr. Ockenga of Park Street Church in Boston challenged a group of seminary students (I was there) to take a few minutes every day to meditate on a specific verse of Scripture. He said not to be worried about making it “through the bible in a year” but simply to let God speak. A remarkable thing takes place. God seemed always to be right there. In fact, I can never remember an occasion when he wasn’t. The purpose was to let biblical truth take control of life. It was so his Word could “live” in us. We are mentored by those people with whom we provide time. If Christ actually lives in us there is no one or no thing that will have a greater formative influence on our life.
Robert H Mounce