Valley Victories

The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.

The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”

1 Kings 20:26-28

Aram was just to the north of Israel. The king of Aram, Ben-Hadad, had come down in order to try to conquer the kingdom of Israel. But as they fought in the hill country, God gave Israel the victory. The armies of Aram had to flee for their lives.

However, Ben-Hadad wasn’t done. He decided to spend the year rebuilding his armies so that he could attack again. He thought that Israel’s “god” was the god of the hills and not a god of the valleys. That was Ben-Hadad’s explanation for why they lost the first time. So his strategy this time was to fight Israel in the flat part of the valley.

A prophet came and told all of this to the king of Israel. God’s intention was that Israel would once again defeat the Aramean armies in order to show conclusively that the God of Israel is the Lord and that He is the God of the hills and the God of the valleys.

I couldn’t help but be encouraged by this truth as we continue to face this global pandemic. God is God over the hills, the mountains, and the heights. But God is also God over the valleys, the plains, and the low places. God is able to give His people victory in the hills and victory in the valleys. Even when we feel surrounded and outnumbered, as the army of Israel was, the Lord is able to bring victory out of the most hopeless situations.

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23:4-6

The Chosen

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.

John 1:35-36, 40-42

There have been many attempts to capture what Jesus and His disciples were like on film. Most of them either don’t get the story right or don’t get Jesus right. Either they manipulate the story to make Jesus seem more relatable or they keep the story and Jesus comes across as stiff and robotic.

But last night I watched in wonder at one of the best retellings of the gospel stories that I’ve ever seen. The Chosen, created by Dallas Jenkins, is a multi-season TV show about the life of those who knew Jesus best. In the midst of getting to know them, we discover Jesus.

I can’t quite describe what it is like to watch this show. I’ve only seen the first five episodes, but I find that two things are happening inside of me as I watch this masterful production. First, I feel like I am getting to know old friends that I’ve only read about. The life of Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Thomas and Mary Magdalene come alive. Their life stories weave together and begin to coalesce around Jesus. I found myself knowing these characters, after decades of studying the Bible, and yet discovering them afresh. Aspects of their life and personality come alive in a way that brings new insight into scripture. This same thing happened when I spent a semester studying and living in Jerusalem. After that experience I could never read the Bible the same way again. The same is happening as I watch The Chosen.

The second thing that happens as I watch The Chosen is an almost visceral response to Jesus. As I watch Jesus speak and interact with his disciples, his mother, and the nearby children, I find myself getting emotional. The thought that keeps coming to mind is, “This is the Jesus I know and love! This is the Jesus who invited me to follow Him. This is the Jesus I gave my life to! This is the Jesus I interact with in prayer! This is Him!”

On multiple occasions during certain episodes, I had to stop watching and just worship. Tears welled up in my eyes and I lifted my hands to the heavens in prayer and praise. I am reminded all over again about who this Jesus really is and why He is worth leaving everything behind in order to follow Him. As I’ve watched, a burning desire for others to know this Jesus has stirred inside me.

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for Easter than to watch The Chosen. Please watch it! You won’t regret it!

Burn the Ships

So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.

1 Kings 19:21

Elijah had just encountered God on Mt. Horeb. The Lord commanded Elijah to stop hiding and to get back to work. One of his assignments was to anoint Elisha as his prophetic successor. So one day, as Elisha was plowing with a team of 12 oxen, Elijah walked up to him and threw his cloak over Elisha. This was a prophetic act of offering to Elisha his own prophetic mantle.

After saying goodbye to his family, Elisha does something really powerful. By sacrificing his oxen and burning the plowing equipment, Elisha was declaring a total surrender to the life of a prophet. He would have no economic back-up plan. He was leaving his past behind him. He was burning all the bridges and risking everything to become Elijah’s prophetic apprentice. And it was an act of gratitude to the Lord for choosing him.

Jesus asks us for something similar when we decide to follow Him. This is what Jesus told those following Him early in His ministry:

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9:62

I’ve experienced this moment a few different times in my life of faith. This feeling of leaving everything to follow Him happened first when I decided to give my life to Jesus when I was 9 years old. I sensed it again when I was 12 and I was surrendering to an authentic life of having a relationship with Jesus. I remember choosing between who I knew God called me to be and the cool kids in middle school.

This kind of choice was before me once again the summer I turned 17 when I felt God call me into full-time ministry. I remember struggling with this decision and asking God, “But how am I going to make any money, and how am I going to provide for a family?” I distinctly remember God’s answer, “Mark, I am your provider and I will be the provider for your family.”

More recently (6 years ago), I was faced with the choice to follow Jesus as He led me into the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. At 34 years of age and after a decade of pastoral ministry, I was being invited into something scary, uncertain, and new. A cloak had been thrown over my shoulders, and I had to decide what to do. Would I embrace the new mantle or go back to plowing the field? Would I follow Jesus knowing it would mean sacrificing so much of what I had built over the last decade of ministry? Would I sacrifice the oxen and burn the equipment?

By God’s grace and because of His pursuit of me (not by my own initiative), I decided to once again take the risk to follow Jesus into uncharted territory. God was kind enough not to have me go alone. He brought people around me in the journey so that I could walk through the process in community. He did the same for Elijah and Elisha. Before sending Elijah to anoint Elisha, God told Elijah, “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him”(1 Kings 19:18). We’re never as alone as we might think we are.

What about you?

Is God calling you to sacrifice the oxen and burn the plow equipment of your former life? Is God calling you into something new and uncertain? Are you willing to leave it behind to follow Jesus?

Mary Magdalene

Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out… 

Luke 8:1-2

While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34

When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.  Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured.

Luke 8:35-36

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

Acts 16:16-18

In the last four years the Lord has given me the opportunity to be involved in deliverance ministry. I did not seek this out. God placed me in situation after situation where the person in front of me was being oppressed by demonic spirits, and I was faced with the choice to either walk away, leaving the person in their tormented state, or to do something about it. I would pray for people and watch as they contorted, screamed, dry-heaved, shook or coughed violently. I would command the demon to leave in Jesus’s name and it would. The person would walk away more free than they’ve ever felt before.

Over time, I began to learn the nuances of deliverance ministry–how demons get in people, how they fight to stay there, and the inner healing needed in most deliverance situations. What started as a clumsy trust in the power of the name of Jesus has been refined by the Holy Spirit into a regular part of my pastoral ministry. Before the coronavirus and the social distancing orders, I was praying for one to two people a week. In most of these cases, multiple demons would lift off of people during our prayer sessions. Most times they leave quietly and without fanfare, and other times they leave in a way that is more dramatic and violent.

When I describe all of this, people either look at me in disbelief or are often curious why I would want to do this. But this is like asking a nurse why they would want to clean up a bedpan. The point of all of this is not really about the demons. It’s about seeing God’s children set free. It’s about seeing the oppressed have their chains drop off of them for the first time in decades all because of the powerful name of Jesus. It’s about being a conduit of the love of the Father as people experience in tangible form how much God loves them.

One of the best depictions of this reality can be seen in the first episode of the show The Chosen. The first episode is free and you can watch it here. In episode 1, we watch a beautiful retelling of the stories of the people who would have known Jesus best. And while we get to know Peter, Andrew, Matthew and Nicodemus, the emphasis of episode 1 is around the life of Mary Magdalene. If you want to know why I am so passionate about deliverance ministry, watch this episode all the way to the end.

Fire Fall

With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

1 Kings 18:32-38

We all may know the historical meaning of this passage. This is when Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, confronts the prophets of Baal. They cried out for their gods to bring fire down on the altar and they could not. Elijah soaks his sacrifice in a deluge of water, calls on the true God to bring down fire, and God answers by sending a consuming fire upon the whole sacrificial altar.

Yet, as I read this passage again, the Lord seemed to highlight the prophetic or metaphorical meaning of this passage. Scripture tends to have lots of layers to it. One layer of this passage is how it points to Easter and Pentecost.

Notice the elements involved: a sacrifice, wood, stones, dirt, water and fire. The sacrifice was laid on the wood. Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, was also laid on wood as He was nailed to the cross. Just as there were stones and a dirt trench, so too Jesus was placed in a tomb with a stone rolled in front. He was buried in His own kind of dirt trench.

Next we see the water poured three times, symbolically representing the Trinity and the cleansing waters of baptism. What was once a trench in the dirt became a kind of baptismal pool. When Jesus rose from the grave, He enabled us to be buried with Him in baptism and raised into new life.

But God wasn’t done. The final element was fire. The Lord sent fire down for Elijah and sent fire down for the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Notice what the fire does for Elijah. It was meant to just light the wood and burn the sacrifice, but the fire of the Lord does so much more. This passage says that the fire fell and, “burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” The fire not only burned up the sacrifice and the wood, but also the stones, the soil and the water.

Metaphorically, the fire of the Holy Spirit enables us to live out the victory of the cross (the sacrifice and wood). The fire of the Holy Spirit also enables us to live out the victory over death and the grave (the stones and soil). Yet, there’s more! The fire of the Holy Spirit is even greater than the cleansing waters of baptism. Baptism in the fire of the Spirit refines us in a way that the waters of baptism never could. It is an all consuming fire!

Lord, turn our hearts back to you!

Lord, may Your fire fall on us once again until we are completely consumed by You!

The Church Gathered

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

The church has gathered in homes from the very beginning. The persecuted church still does this today. No worship band. No big building. No stage. Just a small family of people, gathering in a home around the word of God and the Spirit of Christ. There’s something special that happens when the Church gathers this way.

Because of the social distancing protocols in place, most churches around the world had to gather in homes rather than in buildings last Sunday. In our home, we gathered as a family of five. My wife and I let our three kids each pick one worship song for us. We all sang along to whatever favorite worship song each child picked. Then we listened to a pre-recorded sermon. I worked together with a member of my speaking team to create a podcast for our local church that was a combination of dialogue, teaching, and story-telling.

There were a few things that happened that I wasn’t expecting.

First, I began to sense the power of the Spirit so present in our living room that I began to tear up as we worshiped. Jesus reminded me that He’ll gladly show up for a family of five just as He will for a family of 500. Jesus promised, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Secondly, I loved worshiping as a family. With my daughter sitting in my lap and all of us singing together, it was a special moment. So often when we gather in a larger group on Sundays, we come as individuals. But it is impossible to stay stuck in that kind of individualism in a living room with your own kids. We didn’t worship as individuals; we worshiped as a family unit.

Finally, physical distance from my local body of believers actually created greater connection to the global Body of Christ. As my little family gathered in my living room, as we sang and listened to a sermon, I imagined thousands upon thousands of families doing that same thing all over the world. I was suddenly connected in my spirit to all of those worshiping families. Every nation, tribe, people and language were gathered in living rooms and under trees to worship The One who is worthy. We’re not just members of our local church; we’re members of the global Church. Our brothers and sisters in Christ aren’t just the ones standing next to us on a normal Sunday, but they are also the ones half a world away, gathered in a living room around a Bible.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10

The Holy Spirit doesn’t need us to be physically near each other in order to connect us in the spirit. Last Sunday I felt more connected to the global Body of Christ than ever before. Maybe this is what the apostle Paul was experiencing when he wrote to the churches in Colossi and Corinth:

For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit…

Colossians 2:5

…even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit…So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present…

1 Corinthians 5:3-4

So as we gather in living rooms instead of worship centers and sanctuaries, let’s keep our hearts and eyes open to what God may be doing in our midst. Could it be that through this crisis the Lord is teaching us deep truths about His Church that are long overdue? Could it be that revival is on the other side of all of this?

Season of Uncertainty

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

James 1:5-8

For we live by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

Doubt and uncertainty are not the same thing. Too often, especially in the church, these two terms get muddled together as if we are talking about the same things. But they are very different. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, whereas uncertainty is a natural part of faith.

That feeling we are all feeling right now is uncertainty. Uncertainty is that feeling of not knowing and not being able to predict with any reasonable accuracy what will happen next. We don’t know what will be closed. We don’t know what the governor will order to be shut down. We don’t know when schools will reopen. We don’t know if our friends and loved ones will get COVID-19. We don’t know how all of this will play out. Not being able to see what’s next is the soil where faith can grow. This is why we walk by faith and not by sight.

Uncertainty is very different than doubt. Doubt isn’t just being uncertain about when schools will reopen; it’s not trusting that the school board will make a wise decision. Doubt isn’t just being uncertain about what the government will keep closed; it’s not believing they have our best interest in mind. Do you see the difference?

When we translate this into our relationship with God, the difference between doubt and uncertainty is glaring. Having moments of uncertainty in our faith just means we don’t have all the answers. It means we still have a lot to learn about how God operates in the world and what part our sin has to play in the outcome. Uncertainty is a normal and natural part of a life of faith, but doubt is not.

The Bible never celebrates doubt. It never says that doubt is normal and natural. In fact, it says the opposite. It says that doubt is destructive and corrosive to a life of faith. Doubt isn’t just being uncertain about various aspects of the Christian life; it’s calling into question the nature and character of God. Doubt causes us not to trust that God is good, loving, and kind. Doubt causes us to not trust that God is forgiving, just, and gracious to us. While uncertainty questions circumstances, doubt questions God’s character. In humility, uncertainty admits our limited understanding while doubt tries to put God on trial.

It’s been popular these days in some Christian circles to celebrate doubt, but this is toxic to a life of faith. Faith is more than believing in God. Faith is more than believing a set of theological truths about God. Faith is believing God. Faith is trusting in the nature and character of God. It is believing in His goodness and faithfulness to us. Faith is trusting God, whose goodness is unchanging, even when our circumstances change.

We are living in a season of uncertainty. But uncertainty doesn’t have to lead to doubt. Uncertainty can be the rich soil where faith blossoms. Faith is choosing to look at the world through the lens of trust when our physical eyes can’t yet see. When we let uncertainty lead us into doubt, doubt soon becomes cynical unbelief. Cynicism is a sure sign that the roots of doubt have dug into a person’s heart.

I have found that seasons of change bring uncertainty, but they also bring upgrades. Birthing is like that. Pain and uncertainty precede new life. Last fall, my 2005 Honda Accord broke down. I had so many good memories in that car. It was harder to let go of that car than I thought it would be. But God gave me an upgrade. God provided for me a much better car that has greater seating capacity and more power. This car analogy is just a shallow example of a deeper truth. The pain and uncertainty led to an upgrade. Good Friday preceded Resurrection Sunday. This is what God will do if we let Him.