WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO TO ME?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

peony

While 21st century Christians might not recognize the source of the two verses quoted in Hebrews 13:5-6, the recipients of that epistle certainly did. As Jews who converted to Christianity, they were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The first verse (found in Deuteronomy 1:6 and 8), were relayed by Moses to all of Israel and then specifically to Joshua. After Moses’ death, God personally made the same promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:9.

The second verse cited can be found in Psalms 118:6 and 56:4 and 11. While we don’t know who authored Psalm 118, we know that Psalm 56 was penned by David and was about running from Saul and being seized by Philistines in Gath. Any Hebrew in Paul’s time would know these quotes and the full context in which they were used.

Rather than facing battle with the Canaanites, fleeing from Saul’s army, or being in the hands of the enemy, the original readers of this epistle were new believers who faced persecution from both Rome and their fellow Jews. Having already endured public ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, excommunication from their synagogues, confiscation of their property, and flight from their homes, yet another wave of persecution loomed on the horizon at the time this epistle was written. Discouraged and disheartened, these new Christians were losing heart. Fearful, many contemplated abandoning their belief in Jesus and returning to Judaism.

Wanting to prevent them from apostasy, the epistle’s author encouraged these Jewish converts to remain steadfast in their new faith. Rather than disparaging Judaism, he fortified their faith by showing how Hebrew Scripture pointed the way to the Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled its Messianic promises. He explained that Jesus was superior to the Levitical priesthood, that His sacrifice was better than any required by the Law, and that the new covenant was better than the old. It is when encouraging his readers to stay strong in the faith that the letter’s author refers to these two Old Testament verses.

The last part of the second quote asks, “What can mere people do to me?” Clearly, people had done a great deal of harm to those Hebrew Christians in the past and worse soon would follow. Moreover, just as Christians were persecuted in the 1st century, they continue to be persecuted in parts of the world today. The epistle’s author, however, wasn’t delusional; he knew the people to whom he wrote were not safe from harm at the hands of their fellow man! A closer look at the full verse never says Christ’s followers won’t suffer. Hebrews’ author was telling those new Christians not to be afraid because God was beside them; his words are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. His confidence came from knowing that our lives and future are in the hands of a God who loves us and has pledged Himself to us.

No matter how dire the circumstances, we aren’t alone. While our adversaries are mere mortals, standing beside us is God and His love for us outweighs the hatred of men. In the end, all of the adversities and suffering of this world pale in comparison to the resurrection blessings that await us. The worst thing people can do is kill our bodies. No person, however, can touch our souls!

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:28-31 (NLT)]

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DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

The story is told of a Russian rabbi standing on a hillside with his student. As they looked down at the valley below, the men watched in horror as a band of Cossacks charged into their village. They heard the townspeople’s terrified screams as they were slaughtered and saw the smoke rise as their village was set afire by the marauders. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi looked up to heaven and cried, “If only I were God!” His troubled student asked what the rabbi would do differently if he were God. “Nothing,” replied the old man, “but then I would understand why!”

We always will have the age-old question of “Why,” and we always (at least in this world) will have deafening silence from God as our answer. Like the rabbi, I can’t understand why God allows things like the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Black Plague, the Crusades, the World Trade Center attack, Uvalde and Sandy Hook, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, 3 million children dying from hunger every year, human trafficking, and the many other evils that plague our fallen world.  Although I often write about hidden blessings and God’s higher purpose in our tragedies and troubles, my words bring little comfort when we see our friends and loved ones in distress, the misshapen bodies of malnourished children, or the faces of those who’ve lost loved ones to flood, fire, or violence. I look at my prayer list and can find neither rhyme nor reason for the sorrow and pain that is written on those pages and on so many people’s lives. While, with time, I’ve managed to find purpose and blessings in most of my challenges, I’m hard put to see any purpose or blessings in theirs.

I know better than to ask God why and, even if He gave me an explanation, I don’t think I’d find His answer satisfactory or comforting. I’d probably argue that someone’s repentance didn’t require such severe correction—that the same result could be achieved a less painful way and the same lesson learned with less heartbreak. I’d contend that someone’s faith didn’t need such severe testing, their character didn’t require such perfecting, nor did they need to be prodded so sharply to move in the right direction. Moreover, even if I understood the why of God’s plan, I wouldn’t understand the way He works it. We will never find a satisfactory explanation for the adversity, distress, and sorrow of our fallen world.

The presence of evil and suffering can challenge our faith. How can a loving God allow it? Good people suffer and our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, as Christians, we believe in Divine Providence—that our loving, all-seeing and all-knowing God is never out of control, even though Satan is trying his best to do his worst. We can’t see God’s purpose and we surely don’t understand it, but we must believe it and trust in Him.

When Jesus’ followers stood at the foot of the cross and watched Him suffer, I suspect they couldn’t see God’s purpose in His anguish and thought all hope was gone. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God because his plan seems so often seems so terribly wrong.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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UNQUALIFIED

That’s the kind of confidence we have towards God, through the Messiah. It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account. Our qualification comes from God. [2 Corinthians 3:4-5 NTE)]


The panic set in the moment I looked the calendar on our church’s website. Seeing the upcoming dates with my name beside them set my heart racing. Several weeks ago, I accepted our pastor’s request to act in his stead while he was out of town. I was to lead both Thursday night’s Bible study and the following Sunday’s worship. At the time, preparing a study and a sermon seemed far in the future, but seeing it in black and white made me question my decision. Did I actually think I was up to the task?

Is that what it felt like to Moses when, after accepting God’s assignment to free Israel from Egyptian slavery, he realized he would have to lead two million people across the Sinai Peninsula and into Canaan? When what should have been an eleven-day trip turned into a forty-year trek, did he question his ability to fulfill his role? After Gideon whittled down his 32,000 soldiers, did he question his obedience to God before leading his remaining 300 men into battle against 135,000 Midianites? After bolding saying he’d fight Goliath, did David have a moment of self-doubt when facing the giant with nothing more than a sling and five stones? What made him think he could save Israel from an army of Philistines? Think of the prophet Jeremiah who was just a youth when God called him. Not only did his family plot to kill him but, through the years, he was beaten, tossed into jail, attacked by a mob, put in stocks, accused of treason, thrown into a muddy cistern, and threatened by the king. Did any of them have a moment (or two) when they asked themselves things like, “What on earth was I thinking?” or “How did I get in this mess?” or “What made me think I could do this?”

When God called them, Jeremiah was just a youth (probably no more than twenty) and not a good speaker. Gideon was the least important in a family that was the weakest one in Manasseh. As the youngest boy in Jesse’s family, David’s father didn’t even consider the shepherd boy worthy of being invited to the sacrifice or being presented to Samuel. Moses was an old man with a speech impediment who was hiding in a foreign land when God called to him from a burning bush. None of these men were especially qualified to take on the tasks that God gave them. Nonetheless, they were the ones God called. The reason God chose them can be found in Scripture’s description of David—they all were men after God’s heart. [1 Samuel 13:14] They trusted in God!

Rather than focusing on our limitations and weaknesses by thinking we’re not smart, talented, educated, skilled, young or old enough, we should remember the old saying that, “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the ones He calls.” We can have an outstanding resume of credentials but, without a heart for God, we have nothing! Rather than looking at our assets and abilities when calling us, God looks at our availability and willingness to serve. After saying, “Yes,” to His call, our responsibility is to do our best with what we have while trusting Him to handle the rest. Our all-powerful God is fully able to empower even the least qualified among us. It is what we do in our weakness that testifies to God’s power and strength.

Real true faith is man’s weakness leaning on God’s strength. [D.L. Moody]

And this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.” So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest upon me. So I’m delighted when I’m weak, insulted, in difficulties, persecuted and facing disasters, for the Messiah’s sake. When I’m weak, you see, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NTE)]

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COWARDS NEED NOT APPLY

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” [Jeremiah 1:7-8 (NLT)]

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One look at the Bible’s heroes makes it clear that obstacles and challenges are an unavoidable part of doing God’s work. While they knew doing God’s work wouldn’t be trouble-free, did they realize it would be so very hard? Consider Moses—he knew it would be challenging when he signed on to lead the Israelites, but he didn’t know that an eleven-day journey to Canaan would turn into a forty-year commitment. God never promised it would be easy but He also never warned Moses about the decades of complaints, rebellion, and continual disobedience of the “stiff-necked people” he’d be leading. Moses certainly wasn’t told that he’d never enter the Promised Land once he got there. If he had known what lay ahead, would Moses have accepted God’s assignment or would he still be arguing with God on Mt. Sinai?

Would David have told Samuel to go find another fellow to anoint if the young shepherd knew he’d spend most of the next fifteen years fleeing for his life before actually becoming king? If he’d been told about the trials, battles, responsibilities, betrayals, and challenges of being king or known of the tears that he’d shed during his life, would he have decided to stick to shepherding?

What about Mary? When she told the angel she was the “servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead—the finger pointing and whispers regarding her pregnancy, the difficult journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and fleeing to Egypt to save her son’s life. Had she anticipated that or the anguish of watching her son’s torment as He died a criminal’s death, would she so willingly have accepted God’s plan? Would Elizabeth have welcomed her pregnancy if she knew her beloved son’s head would be served on a platter to Herodias? Although Paul and the Apostles realized their ministries would be demanding, would they have been as enthusiastic in their evangelism if they’d seen all the struggle, imprisonments, persecution and martyrdom that lay ahead for them? Would Isaiah have said “Send me!” to God if he knew, as tradition has it, that King Manasseh would order him sawn in half? If Jeremiah had known how he’d be despised, abused, beaten, put in stocks, cast into a muddy cistern, and continually preach to a people who refused to hear his words before being stoned to death in Egypt, would he have accepted God’s call?

When describing the lives of the Bible’s heroes and heroines, the book of Hebrews lists the sufferings: being destitute, homeless, afflicted, mistreated, mocked, flogged, tortured, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and being killed with a sword. Some of those heroes (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon) hesitated about their ability to serve God but, once God assured them that they were up to the task, they signed on without knowing exactly what the future held for them. Putting their unknown futures into the hands of a known God, they trusted Him, followed His plan, and boldly did His work.

Like the Bible’s heroes, let us fearlessly go forth wherever God sends us and do whatever He calls us to do. As we faithfully place our unknown future in the hands of God, we can remain secure in the knowledge that He always is with us on our journey. If we trust God, we don’t have to know or understand!

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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PETER WENT FREE

O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you! [Jeremiah 32:17 (NLT)]
angel

Herod Agrippa I was a good politician who knew how to manipulate people to gain their loyalty and support. When his approval rating went up after the execution of James, the king arrested Peter, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Perhaps he thought by literally cutting off the head of this new sect, he could put an end to the troubling Nazarene movement. After imprisoning Peter, Agrippa planned to try and execute him once the Passover ended. The trial’s delay was because Jewish law did not allow for executions during the eight-day celebration.

Since this was Peter’s third arrest, Agrippa made sure he was not going to be released with a slap on the wrist or allowed to escape, as he’d previously done. Peter was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.  Although a prisoner usually was attached by chain to one guard, Peter was chained to two soldiers while the other two guarded the door to his cell.

At this point, it appeared that evil had won. John and the others were mourning James’ death and Peter was in custody facing execution! Rather than lose heart, however, the church spent the eight days and nights of Passover fervently praying for Peter’s release. I suspect that while Peter was chained in his cell, when he wasn’t evangelizing his captors, he prayed as well. Herod may have had prisons and chains but the church had the power of prayer. On the night before his trial, Peter was miraculously freed by an angel. Herod Agrippa thought Peter was secure in prison but he didn’t take into account the power of God—the cross and sealed tomb couldn’t stop Jesus and a cell wouldn’t stop Peter!

What’s interesting in this narrative is that Peter thought it was just a dream when the chains fell from his wrists, the angel led him from the cell, and the gates opened by themselves. It wasn’t until the angel left him on the streets of Jerusalem that the apostle realized the Lord actually freed him! In the same way, in spite of their week of fervent prayers, when Peter appeared at the home where the church had gathered to pray, they were so astonished that their prayers were answered that they didn’t believe the servant who said Peter was at the door nor did they believe their eyes when they actually saw him! They were like the Iowa church during a several months’ long drought. When they called for a prayer meeting, everyone came and prayed for rain but nobody believed enough to arrive there with an umbrella!

As Puritan minister Thomas Watson pointed out, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Even though the odds against Peter were astronomical, we should never bet against God nor should we be surprised when He answers our prayers or exceeds our expectations!

Forgive us, Lord, when we’re surprised by answers to our prayer; Increase our faith and teach us how to trust Your loving care. [Sper]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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