Tragedy

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

There was Jesus, a completely innocent man in his thirties hanging on the cross for crimes He didn’t commit. He had brought healing, restoration, and freedom to thousands. He had so much more life to live. More than that, He was the Son of God sent to usher in the Kingdom of God. He was supposed to reign as the messianic king of God’s people. All of those hopes and dreams were now dashed, nailed to an ignoble Roman cross.

It seemed like the enemy had won. Yet, what seemed like the enemy’s greatest victory was his greatest defeat. What seemed like God’s greatest failure was His moment of triumphant victory. If the enemy knew how God would use this moment to save the world, he would have never let it happen. He would have sent his demonic hordes to stop the trial and prevent the crucifixion.

It was a tragedy, no doubt about it. It was tragic in the moment. But God was about to use it to triumph over sin and death. If the disciples had known all the variables, they would have knelt in gratitude at the foot of the cross instead of running in fear. We can’t see all the variables that God sees. We don’t hear all the prayer that He hears. This is especially true in the midst of personal tragedy.

Bad things happen in this world as a result of the brokenness of the world, the sin of humanity, and the work of the evil one. Things happen that God doesn’t want to happen. And while I don’t believe God causes tragedy in this world, I do believe He finds ways to beautifully bring good out of the bad.

Jesus only does that which is most loving. If we perceive that Jesus’s action or inaction is unloving, it only means that we are missing some of the variables. There are things we can’t see, things we can’t know, pieces of the puzzle that are missing. And if we had all the pieces that Jesus has, we would understand. As it is, we must live in mystery, trusting the nature and character of a loving God.

One day it will all become clear. One day it will make sense. One day we will know fully even as, right now, we are fully known by the One who created us. Until then we trust that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose“(Romans 8:28).

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

Bringing Breakthrough

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.”

1 Samuel 14:6-10

Israel was at war with the Philistines. Jonathan, King Saul’s son, decided to take a special ops mission to attack a Philistine outpost located on the edge of a cliff. No one in the army knew of this special mission.

First, notice that Jonathan went boldly because of his confidence in the Lord. It wasn’t confidence in himself. It wasn’t even confidence in a promise from God or a word from the Lord. Jonathan wasn’t guaranteed victory. His confidence was simply in the nature and character of God. Jonathan’s view of God was that the Lord’s heart was, at all times, inclined to give victory to His people. This bold move of faith, as many are, was grounded in a trust of the goodness of God–the faithful nature of God.

Secondly, notice that while the regular army didn’t know Jonathan was undertaking this special ops mission–even his own dad, the king, didn’t know–Jonathan didn’t go alone. He was stepping out in faith and he needed someone to believe in him. Jonathan needed a partner in this mission who trusted him as much as Jonathan trusted God. His armor-bearer was that person. The armor-bearer didn’t know the outcome of the mission or even all the details, and he didn’t need to. He knew Jonathan and trusted him with his life.

The third noteworthy component of this special mission was that Jonathan and the armor-bearer waited for confirmation before attacking. Though they were not directly sent by a command of the Lord, they still waited for confirmation that the Lord was with them. They knew two men had no chance against a Philistine outpost. Their confidence wasn’t in their fighting ability. Their confidence was in the Lord. If He was with them, they knew they would be okay. If the Philistines invited them to come up, that was their sign that the favor of the Lord was on them for victory. And that is exactly what we see happen.

Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre.

Then panic struck the whole army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God.

1 Samuel 14:13-15

Jonathan and his armor-bearer were spotted by the Philistines and then given a mocking invitation to come up the cliff so the Philistines could kill them. Little did the Philistines know, this invitation was the sign from the Lord that Jonathan would have the victory that day.

Jonathan was faithful to do his part. He trusted the Lord. He stepped out in faith with great risk to himself. The armor-bearer was faithful to do his part. He trusted Jonathan and followed his lead. Then we see the Lord step in. God was faithful to do His part. Not only did He give Jonathan and his armor-bearer favor as they fought, but He also sent the rest of the Philistine army into a panic.

Saul and the main army saw the chaos and joined the battle. What started as Jonathan’s victory became the whole army’s victory.

This is how breakthrough happens in the Church today! One person is willing to step out in faith–a faith that looks crazy to everyone else–not because they were guaranteed an outcome by a word from the Lord but because of their unyielding trust in the character and nature of God. They have someone by their side who believes in them even when no one else does. And the Lord honors their radical faith in such a way that not only does that person get the victory, but the whole Church then is able to step into that area of faith and experience the victory as well.

We see examples of this throughout church history. Martin Luther looked crazy for his time. He was willing to step out in radical faith and trust that we are saved “by grace through faith…not by works”(Ephesians 2:8-9). This was radical, even dangerous, for his day. His bold faith not only created a breakthrough for himself but for the whole Church. We all now embrace that truth with ease, as if it had always been obvious to all believers at all times, but it took someone with radical faith to pioneer a way forward.

This is also true for those who pray for the sick. There are those who pray for healing for diseases that have never, or have rarely ever, seen healing. When people in our skeptical generation do that, they look foolish. They look crazy. At times, they are even called “dangerous.” But what we are witnessing is radical, pioneering faith. We are witnessing a Jonathan who is willing to climb a cliff that no one else would dare climb. We are witnessing someone with bold faith in the nature and character of our good Father.

When healing comes for that disease, there is often a breakthrough for the whole Church. Suddenly people around the world hear the testimony and begin to believe. Faith rises, and the outpost of the enemy that seemed invincible suddenly looks vulnerable. The enemy panics, and the whole Church begins to see breakthrough in that particular disease.

Burning in my heart is a desire to be a Jonathan (and if not a Jonathan then an armor-bearer to a Jonathan). As the Lord looks throughout the earth for those who would trust Him, I wanted to be counted among them. As the Lord looks for those who might be willing to step out with radical faith, I want to be among those who say, “Yes.”

Reduction

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.

But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”

Judges 7:2-4

Before God sent Gideon against the Midianites, He chose to reduce the army to 300 men. God decided to strip away the self-assurance and self-sufficiency of Israel. In order for God to get the glory for the miraculous victory, Israel had to be in a place of complete dependence upon Him.

First, God rids the camp of fear. Those who were too afraid to trust in God’s miraculous provision were sent home. Fear is often the first thing God has to strip away before we are able to be conduits of His power and instruments of His grace.

Next, God reduces the army in a way that seems somewhat arbitrary. One group of soldiers drank water one way and the other group drank a different way. God used this as a means to handpick the soldiers He wanted to remain. Three hundred soldiers stayed and the rest were sent home. At this point it was impossible for Israel to win without divine intervention.

God will often strip things out of our lives that we don’t understand. It may seem arbitrary or even unnecessary. But the goal is to ultimately set us free from the shackles of self-sufficiency and independence. The goal is to help us get to a place of total surrender, which is when we are most dangerous to the enemy.

Yet, God is gracious and compassionate. He understands the anxiety and fear this kind of total dependency can create in a person. So God meets Gideon where he is and gives Gideon confirmation that God will give him the victory in battle even with such a reduced army.

God sets it up where Gideon overhears a Midian soldier telling his friend about a dream he had the night before. The dream was a prophetic message that symbolically foretold of the victory of Israel over the Midianites through the leadership of Gideon.

This is a great reminder that God doesn’t leave us bewildered and confused. When we go through a season of reduction, when God strips things away that need to be stripped away, God will also provide revelation in order to encourage us. God will speak to us through prayer, through scripture, through a dream, through a prophetic word, or any other means necessary. God will let us know in various ways that He is still with us and that this pruning will bear good fruit.

Jesus spoke to His disciples about this very thing:

“…every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….

 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

John 15:2 & 5

Pruning ultimately makes us more fruitful. When our dependence is completely on the Lord, when everything else is stripped away and we remain in Him, much fruit is the result.

Usually, the reduction of an army is a bad thing. The word reduction is usually used in a negative way. But if we think about it in a different context, we can see the benefit. In cooking, “reduction” is the process of thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid, like a soup or a sauce, by simmering or boiling. Making a reduction in the culinary world intensifies the flavor and thickens the consistency. This is also what happens in God’s Kingdom when God initiates a reduction.

Sometimes what we need most–in our personal lives, our churches, our businesses, our careers–is not more growth but a massive reduction. Sometimes a season of pruning is what is needed most for us to sustain the next season of growth. Sometimes a return to dependency and a cleansing of self-sufficiency from our lives is God’s greatest gift to us.

Is there pruning happening in an area of your life? Take heart! God is preparing you for victory. And if you need confirmation as Gideon did, Jesus is willing to give that to you as well.

Bringing Justice through to Victory

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”[Isaiah 42:1-4]

Matthew 12:15-21

The reason Jesus withdrew from that place is because the Pharisees were plotting to kill Him. Jesus’s response to their plan to kill Him is to move to a different region and heal every single person who came to Him. It doesn’t say that He healed some. It doesn’t say that He healed those with enough faith. It doesn’t say that He healed the righteous. No, He healed “all who were ill.”

When we pray for the sick, we have to own the fact that Jesus healed every person who came to Him. In other words, we have to own the fact that if Jesus were standing there with the person we’re praying for, they’d be healed. But it’s not Jesus standing there, it’s us. It’s Christ in us the hope of glory. The problem is never on God’s end of the equation.

And notice that Jesus healing everyone was a fulfillment of prophecy about the Messiah from Isaiah 42:1-4. When Jesus healed, it was Him bringing the justice of God into that situation. He wouldn’t turn people away who needed healing. A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out. Instead, He would bring justice through to victory.

Bringing justice through to victory is language that is often used to describe a military battle. An invading army has come into the Promised Land. An evil foreign king has invaded the Temple. And the job of the Messiah, not unlike King David, was to bring the justice of God into the battle and see it through to victory. This is the imagery scripture gives us for when Jesus heals the sick.

In other words, God sees sickness and disease as an injustice. Sin, the brokenness of the world, and the enemy all can cause the body to malfunction in ways that it was never intended. To bring justice is to make things right that have gone wrong. When Jesus heals, He makes right whatever has gone wrong in the body. He ushers in the Kingdom of God into the body. And in the Kingdom of God, there is no sickness. Your Kingdom come (into this body), Your will be done, on earth (in this body) as it is in heaven (where there is no sickness).

When Jesus brings the justice of God to invade the injustice of sickness, He brings it through to victory. He doesn’t allow the invading armies of illness and disease to stay in the body. He releases the Kingdom of God in its fullness into the body until victory has been won.

This is the example that we are to follow. Jesus is the standard of what the Christian life should look like. The Holy Spirit moves us from glory to glory so that we look ever more like Christ. Part of that means seeing more and more healing as our lives look more and more like Jesus. We learn how to cooperate with the Father and the Spirit, releasing the Kingdom into every body we pray for. We learn how to cooperate with bringing God’s justice to invade the injustice of sickness, until we can bring it through to victory.

We do all of this so that the nations will put their hope and trust in the name of Jesus!

This Is Love For God

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

1 John 5:1-5

There is a way to carry out the commands of God that is legalistic, self-righteous, and that comes from a place of performance. This is what we see in the Pharisees. Yet, there is a way to carry out the commands of God that comes from a place of love for God. The opposite of legalism for the Christian is not a life filled with sin and rebellion. The cure for legalism is not licentiousness. We don’t avoid becoming the older son by becoming the prodigal son. The goal is to become like the father (Luke 15:11-32).

John teaches us here in 1 John 5 that love for God looks like following His commands. But unlike the Pharisees, when we live from a place of love the commands of God do not become burdensome. Love for God causes us to want to surrender our whole life to Him and obey everything He tells us to do. Jesus confirms this when he says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

When we are living from a place of fear, however, obedience feels like performing in order to avoid punishment. It feels like flexing a muscle and seeing how long we can hold it. But John reminds us:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:17-19

Living and obeying from a place of loving God starts with receiving His love for us. When we bask in His love for us, we then return love to Him by joyfully obeying Him. We end up wanting to live how He has commanded us to live in the scriptures. We want to do what He has commanded us to do personally. We don’t obey out of fear. We are compelled to obey out of love.

Obedience from a place of fear and performance is worried about what God will do to us if we don’t obey. Obedience from a place of love understands that He is a gracious God, and that it is not Him but instead our disobedience that harms our love relationship with Him. Obedience from a place of love understands that whatever He’s asked of us is the best for His Kingdom. And His Kingdom is what we are seeking first above our own comfort and life-plans (Matthew 6:33). It’s not about us in the end, but about Him.

This mindset is where we find the victory. This is where we overcome the world. The world cannot kill something that’s already been put to death. The world cannot steal something that has already been surrendered into the hands of the Lord. We can trust Him to be faithful as He guides and directs our life.

He Has Risen

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

1 Corinthians 15:3-7

First, Paul lays out the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Then he states the reality that the truth of the gospel hinges entirely on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…

1 Corinthians 15:13-20

If we reject the truth of Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the dead, we reject the gospel–the whole of the Christian faith. We can call ourselves whatever we want, but if we leave behind the resurrection, we leave behind Jesus Himself. We might be able to construct a nice religious facade without the resurrection, a pseudo-Christian facsimile, but Jesus won’t be found anywhere inside. If we don’t embrace the resurrection, our faith is useless and we are still mired in our sin.

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” and that changes everything! HE IS RISEN! HE IS ALIVE! Death and sin have been defeated and our victory has been won!

Not Against Flesh and Blood

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12

When we fight this spiritual battle, we fight as the Israelites did to take possession of the Promised Land. We are given new life in Jesus and there are some parts of this new life that we must fight for in order to possess. The land of this new life in Christ is already ours, but we must kick out the inhabitants of darkness that previously occupied our life.

This passage in Ephesians 6 indicates that the kingdom of darkness has a hierarchical command and control structure. Demons seem to be the lowest level spirit of darkness. Then there are powers (authorities) and principalities (rulers) that seem to be higher level beings of darkness that retained more of their power when they fell from heaven with Satan. We might call these powers and principalities “fallen angels” who are able to retain some of their former glory–though it is fading.

Satan is a counterfeiter. He is constantly trying to imitate in his kingdom of darkness the things of the Kingdom of Light. I believe this hierarchical command and control structure is an attempt by Satan to imitate and counterfeit the omnipresence of God the Father. Since Satan can’t be everywhere at once like God, he sends his minions everywhere.

I believe the principalities of darkness that are over a geographic regions are trying to imitate and counterfeit the fact that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. And I believe demons, with their constant need to be embodied in something physical, are attempting to imitate and counterfeit the Holy Spirit who dwells inside the body of believers, His Temple.

The reason I believe Paul needed to remind the Ephesians that our battle is not with people (flesh and blood) but with the kingdom of darkness is because we can so easily miss our target if we make people our enemy. We are like the Israelites, taking ground for the Kingdom of God, but different from the Israelites we are not fighting people. We are not even fighting ourselves. We are fighting the darkness that invades and persuades people. So our weapons are different. Our most powerful weapons in a battle like this are love and forgiveness.

And we don’t fight in order to attain the victory. Jesus won the victory for us on the cross and in His resurrection. We don’t fight for victory but from victory. We fight the battles knowing that the war has been won by Jesus alone! Here is how Paul writes it to the Colossian Christians:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Colossians 2:13-15