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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

Revelation #12 The little, no-account Church

opendoor 2

This is a gracious word to the humble, faithful believer who feels small; perhaps even illegitimate or worthless. Jesus sees your faithfulness to his word. He sees your endurance. You are honored, legitimate and precious in His eyes. Nothing can prevent you from walking through the door He opens for you.

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Revelation #12. Revelation 3:7-13

The church at Philadelphia was in a situation quite similar to that at Smyrna. It was apparently a small congregation, which had “little strength;” a literal translation is something like “micro-power.” As in Smyrna, the believers in Philadelphia were faithful, and Jesus has no rebuke for them – only praise and approval. Also, like the Smyrnan congregation, the Philadelphian believers were persecuted by the Jewish community, who accused them to the Roman authorities and took great pains to distinguish between the Christians and “real Jews.” In fact, Smyrna and Philadelphia are so similar that I began to ask myself why Jesus would include messages to both of the churches. Surely the message to one is sufficient for the other one too. The answer is, of course, obvious. He spoke the Christians in Philadelphia because he cares about them too. This re-affirms the idea that the Bible is not only a book from which we derive principles (although it does offer us wonderful principles). The Bible is also God’s personal message to individual Christians. Rather than lumping them in with a bigger church, Jesus speaks directly to the believers in Philadelphia, assuring them that he remembers, he sees and he cares. God is not simply a “mass communicator” – he created our individuality, and he cares about us as individuals.

To fully appreciate the promises given to the Christians at Philadelphia, we have to remember their situation. They were a small congregation, and perhaps “I know you have little strength,” (v.8) refers to the fact that they were not influential or well regarded in their city. Christianity was not in any sense a “major religion” in the eyes of the world in A.D. 90. In fact, it was not recognized as a religion at all. The Jews, who were following one of the “recognized religions,” were telling them that they were illegitimate, deriding them as a cult and insisting that they would be cut off by the Holy God of Israel.

From other New Testament passages, we can guess that the Jews in Philadelphia despised the Christian Church for including Gentiles (non-Jews). During New Testament times Jews insisted that Gentiles could not be holy, and even Jews who didn’t follow ceremonial laws would be considered unclean. In present times of course, Christians can simply and confidently disagree, and get on with their lives. But in those days it was a precarious and uncertain step to become a Christian. It had no external legitimacy (except perhaps for the miracles that were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit). No one would say to a Christian, “sure, your religion is valid.” In the eyes of the world, Christianity was a cult.

Jesus therefore begins his message to the church in Philadelphia with a re-affirmation of his (and therefore their) legitimacy: “The words of him who is holy and true, who hold the key of David. (v.7).” Just that sentence alone would have provided a world of comfort to those in Philadelphia. Jesus is trustworthy. The legitimacy of the Christian faith is based in reality – in truth. He is also holy and he imparts that holiness to his followers. They don’t need the false holiness of the Jews, who called them unholy. They are not a cult, and they will not be cut off from the Holy God of Israel. “The key of David” refers to God’s promise to King David that he would make one of David’s descendants a king forever. The Jews were probably posturing that they alone had the key to salvation (following the law in the Jewish tradition) whereas Jesus reminds his followers that He is the key to salvation. He is in fact, the one who was promised – he is the descendant of David whose kingdom shall never end. In essence, Jesus is saying to the Christian in Philadelphia: “you aren’t the ones who have missed out – they are the ones who missed it. You have the true descendant of David.”

Once again (as in Smyrna), Jesus says that the tormentors of the Christians who claim to be real Jews are not. This is a reference to the concept given in Romans 2:29

28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, HCSB)

Jews classified themselves as “Abraham’s seed” (that is, descendants of Abraham). Paul writes:

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

So Jesus is affirming here to the Christians in Philadelphia that they are legitimately the people of God, “real Jews,” if you will, because of their faith in him. The others who do not put their trust in Jesus are not actually true Jews, in the spiritual sense.

Jesus also says he is the one who opens, and no one can shut; he is the one who shuts, and no one can open. I think this probably refers, first and foremost, to salvation. But I think it includes all of the benefits of salvation, also: love, peace, joy, grace, honor. He is saying that no one can keep these faithful believers out of his kingdom. No one can prevent them from receiving what gives. No one can take away their opportunity to receive from Him.

In verse 8, he says specifically: “See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (v. 8).” Again, I think he is saying, “Don’t let anyone take away your peace. No one can keep you out. No one can prevent you from receiving from me. No one can call you illegitimate.”

Jesus says he knows that they have “kept” his word. This is what makes them one of only two churches that he does not criticize. They haven’t had the strength to do much else. They are small, no-account. But they’ve kept his word. And so he is keeping a door open for them. This is one reason I am so passionate about learning the Bible, and teaching others to learn it for themselves. The word “kept” means to guard, and to watch over. They have been faithful to keep it by obeying it, and faithful also to guard the word, and keep it from being distorted and misused. Their faithfulness has not resulted in a large powerful church, but they have done what Jesus wanted them to do.

The church at Philadelphia has also kept Jesus’ command to endure. Endurance is one of the major themes of Revelation, and in fact of the entire New Testament. We need to stick with Jesus, stick with His word even when we suffer. We need to hang in there when it is boring, hard, painful, discouraging, or tough in any way. We need to be willing to make difficult choices in favor of Jesus, and His Word. We need to be in it for the long haul. The church at Philadelphia endured in this way, and Jesus praises them for it.

Jesus promises the faithful in Philly that he “will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (v.19).” This is the same word, “keep,” that means to guard, or to watch over. Unfortunately, the word “from” is a bit tricky in Greek. It could mean that Jesus will keep them “right through” the trial (in the midst of it) or that he will keep them from undergoing the trial at all. Also, the word “trial,” in my version is the same Greek word used for testing and temptation. It might be that Jesus is saying, “I don’t need to test your faith any further. I don’t need to keep trying to see if it is genuine. I know you have the real thing.

This might be a good place to point out that there is very little, if any, support in the book of Revelation for the idea that Christians will be “raptured” out the world before anything seriously bad happens during the end times. In fact, this very verse (3:10) with its tricky Greek words is about as close as Revelation comes to suggesting such a thing, and it is a promise only to small number of believers, not to all of the Christians to whom Revelation was written. There is much more support, both from this verse and others, for the idea that Jesus will take care of his own who are living on earth during the tumultuous times preceding his return. The sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 seems to be an expression of this idea. In any case, it is clear that while God’s judgment may not touch Christians, ungodly rulers and authorities will continue to persecute and kill them. If this were not so we would have great difficulty explaining the circumstances of Christians who have suffered unspeakably from the time of Jesus until now. The most Biblical theme about suffering is not that God removes it, but rather that he walks through it with us (see Isaiah 43:1-5; Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; John 15:18-21; John 16:33).

Jesus is recklessly generous with his promises to the church in Philadelphia. “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.” Jesus’ promise to come soon is of course, immensely comforting, and I want us to note that he takes it for granted that these believers already have a “crown.” He tells them to hold on to it, to seize it with both hands. Don’t let anything interfere with it.

He also promises to the over-comer that he/she will be a “pillar in the temple of my God.” Since Revelation actually tells us that there will be no need for a temple in heaven (Revelation 21:22) this has to be figurative language. The “temple” stands for God’s presence with his people. The one who overcomes in this life will never leave the presence of God. God’s name will be written on him/her and also the name of Jesus and of the New Jerusalem. They will belong fully to God.

This is a kind and gracious word to the faithful and humble. You don’t have to be big, you don’t need to be accomplishing great things. The Lord sees your situation. You have limited strength, but you’ve kept His word. No one can keep you out of His kingdom. No one can shut the door he opens for you. He will make those who scorn you right now be humbled before you later.

For application, I want to simply share how all this strikes me. Perhaps that will help you hear what the Spirit is saying to you also.

At this point in my life, I take a great deal of comfort from these verses. In fact, I feel a little bit like the church at Philadelphia. All of our house churches are small, and our ministry organization is small. We have little power. Sometimes, we even look illegitimate. Lately, my health struggles have made my world even smaller. Sometimes, I feel weak. But we have kept God’s word. We have been faithful to it as best as we are able. That has not resulted in growth or increasing power. Here’s a paraphrase of what I hear the Lord saying to me, and to our little churches:

“I know your situation. I know are considered small, weak and of no account. But you have done what is most important: you’ve held on to my Word, and not compromised it. You’ve guarded it from being undermined. You have also kept my command to endure, and I’m proud of you. The world doesn’t regard you, but I do. The world doesn’t know if you are legitimate, but in my eyes, you are. I call you legitimate. Your faith is the real thing. You may be weak, but I have opened a door for you – you don’t have to open it, or hold it open, yourself. Nothing, and no one, can prevent you from receiving what I give you. No one keep you out of my kingdom, out of my grace and love. You will be a pillar that supports my kingdom. I call you mine. I will always be with you.”



At times, we don’t experience the gracious heart of God in daily life, because we insist that God must be gracious in the particular way we want him to

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Download 2 Samuel Part 8
I promised I wouldn’t preach the same sermon yet again, and I won’t. However, I do want to preach this time from the same text as the last sermon. Last time we looked at what this text meant for who we are as Christians, and how we should function as a church. But there is a lot more here to consider as well.

The first thing that struck me when I read this was the safety and freedom there is in living in daily relationship with God. God doesn’t allow our misguided good intentions to go unchecked. Both Nathan and David had their hearts in the right place. They were sincere. Both of them, however, were sincerely wrong. Even so, because they were keeping in step with the Lord, they were able to hear when the Lord corrected them. And the Lord did correct them. He didn’t say, “shoot, they got it wrong again. Oh well.” No, when they didn’t get it right away, he spoke to them again. So we can trust God’s leadership. Picture someone walking with a friend who is blind and using a cane. They come the corner of a street where there is traffic. The friend says quietly, “stop here.” The blind person doesn’t hear it, and keeps walking. Of course the guide is going to repeat himself, more loudly, and maybe even grab onto his blind friend, to prevent him from being hurt. Do we expect any less from God?

Now, one important thing here is that Nathan and David really did want to do whatever God wanted in this situation. They weren’t insisting on their own way. So when they made the wrong choice, they were able to hear the Lord when he spoke to them about it. Unfortunately, sometimes we are like a blind person who says to our guide, “I don’t trust you, so I won’t go where you are taking me.” We ignore Him when he says “turn here,” or “stop there.” Then, sad to say, often we blame God the bad things that result from our unwillingness to listen to him. But when Nathan and David were open, the Lord kept them moving in the right direction, and they were able to hear it.

This is tremendously comforting to me. Sometimes, we get so caught up in wanting to do the right thing that we become almost paralyzed with fear that we will make the wrong choice. We think, “If I screw this up, it will be disaster. I could destroy God’s plan for my life. I could destroy my chance at happiness.” Maybe we’re looking at a job or career move. Maybe we’re buying a house, or choosing a college or deciding what we want to be when we grow up. Maybe we’re trying to decide if we should marry someone or not. Brothers and sisters in Jesus, we can have tremendous freedom, hope and joy in these choices. If we truly want God to do what he wants in and through our lives, then step forward boldly and make your best choice. If you are wrong, the Lord will correct you. We don’t have to be experts at hearing from God. But we have to be open to letting him do whatever he wants. If we maintain that openness, we’ll be able to hear it if we start down a path where he doesn’t want us to go.

The fact that we really can trust the Lord to guide us is wonderfully comforting. It is part of God’s grace. But wait, there’s even more. David, good-hearted man that he was, was thinking like this: “God chose me. He delivered me from Saul. He gave me victory over the Philistines. I have a secure place and even my own palace. God’s done so much for me. Now, I want to do something for God.” So he said, “I will build you a house, God.”

But God said this: “No. I know you want to do something for me. But I want to do more for you. You want to build me a house. Instead, I am going to build you a house.” The word used for “house” is the same all the way through. It is the Hebrew word pronounced “va’yit.” This is a pretty flexible word. It is used for David’s palace, for describing a dwelling and also for family, line of descendants and so on. I think the Lord deliberately inspired the writer to use the same word, in order to emphasize what he was doing. He was piling on the grace.

What God promises is that David will have a descendant who will rule forever. David’s descendant will preside over the kingdom of God. This is a prophecy. Now, I have said before that prophecy is kind of like viewing a mountain range from a long way away. It looks like all the mountains are next to each other in a line across the horizon. But when you actually get into the mountains, you often find a great gap between peaks that looked like they were right next to each other when viewed from a distance. In the same way, it looks like all parts of the prophecy are supposed to take place at the same time; yet when it comes you find that parts of prophecy were fulfilled a few years after, and others hundreds of years later. Here, the prophecy is not a perfect revelation. But it shows that there will be a descendant of David who reigns forever. This descendant will be chastised and punished – just as Jesus was punished for our sins. God will do something eternal through this person. There are a few things here that may refer to Solomon, but clearly, the prophecy is talking mainly about Jesus.

God didn’t just say that David was his favorite choice for king. He didn’t just give him victory over a giant. He didn’t just take care of him in those years of hardship and trouble. He didn’t just protect David during battle and make him victorious – often against overwhelming odds. He didn’t just actually make David king. He didn’t just deliver David from his enemies and give him a secure place to live and rule. He also promised (and delivered generations later) that David’s name and family line would be honored forever. He promised that the messiah would be descended from David. He is showering grace after grace upon David. You can’t out-give God.

David, understandably, was overwhelmed. He went and “sat before Lord.” And then he prayed. David says something very important in verse nineteen that seems to be lost in translation in many English versions of the bible. He says,

What You have done so far was a little thing to You, Lord GOD, for You have also spoken about Your servant’s house in the distant future. And this is a revelation for mankind, Lord GOD. (2Sam 7:19, HCSB)

In the NIV this reads: “Is this your usual way of dealing with man?” In the NAS it says “And this is the custom of man.” But the literal Hebrew says this: “And this the torah mankind, Lord God.”

The Hebrew word “torah” has various related meanings, as many words do. It can mean custom or rule. But the most common meaning is “law of God.” In fact, during the time of Jesus, torah is one of two terms that describe God’s revelation in the Bible. When a Jew said “the torah (law) and the prophets” he meant “the word of God as revealed in the bible.”

So what David is really saying here is also a kind of prophecy. He is saying that this promise of the descendant who will come – this promise of a messiah who will reign forever – is God’s very word for mankind. It is a law and a promise for all humanity. The gospel of John describes the Messiah (Jesus) like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14)

One thousand years before John, in this text, David said, “this promise of a Messiah is the Word of God.”

In verse 21 David says this:

Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it.

This shows us that the promise is according to God’s own heart. Some translations have “will” but “heart” is more literal. This promise reveals the generous, gracious, loving, wise heart of God.

So let’s make this personal right now. Do you believe that this extreme graciousness is according to the heart of God? Even more personal – do you believe that this great grace is the way that God deals with you?

Let me remind you about David. He lied in a moment of pressure. He blew his top when he was insulted. He ignored what God said about marriage. He was not perfect. God was not gracious to David because David deserved it. David did not deserve it. God was gracious because that is the heart of God.

So set aside any thought of “well, I don’t deserve God to treat me that way.” Of course you don’t. Neither do I. Neither did David. Do you understand and believe that if you let him, God will deal with you in the same way he dealt with David?

I would guess that a lot of us don’t experience God in this way, and sometimes we believe that we cannot. There are reasons for this.

At times, I think we don’t experience the gracious heart of God in day to day life, because we insist that God must be gracious in the particular way we want him to. We want a better income, and so if he doesn’t do that, even though he is offering us tremendous joy through relationships with dear friends, we don’t really receive that grace. We want healing, and so we spurn the grace he offers us to grow and have joy even in pain. We want our spouse to change, and so we don’t want to receive the grace the Lord offers us through that person – just as he is. When we have an attitude of entitlement – “God must provide grace in exactly the way I want it” – it is difficult to really receive.

Jesus was full of sorrow at the way so many people refused the grace he has to offer:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! (Matt 23:37, HCSB)

At other times, we don’t recognize the gracious heart of God because we have allowed lies about God into our lives, especially through difficult events. A child dies. A spouse leaves. And we interpret those events in such a way that we begin to distrust the heart of God. The first problem creeps in when we insist on understanding everything. Why did the child have to die? I’m not saying we can’t ever honestly struggle with our pain, but I do believe that sometimes the answers to those questions are simply bigger than we can understand. When we demand that everything must make sense in a way that we can understand, it is easy to start to believe that God isn’t the good Person that the Bible tells us he is. Don’t get me wrong. If you follow this blog, you know I am an intellectual, and I’m all for using your mind. But the human mind is finite. Trying to understand an infinite God is not logical. At times, faith calls us to trust even beyond our understanding. When we can’t understand, we are faced with a choice – will we trust that God’s heart is good and gracious towards us in ways we can’t comprehend, or will we demand that the universe function according our own personal sense of justice and goodness? This text calls us to trust is that the heart of God is good and full of gracious intentions for us.


saul's death

The Lord is constantly there, always waiting for an opportunity to forgive us, be gracious to us and receive us into His Life and Joy. The tragedy of  Saul’s life is that to the bitter end he chose to go his own way instead. The Lord did not rejoice at the death of the self-absorbed, manipulative man. Instead, He grieved.

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1 Samuel #30. The Death of Saul

1 Samuel ends with the death of king Saul, recorded in chapter 31. While David was returning home, and then pursuing the Amalekites who had destroyed his town and taken his family, the Philistines and the Israelites began a great battle.

As I mentioned before, the Philistines were in the valley of Jezreel, which was the only relatively easy way to get from the Mediterranean coast into the Jordan Valley of Israel. Saul’s forces were on a mountain ridge to the south of the valley, a place called Mount Gilboa. When the Philistines began to move east toward the Jordan, Saul moved to attack them and block them.

The picture below is of the actual area (with present day roads, reservoirs and buildings that would not have been there at the time, of course). The Philistines were invading through the valley in the left of the picture, starting in the foreground and pushing toward the Jordan valley in the distance. The Israelites were positioned on the ridges to the right. The little hill labeled “Tell Jezreel” was probably not there.


The massive Philistine army turned to destroy the Israelites. This was a good strategic move, because if they left them alone on the mountain, the Philistines couldn’t be secure in the valley. It was a rout. Israel’s army fell apart. Jonathan and his brothers were killed. I want us to consider some things in the following verses:

3 When the battle intensified against Saul, the archers caught up with him and severely wounded him. 4 Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through with it, or these uncircumcised men will come and run me through and torture me.” But his armor-bearer would not do it because he was terrified. Then Saul took his sword and fell on it. 5 When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his own sword and died with him. 6 So on that day, Saul died together with his three sons, his armor-bearer, and all his men. (1Sam 31:3-6, HCSB)

Verse 3 contains some ambiguous Hebrew expressions. Most English translations make it seem like Saul was severely wounded before he committed suicide. That is certainly one possible way of translating it, and probably a good one. But even so, it is quite possible that Saul was not wounded at all, but only in despair. An almost literal translation would be this:

“The battle became a great burden upon Saul. When the archers came within range of him, he was deeply traumatized.”

The “burden” of battle could be intense physical combat. However, that doesn’t make sense when we learn that the enemy archers have only just come into range. If he was fighting hand to hand, archers would be irrelevant. They would not shoot, for fear of hitting their own men. So Saul was not even involved in actual combat. Therefore the “intensity” of the battle, was purely psychological for Saul.

It says that Saul was deeply traumatized. We already know that the intensity of the battle is psychological for Saul, not physical. “Traumatized” can mean physically wounded of course, and it isn’t wrong to translate it that way. Even so, knowing that what is happening with Saul is already psychological, it is not wrong either to interpret the trauma as emotional distress, rather than a physical wound.

I believe that this is reinforced by his armor-bearer’s response, when Saul asked him to kill him. The armor-bearer would not kill Saul, “because he was terrified,” (verse 4). What was he afraid of? If Saul was mortally wounded, why would the armor bearer be afraid to finish what was inevitable anyway? No, I think Saul’s mood and his words are what scared the armor-bearer.

The night before the battle is when Saul went to the witch of Endor, and consulted with a demonic spirit who masqueraded as Samuel. If you remember, that spirit had spoken only words of condemnation and despair to Saul. Saul accepted this message and believed it as if it was truly Samuel speaking. So, here’s how I think it went down: You have a man who has his entire life been insecure, erratic and manipulative. He is a control freak in a situation where he does not have control. He has recently accepted and believed the words of a demon. He is deeply emotionally troubled by the battle long before it even comes near him. When he sees that the archers are finally in range, he suffers deep psychological trauma – and then takes his own life. In other words, he gave up even before all was truly lost. The words of the demon were a self-fulfilling prophecy, in large part because Saul believed them and acted accordingly.

Now, I want to write about something that most Christians don’t talk much about: Suicide. It’s right there in the text, so I think the Holy Spirit wants to deal with the subject. But before we get into it, let’s get one thing clear. You may have known someone who committed suicide. Sadly, I’ve known several. It doesn’t do anyone any good to wonder whether that person died in faith, or if he went to hell. That’s not the point of what we are about to consider. What’s done is done. I cling to the biblical truth that God is far more gracious and merciful than I can comprehend.

But right now, I want to talk to and about the living. If you are reading this, you are alive, and these words are for you, not for someone who has already died. Don’t waste your wondering how to apply these words to someone else – these are for you, for me, for the living.

Saul’s suicide was clearly an evil, demonically influenced act. It was his lack of faith that prompted him to take his own life. It was his lack of trust in the Lord, combined with the fact that he believed and agreed with demonic words. He acted as he believed. If you are ever tempted to suicide, please understand – you are being tempted by a demonic power. Do not listen to demons. Do not agree with them.

In the 1990’s Dr. Jack Kevorkian became famous for helping 120 people patients commit suicide. It opened up a national debate about a person’s “right” to deliberately take her own life. But G.K. Chesterton has some insightful thoughts about killing oneself. He says:

The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the whole world.

His point is clear, but we don’t often think about it. The person who commits suicide does not merely kill herself. From her point of view, she is killing the whole world. Her intentions are as demonic as Hitler’s (who also committed suicide, by the way). Suicide looks at the world and says, “As far as I am concerned, there is nothing worthwhile in the entire universe. I would be just as well off if the whole world is destroyed.” If that doesn’t sound like Satan, I don’t know what does.

It is not a private decision that affects only yourself. It is a cruel and arrogant judgment against the entire world. Sometimes the suicidal person knows this. They are angry at loved ones, and they want to hurt those people as well as themselves. Suicide is not just self-destruction – it destroys everyone who knows you. If that doesn’t sound demonic, I don’t know what does.

Some Christians may say: “Well, I want to get to heaven. I’m tired of the struggles of this world – I want to be in the peace and rest of eternity with Jesus.” But that is so much like Saul’s attitude. Saul always insisted upon his own way. He manipulated, fumed and got depressed and sought help from demons – all to get his own way. Like the ultimate spoiled brat, when he realized that this time there is simply no way it is going to happen, he would rather die. We Christians are supposed to live in trust – not in control. We don’t get to determine how and when we die. To do that is to put yourself the place of God.

Now, Jonathan and his brothers died too. Their result was the same as Saul’s. And yet it was entirely different. They died fighting for their country and for each other. Chesterton writes about such people:

A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside of him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.

He even mentions the battlefield. This is how Jonathan acted, and how Saul should have acted.

A solider surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange careless about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.

Jonathan showed courage. Saul showed demonic self-centeredness. I don’t think Saul’s death was the result of God’s judgment. It was the result of a lifetime of Saul’s self-absorbed choices, culminating in the final ultimate act of selfishness. About Saul, you can say for certain, “he chose his own fate.”

Even so, Saul’s story ends with people who loved God mourning for him. I think this is because they were led by the Holy Spirit. God always wanted Saul to turn to Him and trust him. And so after he dies, the Spirit of God moved two groups of people to honor Saul in a special way.

After the battle, the Israelites in the nearby parts of Jordan valley fled. The Philistines took over their towns, among them a town named Beth-Shan, which has been the site of an archeological dig for many years in modern times. They found Saul’s body, cut off his head, and hung the corpse on the wall of Beth-Shan. There is a reason that we call brutal, ignorant cruel people “Philistines,” even today. They did the same with Saul’s sons.

The residents of town further south in the hills on the other side of the Jordan heard about this. That town was Jabesh-Gilead – the place of Saul’s very first battle, the town that had been shamed for centuries, but which Saul had rescued. They remembered how Saul had saved them and finally removed their shame. So they sent a commando-type unit through the night to Beth-Shan. They stole Saul’s body, and those of his sons, from the Philistines, and brought them back to Jabesh-Gilead. They burned the bodies and then buried the bones with honor. It was a bittersweet end to the reign of Saul, coming full circle to the beginning when he was younger, and did trust God. I think their actions were a reflection of the Lord’s sorrow at Saul’s choices. Saul chose his own way, and he suffered the consequences. But I do not believe that was God wanted. He gave the Saul the freedom to choose, and I believe he was sorrowful for what the king chose. The Lord reveals this same attitude in Ezekiel 33:11

11 Tell them: As I live” — the declaration of the Lord GOD — “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel? (Ezek 33:11, HCSB)

A second person who reveals this attitude toward Saul is David. Remember, David had the Spirit of God in a way that was special in those days. Often, he is a type of Christ – he reveals the kinds of actions and attitudes that the true Messiah has. And so when he heard of Saul’s death, he wept in sorrow. Because he was human, I’m sure he was more upset about the loss of his friend Jonathan than the death of Saul. But he reveals the heart of God. The Lord was never against Saul. He always wanted him to turn back, repent and receive grace. Inspired by God, David wrote a beautiful lament, recorded in 2 Samuel 1:19-27

19 The splendor of Israel lies slain on your heights.

How the mighty have fallen!

20 Do not tell it in Gath,

don’t announce it in the marketplaces of Ashkelon,

or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,

and the daughters of the uncircumcised will gloat.

21 Mountains of Gilboa,

let no dew or rain be on you,

or fields of offerings,

for there the shield of the mighty was defiled —

the shield of Saul, no longer anointed with oil.

22 Jonathan’s bow never retreated,

Saul’s sword never returned unstained,

from the blood of the slain,

from the bodies of the mighty.

23 Saul and Jonathan,

loved and delightful,

they were not parted in life or in death.

They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.

24 Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet, with luxurious things,

who decked your garments with gold ornaments.

25 How the mighty have fallen in the thick of battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

26 I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother.

You were such a friend to me.

Your love for me was more wonderful

than the love of women.

27 How the mighty have fallen

and the weapons of war have perished!

The greatest tragedy of Saul’s life is that the Lord always loved him, continually reached out to him, never stopped offering his grace – and yet Saul refused it, preferring to try and control things himself. He did not surrender his own will to God. But God’s love and grace and forgiveness were never more than heartbeat away, if only he had turned to receive them. And so when Saul died, the heart of God was to lament his loss.