A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 6

This is the conclusion of a six-part series on Acts 15.

Conflict is inevitable for a church which operates without the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 15.36-41). It was God’s will for Paul and Barnabas to separate and take new partners as they headed out on another missionary journey. However, it wasn’t God’s will Do for them to be contentious with one another?

When we read the last paragraph of Acts 15, we and are even more convinced that we are reading the very words of God. If a man came up with this account, he would never cast Paul or Barnabas in such a negative light. But all things are naked and open before God the Holy Spirit.

Beginning a second missionary journey is a good thing. Barnabas wants to give John-Mark another opportunity to be help. After all, the difficulties during the first missionary journey were very great. Listen to what Paul himself tells us about it in 2 Corinthians 11.23-27:

Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…

While the contention was sharp, Paul and Barnabas eventually agreed to disagree on taking John-Mark. They didn’t stay contentious and bitter or else they would not have been able to effectively minister. The big mistake both made is that they didn’t seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We know this without a doubt because the Spirit may lead us in different directions, but He never does so through sharp contention.

Paul wanted helpers that wouldn’t cave under great pressure. Barnabas wanted to restore John-Mark to useful ministry. Both men have a point, but they were wrong in assuming that God wanted them to stay together. God’s will was for them to split in two teams. Paul and Silas would tackle the difficult aspects of the second missionary journey; Barnabas and John-Mark would go to Cyprus, a place where John-Mark would more readily learn how to stand for Jesus Christ.

God’s will is to lead us as we pray and reason together with loving, kind words. We must learn to operate as a church under the watchful eye of God. We must be constantly fed and led together by the Holy Spirit. How can we put ourselves in a place where this kind of cooperation flourishes?

  1. Remain dependent. God guides the humble in justice; the humble He teaches His way (Psalm 25.9).
  2. Learn from God. God instructs and teaches the church in the way it should go (Psalm 32.8).
  3. Feed on His Word and will. God will guide us with His counsel, and afterward receive us to glory (Psalm 73.24). God must open our eyes in order that we might see wondrous things from His Word/law (Psalm 119.18). “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30.21).
  4. Receive daily mercy and refreshing. God has mercy on us and thus will lead us and guide us to springs of water (Isaiah 49.10).
  5. Be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is here to guide us into all truth (John 16.13). Those led by the Holy Spirit are sons of God (Romans 8.14). If you are led by the Holy Spirit, you are not under the law (Galatians 5.18). The Holy Spirit illumines the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make us wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3.15).

The glory of God and the purity of doctrine are maintained during times of conflict in the local church only through the practice of biblical separation and biblical unity. While conflict is inevitable in a local church, it is deserved when the church leadership and congregation fails to seek guidance from God. The Holy Spirit gives a responsibility to each of us in order to resolve inevitable conflict within the church.

A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 5

Notice the word encouragement in Acts 15.31. It’s a strong word in the Greek, which means great consolation. It is a word used of the Holy Spirit when He is called the Comforter – the One who comes alongside of us and fills us with courage and confidence. The Holy Spirit is One upon whom we depend! Judas and Silas, as true prophets of God, exhorted (same word for comfort) and strengthened the brethren with many words (15.32). The letter from the Jerusalem church brought comfort; the prophets Judas and Silas brought comfort. Not only were Judas and Silas able to tell the church what would happen in the future; they were also able to give the true meaning of Scripture. This is what they do for the Gentiles in Acts 15. That is why we have Acts 15 in the first place!

The glory of God and purity of doctrine are maintained through proper unity within a local church. Ministry continues in the midst of conflict because of the encouragement we garner from one another as each of us is led by the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. It is good and pleasant when we dwell together in this kind of unity (Psalm 133.1).

How are we to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (see Ephesians 4)?

  1. We must walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4.1).
  2. We walk with all lowliness, gentleness, and longsuffering because that is how we will learn from Jesus together (Ephesians 4.2a).
  3. We walk by bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4.2b).
  4. We endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4.3). It’s not the unity of ecumenism to which we are called. It’s not unity at all costs to which we are called. It is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The peace spoken of here is a peace that reconciles us to God.
  5. We must have pastors who preach and teach the Word of God to equip the saints and edify the Body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith (the body of God’s truth and Word illumined by the Spirit) and the knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4.12-13).
  6. We must realize that unity will remain elusive until we mature in our relationship with God and grow in the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4.13).
  7. Unity is kept by speaking truth in love not speaking humiliating and denigrating words to one another (Ephesians 4.15).
  8. Unity comes to a church when she matures and draws from the head of the Church – Christ. He joins and knits together our assembly, according to the effective working by which every part does its share. If we fail to carry out our responsibilities and exercise our gifts in this church, then we will not grow or find the elusive edification and love we are missing (Ephesians 4.16).

The glory of God and purity of doctrine are maintained through biblical separation AND biblical unity. Conflict is inevitable for a church that seeks to do both. But conflict is inevitable, even deserved, for a church which never bothers to consult God’s will and way either.

A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 4

The first half of Acts 15 teaches that life in a faithful church is never easy. Conflict develops quickly and eats away at the priority movements in a church: Keeping the Great Commission by Keeping the Great Commandments. When problems like legalism develop, a pastor must carefully and prayerfully consider them. Pastors must also carefully articulate their concerns to the church body as they themselves are fed and led by the Holy Spirit. The conflict is resolved when the church unifies around the will of God through the Word of God. Every other form of unity is an affront to a holy God.

The pastor of the church at Jerusalem was James, the half-brother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He was quite capable as a leader. Our text this morning begins with the solution that the church faced because of the rabble-rousing of the legalistic Pharisees, who came from Jerusalem to Antioch in order add circumcision and law-keeping to the Gospel.

Conflict is inevitable for a church which seeks the glory of God and purity of doctrine (Acts 15.22-35). Both must be maintained through biblical separation (vv. 22-29). Some went out from Jerusalem and troubled believers with words. They unsettled the souls of the saints (v. 24).

These people who started the problems in the first half of this chapter are effectively silenced. The church at Jerusalem sent four men to Antioch with a letter recorded in these verses. Paul and Barnabas had come to Jerusalem with news that a conflict in the church at Antioch was threatening the very nature of the Gospel.

We are saved by the grace of God alone through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. But Pharisees from Jerusalem came to Antioch saying that Gentile believers had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be followers  of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This is another Gospel that must be condemned.

Judas and Silas are both leading men in the church at Jerusalem. We learn that they are prophets in v. 32. The letter tells us that these men will prophesy and preach that which the letter states is indeed the will and Word of God on this matter.

The church at Jerusalem never sent the Pharisees that caused all the trouble in Antioch. As a matter of fact, this kind of teaching hadn’t taken root in Jerusalem because of the strong leadership there. The key to the letter, however, is what seems good to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit led the church to conclude that the Jewish believers should lay no greater burden upon the Gentile believers than the necessary things which James already stated in the first half of Acts 15. Both Jewish and Gentile believers should abstain from idolatry and everything related to it.

Conflict in the church comes when people trouble believers with words, and unsettle souls with false doctrine. It is a ravaging of the church of God. It chips away at the glory of God and purity of doctrine within the church.

We need the comfort of the Holy Spirit to not only confirm truth, but to provide confidence so that we as a group might be led by Him. When the Scripture says that the Holy Spirit wants to separate us to necessary things, we should take heed. Conflict often arises in a church because they compromise doctrine and fail understand necessary principles of separation. Anyone who denies the necessity of separation, is a denier of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit Himself.

Righteousness does not have fellowship with lawlessness nor light with darkness nor Christ with Belial nor a believer with an unbeliever nor a temple of God with idols (see 2 Cor 6.14-7.1). We must be separate, cleanse ourselves, and perfect holiness in the fear of God. We go forth to Christ, outside the camp, and bear His reproach (Hebrews 13.13). We must not be swept away with those who are denying the Lord who bought them (2 Peter 2.1).

Conflict in a faithful church is inevitable because of the false teachers who clamor to get in and sow their destructive heresies. The letter from Jerusalem in Acts 15 tells the Gentiles that they are saved by grace alone through faith alone. But it also calls them to a standard of purity and glory in ministry, which comes only when one dedicates His life to God. Therefore, the glory of God and purity of doctrine are both maintained through separation. But unity around truth is also extremely important.

Psalm 133.1 says, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 3

Churches resolve problems by siding with the will of God through the Word of God (Acts 15.18-21). James comes to his conclusion as pastor of the church in Jerusalem. God knows from eternity all His works and all that He will do (Acts 15.18). James determines that “we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God.” However, he does say that they should abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, and from things strangled with blood (Acts 15.19-20). Why? Acts 15.21 gives the answer and points up the transitionary nature of the Book of Acts: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” What does this mean?

We have the resolution of the council, but is James adding a little of the Mosaic Law back into the Gospel here? No, he is saying that Jewish and Gentile believers need to avoid anything that has to do with pagan idolatry. These are pollutions, and indicators of flesh-driven not Spirit-driven Christianity. Paul will say later:

“For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8.10-13).

James mentions sexual immorality because this was connected with pagan worship as well. Eating animals strangled instead of slaughtered and drinking blood were also pagan practices. James is saying in that there is no reason to modify what Moses had taught in this particular case (v. 21). Plus all believers should respect Jewish concerns. Believers have liberty in Christ. Gentile believers should not be bound to Jewish legalism. All believers should be compassionate and considerate when it comes to the feelings of others. This is the will of God.

What must we take away from this meeting of the Jerusalem Council? Our top concern is to make sure the Gospel stays the Good News. It becomes bad news when men corrupt it. There are four important lessons for us as a church from this text:

  1. The Mosaic Law (ceremonial, moral, or any other aspect) was not given to justify men, but to condemn them. It is an instrument that leads us to the end of ourselves. It is the ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3.7). Paul reasons that “if the ministry of condemnation (the Law) had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory” (2 Corinthians 3.9). “If there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3.21-24). So, now we are Spirit-fed and Spirit-led believers.
  2. If you want to be justified by the Law of Moses, your will have to perfectly obey it. This has never been done and cannot be done by sinful, fallen man. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3.10).
  3. If you want to mix your obedience in with the Gospel of Jesus Christ (like the Pharisees here in Acts 15), then you are building a foundation of boasting and pride for yourself. As Paul writes, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith (which means faith is not a work but a response to God’s grace)” (Romans 3.27).
  4. A church that loves the Lord Jesus Christ will not tolerate another gospel. We are saved by the grace of God through faith alone in Christ alone.

There are two warnings that all of us need to heed as Christians. First, we must not abuse the free salvation we have in Jesus Christ. If you think that once you’re saved you are free to despise a holy, moral life, you don’t understand Christianity. You’ve been saved to grow into holiness not away from it. Genuine faith works. If it doesn’t, what distinction is there between you and demons? James will later ask this very question.

Second, don’t lose sight of the free salvation you have in Jesus Christ. Not ever! If you’re thinking it couldn’t happen to you, just remember it happened to Peter. Paul had to call him on it. All of us tend toward self-righteousness. But self-righteous people will populate Hell. “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5.1). Christians are dead to the flesh (Romans 6), dead to the Law (Romans 7), and alive in the Spirit (Romans 8).

Paul says in Romans 10.2: “For I bear them [his unsaved brothers in Israel] witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10.2-3).

Paul sought such people out with compassion not contempt. We should do the same. Acts 15.21 teaches us that there will be people that could easily stumble over the Gospel. We must remove as much human offense as possible. God will have to crush, chasten, and chop away at us for this to happen. The Holy Spirit saves and transforms through you. You bring nothing to the table. It might take the Lord some time to help you figure that out. Just remember that a day is coming when “the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be ‘The LORD is one,’ and His name one” (Zechariah 14.9).

A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 2

Church pastors must articulate their concerns to the church body. Apparently, the scene has shifted to include a multitude in Acts 15.12-17. Maybe they heard what was going on and gradually came together, or maybe the leaders met first and then came to the multitude of believers during an open church meeting. Certainly everyone was amazed at how God had worked through Barnabas and Paul among the Gentiles. Once everyone settled in and there was a silence, the pastor got up to speak.

Pastor James of the Jerusalem church led the council as the host pastor of the church. He now summarizes what Peter said earlier, and then points up the fact that Simon’s declaration was in agreement with the prophets. That is, Simon clearly was speaking of an agreement (not fulfillment) with the OT prophecies when it came to the matter of the salvation of Gentiles (see Amos 9.11-12).

It all began with the conversion of Cornelius and his family. God visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name (Acts 15.14). They would remain Gentiles and not become Jews. There will be no racial distinctions in the church of God. It would consist of people from all over the world. Those who come to Christ by grace alone through faith alone make up the church. Interestingly, James quotes the Septuagint (LXX) when he quotes Amos. That’s significant because he is in Jerusalem. By quoting the LXX, James is approving of the actions of Barnabas and Paul. It was a definitive way to show his support by quoting the Greek (Gentile) Scriptures. It would have been difficult for the legalist Pharisees to hear him do that.

Dr. Stewart Custer states that the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q has a Hebrew text that exactly agrees with the Greek of Acts. That’s pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. This is how this text flows:

  • First, God is taking out of the Gentiles a people for His name (He is still doing that today).
  • But Jesus Christ will return and rebuild the tabernacle of David during the Millennial Kingdom. I know of no NT context where the tabernacle of David refers to the church.
  • Once the Millennial reign of Christ is established, all people who populate the kingdom are saved by grace through faith in Christ. As time goes forward, many will be born that need to be converted. Isaiah prophecies of the multitudes of these conversions.
  • At that time all the nations shall flow into the LORD’s house (Isaiah 2.2). The Gentiles shall seek Him and His resting places shall be glorious (Isaiah 11.10). All flesh shall come to worship before the LORD (Isaiah 66.23).

I don’t believe the church can fulfill any of these prophecies of which Isaiah speaks. As Gentiles are converted today, we are witnessing just the beginning of the advancing day when God will be all in all to all peoples. Then, the great eternal day begins.

The Good News is that God is doing all these things. Gentiles are not Jews, but God is calling them by His name. If God is going to welcome Gentiles into His future millennial kingdom, then He will do so presently during this aspect of His glorious and eternal reign through the church!

  1. God visits the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name (vv.14-15).
  2. “After this I will return” (v. 16): after the church age, the Lord Jesus will return.
  3. “And will rebuild the tabernacle of David” (v. 16): set up the millennial reign.
  4. The Gentiles will be brought to the LORD after the Kingdom is set up on the earth.

People who don’t believe in a literal Millennium Kingdom interpret this text by saying that the return and rebuilding of the tabernacle refer to the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of the church. But as I have already mentioned, there is no biblical citation in the NT where the tabernacle of David refers to the church.

A Conflict Worth Having – Pt 1

Life in a faithful church is never easy. There’s always something brewing in a church, an undertow of opposition. There really is no rest. Paul and Barnabas found this to be true after completing their first missionary journey in Acts 13-14. God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles through the ministry of these two men, and now others from Judea were coming down and teaching these Gentile converts that they have to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses or they could not be saved (Acts 15.1).

Legalism is rightly defined as adding human religious works to the finished work of Jesus Christ and insisting others follow your example. Legalism undermines the true Gospel of Christ. Acts 15.24 clearly says that these legalists were not sent from the church at Jerusalem. They arrogantly took it upon themselves to spread their doctrine. Paul and Barnabas stood firmly against these men and argued against their doctrine.

The church at Antioch determined that Paul and Barnabas should go to Jerusalem. Christianity began in Jerusalem. Christian doctrine issued forth from the apostles and was built around the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. It was time to put this question of Jewish legalism to rest once and for all.

As the two men traveled to Jerusalem, they described the conversion of the Gentiles to people. Many Jewish and Gentile believers rejoiced over this. When they arrived, the church itself received them gladly. Paul and Barnabas reported to the church regarding their first missionary journey. They spoke of all the things God had done with them; not about all the things they had done for God.

However, a sect of the Pharisees, who had become committed to Jesus Christ as the Messiah, stood up and said that it was necessary to circumcise Gentile believers and command that they keep the Law of Moses. So, these men received Christ as their Messiah, but continued to live as Jews. Most nominal Christian churches in our world today add good works to faith in Christ. This all started with these Pharisees in Jerusalem. This false doctrine has led many men and women to Hell. How would the church settle this issue?

Careful consideration is needed by church pastors when problems of any sort develop (Acts 15.6-11). This is particularly true with problems concerning the Gospel. The apostles along with elders carefully considered the matter before them. There was much dispute until the chief apostle rose up to speak.

  • First, Peter pointed out what had happened in Acts 10 with Cornelius (Acts 15.7). It was God’s will for Gentiles to hear and receive the Gospel through the mouth of Peter.
  • Second, God acknowledged the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 15.8).
  • Third, there is no longer a distinction between believing Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15.9). All believers have hearts purified by faith in Christ.
  • Finally, Peter hits hard by asking a rhetorical question. “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15.10)? That yoke is obviously the Mosaic Law.

Now make no mistake. Many Christians today are equating sinful activity with this yoke and completely missing the point of Peter’s argument. Peter hammers it home in Acts 15.11: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Pious Jews (Romans 7) are saved the same way miserable Gentiles are (Romans 6). We are saved by grace. All of us are saved by grace. However, it isn’t grace if you add the Mosaic Law, circumcision, or baptism to it. It isn’t grace if you add anything to the finished work of Jesus Christ! And that grace is received on the basis of faith alone. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Law-keeping Christianity is a great burden. “When you have done all those things which are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Luke 17.10). Jesus is telling us that even if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you are at best unprofitable. Many of the Pharisees boasted of keeping the Law, but they broke it constantly. We must be dead to the Law (Romans 7).

A Horrible Kind of Happiness

One of the key events in the history of Israel is the Babylonian exile. The Jewish people taken into captivity longed to return to Judah. Psalm 137 presents this longing in a heart-rending retrospect (vv. 1-3) that quickly turns defiant (vv. 4-6) and vengeful (vv. 7-9). The final lines of the psalm depict what one writer called “a horrible kind of happiness.”

“O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!”

The psalmist expresses the grief of his situation. He is not expressing the heart of God but reflecting the defiant, vengeful human heart that is part of our lives. The heart of God is found over and over again in the previous psalm: “His mercy endures forever.” God’s mercy is enduring (Psalm 136) while our torment is temporary (Psalm 137).

The Jewish captives in Babylon sat by the rivers in their place of exile, their harps hanging from trees. They were too grief-stricken to sing. Their captors urged them to do so but singing only made them long for home. They forget that their sins led to the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple. The destruction of Jerusalem demonstrates that God’s mercy endures forever, but His justice harmonizes perfectly with that mercy.

Still, there is this matter of Babylon and the atrocities she afflicted on the people of God. The LORD would make that right one day. The captives waited for that day. They pined away for the horrible kind of happiness relayed to us in verse 9. I admit that I have not suffered the fate of these Jewish exiles. This psalm is indeed very emotional and raw. However, there are three very important lessons to learn from it:

  1. Judge with the same standard by which you wish to be judged. The standard by which I judge the motives of the psalmist is the standard the LORD shall use to judge my own prayers of defiance and bitterness. Psalm 137.9 is a brutal verse. But I did not live the life of the psalmist. However, God does indeed see me. He knows my own heart as it is reflected back to him during the bitter moments of my life.
  2. God does not change. There is not an Old Testament God who evolves into a New Testament God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What has changed is our clarity of the way things are, the way they always have been. We have the entire Word of God, and it is our life. Since God has spoken to us in these last days by His Son, we had better listen. The Lord Jesus taught us to do good to those who hate and persecute us, to bless them and not curse them.
  3. Find the right kind of happiness in the Gospel. The cross of Christ changes everything. It removes a vindictive, vitriolic spirit. If we believe on the death of Christ for our sins and the resurrection of Christ for our righteousness, then the horrible kind of happiness in Psalm 137.9 will give way to the right kind of happiness among the blessed who are merciful. This is true because the merciful obtain mercy themselves. They understand their own need of mercy and see themselves in their Babylonian captors. They understand that only God is just and only God is able to put the world right.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

“Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2.10-13)

It is not possible to live your whole life and obey all of God’s laws in the Old Testament except one. Yet if it were possible, you would still stand guilty of breaking the entire canon of law in the end. The law is whole. Anyone who breaks one facet of something that is whole, breaks its integrity. We see this in collectors who devalue an object because of slight discoloration or because it is no longer in its original packaging.

The point is that there aren’t many individual or separate laws in the Old Testament which are somehow unrelated to each other. The Law is one expression of the will of God. We have overstepped our boundaries by failing to do the will of God. We are operating against His will. We need wholeness and integrity. We need the discoloration caused by our rebellion to be removed. We need to be restored to our original packaging.

We must speak and act as those judged by the Law of Liberty. This is the same Royal Law spoken of in James 2.8. It is the Law of the Old Testament intensified by the Lord Jesus but fulfilled by Him as well. God revealed one Law on Sinai through Moses, His servant. Jesus came along as the Son of God and fulfilled the Law and the will of His Father. It has now become the unbroken Law of Liberty for the sons and daughters of God because of Jesus’ triumph over the grave. “For [or because] judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.”

James tells us that if we fail to show mercy, we better not expect mercy. Our relationship with the Lord God through Christ produces mercy in us. Jesus would say that “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7.2). If we live our lives in such a way that we fail to demonstrate living faith, we will face a merciless judgment at the end of those lives. “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”

The LORD has said in Hosea 6.6 that He desires mercy and not sacrifice. Jesus used this verse from Hosea to confront the merciless Pharisees. They asked the disciples of Jesus why their Teacher ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus heard it and answered: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

We know that all are sinners: Pharisee, disciple, and tax collector alike. But not all sinners know that they are sinners. Mercy doesn’t cancel out judgment. It is not leniency that Jesus demonstrated. But those disciples of Jesus who show mercy need not fear judgment. Showing mercy doesn’t curry favor with God or earn His mercy, but it indicates that we are well-acquainted with God’s mercy. That is why we need not fear.

The Law is a revealer of God’s will and ways. It guides us in this present life. It also forms the basis for our future judgement. You may think that that is a problem. But remember the One who fulfilled all the Law for you. The Law requires that we keep every aspect of it perfectly. God considers our plight and sends us Jesus to keep the Law for us.

If we are Christians, we are bound to a different law. Our concentration is the Law of Liberty. This Royal Law of James is the measure of our conduct at present. It is also the measure of God’s judgment in the future.

James says, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” Our destination is assured, but the future judgment will unfold in a way that demonstrates whether we loved well or not. The future measure of our judgment is love. How well do you love? Jesus will ask you, “How well did you love?” Then, your rewards are determined. Do you sense the loss resulting from a loveless, merciless life? Today, you must love others as Christ loved and with Christ’s love. Learn to love people who are as difficult as you are. If you don’t think you’re difficult to love, you are deceived. Love well. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Waking Up This Morning in Meshech and Kedar

Psalm 120 is first among 15 consecutive psalms titled, A Song of Ascents. Psalm 127 is in the middle of these psalms and is attributed to Solomon. There are seven psalms on either side of Psalm 127. The first side consists of Psalm 120 – Psalm 126. Five of these are written by unknown authors. Two are written by David. The second side consists of Psalm 128 – Psalm 134. Five of these are also written by unknown authors. Again, two are written by David. This is interesting and doesn’t appear to be a random organization, but the meaning behind the organization is elusive to me.

Most believe that the psalms were written for pilgrims who attended annual feasts in Jerusalem. The pilgrims recited these psalms as they went up to Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is higher than anything surrounding it, it didn’t matter what direction you traveled. You always went up to Jerusalem.

Psalm 120
Plea for Relief from Bitter Foes
A Song of Ascents.

In my distress I cried to the Lord,
And He heard me.

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips
And from a deceitful tongue.

What shall be given to you,
Or what shall be done to you,
You false tongue?

Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With coals of the broom tree!

Woe is me, that I dwell in Meshech,
That I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

My soul has dwelt too long
With one who hates peace.
I am for peace;
But when I speak, they are for war.

The word distress means a circumstance so unfavorable that it causes great emotional pain. All of us have distress which comes into our lives at some point. If you live a consistent Christian testimony, distress seems to be a constant companion. Sometimes we respond to our distress by crying out to garner sympathy or pity from others. Other times, we cry out to authority to give us justice or help us overcome the cause of the distress. The psalmist cried out to the LORD, and the LORD heard him.

The psalmist cried out to the LORD for deliverance. The cause for all the distress is the deceit of another person. Someone was lying concerning him; therefore, the LORD heard him. The psalmist wonders, “What will be done to such a dishonest person, LORD?” He suggests that the LORD will rain down fiery arrows upon the deceitful person.

It seems that the psalmist struggled with the deceit because of where he was. He dwelt among people who didn’t believe. This is what distresses me about the upheaval in our world over the weekend.

Meshech and Kedar are not the places where he actually lived. Meshech is located well to the northeast of Israel, the far northern mountains. Kedar is located well to the southeast of Israel, the deep Arabian deserts. The psalmist lived among unbelieving people who hated peace, a peace with which he supported and with which he was well-acquainted. They speak of war; he speaks of peace. All true believers dwell in the tents of Meshech and Kedar.

It is interesting that this follows on the heels of Psalm 119, a psalm regarding the powerful words of God. This forms a stark contrast with the deceptive words of the world.

The Discomfort of Our Distressful Lives

We face an unavoidable fact: Distress will be a constant companion in the life of a believer. This leads to an unavoidable feeling: Pressure and pain are the result of prolonged distress. However, we need not to be enslaved to distress. It is also a goad toward hope.

Not all people seek the LORD in their distress. Here are six common ways people handle distress:

  1. They get bitter against God. They have a deep, seething resentment toward God and His people.
  2. They stop trusting in God. They simply think that if God has allowed this to happen, then He must not care or even exist.
  3. They grow hardened toward God. This same thing happened to the Pharaoh in Moses’ day. Distressful, multiplied plagues only serving to harden his heart.
  4. They seek counterfeit life in sin. Distress often serves as a catalyst to find some sort of escape from a sense of misery. Addictions to alcohol, food, entertainment, sexual immorality, and many other vices serve as such an escape. People handle distress by distracting themselves with sinful experiences such as looting and rioting and fighting.
  5. They look for people to provide that which only God is able to provide. This is certainly idolatry. This is also the problem with our desire for justice. We seek it from the wrong source. If I look for deliverance from my children, my wife, or a friend, I put them in an impossible situation. If I look for deliverance from racism and leave God out of the equation, I seek for my solutions in vain. Only God is able to deliver me from my distress.
  6. They seek to overcome distress in their own strength. Many people have that optimistic, can-do spirit. Youthful idealism vented its rage over the weekend. They were able to put distress out of mind and overcome it with the power of positive thinking. Change is possible. Distress for them serves as a vehicle to an inward, narrow life not a life with eternal quality to it. Distress cannot be overcome by any power which resides in me or comes out of me. Power for change and a meaningful life comes from relying upon the Holy Spirit.

As believers, we must do what the psalmist does. We must cry out to the LORD in prayer. We must look to Him for help.

Why does God allow distress in life? He allows it to remind us that there is a great conflict in the world in which we live. Meshech and Kedar want war; we want peace. We are pilgrims passing through and this world is not our home. We don’t ascend to Jerusalem; our ascent is toward the presence of God. Distress in the present ought to cause us to seek for God’s presence and power to reconcile people to Himself.

But don’t forget how the psalmist prays while in distress. He cried out to the LORD. There is a sense of sorrow, humility, and desperation behind that verb. He doesn’t trust in himself or anyone else. He trusts only in the LORD. This type of prayer perseveres with God. God hears us when we cry out in our distress!

Notice that the psalmist begins with the resolution to distress. He cried and the LORD heard him. The LORD will hear us too. We know it. The outward circumstances of my life don’t change all that much. I still struggle, but I expect struggle in Meshech and Kedar. However, inside me I find a light that generates hope. That light is from the LORD.

So, distress is necessary for pilgrims here. It is uncomfortable. But there is consolation and hope when I cry out to God. Are we not also pilgrims, even as the psalmist was?

“Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2.11-12

God Gives Wisdom

One great enemy working against us in our pursuit of God’s wisdom is well-intentioned friends and family around us. People seek to draw us back again to the wisdom of this world. They think they know what is best. They say they are looking out for us, but they are diverting us from the path God intends for us. Wisdom acts like a compass to keep us on the narrow way.

Spiritual wisdom is not found in the academic subject matter we study. It is the gift of God. God gave men wisdom or the skill to build a beautiful sanctuary for Him (Ex 36.1-2). He gave men wisdom to produce healthy crops (Isa 28.23-26). God gives us wisdom through His Spirit to live a worthwhile life. He reveals what He has prepared for those who love Him. We receive the Holy Spirit so that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God the Father (1 Cor 2.9-12). James calls this wisdom from above (3.17). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1.17).

The Spirit provides us with wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, and knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11.2). The eyes of your understanding are opened by the hope of God’s calling (Ephesians 1.18). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. He will guide us into all truth (John 16.13). We have an anointing from the Holy One and by Him we know all things (1 John 2.20). The anointing abides or dwells deeply within us.

We have teachers, but for real wisdom all we need is the instruction and illumination of God’s Holy Spirit (1 John 2.27). We have understanding and wisdom thanks to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to know Him who is true. We are in Him who is true, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the true God; knowing Him is eternal life (1 John 5.20). Unsaved people are referred to as natural. They do not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to them; nor can they know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2.14). It is great shame when I react to life as a mere man, a natural person.

Spiritual wisdom is received through prayer. We must live according to the Word of God. So, we must know what the Word of God says. But we cannot understand the Word of God apart from prayer.

  • We must incline the ear toward wisdom.
  • We must listen to the Word of God.
  • We must apply our heart to understanding.
  • We must cry out in prayer for discernment.
  • We must lift up our voice for understanding.
  • We must seek after wisdom like we would seek for silver and hidden treasures.

“The LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2.2-6). We need the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ, the eyes of our understanding being enlightened; that we may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1.17-18). Pray and ask that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding (Colossians 1.9).

Spiritual wisdom is assured because of the power and promise of God. God is good to give to those who ask. He gives liberally and without reproach. God’s hand is always open. Don’t ignore it. He will not be stingy. He will not spurn you when you ask Him for wisdom. He delights in this. It will be given to you. When, how, and to what extent is up to Him. But He will give it.

All we must do is seek wisdom from the hand of God in sincerity and in truth. Ask in faith, with no doubting (James 1.6). God may withhold from me something specific. But I will receive something better instead. I really believe that. God has the power, and God is willing. If I doubt either one of these simple facts, I make God a liar. I’m not worthy of God’s wisdom. I don’t deserve it. But I ask and expect to receive wisdom because I am weak and needy. If I thought I was worthy, God would resist me. I believe I shall have wisdom simply because God has promised to give it to me.

Sadly, many times I am unaware of my need for wisdom. I start to actually believe I am competent when it comes to my thinking. How do I know this is happening? I am not asking God for wisdom. I am not feeding on His Word in prayer. I am trusting in my own heart. Proverbs 28.26 states that those who trust in their own hearts are fools, but whoever walks wisely will be delivered.

If we lack wisdom, we must trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. In all our ways we will acknowledge Him, and He shall direct our paths (Proverbs 3.5-6). We are often discouraged because we know we need wisdom and we don’t seem to have it. If we focus on how big the problem or difficulty is, then we will be terribly discouraged. We are insufficient to meet the need in our own strength.

If we focus on God, our hope is strengthened because He has promised, and He has the power to deliver. God can establish strength in the lives of others even through babes and nursing infants (Psalm 8.2). The treasure of God is in earthen vessels so that the excellence and power of God may be seen (2 Corinthians 4.7). God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9). If we doubt in the power of God to rescue us, we will sink beneath the waves (Matthew 14.30-31). If we doubt, we cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord (James 1.7). If we believe, then in accordance with our faith let it be to us (Matthew 9.29).