Some Further Reflections on Joseph’s Story

Over the last several weeks at Park Community Church, we have been hearing the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) that point to the greatest story of all–God’s plan to redeem His people through Jesus Christ. As the most recent “episode” of the “Great Stories” series at the Forest Glen church, we heard a message from Pastor Steve Coble on the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis, chapters 37 – 50.

Here are a few of my takeaways from the message:

1. Every evil and tragic thing that happened in Joseph’s life was not only used by God, but actually intended by God for Joseph’s eventual good. God did not merely “use” the trouble and tragedy in Joseph’s life, as though He was working out a Plan B. Rather, it turns out He actually had a plan from the beginning that superseded all the evil intentions of the “villains” in the story.

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. The wife of Potiphar, Joseph’s master, falsely accused him of sexual assault. In prison, Joseph was forgotten and left to rot, by someone he had helped. And yet every single one of these seeming misfortunes was a stepping stone toward Joseph’s final promotion (to second in command of the whole kingdom!) and reconciliation with his family.

Even the famine that struck the region worked out for good, as it brought Joseph’s brothers and father to him. God’s sovereign plan often has, worked into it, evil people doing evil things. He does this in order to show that He is in complete, sovereign control. His creatures will freely choose to do wrong, but God is greater than our plans.

He is totally good, and He is in total control. The same is true in your life today. If you love God and have been called according to His purpose, then God is working all things in your life together for good–to make you more like Jesus and unite you to Him as His brother or sister (Romans 8:28-30).

2. Joseph’s story had implications that stretched far beyond his own lifetime. Joseph himself became a pattern of the Messiah who would come–namely Jesus. Jesus was betrayed by his own people into the hands of evil men, falsely accused, and punished as an innocent man. And like Joseph (though infinitely more significantly) Jesus was vindicated–raised from the dead!–and promoted to the most exalted position in the kingdom.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one chapter in the grand story God wrote in history, leading to the conclusion in which Jesus Christ rescues His people from calamity and establishes his righteous reign. In fact, Jesus is reigning now, and possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Right now you may be on the wrong side of His reign–not yet submitted to Him–but you can be reconciled to God, just as Joseph’s brothers were reconciled to him, by admitting you are a sinner and repenting to God, trusting in Jesus as Savior and King.

3. I can stop worrying, and so can you. Joseph’s story, and the Gospel to which it points, powerfully conveys that God has a good plan, He is in control of our circumstances in order to bring about that plan, and His plan is good for us. If God can bring His Son back from the dead (and He did), and if God has promised everlasting life to those who trust in Jesus (and He has), and if He will be with us always (and He will), then what is there to worry about?

I tend to worry about my children–that I will fail them as a father. No doubt Joseph’s father, Israel (the name God gave to Jacob and where the nation of Israel gets its name), felt like a failure on that day that his sons reported that Joseph had been killed. But God was in control, working out His plan. Israel saw the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (cf. Psalm 27:13), and he realized the truth: God is able to use the worst tragedies to bring about redemption and rescue.

Joseph’s story is a great story, and it doesn’t end with Him. It continues on to the Messiah and through Messiah to his people. Are you one of His people? Trust in Him!

A Commentary on Psalm 139

Here’s some commentary I recently drafted on the 139th Psalm. I’m sharing this, both to help me process through it, and in the hopes that it might be beneficial to someone down the line.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
There is Someone watching you–Someone you have never seen, but who has observed everything you’ve ever done.

David has been brought through trial and given the throne. God has searched him in all his trouble. “God, you have seen my highs and lows.” Doctrine: Divine Omniscience. God knows all. The idea is that God knows me as a miner knows the earth (Barnes). He has bored, he has dug deep, and he has uncovered what is within. “O Lord, you have mined me.” 

You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
He searches me out, when I am on the move; when I am still. God doesn’t get bored from observing me. He is well aware of all my activities.

Sitting down, rising up. All daily activity. My thoughts are known from far off–long before they arrive. Long after I forget them. My daily activity matters to God–not just the “spiritual” stuff. There is no division between the spiritual and the secular here. Jesus likewise knew what was in a man (John 2:24-25). God sifts my life and layes it out before HImself. 

Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
He knows what I’ll speak before I do. This must make me pause. 
God is aware of every word. What we say matters to God. How many careless words do we utter? God knows them fully. God will never misunderstand you, either.

You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
He is close to me. He envelops me. He is immanent. Doctrine: Immanence of God. God is also everywhere. Doctrine: Omnipresence. God surrounds us as closely and intentionally as an army besieging a city. God’s attributes are not abstract to David. God is all-knowing of me. God is all-present with me. My life matters to God.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.
I can’t comprehend how You do this, Lord. How can you know what I will do? 
David pauses. God’s knowledge makes him sit back in awe and comment on it. 

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
Here is the budding, incipient theology of the Holy Spirit. It will be fully realized in the New Testament. This is a comfort to the follower of Jesus. It is also a warning to those who want to live autonomously. God is with you, whether you believe it or not. We are as near to God as the soul is to the body (as one commentator has said). Spurgeon: “This makes it dreadful work to sin; for we offend the Almighty to His face, and commit acts of treason at the very food of His throne….” We cannot escape His view. “His mind is within our mind; himself within ourselves.” Imagine the patience of God, as we boldly declare our autonomy within His very presence!

 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
The wings of the morning–to the east. The furthest reaches of the sea–to the western end of the Mediterranean. If I were to discover come uncharted planet. There are 1,500 hundred planets within 50 lightyears of earth. If I were to leave here, go out and explore an uncharted world–I would discover that God was already there, waiting for me. I cannot escape Your presence. Were I to travel to the depths of the ocean or to the furthest reaches of space. Even there you would hold me, guide me, would be with me. We value our autonomy. So the idea that God is everywhere–there is no escape from Him–is, at first, scary. But King David says this is comforting to him. This means that God is there to guide Him. Doctrine: Human Dependence on God. We are not autonomous; we need a Guide, and God has not left us without one. My life matters to God. Doctrine: Sovereignty of God. 

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
David is afraid. The darkness will bruise him (Hebrew word here for “cover” can mean bruise, injure). He’s afraid of the dark. We have bodies, and we see through our eyes. We need light. Not so God. 

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.
God sees all and knows all. Doctrine: Divine Omniscience (God is all-knowing). I literally cannot hide from Him. God is a sure guide, because He can see in darkest night. Jesus is called the Light (John 1) for a good reason. In His light we have light. God sees clearly what is unclear to us. He is trustworthy. When He says to proceed, we can trust that. Because He can see what’s in front of us. Our lives matter to God enough for Him to guide us.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
Made=set apart. The unborn child is not identical to the mother. He or she is a separate person. DNA is unique. Soul is unique. Person is unique. Life is unique. That life matters to God. No other creature is described in such terms. Doctrine: Human life is the greatest of God’s creations. Jesus became a human being. He validated every stage of human development. And all who come to Jesus in faith will receive new life. They will be “regenerated” and given life as it was meant to be lived, in restored relationship with their Creator. 

15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
He must be able to see me–He was there with me in the womb. Doctrine: Personhood of the Unborn.  Your work, that is, crafting each human being, is astonishing. Even my insides–you made them. My “inward parts” include my soul, the seat of my emotions and will. That’s your handiwork. And you formed it along with my body. Doctrine: the unborn person has a soul, even while the body is developing. The soul is there while the body is being formed. That person in the womb is the same person as the person writing this psalm. You did not come from a fetus. You used to be a fetus. That was you. If you, as a fetus, had been killed, you would have died. That was you. And even then, you mattered to God. From conception onward.  What beautiful imagery: “the depths of the earth.” It is mysterious, dark, hidden. But revealed to God, who is there, working, creating new life in the secret place. 

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.
He wrote about me. He composed my story. Every day has been planned. What amazing intimacy. What care! What love! What tenderness the Creator shows me. Commentators discuss how, in the Hebrew, the “fetus” is described in almost scientific terms here. Lest we view the unformed person as a “potential” life, David tells us that his or her entire story is already written. That life matters to God. My life has always mattered to God–since before conception!

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
David takes another praise break here. He just has to stop and glorify God for these miraculous truths. Think of a father, how frequently he thinks of his children. Thoughts on how to feed them, how to provide for them, to get them to sleep through the night. As they grow–thoughts of how to discipline them. To provide a quality education for them. To keep them safe. God’s thoughts are like that. Again, this is not an abstract concept. God’s thoughts are innumerable, but they are innumerable about me. My life matters to God.  

18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.
How could I possibly count all the blessings God has given me? I could study theology to learn more. God’s presence lasts longer than my studies about Him. My theologizing is temporary. Eventually I have to stop and get some rest. David seems to get lost in thought here. When I wake up in the morning, there is God! The Lord greets me every morning. He has kept me alive all night. Doctrine: the Dependence of Man upon God. One day, I will wake up and see Him face-to-face.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.[b]
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
There seems to be a sharp break here. But it flows from the previous verses. David’s devotion to God makes him love God; therefore he hates evil. I love my wife; I hate the thought of anyone hurting her. Wickedness, thirst for blood, deceitful religion, hatred of God, rebellion against Him–these are affronts to God and to His image in the people He has made. After seeing the loving care God invests in man, we see the doctrines of Human Dignity and the Goodness of God. These evildoers, whom David hates and distances himself from, reject both human dignity and God’s goodness. Hence David’s sharp reaction to them.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts![c]
David invites God to do what He has already been doing. But this is faith. It’s not just belief that God knows me. It is asking God to know me. It is commitment. David would go to the Father; Jesus says in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father except through Him. So this must be messianic faith. It is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the God-Man, who knows His people intimately, and who, having searched them and having known their hearts, takes their sinful thoughts and hearts upon Himself, paying the penalty on their behalf and bestowing on them His own heart of righteousness. 

24 And  see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting![d]
Even his outburst of jealous love, David here submits to God for review. He offers his willing consent for the Divine Gardner to prune from him anything that is not pleasing to Him. He invokes the Good Shepherd to lead him to everlasting life. Because God is his Caretaker, David entrusts Him with everything. This is faith. Our desire is the same. And our Shepherd is truly everlasting–from before the creation of the world, to long after the story of this world is ended. We must seek everlasting life from Him; this is what He freely offers all who come to Him in faith. Because all lives are important to Him. This motivates me to glorify and love God–and to go pursue the flourishing and safety of the life of my neighbor, including (especially!) my unborn neighbor.  

 

Notes: a key theme here is that God is always present with His people. Hundreds of years later, when Jesus (the ultimate Son of David) was preparing to depart from earth and take His place on the heavenly throne, He told His disciples, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). As good Jews, they would have already known the precious promise of the Old Covenant, presented here in Psalm 139, that God is always with His people. So when Jesus said, “I am with you always,”  He was taking the promise that God the Holy Spirit had spoken through David, and applying it to Himself. It was as if Jesus was saying, “You already know that God will always be with you. Behold, I am that God.”

Ten days later, at Pentecost, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, who indwelt Jesus’ disciples and literally fulfilled the beautiful truths of Psalm 139. By His Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with His people, whom He purchased by His blood. He convicts them and leads them.

Along with David, Christ-followers may now cry to Jesus, “See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” and absolutely believe, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that He will do exactly that. 

When we follow the way of the Lord to whom our lives matter so much, we imitate Him. When we imitate Him, we defend the lives and God-given dignity of those around us. Autonomy is unacceptable, but so is apathy, when lives that God is forming are being destroyed.

*****

ESV Footnotes:

  1. Psalm 139:14 Or for I am fearfully set apart
  2. Psalm 139:20 Hebrew lacks your name
  3. Psalm 139:23 Or cares
  4. Psalm 139:24 Or in the ancient way (compare Jeremiah 6:16)

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

 

A Few More Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare

Yesterday I preached at Park EB from Ephesians 6:10-20. The subject was “The Armor of God,” and together we homed in on what the Apostle Paul calls the “Breastplate of Righteousness.”

Some takeaways: 

In this passage, Paul reminds followers of Jesus, that God has given us His own armor to fight our spiritual battle–remember, our enemy is not “flesh and blood” but spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. I know, this sounds like a very foreign concept, if you didn’t grow up in the church, or you are new to Christian teaching. So I addressed the seeming strangeness of spiritual warfare in the first few minutes of my talk.

Here’s the takeaway from this passage: you and I are in the middle of a spiritual battle, against invisible forces that are vastly stronger than us, and completely malevolent. Our only hope is to take up the weapons and equip ourselves with the armor God has provided for us. In particular, we talked about how “practical righteousness” protects our hearts and minds against Satan’s attacks, temptations and accusations.

The crucial piece to remember is two-fold:

  1. Any spiritual defense must, must, must originate in your relationship to God, and that can only be found through Jesus Christ. It’s Jesus who won the victory against evil, when He conquered sin and death by dying and rising from the dead. And it’s Jesus who empowers His followers to wage spiritual warfare, who continues to win our battles for us, as we put on His spiritual armor and follow Him into battle. If you are not a follower of Jesus, I would urge you to take the claims of Jesus, recorded in the Bible seriously, and put your faith in Him (and I would be happy to discuss this with you more if you want. Hit me up).
  2. We strengthen our “breastplates” and eliminate gaps in our armor, when we commit every day to living in obedience to the commands of Jesus. And these commands are not burdensome (Jesus is not a tyrant but a loving King) but actually liberating.

Further reading/viewing: 

Want to discuss this or anything else related to the Bible, God, Jesus or the spiritual life? Shoot me an email at my new address: jsettecase@parkcommunitychurch.org

Helping One Another in God’s Household (A Sermon Skeleton of Titus 3:12-14)

Translation:

12 When I may send Artemas or Tychicus to you, endeavor to come to me in Nicopolis. For I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Promptly send on their way Zenas the lawyer and Apollos, in order that nothing may be lacking for them. 14 But our people are also to learn to practice good works for necessary needs, in order that they may not be unfruitful.

Outline of main points and subpoints:

  1. (12) Endeavor to come to me in Nicopolis
    1. Endeavor when I send Artemas or Tychicus to you
    2. Endeavor for I have decided to spend the winter there (in Nicopolis).
  2. (13) Send on their way Zenas the lawyer and Apollos
    1. Send them
    2. Send them in order that nothing may be lacking for them.
  3. (14) But our people are to learn also to practice good works for necessary needs
    1. They are to learn in order that they may not be unfruitful.

Commentary:

Paul mentions his companions by name. This pastor was friends with his people, and he desired that they learn the things that would keep them from being ineffective for Christ’s kingdom. Paul himself was a living example of godly fruitfulness. He knew what it meant to practice good works that met people’s needs. He instructs Titus to practice the same, when he gives him instructions for Zenas and Apollos (Titus is to fully equip them), and he instructs Titus to teach this practice to the rest of the congregation—indeed this is something for the whole Church.

Application:

As a pastor, I need to do what I can to meet the necessary needs of God’s people. I should practice this, instruct other leaders to practice this, and teach the congregation to practice this as well. The goal is to be fruitful for the kingdom.

Knowledge is good by itself; but knowledge put into action—helping others meet their needs—that is productivity and progress. Who will I reach out to in assistance today? Even just to let them know I am praying for them?

Managing God’s Household (Titus 1:5-9)

Monk Reading Book

My translation of Titus 1:5-9, from the Greek text: 

(5) This is why I left you in Crete, in order for you to set in order what was remaining, and appoint elders in every city, just as I directed you, (6) if anyone is beyond criticism, a one-woman man, having faithful children, not in an accusation of reckless extravagance or insubordinate.  (7) For it is necessary for the overseer to be beyond criticism as a manager of God’s house, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not always around wine, not violent, not greedy for gain, (8) rather hospitable, a lover of good, soberminded, just, pure, self-controlled, (9) holding fast to the faithful word according to the doctrine, in order that he may be able to exhort in the teaching and to refute those who contradict it. 

Preaching “Skeleton” Outline

  1. (5) This is why I left you in Crete,
    1. I left you in order for you to…
      1. set in order
        1. To set in order what was remaining.
      2. and appoint elders in every city
        1. appoint elders just as I directed you.
        2. (6) appoint elders if anyone is…
          1. beyond criticism
          2. a one-woman man
          3. having faithful children
          4. if he is not…
            1. in an accusation of reckless extravagance
            2. or insubordinate
  2. (7) For it is necessary for the overseer to be…
    1. beyond criticism as a manager of God’s house
    2. not self-willed
    3. not quick-tempered
    4. not always near wine
    5. not violent
    6. not greedy for gain
    7. rather, hospitable,
    8. a lover of good
    9. soberminded
    10. just
    11. holy
    12. self-controlled
    13. (9) an overseer must be all this while holding fast to the trustworthy word, according to the teaching,
      1. holding fast to the word in order that he may be able…
        1.  to exhort in the healthy doctrine
        2. and to refute those who contradict (it).

Notes: 

  • The elder is the overseer. This is the same role. There is no distinction between “presbyter/priest” and “bishop,” as there is in the Roman Catholic system.
  • The overseer is to have certain, godly personal attributes. He must be of a godly character. In fact he must not even be open to accusation of being debaucherous or insubordinate. The idea is that, for a person to have authority, they must be subject to authority. Otherwise, they don’t desire just authority, they just want themselves to be the authority, because they only care about themselves. A just man recognizes his place in the world.
  • The overseer’s family is to be in order and faithful.
  • The role of an overseer is two-fold. He acts as a steward/caretaker of God’s house, the church. And he studies and holds forth the word, so that he may encourage and rebuke according to sound doctrine. The overseer’s job is not to come up with new teaching but to “hold fast” to “the teaching”–this implies that there is just one accepted body of Christian doctrine. We don’t need something new. God’s truth is eternal and doesn’t change. The overseer recognizes that and clings to it. The word of God is the standard by which he stewards God’s house.

Overcoming Objections: Christianity Is False Because It Has No Priestly System

The Egyptians did it.

The Jews definitely did it.

Babylonians? Yep. They did it too.

Same goes for the Greeks and Romans.

Even the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans did it.

What do all these ancient civilizations have in common? They all had their own religious systems. And those religious systems all involved sacrifices. And those sacrifices were offered by priests. This fact led to one of the early objections to Christianity as a fledgling religious system.

Every religious system in history, from the dawn of civilization until the dawn of Christianity, has always had some kind of priestly sacrificial system. While these cultures’ religions differed on who the divine was and how to best appease it, they all agreed that the Divine did need to be appeased. And the way to appease the divine was universally understood to be by blood sacrifice, performed by a priestly class, carried out in temples. The priest acted as the mediator between God and man.

Enter Christianity: no priests,  no temples, no blood sacrifices. To ancient minds, this made no sense. It was well known that the Divine wrath over human wickedness needed to be propitiated (satisfied). Without priests offering blood sacrifice, it would have been argued, there was no way to propitiate divine wrath. Therefore, any religious worshipers lacking in the priest department must also have been lacking in the brains department. Christianity didn’t satisfy the universal human need for sacrifice. Christianity wasn’t true, because it had no mediator between God and humanity. Every religion worth its salt has a priestly system. Hey Christians, where are all your priests?

To overcome this ancient objection, let’s turn to the Bible, to the book of Hebrews. This book is a sort of sermon-letter hybrid, written to second-generation Christians of ethnic Jewish descent. At this time, Christianity was in the process of breaking away from Judaism, but it was still seen as a Jewish sect.

The above argument seems to have been lodged against the Hebrew Christians in an attempt to discredit their fledgling faith and convince them to return to the more “sensible” Jewish religion. After all, they were ethnically Jewish, and the religion their parents left had sacrifices ordained by God Himself. Come on, Christians, get your acts together. Get back to the true religion–the one with the priests!

In fact, one commentator points out that Jews and Gentiles alike found it difficult to believe the Christian message, because of the lack of a visible priestly system.

So the author of Hebrews writes to address this objection and reassure his Christian audience. 

He writes in Hebrews 4:14, “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (ESV, emphasis added).

Their confession was their public declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, send by God as the prophet, priest and king over heaven and earth. The author says that the Hebrew Christians should hold fast to this belief, because not only do they have a high priest, but they have a better high priest than the Jewish religion they left.

Christians have a great high priest, but you won’t see Him ascending the steps of a stone temple to offer daily sacrifices.

Christians do have a priest, but you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to meet with Him. In fact, you don’t even have to go to your local cathedral.

Christians do have a priest, but you don’t have to bring him sacrifices to offer, because He provided the sacrifice. And His Sacrifice was so sufficient, that one was all He needed.

What was the sacrifice offered by this high priest? He offered Himself.

Then, after Jesus died for sinners, He resurrected. Over the next forty days he appeared to over five hundred eyewitnesses, and then He ascended (the author says he “passed through the heavens” to God’s own throne room. Jesus did not go to a manmade temple, but to the place that all those temples were symbols of. There he sits at the Father’s right hand, where He always lives to mediate between God’s people and God Himself.

Jesus Christ is the perfect priest. Who better to mediate between humanity and divinity than the One who embodies both?

So the objection that Christianity has no mediator falls flat. We have a priest who satisfies God’s wrath over sin, because He paid it Himself. Now He is the “great high priest” whose work is finished.

Beware any religious teacher who tells you that you need a merely human priest to make you right with God. Think about that: if (merely) human priests could fully satisfy our debt, then why did they have to keep making all those sacrifices, year after year, for millennia?

All those priests who came before could not make an eternal effect; they were shadows of the real thing. Jesus is the real thing. He is the priest we need. You and I can trust Him to pay our debt of sin and reconcile us to God. His shed blood (grace alone) can wash away your sin, if you will turn your heart away from your sin (repent) and come to Him (by faith alone) as your priest.

How about you? Who are you trusting to make you right with God? Who is your priest? Don’t let it be anyone other than the one who “passed through the Heavens” for you.