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(I am working through this material again to get to the rest of the book)

Follow the link for The literary structure of 1 Samuel 1:1-20

This morning we are starting into the story of Hannah found in 1 Samuel, and today we are in chapter 1. She is a strong and godly woman, as we will see, and we can learn much from  her.

Today we begin with –

Hannah’s prayer for a child

What I want to say is that she is an example to us of what to do when you have a really heavy burden. Do you have a heavy burden this morning? Is something weighing on your heart? Keep this in mind as we go through this story and let’s see what we can learn about how to handle these.

By way of orientation, the story centers around two places Ramathaim (Ramah), where Hannah and her husband are from and Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the Lord is at this time (Joshua 18:1). Remember this is before there was a permanent temple building in Jerusalem. These two cities were about 15 miles apart, or a journey of two days by foot with family.

Hannah’s difficult situation

1There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

In v. 1 we get some background on Elkanah. (Based on the larger story of Samuel and other Scriptures [1 Chronicles 6:26-27, 33-34; Numbers 3:33] perhaps he was of Levite descent but lived in the area of the tribe of Ephraim.)

And then v. 2 gets to the heart of the issue – “he had two wives.” Polygamy was not forbidden in Israel, even though the Genesis teaching is one man and one woman. It wasn’t too common because a man had to be well off to support more than one wife.

In Hebrew it’s clearer that Hannah was the first wife. In this case Elkanah most likely married Peninnah to carry on the family lineage, since Hannah couldn’t have children. That’s why he has two wives.

If you look at the stories in the Bible that talk about polygamy, they certainly don’t glorify it. It caused problems and this is what we turn to now in our story.

3Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.

Here we see that Elkanah is a devout man, coming to the tabernacle at Shiloh each year to worship. This appears to be a voluntary pilgrimage beyond what was required by the Law (three visits a year for men on major festivals). So this was a yearly family event, like a “family vacation,” where everyone is together in close proximity. And it caused problems. (That never happens with us, right?) 

4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.

Now meat was not too common for meals in the ancient world. But when sacrifices were made some of the meat and other items were given to the family for a feast (Deuteronomy 12:17-18). And how this was divided up highlights Hannah’s predicament.  Peninnah got more for “all her sons and daughters.” But she got less.

Elkanah did give her a double portion, because he loved her, which most likely means more than Peninnah got for just herself. But it reminded Hannah that she couldn’t have children.

The phrase, “though the Lord had closed her womb” (also v. 6) doesn’t mean that if you can’t have children God is specifically causing this. God allows much to happen in this world that is not his direct or preferred will. Although God may specifically be behind this in Hannah’s life, even here it might simply mean that God has allowed this to happen.

6And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.

So you can see the family dysfunction – Hannah is beloved but unable to have children. Peninnah has children but is feeling slighted by Elkanah, and so she torments Hannah. A vicious circle. Peninnah is Hannah’s “rival,” an enemy who is very cruel to her. (See the language of “rival wife” in Leviticus 18:18)

Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

This was supposed to be a festive time of celebration, but it became a yearly time of suffering for Hannah.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a husband tried to console his wife, without really understanding what she was upset about. In that day it was a real social stigma for a wife to produce no children. Others looked down on her. And who would take care of her in her old age? [The mention of ten sons is possibly a reference to the story of Jacob and Rachel, where he loved her more, but Leah, his other wife, had ten sons, with help from her servant (Genesis 29:31-30:22) (Bergen).]

Hannah’s prayer

9After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.

Different translations render it differently, but it appears that the rest of the family feasted, and when the party was over Hannah, too distressed to eat or drink (v. 7, 8, 15), slipped off to the tabernacle to pray.

The condition of her soul is emphasized, “she was deeply distressed” “and wept bitterly” as she prayed.

11And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Vows are voluntary commitments made to God. They are acts of devotion that go beyond what God requires. They often have a deal quality to them. God if you do this, then I will do this, and you can see that here.

Her vow is that if God gives her a son, then she will give that son right back to him to serve the Lord forever. And in fact, she places the son under a Nazarite vow for his whole life – a special state of consecration to the Lord, so that he can’t cut his hair as well as other restrictions (Numbers 6:5).

Notice the awareness of her lowliness. She is “afflicted” and she calls herself a servant three times. She knows that God listens to the lowly (Psalm 138:6). And she calls on the Lord to remember her in her lowliness.

12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

So she is involved in some really intense silent prayer. But Eli, who is overseeing the tabernacle, mistakes what’s going on. Since alcohol was a part of such festive celebrations (e.g. Exodus 29:40, Leviticus 23:13 and in our own story 1:24) he thinks that she is drunk.

Hannah is quick to correct him, for she did not partake in the family feast. Rather she is praying desperately to God for help. (Notice the contrast – her condition is not from pouring out wine, it is from pouring out her soul.) (Notice the irony – while she is offering up her possible son to be a Nazarite, who cannot touch wine, she is accused of being drunk.)

Hannah’s faith

17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

Eli speaks out pastorally – go in peace. And he prays that God will answer her. And this is enough for her. She comes to a place of faith and trust in God and so she can put away her sadness and finally eat. She has “prayed through” as the old phrases goes. Even though her circumstances have not yet changed, she has put her burden in God’s hands and has peace and hope.

This brings us to the end of our story –

Hannah’s prayer is answered

19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

God did indeed remember Hannah and gave her a son. She names him Samuel, which involves a word play  with the word for “ask” – which is how she got her son from the Lord.

This was a true miracle and it marked the child as special, someone from who great things will be expected. And as we know, Samuel doesn’t disappoint.

Encouragement for us

1. Hannah was in a very difficult situation . . . She wasn’t able to have children which caused others to look down on her and put her in a place of weakness socially. And on top of this her rival tormented her about this year after year. It was so bad that she wept bitterly and was deeply distressed and couldn’t eat. She felt afflicted and forgotten by God. She was troubled, anxious and vexed.

. . . what is your situation? We all go through deep waters that push us to the limit and more; where we feel forgotten and overwhelmed. What is on your heart this morning? What burden are you carrying?

2. Hannah took her problem to the Lord in prayer . . . She poured out her heart to God. She acknowledged her weakness and lowliness and dependence on God. She prayed boldly, even making a vow before God. She prayed so intensely that Eli thought she was drunk. She prayed and prayed until, through the words of Eli, she came to a place of faith and peace – that God would take care of her. She “prayed through.” She connected with God and was able to leave her burden with him and move forward in faith.

. . . we should too! Take your burden to the Lord, cast your care on him for he cares for you. Pour out your heart to God. Pray intensely. Pray boldly. And pray until you connect with God and come to a place of peace and trust, knowing that God has heard you and will take care of you.

3. God took care of Hannah . . . He did remember her, he did help her, he did save her from her situation by giving her a son. She gained a new future, full of hope and life.

. . . and God will take care of us. I can’t say how specifically. It’s not always what we think it will be. For instance, not every godly man or woman who has prayed for a child has received one. But we can say with full confidence that God will hear and act, and be faithful to us as well.

4. God brought something good out of her trial for others . . . God not only answered her prayer, but through her God acted for all of Israel by giving Samuel who will lead the people back to God and new life. It was through her difficulties and her faith that God accomplished this.

. . . God can use our trials to bless others. God can transform our suffering into something that will bless many, many people beyond us. God can bring much good out of our struggles. So don’t give up! Trust God and wait for him to act. He will not only take care of you, he will use your trials to bless others.

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Series on Witness

We are in a series of messages on witness that is meant to challenge us to become more outwardly focused as a congregation. Whether this is helping the church’s mission here in SW Chambersburg or whether it is in your own areas of outreach where you live or work or hang out. As a congregation we need to be less concerned with being comfortable and with what we get out of church, and more concerned with taking risks to reach out and with what we should be giving to others as we reach out.

Last week we began with the letter ‘W’ of the word “Witness” – Why we reach out. And we learned from the Scriptures that our motivation is Christ’s love for people. When we have Jesus’ heart of love we will have a different perspective on people, whatever they might be or seem to be according to the flesh. From the perspective of Jesus’ love they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd and need his salvation and grace.

Well today we focus in on a wrong reason to reach out, and this is the ‘I’ in witness – Idolatry and reaching out. And the idol is the desire to get big; to have a large church, thinking that this is what success means. This is where we idolize growth and getting big as the goal in itself.

Now yes, let me be clear, we very much do want to grow and have people come to know the Lord and become workers for his kingdom. But this can easily and subtly be distorted into an idol. And I think this takes place under the influence of American culture where big is the sign of success. And it comes from using a business model where the bottom line is profit and this is compared to getting more people in the congregation. And it can also just be from envy of other churches that are big and seem to be doing well.

So let me share with you three problems with this thinking:

1. The idolatry of big has a wrong understanding of success

According to this thinking a successful church equals growing and being big. And so if you are not growing you are a failure. But according to the kingdom of God a successful church equals being faithful to reach out, which can lead to growth and being big, but it might not. Do you see the difference in terms of what counts for success? Bigness in itself vs. faithfulness to do what God says whatever the results might be?

That this is true just think for a moment about the parable of the soils. What if a church is in a context where there is rocky soil – trials and persecution, or thorn filled soil – where everyone is focused on the good things of this life? If you are consistently reaching out, but with little or no results are you unsuccessful?

Here’s a more concrete example. What if a church is in a Muslim context and you are consistently reaching out but with little or no results. Does this mean you are unsuccessful?

Here’s an example from our congregation connected to the block party last week. I know a person who invited someone and he came. I know another person who invited 35 people and none of them came. But who would say that the second person was less faithful than the first?

And finally, think of Jesus. Was he a failure because at the end of his ministry he only had a handful of followers? Certainly not!

The point is if you are reaching out, you are successful, whether you are growing or not. Because it is the reaching out itself that is the mark of faithfulness, not the results of reaching out. So you can be amazingly, abundantly, fantastically faithful but have little outward fruit to show for it.

After all, Jesus said “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) not you must have many converts. And so the bottom line is that we are witnessing, not that we are growing; it is that we are loving and obeying God, not that we are big.

2. The idolatry of big will distort our outreach

Anything that we make into an idol will take us down the wrong road. The most prominent example here is that we water down the gospel to get people to come. Right? If the goal is to get people, you need to do what it takes to get people. So you lower the bar to suit your audience so that they will respond. You take away the things that are hard or that challenge people’s sin.

Well, Jesus flatly rejected this approach. We see this first in Luke 14:25-26. It says, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” And we think, way to go Jesus you’re a success! You’re a winner! You have a crowd. But what does he do? “he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’” What? Jesus you have to keep the crowd. You can’t go telling them to give everything up for you. They won’t follow you anymore!

But this shows us that Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God. So when there was a temptation to choose between having more people and watering down the gospel, he chose speaking the truth.

Another example of this comes from John 6:26. Before and after Jesus fed the 5,000 a crowd was following him. And in this case he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me . . . because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What Jesus? Why would you challenge them like this. They wanted to make you a king!

But again, Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God.

He went on to talk about faith in him in such a way that most deserted him and he had to even ask the 12, ‘Will you leave me also?’ Jesus wasn’t interested in just getting a crowd. His goal was sharing God’s truth with everyone, even if the crowds went away.

3. The idolatry of big leaves God out of the equation

Yes, you can grow a church without God being involved. Indeed there are non-Christian religious groups that grow very rapidly and are large. But God is not in it. And there are churches that have grown because of a dynamic leader who was later found to be full of sin all along. And there are churches that grow because they tickle itching ears and tell people what they want to hear. But God is not in this.

So yes, you can grow a church without God, but this isn’t true growth. It is based on the flesh; on us and our skills or personality or techniques.And so this puts the spotlight on us. Look what we did. And this is in part why so many have become famous, celebrity pastors. They made their church grow! So they write their books and they go on tour and so forth.

But true growth only comes when God moves and people’s lives are changed. And he does this is thousands of different ways, not through some specific technique or strategy or leadership style.

In fact God loves to use the weak and the lowly; those who no one expects to do anything great. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” This brings the glory to God.

As Paul said, we may work, but “only God (is anything), who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7. It’s all about God, not us.

Now, none of this is meant to excuse not reaching out, and we have work to do here, as do most churches. And it is good to look at how we are doing in our outreach – if it is ineffective – to see if we are doing it poorly and to make corrections.

And you can also turn all this around and make an idol out of being small or not growing. You know, we are small because we are so much more faithful than other groups! When really it is because we don’t reach out or we have created cultural barriers that keep people away.

My point in all this is to have –

The right focus

So let’s focus on being faithful to God to reach out, taking risks and giving of ourselves to others. This is the measure of our success in the kingdom of God. And even if we are not bursting at the seams we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

Let’s focus on presenting the full gospel to others, even if it means that fewer people will come. Let’s not change his word and gospel message just to get our congregation bigger. If people don’t come or leave because of this we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

And let us focus on praying for God to move as we minister in his name, to change people’s lives. If there is not much fruit, this isn’t a matter of discouragement, so much as it is a call to greater prayer and reliance on God to bring about the growth, which only he can do. And we will give him the praise when he does his work.

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Today we are in chapter 3 of Habakkuk. This is a very interesting chapter and I hope that you will find that to be true.

By way of review we have already seen how Habakkuk complained that God wasn’t dealing with Judah’s sin. God’s answer was that he would raise up Babylon to judge Judah. Then Habakkuk complained that Babylon was a worse sinner than Judah, and that they should be judged as well. And God’s answer was that Babylon would indeed be judged in accordance with their sins. But that the righteous must wait for this salvation in faith.

Today we look at –

Habakkuk’s prayer

As we will see, this is a prayer for God to act to bring about his promise to judge Babylon and save his people.

“1A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.” Habakkuk 3 is a prayer in the form of a song, or Psalm.

  • The word here in v. 1, “Shigionoth,” may indicate a musical style (Similarly, Psalm 7:1).
  • It uses the word “Selah” several times, as in the Psalms. (Although its meaning is not known it seems to be musical).
  • And in v. 19 it ends with the phrase, “For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.”

He prays, “2Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known, in wrath remember mercy.” We will come back to this prayer at the end, but for now I would just note how this sets up the main part of our text today, vs. 3-15.

Habakkuk has heard what God has done in the past; he is in awe of God’s deeds. And as he thinks of the current situation with Babylon invading Judah (v. 16), he has a visionary experience (v.7) where he sees God defeating another superpower that opposed his people – Egypt at the Red Sea. This is the context then, for when he prays here. God, do what you did to Egypt again in our day – in reference to Babylon.

vs. 3-15 are poetry, with many evocative images. I will try to briefly give you the outlines of what is happening. You may want to reference the handout. It has two main sections. The first describes –

God’s march to war

“3God came from Teman,  the Holy One from Mount Paran.” These are the regions of Edom and south of this. Geographically speaking, God is coming from the East toward Egypt.

“His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. 4His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.” Here we have a description of a brilliant sunrise and rays of light filling the heavens and the earth.

But then the mood changes. “5Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. 6He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed –  but he marches on forever.” All is not well plague and pestilence are coming. Judgment is coming

Now also, storm imagery comes to the fore, which carries through the rest of the poem. Here it is in the form of thunder that shakes even those things that seem permanent and immoveable – the mountains and hills. A great storm is brewing and continuing West toward the Red Sea.

“7I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish.” This speaks of the effect of God’s march to war on those he passes by Midian and Cushan, on his way to the Red Sea. They are in distress and anguish. [Or if one holds that the Red Seal crossing took place through the Gulf of Aqaba, just West of Midian, then this would narrate the arrival of God at the Red Sea.]

These verses refer back to Exodus 14:24. The Israelites crossed the Red Sea at night. The Egyptians entered the Red Sea in the morning to pursue them. It was in “the morning watch,” as the sun rose, that the Lord came to fight against Egypt.

The next section of the poem describes –

God’s victory in battle

“8Were you angry with the rivers, Lord? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode your horses and your chariots to victory?” The prophet asks why God executed judgment on the deep waters – the rivers and the sea. The answer will come in vs. 12-15.

As we have seen before the waters and the sea represent evil and chaos. Specifically, the word “sea” is Yamm, which is the name of an evil sea serpent. Well, these forces of evil and chaos were incarnated in Egypt’s armies, as they sought to come through the Red Sea to destroy Israel. And God is pictured riding on the clouds as his chariot, or in this case, a great storm.

Next we have the battle scene. “9You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers” God begins the fight. The arrows are his lightning bolts. The rain splits the earth with rivers. “10the mountains saw you and writhed.” They wanted nothing to do with God’s great power and this fight.

“Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high.” Here God overpowers and defeats the deep. This may be a reference to the waters being forced to cover over the Egyptian armies to destroy them.

“11Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear.” Like the mountains they wanted nothing to do with God’s fight with the deep; they stood still to avoid God’s arrows as they passed by into the deep; into the body of Yamm.

Next, we have the answer as to why God came to fight. “12In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. 13You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one.” He came to save his people from the Egyptian armies.

And then we have a number of statements that elaborate further on God’s victory over Yamm. “You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from tail to neck.” Some translations say here, the Hebrew is uncertain. But this is talking about a sea monster, who has a tail. (Similarly, Psalm 74:13-14 says, “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons of the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”)  Yamm is the leader of the Egyptian armies, the house of the wicked. He is pictured here as being knocked senseless and exposed.

  “14With his own spear you pierced his head – when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding.” Here it is clear that the Egyptian armies are the warriors of Yamm. In them Yamm came to “devour” the Israelites. But God used the deep waters – “his own spear” – to destroy its own army. He made the waters cover over and destroy the Egyptians. “15You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters.” Again, God is on a chariot with horses trampling Yamm. This is also a possible reference to the walls of water coming down to destroy the Egyptian armies.

So all of this poetically describes what happened in Exodus 14. Israel came through the Red Sea on dry ground at night. But in the morning, when Egypt entered the Red Sea to pursue and destroy Israel, a great storm arose. Exodus 14:24 says, “the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army . . ..” And three things happened.

1) God “threw them into a panic” – vs. 24, 25. The lightening, thunder and wind caused the Egyptians to fear as they were in the midst of the sea.

2) God “clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty” – v. 25. The great storm caused the chariot wheels to become bogged down in the mud so that they were unable to maneuver. (Also Psalm 77:16-20). Even though they were agraid they couldn’t get out.

3) God brought the waters down upon them, destroying them – vs. 26-28.

Habakkuk’s response

– to this vision is fear; fear at God’s mighty power. “16I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.”

Then he says, “Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.” After being reassured through this vision of God’s power to judge a superpower, Egypt, he knows that the judgment God has spoken of in chapter 2 will indeed come and Judah will be saved.

Praying for God to act

This is what the prayer in v. 2 is all about. “2Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known, in wrath remember mercy.”

God, you did great and awesome things when you saved your people from Egypt. So he prays regarding such deeds, “repeat them in our day, in our time make them known.” Act now, just like you did then.

Even though you are judging Judah for their sins, “in wrath remember mercy.” Don’t let us perish under the Babylonians. Save us. This is his prayer and he waits calmly for it to come to pass.

I have always liked this passage. For a number of years I had it hanging in my office. I believe it speaks to our own situation. The people of God were unfaithful then, and the church is now. The people of God were overcome by their enemies then, and we are so often defeated by the evil one.

The church in America is weak, divided and ineffective. We are biblically illiterate and often don’t even know what Jesus teaches us, much less do we put it into practice. We have read how God worked by the power of his Spirit in the New Testament church, and how they did God’s will with courage and boldness. How lives were transformed and God’s kingdom was manifested.

We have heard of God’s fame in this, and we should be in awe of what he did. And so we should pray. Repeat this in our day. In our time make your deeds known. Act today like you did in the days of the apostles. Even though we have been unfaithful, “in wrath remember mercy.”

I invite you to make this your prayer as we end today – “2Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make your deeds known, in wrath remember mercy.”

William Higgins

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For the last two weeks we have been in Mark 11 working our way toward vs. 22-25. Here’s a quick review:

  • With his temple demonstration, where he brought everything to a halt, Jesus symbolically indicated that the temple will cease to operate.
  • With his cursing of the fig tree, which then died, Jesus symbolically indicated that the temple will be judged and destroyed.

Also we saw how Jesus is building another temple, made without hands. And although the old one was condemned for not being a house of prayer, this new one, which includes all who are connected to Jesus – is to be a true house of prayer.

22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying,forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

 Connections between our verses and the fig tree story

First of all, the disciples were greatly impressed that the fig tree had withered. Wow, Jesus! How did you make the fig tree die? How is that even possible? And so  1. Jesus teaches them how to exercise similar power through faith and prayer. (In Matthew’s version this is even more clear.)

But on another level this teaching on prayer has to do with the underlying question, 2. If the temple God’s house of prayer is destroyed as is pictured by the dead fig tree . . . how can we pray? This is hard for us to get. But the temple was the place where God heard their prayers.

And prayers that were “in” or “toward” the temple were thought to be especially effective. It was seen as the gateway to heaven; the place where heaven and earth met so that you had access to God’s throne here on earth (Sharyn E. Dowd).

As the Lord said about the temple in 2 Chronicles 7:15, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.” (Also Jonah 2:7; Psalm 28:2; 2 Samuel 22:7) And this is what Solomon prayed for, when he dedicated the temple in 1 Kings 8:30. He said to God, “And listen to the plea . . . of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.”

  • So the temple was a place where prayers would be heard and answered, even really difficult prayers, as the examples that Solomon gives after this verse indicate.
  • And it is a place where God would hear their confession and forgive their sins, so that their prayers could be heard and answered.

And notice that Jesus talks about these two things in our verses – effective prayer and forgiveness. So Jesus is teaching his disciples to be the new temple, the new house of prayer.

Finally, the kind of prayers that are being talked about in our verses is made clear by the fig tree episode. This is not talking about prayers for our own personal needs or wants. 3. These are prayers in the service of doing God’s kingdom work. Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree wasn’t about him. It was a part of his prophetic ministry. And when Jesus teaches his disciples how to do this, it’s not for their personal needs. It’s for the sake of their calling to represent God and to do God’s work.

[This prayer teaching also shows up in John, where this is made clear in how Jesus says it. For instance in John 15:16 Jesus says, “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you.” In my name means, in your role representing me and doing the work of the kingdom. See also John 14:13-14; John 15:7; John 16:23-24.]

Alright, let’s look now at –

Mark 11:22-25

Jesus teaches us in these verses two conditions for effective prayer. The first is faith. As he says, “Have faith in God.”

He is saying to the disciples, if you want to do something that you think is impossible, like with this fig tree, you need faith in God, that is, faith that God can do the impossible (Mark 9:23; 10:27).

But also, at a deeper level he’s saying, even with the temple gone, don’t despair, but have faith in God. As he goes on to say, faith is how your prayers will be answered without the temple.

Next comes two parallel statements (see the handout). We will focus on one at a time. “23Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

[This is an example of an authoritative prayer command, like what Jesus did with the fig tree. It is a kind of prayer, but instead of asking and then waiting, you just say what God wants to happen and it happens.]

“Truly, I say to you” indicates that this is a really important statement. 

The phrase, “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea’” is a proverb that has to do with “the impossible.” Jesus uses it, or one like it in several places. [Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21-22, Luke17:6 and also 1 Corinthians 13:2.] It is, after all, impossible to speak to a mountain and have it move from one place to another. Only God can do something like this.

[It is possible that this is an additional reference to the temple, with “this mountain” referring to the temple mount being judged by being thrown into the sea, which represents evil, chaos, and also the nations, or the Gentiles.]

We also see in this verse a further elaboration on what  “faith in God” is about. It means:

  • don’t doubt in your heart; don’t be of two minds, “yes, God can do it; no, God can’t do it.” As James says, don’t be like “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6) going  back and forth.
  • rather, believe that it will come to pass. Be fully convinced that God can do what he says he can do, as Paul says in Romans 4:21.

The promise is, if you have faith, “it will be done for” you. Like with the fig tree, even if it is something that seems impossible, if you have faith, it will be done for you.

Next comes the parallel to v. 23. “24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Unfortunately this verse is often misunderstood. The first issue has to do with the word, “whatever.” Does this mean that God will give me whatever I want??? Some teachers have taken this and run with it, for sure.

But we know from other scriptures that God doesn’t give us whatever we want (1 John 5:14-15; James 4:3). Prayer is subject to God’s will. [This is evident in Mark as well. For, not too long before our story, in 10:35 James and John ask Jesus, “we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” But Jesus can’t grant their request to be exalted, because this is subject to God’s will – v. 40. Also, in the garden of Gethsemane, even though Jesus notes that all things are possible for God, when he asks for another way than the cross, he submits his request to God’s will, “yet not what I will, but what you will” – Mark 14:36.]

Otherwise we are dealing, not with prayer, but with magic – where if I can talk myself into thinking that my request will happen, my faith compels God to give me whatever I want. 

And we have already seen that in context these are prayers in the service of representing God and doing his kingdom work, not asking for our own desires.

The meaning of “whatever” is not whatever I want. It is even what seems impossible. In other words, on a scale of things that seem really easy to ask for, and things that seem impossible, like the fig tree – even the latter. Even something impossible, like moving a mountain, which is the parallel statement to “whatever” in v. 23. Even something really hard, despite that the temple will be gone, the place to get really difficult requests answered.

It means even the really difficult requests  we pray for as we represent God and do his kingdom work on this earth.

So the lesson is the same as in v. 23. In the course of doing God’ work, whatever God’s will is for us to do, even if it’s something that seems impossible, if you have faith, it will be yours.

One other note on this verse. The phrase, “believe that you have received it” can be misunderstood. The past tense here is sometimes taken to mean that God has already answered the prayer, but there is no evidence for it. So that there is a split between reality and what we say by faith.

Let’s use Abraham and Sarah as an example. They were promised a child. But their faith didn’t manifest itself by saying that Sarah was pregnant when she wasn’t. They didn’t try to speak it into existence – “we claim that she is pregnant by faith.” No they knew when she wasn’t pregnant and when she was. They were in touch with reality.

No, the past tense here doesn’t mean that it is already a reality, it means that your request has been heard and granted – even before it is a reality. It is what’s called a “prophetic perfect tense,” where you are so certain of a future event, that you can speak of it in the past tense. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will! And Abraham was “fully convinced” that God would one day answer (Romans 4:21) (Notice also that the phrase, “it will be yours” is in the future tense. Also notice that Matthew’s parallel, “you will receive” is in the future not the past tense – 21:22.)

Well, not only are the prayers of this new house of prayer conditioned by faith, they are also conditioned by forgiveness.

“25And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

[Jesus speaks of standing while praying because this was the most common posture for prayer in Judaism at this time.]

Scripture teaches that sin disrupts and destroys our relationship with God, which blocks our prayers from being heard. For instance Isaiah 59:1-2 says, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”

And so we need to repent and confess our sins if we want God to hear us and answer us. [In I Kings 8:30ff a central part of God answering prayer is that God forgives our sins.]

But, and this is Jesus’ point, if we don’t give others the same grace and forgiveness that God has given to us, we will no longer receive grace and forgiveness in our lives. [Jesus also talks about this in the Lord’s prayer, Matthew 6:14-15 and Matthew 18:23-35]. Thus our sin will block our ability to have our prayers heard.

So if we want our prayers answered, we have to let go of our resentments, bitterness and anger. 

Let me end with –

An example

We have learned in this passage that when as an individual or as a church we are doing the work God has called us to do, (whether just generally or something that he specifically tells to do), even if it seems impossible to us, like with the fig tree, like moving a mountain – if we have faith and we forgive others God will hear our prayer and answer us. It is assured.

So I want to encourage us to put this into practice. Let’s pray that God will powerfully transform lives here with the gospel. This is God’s will. This is God’s kingdom work. This is our call.

God wants to work through us to bring about his will. This is how prayer works. We are not to be passive and resigned, but rather active allowing God to work through us to bring about God’s will.

And so let’s pray for this with bold faith. Do you think that God can do this? Is it possible? Do you think that he can do more of this through us – reaching out into the lives of unbelievers? And those that have real problems? Can God transform them? Can he use us to do this?

And let’s pray for this as we extend grace and forgiveness to others. And God will do it.

William Higgins 

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We are back in Mark 11 today looking at how Jesus symbolically indicates that the temple in Jerusalem is to be destroyed. And we are especially interested in how this helps us to understand Jesus’ very important teaching on faith and prayer in Mark 11:22-25, which will be our focus next week.

Last time we saw that Jesus’ temple demonstration in Mark 11:15-19, which brought everything to a halt in the court of Gentiles, foreshadows that it all will stop soon because it will be judged and destroyed. This brings us to Jesus’ second symbolic indication that the temple will be destroyed –

The cursing of the fig tree

This is the last miracle recorded in Mark, and it is the only destructive miracle in all of the gospels.

“12On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.”

Jesus is hungry and he sees a fig tree. So he goes to see if it has something to eat. But it doesn’t, so he curses it. But then Mark tells us that this was not the season for figs. So . . . what’s going on here? Is Jesus unnecessarily angry? Surely he knows when fig trees have fruit!

Two things help us to understand this story. First, Jesus was most likely looking for the early, immature fruit that, while not necessarily tasty, could be eaten. Fig trees first developed these in the Spring, which is the time frame of our story, and then they produced the leaves. And then the fruit matured in the Summer.

So the tree had leaves. This is emphasized in the story by mentioning it twice. It was advertising, as it were, that it had something to give, which would mature later into something really good. But it had nothing. It was a barren tree.

When Mark says, “it was not the season for figs” he most likely means for ripe figs, perhaps anticipating confusion by some readers (although causing confusion for others).

A second thing we need to understand this story is that in the Old Testament the fig tree was used as a symbol for Israel (e.g. Hosea 9:4). And the lack of fruit on a fig tree means a lack of obedience on the part of Israel and coming judgment. For instance, when Jeremiah uses the phrase, there are “no figs on the fig tree,” it indicates Israel’s disobedience and coming judgment (8:13). When Micah says that there was “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires,” he is saying that there were no longer any righteous ones in Israel (7:1). Jesus, himself, also equates a lack of fruit on a fig tree with a lack of repentance among the people of his day in Luke 13:6-9.

In this light, Jesus is symbolically looking for fruit from Israel, even immature fruit, some sign that there is obedience to God, some acceptance of his Messiah. But he finds none, and therefore judgment is coming. (This may well be symbolically enacting what had just taken place when Jesus entered Jerusalem and then went to the temple and looked around and left. They paid no attention to him or that their Messiah had come.) And, as we will see in just a minute, specifically the temple will be destroyed.

The result of Jesus’ words of judgment is quite amazing. “20As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’” The tree is completely dead, “withered away to its roots.” And Peter and the rest are amazed.

So for those who are in the know, this is a picture of what is to come on Israel/the temple. As Jesus said when he moved from symbolic action to plain speech in Mark 13:2. Talking about the temple he said, “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And this is, exactly what happened 40 years later when the temple was destroyed.

The fig tree as the temple

Now perhaps you have noticed that in Matthew 21 things happen a little differently: First come the temple story, and then we have the fig tree story. But in Mark 11, as we have seen, the chronology is different:

  1. Fig tree story pt. one
  2. Temple story
  3. Fig tree story pt. two

The temple story is put right in the middle of the fig tree story.

This was a common literary technique in the ancient world [intercalation]. Mark does this on a number of occasions. He rearranges things to make a point. [This reminds us that just as ancient biographers held the freedom to work with what their subjects said and to arrange their actions non-chronologically in presenting their portraits, so did the gospel writers.]

The idea is that we are to read these two stories in relation to one another. They interpret one another. In terms of Jesus’ temple demonstration, read in the light of the fig tree story, the idea is that Jesus found no fruit in the temple and so it will be judged (he is not trying to cleanse or reform it). In terms of the fig tree story, read in light of the temple demonstration, the tree is specifically connected to Israel’s temple. Mark is helping us out here; giving us a heads up.

The end of the old temple

So now we have two prophetic, symbolic pictures of the end of the Jerusalem temple:

  • It will be destroyed, like the fig tree withered away to its roots
  • It will cease to function, like when Jesus brought the sacrifices, temple tax and all activity to a halt in a section of the court of the Gentiles.

But this isn’t the end of the story, because –

Jesus is building a new temple

There are a number of indications of this in the New Testament. [Read typologically both 2 Samuel 7:12-13 and Zechariah 6:12-13 can be seen to indicate that the Messiah, David’s son will build a temple]

First of all, in Mark 14:58 some testified at his trial, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Mark calls this false testimony because they are taking his words as a literal threat that Jesus would humanly destroy the Jerusalem temple. (See also Mark 15:29). But in this saying, he is talking about God destroying the temple, and then his own resurrection as the beginning of a new temple. “I will build another, not made with hands.”

This parallels John 2:19-20 where John tells his story of Jesus’ temple demonstration. In v. 19 Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In v. 20 John clarifies that, “He was speaking about the temple of his body,” that is, his body being raised from the dead. And as Paul so often says, we are a part of the body of Christ, which is this new temple (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Also, in Mark 12 Jesus tells the parable of the tenets, where he teaches that he will be rejected. But then he says, quoting Psalm 118:22, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone/chief stone” – v. 10. What is this stone a part of? He is talking to the priests and is calling them builders. The implication is that this stone is a part of a new temple.

Psalm 118:22 is certainly taken this way by Paul and Peter. Ephesians 2:19-22 says, “19but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

And 1 Peter 2:4-5 says, “4As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” He goes on to quote Psalm 118:22 more fully.

Both of these passages refer to Psalm 118:22 and then use temple language, reflecting Jesus’ use of this text in Mark 12. Jesus is the chief stone in a new temple building.

And we are God’s temple, if we are joined to Jesus, the chief stone. As Paul asks the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple . . . ?” And as he states in 2 Corinthians 6:16, “we are the temple of the living God.”

And although the old temple failed, as Jesus’ new temple –

We are to be “a house of prayer”

This is the challenge for us today. We need to learn to live into this calling and identity. This is who we are and this is how we are to be as the church – a place where all can come and offer up acceptable and powerful worship and prayer to God. The old temple  is gone, but we have been made into a new one in Jesus.

And the fact that we are to be “a house of prayer” is one reason why Jesus goes on in Mark 11:22-25 to talk about faith and prayer, which we will look at next week. I would like to end today by reading this passage:

“22Have faith in God. 23Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

I invite you to ponder this passage for next week.

William Higgins 

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See below for the literary structure of this Psalm.

This Psalm is full of sorrow and pain, but also faith. The inscription connects it to David. It says, “A Maskil of David, (perhaps a musical or liturgical term) when he was in the cave. A Prayer.” Although it’s not clear that these inscriptions are original to the text, this one does give us a helpful setting for reading this as a prayer of David in a very difficult situation.

Setting

Taking our cue from the heading, “when he was in the cave,” there are two instances where Scripture speaks of David being in a cave – the cave of Adullam and at Engedi. The first is the more likely setting. Let’s look at this.

  • With the help of Jonathan, David now knows for sure that Saul has determined to kill him. So he fled. (1 Samuel 20).
  • He stopped at the village of Nob and got some food and a weapon (Goliath’s sword) from the priest there. He was begging for bread. He didn’t have anything. He was literally running for his life. (1 Samuel 21:1-9).
  • He then went to Philistia; into enemy territory where Saul couldn’t reach him. But because of his reputation as an Israelite warrior, his life was in danger there also. In fact, he went to the city where Goliath was from carrying Goliath’s sword. So he feigned insanity. He started drooling and scratching at the door and then  fled. (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

1 Samuel 22:1 then says, “David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam.”  He’s basically alone. Although the priest at Nob said, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” (1 Samuel 21:2) apparently he had a few young men with him (1 Samuel 21:4-5, maybe four since he asked for five loaves of bread. Also Mark 2:25-26.)  Perhaps these were David’s personal attendants.

Adullam was in the no-man’s land between Israel and Philistia, who were always at war. There are several caves here.

Psalm 142

– begins with David noting his desperate prayers. “1With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD. 2I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.”

This is no casual prayer. He is distressed. This comes out in the words used for prayer in v. 1. He is crying out, he is pleading for mercy. This is intense prayer. And this also comes out in the words used for what he is praying about. He is pouring out his “complaint” – his concerns or even grievances. He is telling his “troubles” – his adversity, anguish and affliction.

He is clearly speaking to God. Twice he says, “to the Lord” and twice “before him.”

“3When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” He is overwhelmed. He’s got nothing left; no strength left within. As he says in v. 6, “I am brought very low.” You can certainly see why this is so as we think of what’s going on in David’s life at this time.

And he’s saying to God, you know what I am going through! Well, even though God knows what’s happening, he lays out all his problems anyway.

“In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.” “They” are described in v. 6 as persecutors who are too strong for him. As we noted, Saul is trying to find and kill David, and all the resources of the kingdom are being brought to bear on this task.

The phrase “hidden a trap” conjures up hunting language. Saul is hunting him down to kill him. To get a measure of how much danger he was in Saul had all the priests at Nob killed along with their families simply because one of them helped David. (1 Samuel 22:6-23). His life is in serious danger.

“4Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me.” David speaks of looking to the right because this is where a witness for the defense would stand (Psalm 109:31) or one’s protector would be (Psalm 16:8; 110:5). He is saying that no one is standing up for him.

“No refuge remains to me.” He has nowhere to go to find shelter. Saul rejected him and is trying to kill him. And the Philistines didn’t give him a safe haven. All he has is a cave.

“No one cares for my soul.” He is without anyone to support him. Perhaps he even had sent out his servants to tell his family and friends where he was, since they came to him here later (1 Samuel 22:1-4). This was also before those who would become his mighty men gathered to him here (2 Samuel 23:13). So He was truly alone.

His prayers. “5I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” Although he is cut off from Israel, and Philistia has rejected him and he is in the no-man’s land of Adullam – God has not rejected him.

  • God is his refuge, his place of shelter; God has taken him in; God has taken him under his care to protect him.
  • And God is his portion. He is like the Levites who were not given a portion of land in Israel, but were supported by God. So David has no place, having been driven out of Israel. But God will provide for him.

“6Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low!” He’s saying, “Listen!!! This is urgent! I can’t hang in there too much longer. I’m at the bottom. You have to answer soon.”

Next, he gets more specific. “Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!” This refers to Saul and his men. This is the core of his problem.

“7Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!” Death and Sheol (Hades) are often pictured as a prison. And he was also stuck in the prison of the cave he was in. And his cave, which was dark and underground, would have reminded him of Sheol. It’s like he’s on death’s door.

He promises that if God helps him, he will give thanks to God.

Finally, he ends with an expression of faith. “7The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” He is confident that God is going to act for him and deliver him. He will no longer be in danger and thus he will no longer be alone.

This was fulfilled in part, fairly soon. His family and others gathered to him at Adullam, including what would become his army (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 2 Samuel 23:13). Later it was completely fulfilled when Saul was defeated. [David talks about this in 2 Samuel 22 in a way that echoes some of the language of this Psalm]

Let’s look at some –

Lessons from this Psalm

1. Tell God about your troubles. Even though David understands that God knows what’s going on in his life (v. 3), he still tells him all about it in prayer.

In a similar way Jesus tells us, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). But tells us this precisely in the midst of teaching us to pray.

So like David, we need to pour out our hearts to God. We need to tell God about our pain and sorrow. We need to let our tears flow before the Lord. We need to unburden ourselves because we can’t carry the weight. Even though he knows, tell God all about your needs.

2. God allows us to go through very difficult trials. God let David go to his breaking point. David said, “my spirit faints within me” (v. 3) and he said, “I am brought very low” (v. 6).

In David’s case, his life was in danger by an army and a king. These were his circumstances. And even though it is unlikely that any of us are running for our lives, God allows us to go through really difficult times, where we feel alone and threatened, where we are in a dark place, with no one standing up for us or caring about us. We too can be brought so low that our spirit faints within. We too can come to our breaking point where we are barely hanging on. God allows this.

3. God can be our refuge and portion. May it never be that we truly have no one to care for us. But if we find ourselves in an extreme situation like this – we learn from this Psalm that God can protect us and provide for us, just as he did with David.

The literary structure of Psalm 142

A. His prayers

1 With my voice/ I cry out/ to the LORD;

with my voice/ I plead for mercy/ to the LORD.

2 I pour out/ my complaint/ before him;

I tell/ my trouble/ before him.

3 When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!

B. His problem

In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. 4 Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.

A1. His prayers

5 I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” 6 Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!7 Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!

B1. The solution

The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

 ————————————

  • A and A1 both use the word “cry” and the name Yahweh (LORD). Both are about his prayers.
  • B and B1 deal with the problem and then the answer.
  • A contains two sets of three parallels – vs. 1 and 2.
  • A and B are connected by “path”  and “way”
  • B and A1 are connected by “no refuge” and “refuge”

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaic

We are in the fifth and final section of the teaching portion of 1 Thessalonians, which Paul began in chapter 4. And so we have looked at relationships with one another in the church, respecting Christian leaders, living in peace with one another, and helping those who struggle in various ways. We have also looked at relationships with everyone, inside and outside the church. And here Paul taught us not to return harm for harm, but to be patient with all, and to do good to everyone.

Today we look at vs. 16-22, focused on our relationship with God. There are eight statements which are held together by two themes:

– vs. 16-18 have to do with speaking to God in praise and prayer

– vs. 19-22 have to do with God speaking to us by means of prophecy (Ben Witherington)

  Let’s begin with vs. 16-18.

Talking to God: Praise and prayer

 “16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Rejoicing has to do with expressing our joy. This is quite similar to giving thanks (Psalm 97:12; Philippians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:9), which is the expression of appreciation for benefits and blessings. Given that there is a prayer focus here (prayer comes right between them) these expressions of joy and thanks are given to God. I am calling this praise to God.

Now, rejoicing and giving thanks are a kind of prayer, but here Pau distinguishes prayer from these, so the focus in on petitionary prayer, or making our requests known to God.

  The phrase, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” applies to all three of these things. It is God’s will for us to rejoice, give thanks and offer up our requests to him. God wants us to be in relationship with him; for us to communicate with him our praises and our concerns.

But how can we do these thing always? How can we rejoice always? How can we pray without ceasing?

If we take this literally, it doesn’t make sense. We have to sleep for one thing. But more to the point, you can’t both talk to God and also to someone else – at the same time. Or again, you can’t both rejoice with those who rejoice and also weep with those who weep, as Paul says (Romans 12:15) – at the same time

Rather, Paul is referring here to set times of daily prayer according to the biblical pattern. That is, morning and evening prayers, or perhaps also afternoon prayers. We see this all throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms and in Daniel for instance, as well as in the New Testament. In fact, there is a reference to this in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 – “we pray most earnestly night and day . . ..” This was a common Jewish way of talking about daily prayers in the evening and the morning.

Paul is saying, keep to your daily prayers, continue day and night; morning and evening. Always rejoice by coming before God constantly morning and evening. Unceasingly pray by coming before God morning and evening. And, of course, we can also pray and rejoice as we are able throughout each day. 

But there’s another part to this. Paul is saying keep praying even when things are hard. They were going through persecution, so the message is:

  • Keep on rejoicing, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are good, but when things are hard. This echoes Jesus in Matthew 5:11-12. When you are persecuted “rejoice and be glad.”
  • Keep on praying, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are easy, but when you have difficulty after difficulty. This echoes Jesus in Luke 18:1. “And he told them . . . that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

This also fits with v. 18 – give thanks “in all circumstances.” It’s easy to give thanks when things are just fine, but we are also to do this when things are not good – that’s what “in all circumstances” means.

But how can we rejoice and give thanks in bad times? Well, it’s certainly not based on our feelings or that we’re having a good day. It’s based on understanding what God is doing in our lives, and the bigger picture of the hope that we have, which is far greater than whatever temporary suffering we may have in this world. And we can do this because the Holy Spirit within us is the source of our joy (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Some questions to consider . . . How is your prayer and praise life? Rate yourself:

  • Do you only come to God in an emergency?
  • Do you only pray and give thank on Sundays at church?
  • Do you have a private prayer life?
  • Are you constant in your prayer life?

Paul is teaching us here to be in this last category. Think about it. God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. He created us, bore with us, gave his only Son. But often we make little or no effort to spend time in relationship with God. This helps put things in perspective.

Are you overwhelmed by hard times? Paul calls the Thessalonians not to give up in persecution. And his word to us is don’t lose heart. When you have difficulty after difficulty piling up on you and it seems like praying is useless – keep at it. Press through. God will take care of you.

God talking to us: Prophecy

“19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies, 21but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Keep away from every evil kind.” I want us to look first at what is the key to understanding these verses, prophesy. And so I ask what is prophesy? We have to turn to 1 Corinthians since it is just mentioned here in 1 Thessalonians.

  • It consists of words the Spirit prompts you to say. It is a manifestation of the Spirit, like all spiritual gifts, which in this case comes in words – 1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12. It might be a word of encouragement, insight or even challenge.
  • It is directed “to people,” in contrast to speaking to God – 1 Corinthians 14:3.
  • It is intended for “their strengthening and encouragement and comfort” – 1 Corinthians 14:3.

So prophecy is simply speaking out a word from the Spirit in your own words. It’s a part of the promise of Joel 2:28-29 that all believers will have the Spirit and prophesy. Although some are classified as prophets since they have a specific ministry in this, God can speak through any of his children to say a word of encouragement, insight or challenge.

Prophecy was a completely normal part of the life of the New Testament church. We see references to it throughout the New Testament. And it happens among us as well – from the pulpit, from Sunday school teachers, in our Sunday school classes and small groups and in our praise time. We don’t call it this necessarily, but it happens.

I wanted to give you a specific example today and so I asked God to give me a word for us today. I have actually already said it as a part of my teaching. If I were to say it as a prophecy in the congregation I would say it like this, “I believe the Spirit is asking us today – God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. So why do we make such little effort to be in relationship with him in prayer?”

Now let’s break down these verses and see how they fit together. “19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies.” These two phrases basically say the same thing. For it is the activity of the Spirit that animates prophecy. And so to quench the Spirit is to despise prophecies.

Quench is a fire metaphor. It is when you put out a fire. The Holy Spirit is compared to fire in several places (e.g. Matthew 3:11). And so to quench the Spirit is to suppress or restrain the movement of the Spirit among us.

To despise prophecies is to look down on them, reject them, to treat them with contempt. So both of these phrases are about restricting prophecy.

Why restrict prophecy? The answer is simple – it’s easy to abuse. I have seen this and perhaps you have as well. People can speak out their own opinions as if they were God’s, or mix the two together. People can speak out wrong teaching (see 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). People can speak out things that come from the flesh, from the world, from the evil one – and not from the Spirit.

  So there is certainly a temptation, perhaps especially by leaders, to suppress it; to look down on it. But Paul’s word to us is don’t quench it or despise it because of abuses, rather the answer is test prophecies (also 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 John 4:1-3).

He doesn’t’ say anything here about how to do this but certainly testing it against the apostolic message, now written down in the New Testament is foundational (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Once we test what is said, we are to “hold fast what is good.” That is, receive what is truly from the Spirit. But if it is not of the Spirit we are to “keep away from every evil kind” of prophecy – that is, keep distance from receiving bad or evil prophecies. (Notice the spatial language hold on to the good, keep away from the bad) (Gordon Fee’s discussion of these verses is very helpful).

So any prophecy has to be tested. Any if you want to share I encourage you to test it yourself before you share. It might be a bit embarrassing for me or the Elders to have to correct you in front of the whole group. But I will if necessary.

Some questions to consider . . . Are we OK with people speaking out by the Spirit? (Maybe we are more comfortable when we don’t call it prophecy). We will find out because I want to give you a chance to do this next week during the praise time. Think about this. Can we expect the Spirit to move among us, which is what we pray for and desperately need, but only on our terms and in ways that we dictate? “Oh Spirit come and do your work; give us revival; transform lives among us; bring people into your kingdom. But don’t do anything that we are not comfortable with; don’t use any spiritual gifts; don’t let our routines get messed up. We want you, but only on our terms.” Do you think God hears this prayer?

Finally, do you quench the Spirit in other ways? Do you restrain the work of the Spirit in ways beyond the topic of prophecy. When the Spirit speaks to you, but you don’t like what you are hearing – do you suppress the Spirit? When the Spirit seeks to lead you but you don’t want to go – do you quench the Spirit?

I will tell you plainly – we need the renewal and transformation of the Spirit among us as individuals and as a congregation. But we will only receive this when we open ourselves up fully to the Spirit – no strings attached.

William Higgins

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Election prayer

A: God we confess that you are the one who is charge of history.

P: You raise up leaders, nations, kingdoms and empires and then bring them down according to your purpose and will.

L: So we lift this election into your hands. Act according to your purpose for this country – whether for good or for judgment. But just as you have instructed us, as those who live as exiles in this county, who are passing through on our way to our true country – your kingdom,

P: We pray for the peace and well-being of this country and for this election to work toward that end.

L: Help us not to give in to fear, so that we act like those in the world who have no hope and who do not walk in your ways.

P: Help us to trust that you will watch over us and shepherd us in the midst of all the circumstances of this life, whether good or bad.

A: And for that we give you praise and honor, O Lord, our great and awesome King. Amen.

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We’re starting a series on Paul to the Thessalonians. Not sure yet if we will go on into 2 Thessalonians or not. For now I want us to look at 1 Thessalonians and break it down to see what it says, and see what we can learn from it to help us in our understanding and walk with God.

As we go through this I encourage you to read and meditate on this letter in your own times of study and prayer. Let’s begin with some background.

The city of Thessalonica

 – still exists today. It’s the second largest city in Greece. In Paul’s day it was also a very important city. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, a free city which gave it various political privileges and it was prosperous, with a good sea port, on the main east-west trade route and also on a north-south highway. Here’s a map:

As we’ll see most of the Thessalonians came out of idolatry, which was everywhere, as it was in all Gentile cities. They worshipped Aphrodite, Apollo, Kabirus, Zeus, Isis – just to name a few. And they were quite devoted to the worship of Roman emperors as gods.

Paul’s visit to Thessalonica

 – was a part of his second missionary journey chronicled in Acts 17. He traveled from Antioch in Syria, to the Galatian churches, to Troas and then over to Macedonia, to Philippi and then Thessalonica.

After he established a church, a great conflict broke out and persecution, so Paul had to leave quickly. He went on to Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. This caused real anxiety for two reasons. First, these new believers were left facing persecution alone, and second he wasn’t done teaching them all that they needed to know before he had to leave (3: 2,10).

So he sent Timothy back to check on them (3:2), and when he reported back to Paul at Corinth with good news (3:6), Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as a response.

He wrote it around 50 AD, about 20 years after Jesus’ death. This was Paul’s second letter. And as such it is the second oldest New Testament document, after Galatians.

Let’s go through this a bit at a time.

The greeting – v. 1

“1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” This letter is actually from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. “We” language is prevalent throughout. But at several points “I” language comes out and it is clear that Paul is the one speaking (2:18, 3:5, 5:26).

[Silvanus (known as Silas in Acts) was from the Jerusalem church. He went with Paul after Paul and Barnabas separated. Timothy was a disciple from the Galatian city of Lystra that Paul picked up near the beginning of this mission trip. Timothy, of course, came to work with Paul long term.

The word “church” means “a gathering of people” – specifically of the people of God, modeled on the assembly of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness. Here Paul specifies that he is addressing the gathering in Thessalonica  – “in God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This in contrast to other gatherings, for instance the political gathering under Rome in Thessalonica.]

He begins by wishing them grace or God’s favor (an adaptation of the Greek “greetings”) and peace or wellbeing from God (from the typical Jewish greeting “shalom”).

The rest of chapter one is focused on –

Thanksgiving to God – vs. 2-10

“2We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers . . .” All of Paul’s letters, except Galatians, have a thanksgiving section. In this case Paul is really thankful because they are hanging in there with their faith. He wasn’t sure what was going on. His thanksgiving even spills over into chapters 2 and 3 as well.

He says that he gives thanks for them “always” and prays for them “constantly.” Now I would submit to you that this is not some super spiritual ability to give thanks and pray always even while you do other things. It is rather a reference to his daily prayers – as was the common Jewish tradition. He is simply saying that each morning and evening he mentions them in prayer to God.

He gives thanks specifically for their Christian lives. “3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”

“Faith, love and hope” is a common triad in Paul and it functions here as a summary of their Christian life. And it can for us too:

  • Faith has to do with what we believe and our trust in God for salvation
  • Love has to do with living the Christian life day in and day out
  • Hope has to do with what we look forward to when Jesus returns.

Paul is saying that their faith is producing works, their love labors and their hope steadfastness. They are doing well. And so he gives thanks for this.

He also gives thanks for God’s transforming work in them. “4knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

He notes God’s love for them and tells them that they are chosen, that is, they are a part of the people of God (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). They have been cut off from family and friends because they have turned away from their old lives, and they are being persecuted.

But they are “brothers and sisters” now; a part of a new group, a new family – the church.

How does he know this? Because God’s Spirit was really at work when he ministered to them, empowering Paul’s preaching and working in their hearts to bring them to full conviction of the truth. “Power” here most likely includes miracles. (Galatians 5:3, 2 Corinthians 12:12f, Romans 15:18-19)

Paul also gives thanks for their faithfulness in suffering. “5You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”

Paul is saying that they had just come from Philippi, having suffered for their faith and they were under threat in Thessalonica. And now the Thessalonians have imitated this example of faithful suffering for their faith.

There is actually a chain of imitation here: Jesus suffered for his faithfulness, Paul followed his example, the Thessalonians have now followed both Paul and Jesus, and now they are an example to others in Greece.

But not only did they suffer, they experienced “the joy of the Holy Spirit” in their suffering. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Even in suffering you can rejoice because of the knowledge that you will be blessed and because of the work of God in you by the Spirit.

Finally, Paul gives thanks for their witness. “8For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.”

The story of what God did among them and their faith has  spread throughout Greece (Macedonia and Achaia). And even beyond – “everywhere.” Everybody is hearing about their story.

“9For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Paul is hearing from others about what happened in Thessalonica. Perhaps others from Philippi and Berea came along with Timothy to report to him at Corinth.

And again we have a description of their Christian lives:

  • They turned to God from idols
  • They now they serve the living and true God
  • And now they wait for Jesus to return

And Paul is thankful for this.

As Paul gives thanks for all these things, several things stand out for us to reflect on.

How are you doing in your daily prayers?

What do you give thanks for without ceasing? Who do you pray for constantly? Just as Paul was an example for them (and us) in the area of faithfulness in suffering, so he is a model for us of disciplined prayer. How are you doing?

The gospel message

What Paul preached comes out clearly in just a few words in vs. 9-10. “. . . how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Let me highlight some things from these verses: 1) It has to do with a person named Jesus; 2) he is the Son of God; 3) he died and has been resurrected; 4) he was exalted to heaven; 5) we are to wait for his return; 6) final judgment or “wrath” is coming. This is God’s just judgment on human sin; 7) but Jesus is our deliverer.

The same question that confronted the Thessalonians when they heard this gospel still confronts us. Are we going to receive God’s mercy to us by putting our faith in Jesus – who delivers us from judgment for our sin?

We also get a picture of what –

A true Gospel transformation

– looks like. Think about your own life as we go through this. 1) The Spirit moved in their hearts – v. 5. There is not coming to God without God first coming to us and working in us. 2) They turned from idols to God, which speaks to true repentance – v. 9. 3) They serve God with their lives – v. 9.  4)  Their faith is producing works – v. 3.   5) Their love for others is evident in their behavior – v. 3. 6) They have steadfast hope as they wait for Jesus – vs. 3-10. And 7) they do all this while suffering for their faith with joy – v. 6.

God aims through his gospel to transform every part of us in just these ways. What does your Christian life look like? If this isn’t a picture of your Christian life, I encourage you now to renew your faith in Jesus and to invite the Holy Spirit into your life to transform you.

William Higgins

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This post has been moved – I dare you to pray this!

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