Friday, September 26, 2008

“Here Am I! Send Me”: The Prophet Isaiah

Isaiah was greatly blessed in that he had a straight-forward, positive call to his prophetic ministry. He had no reason to wonder if the Lord had called him.

Sometimes we moderns wonder if the Lord is calling us. “Master, hast Thou work for me?” is the title of an old hymn we used to sing when I was a child. It’s a great encouragement to a youth if he is told by a respected elder that God is calling him to some place in His work. I remember! From 75 years ago.

But the call of the Lord to Isaiah was not what you would want to tell everybody about, so they could have a party celebrating in your honor. “Hooray! Isaiah has a job working for the Lord!”

No, the young prophet (by the way, the little picture in our lesson showing him as a very old man is not correct), was overwhelmed with a sense of his own unworthiness—painfully so. Before he could appreciate his prophetic ministry he had to realize his pastoral ministry. His first concern was his tongue—his lips were “unclean.” How could he minister the word of God, with unclean lips?

He realized that by nature he was generating some unsanctified, worldly messages unconsciously, spreading unbelief and worldliness among God’s people. “Unclean lips”! He felt deeply convicted of his basic sin of heart.

Oh that Isaiah’s vision maybe shared by us all, today! No sermon should be proclaimed from a sacred desk through “unclean lips.” No Sabbath School lesson should be taught by “unclean lips.” If we trust our education in college or at the Theological Seminary, we are very likely to be talking with “unclean lips”—not that the education itself was faulty, but that pride has unconsciously gotten mingled in with our “education,” which has now been transformed into a works program. In this way our Laodicean condition of spiritual pride can develop. Unknown to ourselves, this is always unconscious until we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit through His gift of repentance.

Let no one think that if we are convicted deeply of our own inward sin that we are thereby disqualified from serving the Lord; Isaiah’s experience in chapter 6 encourages us to realize that at last we are students in the real “theological seminary” of the Holy Spirit’s tuition: His conviction of sin is going down deep to where conviction matters. That’s good news!

Isaiah’s experience will be that of the 144,000 of Revelation 14:1-5. A deep conviction of sin is good news because it means that the victory over the sin is taking place; these who stand before the throne of God “without guile” have been deep sinners, convicted by the same Holy Spirit who convicted young Isaiah. He felt in himself that “woe is me!” These 144,000 received the same conviction of sin with thankfulness of heart; that’s why they found their honored place in Revelation 14!

Those words “Woe is me for I am undone!” are to be spoken only to the Lord in the deep privacy of secret prayer. They are not to be spoken hastily while we jump up to go watch TV. And you don’t earn any “brownie points” if you wait and wait on your knees while this conviction of sin soaks in to your consciousness; the Lord is working on your heart! The Psalmist says, “I waited and waited and waited for the Lord, and He inclined unto me and heard my cry” (Psalm 40:1; the Hebrew doesn’t have an adverb “patiently”—it merely repeats the verb again and again).

You are not “waiting” as you do in a doctor’s office because he is too busy right now to see you; you are waiting and waiting in the Lord’s “office” because your heart needs to be weaned away from your natural love of self and of the world.

Dear sinner, you need to learn to “know the Lord,” and that takes time. Don’t begrudge it.

It’s time well spent!

Robert J. Wieland

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gifted for Service: Phillip

Gifted for Service: Phillip

Gifts of Grace. There was great grace upon the church under the “former rain” (Acts 4:33). However, conflict arose within the church even while the rain fell from heaven. So, is conflict always bad? Not if good comes from it as we observe in the history of the early church. Conflict calls for heart-searching and prayers for grace, faith, and wisdom.

The office of deacons came about because of ethnic conflict and division between two subcultures of Christian Jews—Hebrew and Greek. Jews from Greek cultures complained because their widows were neglected, administratively, in the early church (Acts 6:1). The attitudes exhibited were contrary to the principles of the gospel. Consequently, deacons were chosen to help relieve the symptoms that arose because of conflict.

Deacons were chosen because of their honesty and wisdom and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, whereby the love of God was shed abroad in their hearts (Acts 6:3; cf. Rom. 5:5). They were thus prepared to administrate in the church business affairs.

Persecution. The enemy of God and His church began to persecute the church. As a result Stephen, the first of seven deacons called to that office, was the first to be martyred for the gospel. Following his death, persecution of the church increased greatly. Church members were scattered to other nations. Philip fled to Samaria, where he preached the gospel. The deacon became an evangelist—an unintended consequence of persecution.

The Gospel. Philip knew the gospel. He had applied the principles in dealing with problems within the church. Following that he was called to preach the gospel to an amalgamated race—the Samaritans (Acts 8:5-8). Philip was a Grecian Jew, and as such was more broad-minded than Aramaic-speaking Jews from Israel, and thus went to the Samaritans and preached the gospel to them.

Next he instructed a spiritualist medium, Simon Magus, and baptized him (vss. 9-13). Finally Philip was used by God to teach the gospel to, and baptize, the treasurer of the kingdom of Ethiopia (vss. 26-39) who was traveling near the city of Gaza (today the Palestinian-administered city near the Mediterranean with the surrounding coastal district today called the Gaza Strip, adjoining the Sinai Peninsula) linked with Jerusalem by an important highway that went on to Egypt. The Ethiopian eunuch was traveling this road from Jerusalem. “Ethiopia” here refers to ancient Nubia, the region from Aswan in southern Egypt to Khartoum, Sudan. Notice in Acts 8 the description of Philip’s preaching of the gospel and the result:

His public ministry (8:4–8):

  1. The Person of Philip’s message: Philip tells the Samaritans about Christ.
  2. The power of Philip’s message.
    (a) The sick are restored, (b) the possessed are released, (c) the people rejoiced.
  3. Philip’s private ministry in the desert close to Gaza (8:26–40):
    1. The message from an angel: Philip is instructed to go to the Gaza desert.
    2. His meeting with the Ethiopian chief financial officer.
      1. The perplexity of the treasurer: Philip finds this man reading Isaiah.
        1. Reading the gospel of Isaiah 53:7–8; but cannot understand.
          1. Philip preaches the gospel of Christ to him.
          2. The treasurer confesses Jesus as the Son of God; Philip baptizes him.

Philip’s ministry at Azotus (Ashdod): After the treasurer was baptized, the Spirit of God immediately took Philip to the city of Azotus, where Philip resumes his preaching of the gospel, and then travels north to Caesarea (Acts 8:40), where his home was. The last mention of Philip is that of an evangelist living in Caesarea, about 20 years later, in whose home Paul stayed for a short time (Acts 21:8).

Lessons Concerning Minneapolis. The conflict in the church in Minneapolis was not over ethnic difficulties as in the early church in Jerusalem. Instead, the division was theological. In Minneapolis, the conflict was over the law in Galatians (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 234), the gospel, especially justification by faith understood as the faith of Jesus (Review and Herald, April 1, 1890), and the two covenants (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 623).

Had God’s gift of grace been operational in the church in 1888, as it was in the early church, the conflict would have been settled shortly. The church would have worked through the conflict and would have united under one Head. The “latter rain” would have been poured out from on high, would have done its work in the hearts of the church members, and she would have been prepared to give the “loud cry” which, in turn, would have prepared her for the ensuing persecution.

As with the early church, the members of the remnant would have been scattered everywhere throughout the world. The everlasting gospel message of the righteousness of Christ in the end-time setting would have been proclaimed with ten times the power of 1844 [1, 2] and as the result God’s people would have come out of Babylon in droves (Rev. 18:1-4). These would have joined God’s remnant, gifted by grace, and consequently prepared to meet the Lord at His return. That’s what might have been. And will be. Perhaps this generation.

—Gerald L. Finneman

[1] “This will come as suddenly as it did in ‘44 and with ten times the power.” A. T. Jones, “The Third Angel’s Message” #7, General Conference Bulletin, 1893.
[2] “I saw the latter rain was coming as the midnight cry, and with ten times the power.” E. G. White, Washington, NH, Spaulding and Magan Collection, Sept., 1852, p. 4.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Women of Mission

The Levitical rules given to Israel make an undeniable distinction between males and females. Generally, sacrificial offerings were to be a first born and unblemished male, although a significant exception was the peace offering (Lev. 3:1, 6). The days a mother was required to purify following the birth of a female child were twice as long as after the birth of a male child (12:1-5). The conclusion that giving birth to a female child made the mother more impure is difficult to avoid. Jewish sources held that the birth of a female child disarranged the organs and caused more suffering than the birth of a male child. This view is without basis in fact [1]. Several commentaries simply state there is no reason for the difference [2].

God must have had a reason, even though we may not see it. When the human race was sold by its first Adam into sin, all births in that lineage were “shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5, KJV).

Perhaps a better rationale is that the entire sacrificial system given to Israel was to constantly point forward to the coming of that male Child who would be the Savior of the world. Every Jewish woman hoped she might be honored to bring the Christ Child into the world. The veneration of the male first born child was designed to be a constant reminder of the blessed hope specially given to the nation of Israel. That it was perverted to distort the intrinsic value of the male over the female suggests that humans succumbed to Satan’s appeal to self-centered pride.

Once the Cross fulfilled all the typical sacrifices, the sacrificial system was no longer necessary to direct mankind’s attention to a future event. No longer did God forgive out of forbearance, but because of an accomplished historical fact. That event rewrote the history of mankind by placing the entire race into a new Adam. That Adam satisfied the demands of the law both by His sinless life and His paying the second death penalty for sin for the human race.

After the cross, Paul could declare “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28, 29). Paul is explaining that the history of mankind has been rewritten. The favored status of Israel is not changed, nor have the promises made to her, but who is an Israelite is revised to those who belong to Christ. It is significant that Paul even redefines the lineage of those who belong to Christ with the use of the words “seed” and “heirs.”

It was this background of what was misinterpreted as divinely sanctioned prejudice that Christ challenged by His interaction with women. His dealings with women were in fact most consistent with the Old Testament history of God’s even-handed interaction with women and men in the Old Testament. Rahab was a prostitute as was possibly the woman at the well (John 4). Sarah received the promise of a son from an angel much like the experience of Mary, the mother of Christ. The rules Christ “breaks” challenge the Levitical rules regarding ceremonially unclean women. He actually commends the woman with the hemorrhage who had the courage to break through artificial prejudice to seek healing.

Although not mentioned in the lesson, the widow with the “mite” is commended. She represents a class of people in great need who are ignored by society. She could have been intimidated by the comparative insignificance of her offering, but insisted on worshipping through giving, small though her contribution was.

As the New Testament unfolds the roles of men and women in the early church, differences seem to become irrelevant. Generally people’s contributions to the “cause” related to their station in life, whether male, female, wealthy, poor, educated or illiterate. God used them in ministry because they were willing to be used. No particular significance should be ascribed to their gender other than God uses the willing.

God does not revise society’s customs unless they interfere with mankind’s relationship to Him.. In His ministry while on earth, Christ made no “activist” attempts to change the norms of society other than by His quiet example. His interaction with people was the outworking of the principle that there is “neither male nor female.”

In Christ’s tender ministry to the widow of Nain we see a parable of the Elijah message in the last days. Occupying only six verses in Luke 7 (11-16), the story tells Christ’s entire mission. A widow is a woman whose husband has died. Her dead son was an orphan. When Christ touched the bier, He identified with the inevitable end of the entire human race. Because He was willing to do that, even the second death, He was entitled to claim the son back from the dead. Upon doing that, He then restored him to his mother.

The spiritual connotations of this story are enormous. The Elijah message will “... turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Luke 1:17), and “that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and [that] thou hast turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:37). Christ used this grieving woman to demonstrate His message of total restoration. He restores wayward rebellious children to their heavenly Father, and marries a woman without a husband to her heavenly Bridegroom. Taking her place as His bride, she is no longer second class and impure, but having made herself ready, she enters into the joy of her Lord.

—Arlene Hill

[1] SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 758
[2] e.g., Commentary on Leviticus, Matthew Henry.