Witnesses; November 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:10-11 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord,
and apart from me there is no savior.”

This whole chapter is so extremely rich! I have long loved a song made from the first three verses, but these two are what speak to me most strongly right now. The Bible speaks many times about witnesses, perhaps most famously in Acts 1:8 and Hebrews 12:1, but this passage deserves to be equally famous. In English we tend to get confused about what a witness is, but that’s a linguistic issue that gets in the way of theological truth. In Biblical usage, and presumably in Hebrew and Greek, a witness isn’t an observer, but rather one who gives testimony. The English word has both those meanings, but it would seem that the Hebrew and Greek words, and certainly the Japanese word used to translate them, are more specific. Thus, in English the majority of people mistake Hebrews 12:1 to mean that a cloud of people are watching us, when it is saying that a cloud of people are proclaiming the faithfulness of God. The Bible isn’t about us, it’s about God! This passage is saying that we are to know God and tell others about Him, and specifically that He is the only Savior. This is not only to counter false religions, it is also to counter the idea so prevalent today that we can save ourselves. The most fundamental requirement for salvation is to know you need it! I personally think the reason God allows the devil to do as much as he does is to confront us with the reality that on our own we are helpless. We don’t like to admit that! When we know and believe God, as this says, we recognize that He is not only omnipotent and omniscient and holy, He is also love and grace, so much so that He sent His Son to take the penalty for our sins. That is Good News indeed, and it is what we are to proclaim to all who will listen.

This of course applies as much to me as it does to anyone. I was struck to notice that “witnesses” is plural, whereas “servant” is singular. (This is a distinction that is lost in the Japanese, because plurals are handled very differently, and often ignored.) Every believer is individually a witness, and the people of God collectively are God’s servant. That fits in with the Church being the Body of Christ, since there is only one Messiah, but we all participate in Him by faith. As a pastor I seek to help believers understand their position and participation in Christ, but at times it feels like very few really grasp it. I am not to give up, but keep speaking the truth in love. After all, God is just as able to use me as He is to use anyone, since He can even use a donkey! (Numbers 22:28-31) I am to proclaim that God not only loves us, He wants to use us for blessing, for His glory. I am not to seek any glory for myself, but I am to keep myself fully available for however God wants to use me, in little things or big.

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. Help me indeed be Your witness, You agent, in everything I say and do, so that many may be brought from darkness to light, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Response to Trials; November 6, 2019

Isaiah 38:17 Surely it was for my benefit
that I suffered such anguish.

This revelation that Hezekiah had was perhaps the major purpose of God allowing him to have this experience. Anyone in a position such as king is tempted to pride. (Actually, virtually everyone is tempted to pride!) God dealt with that in Hezekiah through disease, and it worked. In the last half of verse 15 he says, “I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul.” We would do well to open our hearts to the same revelation, that God allows things in our lives not because He is capricious or because He wants to pick on us, but for our benefit. When we have that assurance, we can follow Paul’s instructions: “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20) The devil does stuff to us that God doesn’t desire, but he can’t do anything to us that God can’t use for our benefit, if we will release it to Him.

This is something I have certainly confirmed over my (so far) 71 years. My health issues have been few and relatively minor, but my wife has had a mountain of them. When she had a fatal heart attack at 27, God allowed her to see the beginnings of heaven and then sent her back, and she’s had no fear of death ever since. When she passed out while driving because of her heart at 47, God had an angel drive her to a safe stop, including making a turn at an intersection and going down a long slope. That taught us that God is always looking out for us. It wasn’t a health issue, but when funds ran out in the middle of building this building and the banks wouldn’t touch us, God used the experience to teach us that He is never at a loss for money, but we’ve got to let Him do things His way. I could go on and on, but I have indeed learned that “The sufferings I suffered were for my peace.” (That’s the Japanese version of this verse.)

Father, thank You indeed for all that You allow us to go through. I am tempted to feel guilty for saying that, when Cathy has such ongoing medical issues, but she too knows You very personally, and her issues affect me too. We have countless unknowns in our lives, but we have the assurance that You love us and indeed use everything that happens to us for our benefit. (Romans 8:28) May we truly rest, relax, and rejoice in You, just as You have told me to do, so that all of Your purposes for us may be fulfilled, on Your schedule and for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Refugees; November 5, 2019

Isaiah 16:5 In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it–
one from the house of David–
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.

It is fascinating that this clearly Messianic prophecy comes in the middle of a passage talking about refugees from Moab. People from many nations have indeed found refuge in Israel, but the Church is open to people from every ethnic group on earth. Refugees flee turmoil and seek stability, and Christ is indeed the Rock of salvation. In recent years the whole category of refugees has been muddied and confused, with massive movements of people for a wide variety of motives, making for political chaos in the places they end up. This naturally calls for wisdom in national leadership, but above all it calls for seeking the One this verse is talking about. On the human scale, often the influx of people disrupts the very stability they say they are seeking. Sadly, some seem to be bent on taking over, imposing the system from which they supposedly fled on the land and people where they end up. It often takes supernatural discernment to see people’s motives and, as the current terminology has it, vet them. As it is, the people with the most genuine, sincere needs are too often left behind and those with ulterior motives get ahead. As Jesus said, we need to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) As His agents we are to “seek justice and speed the cause of righteousness,” just as this verse says.

Living in Japan I have had little direct contact with refugees, because Japan is very ethnically closed. Omura has one of two major Immigration Detention Centers in the country, for people who have run afoul of Japan’s strict immigration laws, and some of those would indeed qualify as genuine refugees in my book. However, the majority were in the country for simply economic reasons (legal or illegal) and failed to maintain proper visa status. I have dealt with some of those, who insisted on their innocence and purity but when given leniency turned out to be completely false. Another pastor in town has a remarkable ministry in the Detention Center, and has gained more people for the Kingdom there than in his Japanese congregation. I pray for him and seek to support him, but that isn’t a ministry the Lord has assigned to me. In this information age I am aware of refugee issues around the world, and this confirms the reality that God’s smart and I’m not. I am to be active in prayer, at least, so that God may be acknowledged as holy and His rule come as His will is done, for refugees and everyone else, for His glory.

Father, thank You for this reminder. We just had the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I haven’t run into any refugees who would fit in that category, but I know there are many worldwide. I pray that whether you want them to flee or to stay put, in either case they would be filled with Your peace and even joy, in the middle of whatever their situation might be, so that those around may see the hope that they have and be drawn to You, (1 Peter 3:15) for a great harvest in Your kingdom. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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God’s Love and Man’s Pride; November 4, 2019

Isaiah 5:15-16 So man will be brought low
and mankind humbled,
the eyes of the arrogant humbled.
But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice,
and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.

When we read such passages as this we need to remember that this chapter starts with a declaration of love. God’s judgments aren’t because He is vindictive, they are because He is both love and holiness itself. He loves us, but we forget His holiness to our peril. As is so common throughout the Bible, the human problem here is pride. The moment we forget that we are created beings, that we exist by and for the pleasure of our Creator, we get into trouble. (We get the opposite problem when parents think their children exist by and for their pleasure, but that’s a different discussion.) We have the strange tendency to forget that God is the source of everything good, (James 1:17) and somehow think we generate good things on our own. Creativity is one of the ways in which we are made in the image of God, (Genesis 1:27) but the motive power behind it comes from God Himself. The past 150 years have seen explosive growth in technology, to the point that our everyday lives are the stuff of the science fiction of not long ago. That can make it all the easier for us to forget where it all comes from, and think we don’t need God. The results of such thinking are tragic indeed.

I encounter this all the time, both from people of considerable intellect and ability and people with much less. Recently a teacher of one of the believers here specifically told him that “There’s no God, so stop thinking He’ll help you with your national board exam.” How sad! Thankfully, that was enough of a shock to the believer that he is far more active in church than he was before. God uses even those who speak against Him for His purposes! I well remember how I have been tempted to forget that God’s gifts to me are just that, gifts, and so become arrogant. I’ve fallen for that more than I like to think about! I’ve got to remember that God loves every human being equally, and I’ve got to relate to them as someone loved by God. That is the “identity” that counts, completely wiping out all the identity politics that is so rampant. I see so much evil that is the direct result of forgetting our Creator, and I must not succumb to any of it. Rather, in all humility I must recognize that God alone is holy and righteous, and we become holy and righteous only as we relate rightly to Him.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for all You did in the day yesterday. I feel like I’m under attack at the moment, but You allow that just to teach me to depend more fully on You. I pray that I would learn better and better how to rest, relax, and rejoice in You, doing Your will on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Pride and Repentance; November 3, 2019

Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”

I have known this verse from childhood because of its being set to music, and it is a marvelous verse indeed. Even to a child, the imagery was clear and easy to understand. The only sticking point is whether we acknowledge that we have indeed sinned. I keep coming back to feeling that pride is at the root of virtually all sin. Somehow we feel we know better than God, so we do whatever seems attractive or expedient to us, instead of what, in our heart of hearts, we know God wants. That was precisely what snared Adam and Eve in the garden, (Genesis 3:6) and it continues to snare us today. (1 John 2:16) And there’s no question that it is the single greatest barrier to repentance, which is our only path to salvation. Some people try to rely on the objective fact that Jesus died for their sins, without ever repenting of those sins in the first place. Jesus placed repentance before faith! (Mark 1:15) Verse 27 of this chapter says, “Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness.” The Japanese says, “repentant.” God’s free offer of salvation is open to all, but we have to let go of our pride, acknowledge our sin, and repent of it.

This first chapter of Isaiah is significant to me because I based my final sermon in my Preaching class in seminary on it. It was graded by a doctoral student rather than by the professor, and he gave me a C, saying that I was “too extreme.” My response was that if I was too extreme, then Isaiah and the Holy Spirit were too extreme! (My title was, “There’s Blood on Your Hands,” from verse 15.) People don’t like having their sins pointed out to them! I was indeed fed up with the hypocrisy of organized religion, but then, so was Isaiah. The danger in pointing out such things is in being blind to the same things in ourselves. We all need the grace of God! As I seek to lead others to repentance I must not fail to keep my own repentance up to date. I was talking with a brother just last night about how the Holy Spirit doesn’t show us everything about ourselves at once, or it would destroy us. Rather, He shines His light on one thing at a time. When we repent of that, He goes to the next thing. We aren’t to go picking at ourselves, trying to find things to repent of. That’s neurotic, and will keep us from recognizing how God wants to use us, imperfect as we are. However, the moment the Holy Spirit does indicate something that needs to change, I need to repent and ask His help in following through.

Father, thank You for this reminder, and for the truly blessed time of ministry last night. Thank You for the awareness that I can’t save anyone, but You can and do use me in saving people. The brother last night said he had trouble imagining me as other than I am now, fully committed to You. I gave him some minor examples! I pray that You would indeed show Yourself fully real to him, that his faith may be deepened and strengthened so that he may blossom into all that You intend him to be, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Eternity; November 2, 2019

Ecclesiastes 9:1 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.

These first 10 verses of chapter nine gave me an AHA moment about how Solomon could live the life he did: he had no grasp of eternal life with God, of eternal rewards. Despite writing, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men,” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Solomon failed to understand that what we do and how we live does affect our eternity. I have always wondered how on earth he could participate in idolatry with his foreign wives when God had spoken to him personally and given him such a massive intellect. If you don’t think life on earth affects anything other than life on earth, what you do becomes relatively unimportant. The thing is, the rest of the Bible, and of course the whole New Testament, makes it very clear that the choices we make now govern our eternity. That’s why the devil works so hard to remove belief in hell: if there is no eternal punishment, then why bother to try to obey God? Paul wrote forcefully on this subject. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) Solomon lived on this earth in great luxury, his every whim answered, but the beggar Lazarus that Jesus talked about (Luke 16:19-31) was ultimately far better off, just as Jesus told that story to help us understand. We sometimes speak of someone living “as though there were no tomorrow.” That echoes the attitude Isaiah talked about: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Isaiah 22:13) Paul referenced that in his discussion of the subject. (1 Corinthians 15:32) We may not have the intellect of Solomon, but we can have far more wisdom, because we know through the resurrection of Jesus that this life is by no means all, and we can live accordingly.

I had the enormous blessing of being raised in a home that was founded on faith in a risen Savior. One of the favorite songs of my childhood was, “I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today.” I made the commitment to serve Him at age 7, but my obedience was spotty at best until after He confronted me when I was already a father. At this point I delight to live as His child, with a growing anticipation of what awaits me after I am removed from the mess the world is in. My wife had a brief taste of that when she died from a heart attack in 1975, and then God sent her back. She says that before that experience she was afraid to die, but she certainly hasn’t been since! I don’t know all the ins and outs of physical resurrection, but I know that it is promised in the Bible, and I believe it. More than that, to me, is the awareness that if I abide in Christ now, I will get to abide in Him for eternity, whether I have a physical body or not, and that is a prospect too wonderful for words. The thing is, far too few people have that understanding, so they don’t live like it’s true. My task is to speak the truth in love so that as many as will may accept God’s free offer, repent of their rebellion and unbelief, and believe for their own salvation.

Father, thank You indeed for Your incredible grace. Help me be an open channel for that grace to flow to all, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Satisfaction; November 1, 2019

Ecclesiastes 5:10 Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.

Solomon writes a good bit about wealth, which is hardly surprising since he was fabulously wealthy. In all of that, however, this verse might be the most perceptive. It speaks to an important part of the human condition, and that is that the only thing that can satisfy us ultimately is God. That is actually only logical, because only God is infinite. The wealthiest man in America about a century ago was asked, how much money is enough? His answer, perfectly in line with this verse, was, “A little more.” There are enormously wealthy people in the world today. Their wealth brings them influence and notoriety, but it evidently doesn’t bring them real happiness. Among those, Elon Musk stands out to me because he doesn’t seem obsessed with money so much as what he can do with it, with space exploration and other cutting-edge technology that could ultimately be very beneficial to mankind. However, even the physical infinity of space can’t satisfy like God. It’s very important that Solomon used the term, love, here. I keep coming back to Jesus’ definition of the 1st and 2nd Commandments. (Matthew 22:37-29) We were literally created to love God and to love our neighbor, and when we love other things instead, we are in deep trouble. As John said, “For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16) The world cannot satisfy, period.

This is a lesson I have had reinforced over the years. As a computer geek, I have “lusted after” the latest hardware and software, and though I haven’t had the budget to indulge that completely, I have certainly experienced how quickly the thrill of acquisition passes. The same applies to photography equipment, power tools and the like. I’m very grateful to say that my love for my wife hasn’t faded over the past 50 years. God has protected me from the desire for “more” in that area (as in the money referenced in today’s verse). Rather, I have sought more depth in our relationship, and God has given it to us with no end in sight. That has close parallels to our love for God, because there is always more we can learn of Him, and more of ourselves we can give to Him. My father’s trademark phrase was, “Give all you know of yourself to all you know of Christ.” That is marvelous advice, and completely supplants the lusts that John cautioned us about.

Father, thank You for this reminder. There are still material things I would like to have, but You have taught me where real satisfaction comes from. Thank You. I ask for the satisfaction of sharing Your truth and love with all who will receive it, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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