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Arguing with God

Sunday, January 15, 2023

               “But how can a man be in the right before God?

If one wished to contend with him,

               one could not answer him once in a thousand times.

He is wise in heart and mighty in strength

               —who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?…

               Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ …

Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him;

               I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.

If I summoned him and he answered me,

               I would not believe that he was listening to my voice.” (Job 9.1-16)

The book of Job doesn’t get its fair share of attention. It is generally divided into three parts.  Part 1 comprises chapters 1 and 2, and details how Job, though righteous, lost his family, wealth, and health.  Part 3, comprising chapter 42, explains how God restored Job’s fortunes.  Part 2, the 39 chapters in between…well, most people skip those.

You may notice that, by those numbers, the attention is focused on far less than even a tenth of the book.  And to be fair, it’s a slight exaggeration of the problem—but only a slight one.  Yet, if we’re willing to put in the effort, we’ll find Job is one of the most important books of the Bible, grappling with the big questions and frustrations we often face in this world of sin and death.  Job’s three friends determined to visit him in his sorrow and provide comfort, as friends should.  However, they made unwarranted assumptions about why all this calamity befell Job, and took issue with things Job said, when he was unwilling to accept the blame.

Job’s friends thought God was punishing him for some grievous sin he’d committed—not that they made specific accusations.  They simply assumed that we always get what we deserve in life, despite ample evidence to the contrary.  Job didn’t claim to be perfectly pure and sinless; but he knew he hadn’t done anything to specifically deserve this suffering, certainly nothing worse than the behavior of many who live long and prosperous lives, free from the sort of disaster he’d experienced.  The argument raged back and forth, with both sides trying different tactics but refusing to budge from their positions.  In one of Job’s speeches, he stops trying to convince his friends he’s innocent, and instead complains that he’d prefer to have the argument with someone whose judgment would actually matter—namely, God.  And that’s where we began, in chapter 9.  When we consider all that Job says, it’s clear he’s not just pointing out the universal sinfulness of mankind.  That’s what we might have thought, from verse 2 alone: “But how can a man be in the right before God?”  Yet a few sentences later, he adds, “Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him” (v15).  He maintains that he’s in the right; but he also doesn’t say that God has done wrong.  He knows better than that—hence his confusion.  Someone must be to blame here, but he knows it’s not him, and he knows it’s not God.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t know where else to go with his complaint, but to God, the Judge of all.

He envisions God’s heavenly court—the same image with which the book began—and puts himself in the position of a defendant, with his righteousness in question and a sentence not only looming over his head, but already enacted.  God is the Judge overseeing the trial, but then, who’s the accuser, pressing the charge against him?  With the benefit of having read chapters 1 and 2, we know that it’s Satan; but Job himself doesn’t know that!  He can only conclude that God is the one prosecuting him, and so he says, “I must appeal for mercy to my accuser” (v15).

In essence, Job’s frustration comes from concluding that he stands no chance at all of securing a favorable verdict, and relief from his unjust punishment, because he’d be arguing against God, and he knows that, however right he may be, that’s an un-winnable battle, and one he has no right to undertake in the first place.  He can’t even believe the Judge is impartial, because he’s also the prosecutor!  We can’t fault Job for misunderstanding what was going on in God’s heavenly court—God himself certainly didn’t.  Yet, we now know it was really Satan standing before God as accuser, prosecuting Job for the supposed evil in his heart.

Isn’t that comforting?  Well, perhaps not.  On one hand, it reassures us that God is impartial and perfectly just; on the other hand, it leaves us in the position of trying to out-argue the lord of all evil, who’s extremely skilled in his craft—and on top of this, we know that, despite our best intentions, he does have legitimate accusations to bring against us!  But that’s not the whole story.  We don’t have to plead our case alone. 

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2.1-2)

Praise the Lord!  The only one with a right to stand before God and plead on our behalf, his own blameless Son, is willing to take up our case, and even to prosecute our accuser!

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world… And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12.9-11)

Are you like Job, frustratedly taking up a losing argument with God?  Or perhaps you’re trying to win the battle against Satan on your own.  Only one man has ever battled Satan and come away unscathed.  He offers his help to each of us.  Will you take it?

Jeremy Nettles

What Should You Do First?

Sunday, January 08, 2023

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. (Joshua 8.30-32)

This event took place just after the conquest of Jericho and Ai, the first phase of Israel’s military campaign to destroy and displace the inhabitants of the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, 500 years before.  The very next chapter opens by telling us,

As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan…heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. (Joshua 9.1-2)

Meanwhile, what were the Israelites doing?  Putting their camp into a defensive posture? Drawing up plans of attack against this opposition?  Pressing their advantage of surprise, and using that initiative to knock members of this new anti-Israel alliance out of the fight individually, rather than facing them all together?  No, they were building altars and offering sacrifices, while their military leader made a copy of the law.  Someone might object that there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Joshua was aware the peoples of the land were organizing and preparing to mount a collective defense; on the other hand, any reasonably competent adult would expect that to be the case, and this was far from the first time Joshua had managed troops in battle—he’d led the Israelites’ defense against Amalek in Exodus 17, 40 years before, and the Israelites had just recently conquered the lands to the east of the Jordan, defeating powerful kings to do so.  They were not strangers to war.  Yet here they were, ignoring the military reality on the ground, and focusing instead on religious matters that probably could have waited until they’d established a more secure position.

And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. (Joshua 8.33)

We’re reminded now a second time that the Israelites were doing these things because Moses had commanded it.  Near the end of his life, as he gave one last address to his people, preparing them to enter the Promised Land without him, he told them to do exactly this (De 27).  Rather than first conquering the land—a task which ended up taking Israel some five years to complete—and then worry about fulfilling this commandment, Joshua led the entire nation 20 miles out of its way, in hostile territory, in the middle of their war of conquest, to assemble the nation on the hillsides and offer sacrifices to God on their behalf.  But that’s not all they did.

And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Joshua 8.34-35)

All of this appears, from a fleshly perspective, to be putting the cart before the horse.  But Joshua has seen the truth more clearly.  He’s perfectly applied the proverb, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house” (Pr 24.27).  We might be tempted to paraphrase this, get your priorities straight, but that’s not really the whole point.  The idea is that we often confuse our priorities, because we fail to acknowledge the relationship between them.  We might think, since we work hard at our jobs in order to both literally and figuratively build our houses, that the house is the the more important of the two.  But while we can tolerate a less than optimal living situation, we can’t put up with starving to death because we were too busy sorting out our interior decorating, and missed the proper planting season.  We might argue that we can’t work effectively, without a nice place to sleep; but in reality we can’t maintain a nice place to sleep for very long, if we’re unwilling to work.

Joshua certainly understood the relationship between the people’s dedication to God, and their conquest of the land they stood to inherit.  He provides an excellent example for us to follow, today.  Instead of focusing on the physical and giving whatever was left over to God, he made God the priority, and trusted God to give them the land, as he had promised, regardless of the Gentiles’ opposition.  This is the same point Jesus made, when he taught that we should

“not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.31-33)

What are your priorities?  What stands between you and God?  Are you putting off dedicating yourself to a life in his service, until you can accomplish something in the physical world?  We all have responsibilities, but which is the most important?  What should you do first?

Jeremy Nettles

Does God Ever Give Us More than We Can Handle?

Sunday, January 01, 2023

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1.8-9)

In the age of TikTok theology, it shouldn’t be surprising to see excessive controversy over minor quibbles, and as our society moves ever farther down the road of policing each other’s words, it was, perhaps, inevitable that arguments would arise over whether certain platitudes are theologically correct.  One of these arguments concerns the oft-repeated words of encouragement, “God will never give you more in life than you can handle.”  The passage above seems to disagree with that sentiment!  On the contrary, Paul says the reason God gives us trials is to teach us to  “rely not on ourselves but on God.”  On top of that, while the platitude is so often repeated, usually word-for-word and with a sense of authority, no such verse appears anywhere in the Bible!  Imagine trying to encourage a fellow Christian using words that came, not from God, but from man!  Perhaps the cliche is wrong, and should be replaced: God will give you more than you can handle!

Of course, that sentence isn’t in the Bible, either.  It’s a conclusion drawn from the passage quoted above.  But if we can defend our replacement on those grounds, then we should really consider the defense given for the more common version of the proverb.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

Well, that seems to support the notion that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—at least in the context of temptation.  But that’s a more specialized application, dealing with sin, not just the everyday trials of life, right?  Not exactly.  Paul pointed out that God gives us unbearable trials to teach us to rely on him, as we established at the start.  But he also says we won’t be tempted more than we can handle; and, as James tells us,

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1.13-14)

So, unbearable trials come from God, and temptations come from Satan—or from our own lusts.  Yet, it’s clear that God must be involved in that procedure, in order to restrain Satan.  We can even see an example of this process in action, through Job.

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1.8-12)

This passage illustrates an uncomfortable fact for those arguing against our old platitude: trial and temptation are, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  In the New Testament, there’s only one Greek word (πειρασμός-peirasmos—and its derivatives) that is translated trial or temptation, depending on the context.  From Satan’s perspective, what he was about to do to Job was certainly a series of temptations—he was eagerly hoping Job would fail.  From God’s perspective, it was a series of trials, which God wanted Job to successfully pass—which is why he planted the notion in Satan’s mind in the first place. 

Ultimately, all trials can also be viewed as temptations—and God has guaranteed that any temptation that overtakes us is within our ability to withstand.  We can handle them!  But what does it mean, to handle trials and temptations?  It doesn’t mean we have the ability to get out of them, or to change the course of the world’s events, molding them to suit our own desires.  If that’s what you mean by “handle,” then God will absolutely give you more than you can handle!  But what really matters is to experience a life full of trials, while keeping your relationship with God intact.  God assures us that this—not the bare minimum, but the only thing that truly matters in the end—is within our ability.

But how?  Let’s go back to Job—how did he successfully “handle” his unbearable trials?  By remaining faithful to God, and relying completely on him!  We’re back where we started.  Join your own efforts with Christ’s strength—as Paul did, while suffering both trial and temptation in a Roman prison: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Php 4.13).  Is Paul arrogantly dismissing the weight of his trial?  Far from it.  Is he refusing to put in effort of his own, on the grounds that it’s up to Jesus?  On the contrary, he says, I can do it. It’s a huge mistake to think you have within yourself the strength to bear whatever comes your way in this life; one day, you’ll discover you don’t.  But it’s also a mistake to surrender to your trials—that’s not endurance, or character or hope—the fruits suffering should produce in us (Ro 5.3-5).  Instead of getting caught up in arguments such as this one, focus on being prepared for trials, and doing all things through Christ, who strengthens you.

Jeremy Nettles

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Sunday, December 25, 2022

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8.21-22)

God made the universe in such a way that the earth goes through continual cycles—day and night, the moon’s phases, and the seasons being the three most obvious.  These cycles give us observable and relatable markers of time, but they also govern our lives.  We don’t often acknowledge this, and yet when it comes to the sun, we can scarcely imagine life without the continual alternation of day and night, or the cycle of seasons. 

It’s important to note that this is not a mere coincidence of nature.  It’s the way things are, and so of course all living creatures have learned to behave in relative harmony with it, but nevertheless, God created it, and we should not accuse him of carelessness.

Man understood, for thousands of years, just how important was the sun’s course in the sky to his continued survival, and for all our advances in science and technology, we would do well to relearn that lesson today.  Pagans all over the world looked up at the sky and found significance in what they saw there, and they often left behind structures that tell us so, even without a written explanation.  Stonehenge, the ring of astonishingly large stones erected in England some 4,500 years ago, was carefully arranged with lines pointing directly toward the sunrise and sunset at the summer and winter solstices.  The 12th-century Khmer temple complex called Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, features structures similarly aligned for each solstice, as well as spring and fall equinoxes.  The ancient Mnajdra temple complex on the island of Malta uses a precisely aligned gateway to direct the light of the equinox morning sunrise straight through the middle of the shrine to light up the rear niche.  We could add to this list the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, the Egyptian pyramid complex at Giza, and many more.  Although they often reflect a misguided reverence for the sun itself, rather than its Creator, they all illustrate the divine significance man has seen in the sun’s cycles since time immemorial. 

It wasn’t just the pagans.  God made use of a similar phenomenon, when he told Moses,

“This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, …and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” (Exodus 12.2-6)

In instituting the Passover, he also instructed Israel how to arrange its calendar.  Since the months of the Hebrew calendar begin on the night when a New Moon is first sighted, pinning the Passover to the evening of the 14th would ensure it coincided with the Full Moon following the spring equinox, which  roughly correlates with the beginning of the month Aviv—which means, spring.  The Feast of Booths and Day of Atonement roughly coincide with the fall equinox, as well.

It doesn’t end there.  Let’s consider the winter solstice in particular.  God never commanded Israel to observe a holiday around this time of year, but we saw many examples where pagans recognized its symbolism.  After six months of the night getting progressively longer than the day, it hits its most extreme point, with the sun appearing farthest south in the sky, and the shortest day of the year.  And then the tide turns, and the days get longer until the summer solstice, as if the light is beginning to gain the upper hand in a battle with darkness.  By the time “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1.14), the Jews had a feast for this time of year.  It commemorated the ousting of Gentile overlords from the Temple, and its purification and rededication to the worship of the one true God; and Jesus himself made sure to go up to Jerusalem and the Temple to celebrate.

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. (John 10.22-23)

In Hebrew, “the dedication” is Hanukkah, but most modern Jews prefer the name applied by the 1st-century historian Josephus: The Feast of Lights.  This comes from a purported miracle surrounding the Temple’s lampstand, but the timing of the feast suggests that, one way or another, it owed to the winter solstice and the symbolic rebirth of the sun each year. 

The same is true of Christmas.  We have no idea on what date Jesus was born.  He clearly didn’t think it was terribly important for us to know, or he would have made sure to tell us.  But within a few centuries of the church being established, a debate raged over the topic, with various suggestions considered until, December 25 won out.  Whether it truly is the birthdate of Christ, only God knows; but like the alignment of Stonehenge, or the arrangement of the Egyptian pyramids, or even the Jewish Feast of Lights, it’s not an accident that Jesus’ birth has been commemorated by so many, for so long, so near the winter solstice.  The cold, the dead, and the darkness get worse and worse, as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky.  But then the light begins to return, and with it, hope that life may continue, and even thrive.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1.9)

Jeremy Nettles

"Be Strong and Courageous"

Sunday, December 18, 2022

As the Israelites prepared to cross the Jordan river and undertake the enormous task of driving out the Canaanites from their promised inheritance, Joshua found himself in the lonely position as their leader. Moses had been in charge for forty years—their entire lifetime, for most of them —but he had just died. Joshua had been his “assistant” (Jos 1.1), and had been hand-picked as Moses’ successor; but during those forty years Joshua always answered to Moses, got instructions from Moses, and knew the final decisions fell to Moses. Now, the whole nation was looking to him for leadership. What a burden to shoulder!

God reminded Joshua that while his position looked rather different now, it really wasn’t. “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1.5-9)

From Joshua’s perspective in the past, it looked like Moses was the lonely leader, burdened with the weight of this great nation’s physical and spiritual well-being, and with the power to make momentous decisions, as well as the responsibility for how each one turned out. But, despite what people tend to assume, Moses was never alone; God was always with him.

Moses never had to make critical decisions; God made the decisions and Moses carried them out. It’s not that Moses’ job was an easy one—often the decisions God handed down were not popular with the people, and he faced rebellions of all shapes and sizes, as well as occasions when a lesser man would have simply given up and let this bullheaded nation carry on headlong to disaster against God’s instructions. But he was never alone, and neither would Joshua be alone. As he answered to Moses before, now he would answer to God.

God also told Joshua how to conduct himself in his position of authority, and it wasn’t advice about how to get people to obey, how to deal with opposition and get what you want—none of that. What did he tell him? To meditate on the law, repeat its words, and carry out its commands. And at the start (v6), in the middle (v7), and once more at the end (v9), he repeats the exhortation: “be strong and courageous.”

We don’t typically think of obedience as a courageous act, and certainly not a reflection of strength. Rather, we see submission as a sign of weakness. Surely, if he were strong, he wouldn’t let someone else boss him around! He’d do what he deems best, and surge forward with confidence in his choices and his ability to bind them on his inferiors! But, while this is our human inclination, we must all acknowledge that God is stronger than we are! That being the case, it’s perfectly appropriate to submit to his wishes—even in the face of an angry mob out for your blood! Joshua was going to face many hardships during the course of his tenure as leader over Israel, and the way to handle them with courage and strength was not to elevate himself, rule with an iron fist, or rely on his own judgment and will. Rather, it was to recognize his proper role, and fulfill it to the best of his ability, adhering to God’s will and judgment, and relying on God’s strength.

Joshua would be leading Israel against enemies in bloody battles for years to come, facing dangers few of us have faced, and continuing to run toward peril, in service to God. Knowing that Moses had faced just as much opposition from his own people as from hostile nations, how welcome this encouragement must have been! But it didn’t stop there. When Joshua assembled the leaders of each tribe and told them it was time to make preparations for their invasion, what did they answer?

And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the LORD your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1.16-18)

Nothing can stand against God’s purpose, but we’re given the choice, whether to put ourselves on his side, or the side of his enemies. Often, the Israelites chose the latter, and incurred all sorts of frustration and judgment as a result. But when they repeated God’s own words and determined to abide by his will, nothing could stand against them, either! Today, God’s people are not establishing a physical kingdom. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ep 6.12). But we are nevertheless engaged in a spiritual warfare, as we

“destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10.5)

seeking a home in God’s promised rest. As you participate in this battle for spirit and soul, follow the good example set by the Israelites. Be strong and courageous.

Jeremy Nettles

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