HEROD AGRIPPA I

The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished. … Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:5,18 (NLT)]
peacock

After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod Agrippa interrogated and executed the apostle’s guards. Luke tells us that the king then went to Caesarea where he died. While independent historical evidence of the Bible’s stories isn’t necessary, it’s always welcome. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) corroborates Luke’s account of the king’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews. 

With his flowery language, direct quotes, and added details, Josephus’ account differs slightly from Luke’s but the two versions are complementary rather than contradictory. While in Caesarea, Agrippa attended a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Luke simply describes the king’s dress as his “royal robes” but Josephus adds that they were “made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.” When the sun shone on Herod, the garment “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god.” Luke tell us that when Agrippa spoke, the people gave him a standing ovation and said his voice was that of a god, not a man. Josephus adds that “the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.”

Both historians report that Herod Agrippa immediately fell ill and died. “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner,” reported Josephus, adding, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.” Although Josephus doesn’t specify the cause, Luke says the man was “consumed with worms” and Agrippa probably had roundworms or tapeworms. Feeding on the nutrients in the intestines, these parasites can block the intestines, bile and pancreatic ducts, and cause severe pain along with seizures, diarrhea, and vomiting. Able to migrate to other parts of the body, the worms can damage the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. Being eaten by worms both before and after his death seems a fitting end for such a despicable man and both Luke and Josephus agree that his agonizing (and gross) death was a supernatural act of divine judgment for Herod Agrippa’s arrogance and blasphemy in accepting the people’s worship.

Herod Agrippa I was raised in Rome where, after playing the dangerous game of political intrigue, he ended up on the winning side. It was through his friendship with the emperors Caligula and Claudius that he gained rulership of all the Jewish territories once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. Although he owed his position to the favor of the Roman emperor, Agrippa was part Jewish. The politician in him  recognized the importance of prudence and diplomacy with the Jews if he wanted to maintain his powerful position. According to Josephus, Agrippa sought the support of the Pharisees and proved his Jewish identity by carefully observing the law and making daily sacrifices. By acting as a Roman for the Romans and an observant Jew for his subjects, the king did what was politic and self-serving until that day in Caesarea when he was lauded as a god.

Caesarea was a pagan city, so it’s somewhat understandable that the crowd may have been in awe of him. Nevertheless, Agrippa was a Jew who knew that what occurred was nothing short of idolatry! Moreover, as a Roman, he knew that only Caesar could be proclaimed a god. The right (and expedient) thing to do would have been to immediately correct the crowd and reject the honor of being called a god but Agrippa didn’t. Instead, he was filled with pride and the man who’d lived by flattering others to curry favor made the mistake of believing his own flattering reviews. When Agrippa accepted the crowd’s worship, he offended both the emperor Claudius and the Jewish leadership. More important, he offended God!

While none of us are likely to be lauded as gods, we all will have moments, like Herod Agrippa’s, when pride takes hold of us. Pride like the king’s, however, is idolatry because it is worship of self! When we put ourselves front and center, our pride displaces God from His rightful place. Pride may not bring on a fatal case of worms but let us remember these words by Charles Spurgeon: “No matter how dear you are to God, if pride is harbored in your spirit, He will whip it out of you. They that go up in their own estimation must come down again by His discipline.”

None are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not. [Baruch Spinoza]

I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols. [Isaiah 42:8 (NLT)]

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A WORK IN PROGRESS

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

juvenile ibis - juvenile little blue heronWhenever I see immature white ibis or blue herons, I recall a picture that hung in my daughter’s bedroom. Beneath a drawing of a little girl in a pink dress were the words, “Be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet!” These birds, however, don’t need a sign to tell us that God isn’t finished with them; their varicolored plumage makes that abundantly clear. You see, for their first few years, they look like a work in progress. Instead of being born white, the newly hatched white ibis chicks start out grey but quickly turn dark brown. As they mature, the young birds become a haphazard patchwork of brown and white. By the end of their second year, they’re mostly white but it’s not until the end of their third year that they finally molt the last of their brown feathers. Unlike the ibis, the little blue herons start out pure white. Were it not for their greyish-green legs and bill, they look more like snowy egrets than blue herons for much of their first year. They turn into a patchwork of blue and white as they gradually molt into the dark slate-blue plumage of an adult by the end of their second year.

Today, I thought of those words about patience and being unfinished after berating myself for making a foolish and avoidable mistake. I spoke to myself in a way I’d never (or hardly ever) use with anyone else and called myself something that I wouldn’t call others (at least not out loud). Sometimes, it’s easier to be patient with a child than it is with ourselves. Perhaps, we need to remember that God isn’t finished with us, either!

Even though it may be less obvious, I’m as unfinished as an immature ibis or little blue heron! The birds, however, don’t have to make any effort for their colors to change—that automatically comes with time. For us, it’s a bit different. When God brought us from death into life in Christ, He loved us with all of our imperfections and faults. Nevertheless, just as He doesn’t leave those birds looking half-done, He’s not about to leave us the flawed way we began. Our sanctification began at the moment of salvation but it didn’t end there. No matter how old we are, God continues to give us opportunities to learn and grow. He expects us to actively strive for holiness and obedience so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more and more like Jesus. Unlike the birds, however, we remain works in progress until our last day on earth. Remembering that we still are mid-design and won’t always get it right, let us be patient with ourselves until that day comes.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are co-workers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R. C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

orchard swallowtail butterflyHaving witnessed the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying their crosses, the people of Judea knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. The cross meant humiliation, indescribable pain, grief, anguish, and death! When Jesus spoke of cross bearing and cautioned His followers to count the cost of discipleship, it was clear He wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street. While He was offering a ticket to eternal life, it came with a price: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—be it loss of status, relationships, family, possessions, or even life. Rather than an abstract ideal, discipleship was a hard reality that included denial of self and promised to be a challenge.

Some of us, when looking at the cost, would prefer a watered-down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We want the blessings of a new life without giving up the pleasures of the old. We’re happy to bear His name, celebrate both His birth and resurrection, and wear a cross, but we’re not that anxious to bear one! Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved, but it cost God His only son. Accepting Jesus’ name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. We can’t just listen to a preacher; we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater—that we take up our cross and lose our lives in complete commitment to Him. For many, that loss is figurative but, for some like Bonhoeffer and most of the disciples, that loss of life was literal!

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Even though a Roman cross doesn’t await us as it did Jesus, Peter, and Andrew, taking up the cross for us today means that we willingly bear the cost of Christian discipleship as we sacrifice ourselves, our time, and talents in serving God and others. That cross doesn’t necessarily mean life will be easier, but it definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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VASHTI

These events happened in the days of King Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. [Esther 1:1 (NLT)]

deptford pinkWhile translations like the NIV and NLT call him Xerxes, he’s called Ahasuerus in translations like the ESV and RSV. When the king’s Persian name of Khshayârshâ was translated into Hebrew, it became Ahasuerus but, when it was translated into Greek, Khshayârshâ became Xerxes. Regardless of the translation, Xerxes and Ahasuerus are one and the same and we encounter him in the book of Esther.

Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) depicts Xerxes as a cruel, arrogant, incompetent, and fickle monarch known for his harsh temper, excessive drinking, extravagant banquets, and philandering (he pursued both his brother’s wife and niece). When we meet the king in the first chapter of Esther, his behavior matches history’s assessment of him. As one of the wealthiest (and probably one of the most pompous and arrogant) men in the world, he’d been hosting six months of celebrations for his nobles, officials, and military leaders as a way of displaying his great wealth and, perhaps, to assure them of his victory before setting out to conquer Greece. As the festivities wound down, the king held a lavish grand-finale seven-day banquet for all the men in the palace. In a different part of the palace, his wife, Queen Vashti, held her own banquet for the women.

After a week of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) realized he’d flaunted all of his treasures save one—his beautiful queen—and he commanded that she come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was instructed to wear the royal crown. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear the crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinic tradition interpreted this to mean only her crown. Regardless of whether the king meant naked or dressed, Persian modesty would have prohibited Vashti from presenting herself that way before a group of men. While it might be asked of a concubine or dancing girl, Vashti was a Persian princess and the queen. It wasn’t fitting for her to parade around like a piece of meat and be ogled by a group of drunken rowdy men. To wear her crown while doing so was even more demeaning. Knowing full well the consequences of denying her arrogant husband, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

This may have been the first time anyone dared deny Xerxes anything. As he always did when making any decision, the king immediately asked his advisors what to do. Fearing that all the wives of Persia might think they could defy their husbands if word got out that the queen successfully did so, they recommended immediately dethroning Vashti and banishing her from the king’s presence forever. Xerxes sent out an unprecedented and irrevocable decree ensuring that “husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives” that proclaimed every man ruled his own home and could say whatever he pleased. Whether Vashti lived the rest of her life isolated in a corner of the harem or, as rabbinic tradition holds, was beheaded, her fate was meant to be an object lesson for all women to be submissive and obedient to their spouses.

Esther was Vashti’s opposite. A Jewish commoner, she was passive. Once in the harem, she continued to follow her uncle Mordecai’s directions “just as she did when she lived in his home.”  When it was her turn to go to the king, she “accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem and asked for nothing except what he suggested.” Perhaps Xerxes selected Esther as much for her submissiveness as her beauty.

When Esther balked at approaching Xerxes about the plight of the Jews, Mordecai asked if she might not have been made queen specifically for that task. Like Esther, perhaps Vashti was made queen for the moment she exhibited courage by standing up against her bully of a husband. In Vashti’s example, Esther saw a strong woman whose self-respect and character meant more to her than her crown or life. If Vashti risked everything by standing up for herself, could Esther do anything less than stand up for an entire race? The passive orphan girl garnered the strength and courage to confront Xerxes—even though it could result in her death. Vashti failed but Esther didn’t. Nevertheless, I wonder, would Esther have tried had it not been for Vashti’s brave example?

What about us? Could God have placed us in a precarious position for such a time as now? Perhaps, it’s time for us to make our voices heard—to speak up for sake of others, to take a stand for righteousness, or to refuse to take part in something that is wrong.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. [Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)]

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. [James 4:17 (NIV)]

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CONVICTION AND CONDEMNATION

I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it. I don’t do the good I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. … What a miserable person I am! [Romans 7:18-19,24a (GW)]
tri-colored heron - snowy egret

Yesterday, I suggested taking a good look at ourselves in God’s mirror but let’s not beat up ourselves over what we see. While a critical look at our spiritual shortcomings can make us feel wretched and condemned, that’s not what it’s supposed to do. There’s a big difference between condemnation, which comes from the enemy and conviction, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

Conviction of sins is one of the Holy Spirit’s duties and it’s more than a quick pang of conscience pointing out right from wrong. When we’ve been convicted, we see our sin, understand what an affront it is to God, and have the desire to change our ways to honor Him. In conviction, the Holy Spirit acts as a counselor whose purpose is to free us from emotional, mental, and spiritual bondage. Because He knows all of our thoughts (rather than just the ones we want to share), He shows us the truth and exposes our wrongs, admonishes us for them, and then convinces us of our need for Jesus. We repent, ask forgiveness, and then get on with our lives. While conviction may leave us disappointed in ourselves, it doesn’t leave us with guilt, shame, or despair. Rather than a dread of divine judgment, conviction leaves us with a sense of forgiveness, relief, peace, love, and hope.

Rather than acting as our counselor, however, Satan acts as both the accuser and judge who already determined our guilt. While Satan probably prefers that we keep sinning in blissful ignorance, the recognition of our sins gives him another opportunity to overcome us. He has a briefcase full of falsehoods and destructive thoughts to lay on us—self-pity, guilt, shame, and despondency, along with feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, and futility. He wants to condemn us to a prison term of living hell even though we’ve been forgiven because Jesus paid our debt and served our sentence. Moreover, Satan is worse than a nagging spouse—he never lets go of our past failures. He’ll not only tell us how we screwed up this time but he’ll remind us of every past mistake we ever made. Condemnation is Satan’s gift that keeps on giving!

The Holy Spirit convicts us so that we repent but Satan condemns us so that we feel guilt and shame! The Holy Spirit is like a parent who tells the child his actions are wrong and the enemy is like a parent who tells the child how naughty and wicked he is. One is specific and convicts a behavior; the other is general and condemns the person. Conviction tells us how we failed but condemnation calls us a failure. The Spirit’s goal is regeneration and renewal while the enemy’s is destruction and defeat. Conviction focuses on the problem and offers forgiveness; condemnation focuses on the person and lays on the blame. One wants us to be better but the other wants us to feel worse. Let us never forget that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it!

So those who are believers in Christ Jesus can no longer be condemned. The standards of the Spirit, who gives life through Christ Jesus, have set you free from the standards of sin and death. [Romans 8:1-2 (GW)]

Therefore, everyone was condemned through one failure, and everyone received God’s life-giving approval through one verdict. [Romans 5:18 (GW)]

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MIRRORS

Check up on yourselves. Are you really Christians? Do you pass the test? Do you feel Christ’s presence and power more and more within you? Or are you just pretending to be Christians when actually you aren’t at all? [2 Corinthians 13:5 (TLB)]
little blue heron

Writing about Paul’s flawed bronze mirror yesterday reminded me of the mirror I have at the end of our hallway—the one mirror in the house I actually like! Unlike ancient mirrors with their fuzzy image, this mirror is quite clear but, like those ancient mirrors, the image it reflects is misleading. Some defect in it makes a person look slightly taller and slimmer. Unlike a fun house mirror, however, it’s a minor distortion and so subtle that it takes a while to realize that the reflection isn’t quite true.

I’m not sure any of us truly like mirrors. In actuality, most of us would prefer the ancient bronze ones to those unforgiving three-way mirrors we find in changing rooms! No matter how beautiful we might be, the reflection in a good mirror is brutally honest. I may be able to edit away blemishes, wrinkles, and even pounds with Photoshop but any mirror tells me they’re still there! As much as most of us would prefer not looking too closely at our bodies, we are even less likely to enjoy examining our spiritual nature.

Unfortunately, we’re usually more willing to look closely at other people’s behavior than our own. We’ll use a magnifying glass for them but, when scrutinizing ourselves, we would prefer a mirror like the one in my hall—one that makes us look better than we are—to one that provides a frank and candid assessment. The words “mirror” and “miracle” share the same Latin root of mirari, meaning “to wonder at or admire.” While we’d prefer looking in our spiritual mirrors to admire what we see, at least for me, there is much that isn’t attractive, let alone admirable. One’s spiritual mirror should be as accurate and blunt as those make-up mirrors with lights and magnification! Nevertheless, when we take a deep look at ourselves, we’re tempted to minimize our spiritual flaws by excusing the inexcusable, rationalizing the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible, or just plain ignoring the obvious.

Although diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, make-up, and Spanx can make some changes in our appearance, there really isn’t a lot we can change about our bodies. No matter what I do, I never will have the added height and long slender legs I see in my hall mirror. There is, however, much that can be done about our spiritual imperfections and shortcomings—things like anger, vanity, bitterness, hardness of heart, bigotry, pride, scorn, resentment, greed, and lust. To do that, however, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves in our spiritual mirrors!

Forgive us, Father, when we fail to take a thoughtful and honest look at ourselves. Examine us, O Lord, and tell us what is there! Give us eyes willing to see what you see, commitment to making the necessary changes, and the power of your Holy Spirit to do it.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. … Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:1,23-24 (TLB)]

And why worry about a speck in the eye of a brother when you have a board in your own? Should you say, “Friend, let me help you get that speck out of your eye,” when you can’t even see because of the board in your own? Hypocrite! First get rid of the board. Then you can see to help your brother. [Matthew 7:3-5 (TLB)]

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