Beating Off the Demons

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In Genesis 15, Abraham has a monumental experience with the Living God. In order to reaffirm the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, God asks Abraham to offer a sacrifice before Him. Abraham prepares the sacrifices, cutting them in half and spreading them out on the open fields of Canaan before the Lord.

All through the day, as Abraham waits to meet with God before the sacrifice, birds of prey come down to nibble and steal the sacrifice that Abraham has prepared before God. Jewish commentators and many of the early church fathers saw the correspondence between these birds and the demonic powers of Satan coming against Abraham. They described it as a picture of a holy life attacked in the midst of the world.

This helps me. Many times in my life, troubles rise up and I feel the tearing bites of the demons gathering around my life. In Romans 12, Paul describes the life of the Christian as a living sacrifice before God. We, too, cut open by the Word of God, offer our lives to the Lord, spreading them out on the promises of God’s truth, waiting to meet with God. Part of our task is to simply beat off the demons who come to attack us, confound us, and ultimately destroy us.

As the night descends, Abraham meets with God in perhaps one of the most bizarre theophanies in all Scripture. Floating between the bisected sacrifice, God appears as a smoking fire pot and a glowing torch before Abraham. God passes in the midst of the sacrifice to convey His glorious presence and His profound commitment to Abraham, taking upon Himself all the obligations of the covenant which Abraham could not fulfill himself.

This reminds us of the grace and power of God on our behalf. In Christ, God takes upon Himself the responsibilities of the covenant, showering us with the gifts of reconciliation and justification. In Christ, God has triumphed over the principalities and powers at the Cross, extending His victory to us. We, for our part, respond to the prevenient grace and victorious power of God with faith. In part, that includes us beating off the demons who strive to defile the responsive sacrifice of our lives. In this context, Paul’s words in Ephesians 6 about the nature of our conflict and the calling to stand make even more sense. So, too, do Peter’s words in chapter five of his first epistle about being sober and alert as the devil prowls around us.

As with Abraham, may God’s grace and power strengthen us daily to beat off the demons that strive to defile the living sacrifice of our lives that we bring to Him.

God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119

In my own daily times of Scripture reading and prayer, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms by far with 176 verses. This psalm is an extended reflection on the delight and power of God’s word, structured as an acrostic poem with one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The psalm offers an expansive catalog of the diverse characteristics of God’s word that is impressive. When I read through Psalm 119, I feel like I am getting a multifaceted look at the word of God that is enlightening, stretching, and encouraging.

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached on Ephesians 6:10-24 in a message entitled “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict.” In this well-known passage, we encounter Paul delineating the armor of God. The only offensive piece of that armor comes last: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). The Word of God is powerful and a vital piece of our armor in the spiritual conflict we face daily as God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Here is a brief list of some of the facets of God’s word outlined within Psalm 119. I’d encourage you to read through the list and, when one statement jumps out at you, to open your Bible to Psalm 119, read that verse, and then meditate on those words for the day. There is so much here in each verse to grow and deepen us with God.

God’s word is:

  • to be fully obeyed (4)
  • righteous (7, 61, 106, 123, 137, 144, 164, 172)
  • a guide for purity of life (9)
  • a way to keep from sin (11)
  • from the Lord’s mouth (13, 88)
  • full of wonderful things (18)
  • a delight (24, 35, 70, 77, 143, 162, 174)
  • a counselor (24)
  • a revelation of God’s wonderful deeds (27)
  • a picture of the way of faithfulness (30)
  • good (39, 68)
  • a revelation of God’s salvation promises (41)
  • a bringer of freedom (45)
  • a promise to preserve our life (50)
  • ancient (52)
  • a comforter (52)
  • precious (72)
  • a pathway away from shame (80)
  • completely trustworthy (86, 138)
  • eternal (89, 152, 160)
  • firm in the heavens (89)
  • boundless in its perfection (90)
  • what makes us wiser than our enemies and our teachers (98, 99, 100)
  • sweet like honey (103)
  • a lamp and light for our path (105, 130)
  • the joy of our heart (111)
  • wonderful (129)
  • thoroughly tested (140)
  • true (142, 151, 160)
  • a bringer of peace (165)
  • sustenance (175)

Facing Failings in the Character of the Church

Crying in Church

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

If, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Christ is our peace, who has reconciled us to the Father, then the calling upon us as God’s people is to walk in humility, gentleness, patience, peace, and love with one another. This will happen as we yield to the Holy Spirit, who is the deposit of our salvation and bond of our peace.

Yet you may say, “But, Matt, the church doesn’t look like that. I see pride, fierceness, impatience, discord, and lack of love at times.” I know. I see it too. When we see that in those around us, it should lead us to deeper humility and intercessory prayer on behalf of our local church and the church around the world. It should also lead us into meaningful conversations with others about areas of deficiency from our calling, not in judgment, but in the desire to grow together.

However, if we only see it in everyone else around us, but never in ourselves, it might be good for us to hold these characteristics up against our own lives for consideration. It might be good to ask: “Am I completely humble? Am I gentle? Patient? Am I bearing with others in love? Am I upholding the bond of peace?”

If we answered “yes” to all those questions, then it’s probably time to let the Holy Spirit bring us into a more honest self-assessment. Not any of us will perfectly live out our faith. As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” This is not an excuse for sin and brokenness, but it is our reality. The revelation of our shortcomings is painful. Yet, that revelation is also a gift from God to push us back to God in repentance from our own sin and turning in greater reliance upon Him for power to walk worthy of our calling.  It is a return to the heart of justifying faith: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

So let the words of the Apostle lead us into the humility of our human inadequacy and the exaltation of God’s superabundant grace in Christ.

Living in the Waves

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One of the most well-known stories in the New Testament must be when Jesus invites Peter to walk on water in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter is often held up as either an example of bold faith in stepping out of the boat or faltering faith in sinking into the waves.

However, there is another part of the story that captures my attention and it has to do with the waves. When this memorable episode from the life of Jesus and the life of Peter takes place, it is surrounded by waves of challenge.

The first type of waves is the waves of people. Immediately before this, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of more than five thousand people. This crowd was pressing in around Jesus. Jesus dismissed them, but, even after the walking on water episode, they hunted Him down and asked for more. It is likely, from what we read in parallel accounts, that the crowds actually hoped to make Jesus king. The waves of people surrounded Him.

Along with the waves of people came the waves of emotions. After an exciting yet stressful ministry day with people, the disciples were exhausted. They seem not only exhausted by the work they were doing with Jesus, but also by the fact that Jesus Himself was difficult to understand. This led to a sort of emotional exhaustion and anticipation that always kept the disciples on their toes. They needed to get away.  It seems that Jesus also needed to get away. The pressures on Him to live into a human-defined image of Messiah-ship, yet pushing against that in obedience to the Father, lead Him to want to draw away with the Father again.

Of course, along with these waves of human pressure and emotional pressure come a third type: the waves of natural life. The literal winds and waves that beat against the boat threaten everyone in this situation. The natural order was not on their side and could not be easily controlled. This heightened physical circumstance augments the other more subtle waves around Jesus and His disciples.

Attention to the waves in this situation tells me one important thing to keep in focus. The waves – the challenges we face – are a normal part of life.

I want to draw this out because so many of us are waiting for “someday.” We all do this at times. We have that tendency to wait for a day when we believe that everything will become calm or everything will be at perfect peaceful. If not that, many of us are simply looking for the day when everything feels “normal,” even if we have never defined what that is.

When that normal day comes, many of us say, we will then be ready to follow Christ or take some dramatic step of faith. Until then, we are on hold in fear or confusion.

However, the very setting in which Peter makes his bold step of faith is in the waves. This is important to pay attention to because the Lord is reminding us through the context of this story that waves are normal.

The challenges of people and relationships that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the waves with people that we face.  The challenges of emotions and pressures that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the emotional waves that we face. The challenges of the natural things that happen – natural life changes, natural aging, natural circumstances of the environment – are similar to the natural waves that we face.

And this is what strikes me today: these waves are the normal setting in which faith rises up. Because of this, we don’t need to wait for someday.  Someday will not come because it does not exist. The waves in which we find ourselves are the setting in which we must take a step of faith.

What Are You Waiting For?

MP900442844When someone asks you, “what are you waiting for?”, a number of responses may jump to your lips:

  • “The start of the football season.”
  • “A response to that job application I sent in.”
  • “That special someone to come along.”

Waiting is a regular part of our lives, but it is not something we are always very good at.

Where are you?
In Psalm 130, the writer cries out to God from the depths (verses 1-2). For the Israelites, the depths convey a place of fear, confusion, or trouble. Pharaoh and the Egyptian army “sank Read More »

The Power of a Unified Mission

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November 11, 2011, was a historic night in the life of the Egyptian Church. As the Arab Spring unfolded, tensions were rising in Cairo, including the killing of many Coptic Christians in October. In the past, the Orthodox Copts, the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants had not supported one another. In fact, they had at many times stood against each other.

But this time was different. In response to this rising difficulty an invitation went out for Christians from all backgrounds – Coptic, Catholic, & Protestant – to gather for prayer. On that night, 71,000 people gathered to seek the face of God in prayer together. Held at the cave church on Cairo’s largest garbage city, the night began with confession, and continued with the gospel being proclaimed, healings happening through prayer, and one span of about 10 minutes where people merely called out the name of Jesus over and over again. Since that time, there has been an increase in conversions to Christ in Egypt at a number never before experienced in recent history.

Something happens when God’s people stand together in unity. There is power in a unified mission.

Jesus says…(read John 17:21, 23)

  • v 21 – “so that the world may believe you have sent me”
  • v 23 – “so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”

Jesus says that the result – the aftereffects – of unity in His people is effectiveness for the mission and purposes of God in the world. Get this: Jesus is talking to the Father about His desire for the church to reach the world – those far from God – and His key request is for unity in the believers.

The implication here is that if we live in disunity, then we will not be effective in joining God in His purposes in the world. Our mission will be short-circuited because of unity.

Jesus Himself was the one who said, “f a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

There are a couple of implications here:

  1. We cannot stand the threats of the world without unity. Jesus said, “a house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). If we want to endure in a culture against us then we must seek and pray for unity.
  2. If we care about the mission of God in the city and in the world, then we must both personally pray for and seek the unity of God’s people. The unity of the church and the mission of the church cannot be divorced from one another. If we think we can pursue the mission without pursuing unity, then we are deceived by the evil one.

The place where positive steps for mission – and the place where positive steps toward unity – occur best is in prayer, as Jesus models for us here in John 17.

Prayer is the pathway to unity, which strengthens the mission of the church.

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on unity through prayer from John 17, which began here.]

The Power of Transformed Relationships

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Jesus’ journey of prayer for unity continues as He unveils that there is power through transformed relationships…and that power comes through prayer.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)

Jesus is plunging ahead in prayer – and we have the high privilege of listening in – to the deep place of God’s relational unity. He prays:

“That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (17:21)

“that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me” (17:22-23)

This is one of the great and mysterious truths of the Christian life: that God is one in the unity of His substance, yet at the same time distinguished as three persons. There is a unified community of being within God that Jesus expresses here in prayer. We see God’s essential unity within diversity and diversity within unity. And this Trinity of being in God is the basis for Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His people.

Many times when we talk about unity, we begin to talk a lot about love. This is important because love is essential to unity, but not always in the way we think. Sometimes, talk of unity and love devolves into a touchy-feely moment where we hold hands and sing songs. At other times that sort of love necessary for unity gets real traction through the tough, real-life, sacrifices people make for one another.

Now, love is incredibly important, and we all must learn to love others more. But Jesus is taking this prayer for unity in a different direction. Jesus does not pray that God would give His people greater capacity or ability to love one another. He prays about something else.

He prays that His glory would flow into His future followers and lead them into transformed relationship with God and, therefore, with one another.

As biblical scholar Raymond Brown so helpfully points out, “unity is not simply human fellowship or the harmonious interaction of Christians.”[1] There is “both a horizontal and a vertical dimension” to unity.

What we need to recognize is that our breakthroughs to unity depend upon our transformed relationship with God that leads to transformed relationship with others.

I don’t want to imply that this is simply up to us getting moved forward with our will power in prayer, because this unity is a mystical, positional reality given us through Jesus Christ and His glory that we need to live into in greater ways.

This is what sanctification is all about: living into the truths of our salvation that we have received because of the positional transformation for humanity that we appropriate by faith into our lives. It’s all grace from God.

In our earthly lives, we will at times falter in the battlefields of conflict. We may find times where we raise our voices against one another. Sometimes we do it to another’s face with harsh words and false accusations, while at other times we quietly pass the sweet morsels of gossip or shards of slander into the ears of another.

No matter how it happens, when we stumble into the lands of conflict, the way back must be infused with prayer. Yes, we must use the best of the wisdom found in the Proverbs of the Bible and the greatest advice of wise counselors, but we must never attempt to achieve unity by our human efforts alone. Brothers and sisters, fall down on your knees and beg the God of the universe, who alone can speak to the hearts of others – and also to your own heart – about the causes of conflict and remedies for unity.

If your heart is bound with bitterness or rolling in rage, now is the time to desert the battlefields of conflict and seek the sweet remedy of the glory of God released in prayer.

As we do this, we may surprisingly find that God not only changes the other person or situation, but He changes us as well. In fact, we may find that we are the one who most needs to be changed.

Prayer is the pathway to unity through transformed relationships.

[This is the third in a series of posts on unity and prayer from John 17, which began here.]


[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 2: 776.