Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Psalm 23:4b The Security of Discipline

I can remember clearly when I was a child the times I got a spanking. It didn’t happen much but when it did I certainly learned not to do whatever I had done again. My parents didn’t spank me because they were mean or enjoyed hurting me. They knew, like all good parents do, that children who are allowed to misbehave become adults who misbehave. They loved me and wanted to teach me right from wrong. In the same way, our loving Shepherd disciplines His sheep because He loves us.

David writes in the last part of verse 4 that “Your rod…comfort[s] me”. David, of course was writing this from the perspective of a shepherd and he knew what the rod he spoke of was and what it was used for. A shepherd boy would choose a stick about the length of his forearm to create his rod from. He would carve the stick so that is was balanced, had a handle, and was comfortable in his grip. He would practice using that stick in target practice until he was as deadly accurate with it as Batman with a batarang.

Once he became comfortable with his rod, it became indispensible to him in the protection of his flock. If a predator came calling and threatened the flock, the shepherd would smack that critter with the business end of his rod. This rod helped him protect the flock from danger not only from predators. Sheep, as we have noted in our study of this psalm, are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. If given the choice between doing something safe and doing something stupid, they’ll choose the stupid 99 times our of a hundred. Therefore, when the shepherd saw one of his sheep about to go to close to the edge of a cliff or about to drink of of some polluted water, he would smack it with his rod so the sheep knew that he wasn’t supposed to do that.

Our Shepherd also has a rod that He uses to protect us as His sheep. God uses His word for discipline and protection. As we read His word, we see commands of what we are supposed to do and what we are not supposed to do. In this way, we see the dangers that lie in wait as we are tempted to sin. Furthermore, when we do sin, God’s word is a tool He uses to convict us of that sin. When I have behaved unkindly to my wife (which happens way more often than I care to admit) and I read in God’s word that I am to love my wife as Christ loved the church, I am wounded by the smack upside of my head by the word of the Lord. However, God uses His word to warn us and discipline us in order to conform us to the image of His precious Son.

David notes not only that the rod of God is a comfort, but also that “Your staff…comfort[s] me”. When I think of a shepherd, the first image that pops into my head is a silhouette from a Christmas card of a shepherd. The picture shows the shepherd standing sideways and over the top of his head is his curved staff. That staff, as much as anything, is like the nametag of a shepherd. It identifies him. The sheep may not always be able to see the shepherd. He may be surrounded by other sheep and may not be close enough for some sheep to see him. However, they can always see his staff towering high above everything else. They know the shepherd is there and can take comfort in that. In like manner, we are not able to see our God. He is spirit and therefore invisible. However, we have the real indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that lets us know that He is with us. As we see our spiritual gifts develop and we see ourselves becoming more Christ-like, we recognize the presence of God. Just as David did, we can say to God “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible Copyright 1960, 1962, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. U

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Matthew 5-7 The Sermon on the Mount-Introductory Thoughts

As I noted in the first blog post that I wrote on Matthew, this gospel’s primary audience was the Jewish people. I suspect this included both Christians and Non-Christian Jews. The Jewish people were God’s specially chosen people out of all the people on the earth and it was those people who Jesus went to primarily. God had revealed himself to the Jews both by miraculous signs and wonders as well as the revelation of His precious word. However, the Jewish people living in Jesus’ day were practicing a religion devoid of the substance of that truth while maintaining some of the ritual formalities. As we prepare to study this amazing sermon, we should remember and keep in mind the religious hypocrisy that was rampant in the time that Jesus walked the earth.

Their spiritual condition should not come as much of a surprise to us. As students of God’s word, we know the story of the Jewish nation and their relationship to God. We know how He saved them out of bondage in Egypt with awesome, supernatural displays of His power. Yet, as they stood on the banks of the Red Sea, they worried about how He could possibly save them from the armies of Pharaoh. They complained about the scarcity of food and water as if it was too hard for God to provide those things even after they saw His power displayed again and again. They constantly rebelled against His commandments and refused to enter the promised land even after He had assured them of victory. The book of Judges is a sad testament of their failure to truly commit themselves to God as they suffer judgment, repent, are saved by a God appointed leader only to start the whole process over again. The history of the Kingdom of Israel is quite similar with some kings who followed God and some who didn’t. Even after the invasion of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria and the Southern Kingdom by Babylon their heart was still stubborn. By the time of Malachi, their worship had become little more than an obligation they tried to fulfill rather than being something they did out of an overflow of love for God.

By the time Jesus arrived, their worship had only become more stagnant and unauthentic. Some people, like the Pharisees, were pretty good at external displays of righteousness and made a pretty good show. Others, feeling like that could never live up to what they were told by the Pharisees that the law of God demanded, lived a hopeless existence because they saw no way they could ever be good enough for God to love them. In this marvelous sermon, Jesus came to tell the first group that they had it all wrong. I mean, they were completely off base. Not only had they completely missed the point of the law of God they had no clue what true righteousness was or how incapable they were of producing it. To the other group, He revealed not only the truth about God’s righteousness but He also told them how to obtain it.

In short, as we begin to study thought this powerful teaching of our Lord, we should remember that our righteousness is not good enough for God. We can only come to God and have a relationship with Him when we realize how holy He is and how sinful we are. Only then will we recognize our need for a Savior to pay the price for our sins. Praise God that Jesus did just that.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Psalm 23:4 The Assurance of the Sheep in the Face of Death

There are few things in this life that we can be sure about. The weather changes very frequently and the stock market is up and down like a roller coaster it seems. However, we know that there is one event every person will face in their lifetimes-death. The fact that our physical bodies do not and cannot live forever is one of the constant truths of our existence. It affirms the fact that we are created beings and that our existence on this earth is finite due to the effects of sin. In spite of this, the Christian has no reason to fear death or mourn for the dead as unbelievers do. We can be encouraged as we read this Psalm and reflect on the fact that our God is our Shepherd.

First of all, as we look at verse 4, we should remember that David was writing this Psalm under God’s inspiration from his perspective as a shepherd himself. During the spring/summer months, the shepherd would take the sheep from the ranch through the valley and into the mountain where it was cooler. Obviously, there was some danger involved in this trek. The flock was no longer in the controlled environment of the ranch. The shepherd did not have access to every resource in the field that he would have if he were at his home.

With this in mind, David writes “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Observe, first of all, the pace that David describes here. He says “I walk” (Hebrew-halak). This is not a hurried pace. David does not describe being driven furiously or running in fear. He is walking. The other day, a colleague of mine told me he had talked to one of the supervisors at work and she had mentioned to him that she had ran 4 miles that morning. He said to me “If you ever see me running 4 miles, you can be sure that someone behind me is chasing me with a gun AND that they know how to use it”. Running is for someone who, for whatever reason, is in a hurry. David doesn’t describe being in a hurry even though the environment he is in presents danger. Likewise, a Christian doesn’t have to fear death regardless of the circumstances.

David also recognizes that this is simply a journey, a transition from one place to another. He is walking “through the valley”. Now, we know that you can’t have a valley without mountains. In the same way, we can’t have physical life without physical death. It is simply a natural transition. He is moving from one place to another. In like manner, we as Christians will move from one place (here on this sinful earth) to another place (in heaven forever with our Lord and Savior).

Next, notice his perspective on the dangers he faces in this valley. He describes it as being “the shadow of death”. Shadows simply result from the blockage of light. They are not the object but simply indicate the presence of that object. As the author of Hebrews said, the things in the temple and the ordinances performed there were only a shadow of the real things in heaven and the spiritual truths they represented. In much the same way, death for a Christian is not the same thing as death for the lost man. As Isaiah wrote in the 8th verse of the 25th chapter of his prophecy, death and it’s power have been swallowed up in the victory of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. For a Christian, death is no real threat. It is only a shadow. The eternal sting of death is swallowed up in the overcoming work that Jesus finished. We don’t have to fear because we will never face the “real thing” but only the shadow.

Because of his perspective, David has peace. He says “I will fear no evil”. Because of the love of his wonderful, loving Shepherd, David is totally comfortable in this journey. He completely trusts God and knows without a doubt that anything that could happen will not cause him harm. This peace comes not because of blind faith or a warm, gooey feeling in his heart. He trusts God because of his relationship and because of the faithfulness that God has demonstrated. If God has been good to us before, and has kept His promises, it stands to reason that we can continue to rely on Him to be faithful and keep us safe just as He has promised.

In conclusion, David says he has this peace because “You are with me”. The presence of his Shepherd is a source of comfort for David as a sheep. The flock can relax in the valley just as they did on the ranch because of the loving, attentive care of their Shepherd. Likewise, when we or our loved ones face death, we can take comfort in the presence of God. We don’t have to fear because He will be with us.

Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible Copyright 1960, 1962, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.