For the Sake of One

Jesus and the disciples had just crossed the stormy sea of Galilee, arriving at the land of Gennesaret (or Gergesenes, or Gadarenes). The moment He embarked He encountered a man possessed by many demons (a “Legion” of them). After He cast them out, the people in that area made Him leave, and so He did. (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39).

In another incident, Jesus trekked all the way to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and He did not want anyone to know about it. Inevitably, word got around and He was found by a Syro-Phoenician woman, who begged Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter. She was not discouraged by Jesus’ insult and her humility was rewarded. The Bible does not say whether Jesus did anything else in that region and He seemingly departed and returned to the the region of Decapolis (around where He encountered Legion), where He healed many. (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30).

In both of these cases, Jesus went to predominantly Gentile regions for a short period of time, healed a single person, and left. There may be multiple reasons for this with various interpretations, but I think one of them is He went specifically for these single individuals. Although neither the demon-possessed man nor the Canaanite woman were Jewish, He sought them out, knowing not only how much they needed Him, but how much they hoped to find Him. Sure, the journeys may have been troublesome, far, and incredibly roundabout, but Jesus loves every man. A single precious soul is worth it.

At times we are overtaken by numbers. We evaluate the worth of an effort or initiative by numbers (for good, valid, and practical reasons!). But if we’re not careful it may lead to thinking that isn’t Christ-like. We may become discouraged if there’s only one truthseeker at an evangelical event. We may start to feel disappointed if only a few members show up to listen to our sermon, or weary if only 2-3 students can participate in our awesome lesson plan. Perhaps we grumble if we need to pick up a truthseeker who lives far from church. Overall, we may feel that the effort, time, and labor that we put into planning, coordinating, and preparing is not worth the result. And before we know it, pride has displaced the love of God in our servitude. It has pushed aside the love of the souls which our work is supposed to bring closer to God.

God values every single soul. The work of God does not cater only to large crowds but also to individuals. God may guide us in a way that is contrary to what we expect or think is more sensible, until He reveals the single or few people that He wants us to draw closer to Him.

The example of Philip comes to mind. He was preaching in Samaria and brought many people to believe in God, but then God told him to leave and go into the desert (Acts 8:26). Philip may have wondered, “Why? What can I do in the desert? There’s no one there!” Philip remained submissive, however, and when he saw the Ethiopian eunuch in the distance, he understood. The Lord had brought him there so he could preach to this one person who was diligently searching the Scriptures for God.

May we shed any self-interest in our service to God, and rededicate our efforts towards edification of others. It doesn’t matter if our work affects many, or simply one. All are dear to our Lord Jesus Christ.

A Lesson on Spiritual Battles from Joshua 10 and 11

If we read Joshua 10 and 11, we’ll find that they are quite similar in terms of content. Both describe how Joshua and the Israelites conquered many of the Canaanite kings and cities. Chapter 10 talks about the conquest of the southern region of Canaan, and chapter 11 the northern region. In both scenarios, various Gentile kings joined forces (10:3-5, 11:1-5), but God gave Joshua assurance of victory beforehand (10:8, 11:6).

Obviously not everything in these two chapters are the same. Aside from the synoptic differences of who and what and where, however, there is at least one key difference that stuck out to me which we can learn from. The difference is clearly apparent in the text, but because of how similarly the chapters are narrated, it can still be easy to overlook.

So Joshua conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded. And Joshua conquered them from Kadesh Barnea as far as Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even as far as Gibeon. All these kings and their land Joshua took at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel.
(Jos 10:40-42)

Thus Joshua took all this land: the mountain country, all the South, all the land of Goshen, the lowland, and the Jordan plain—the mountains of Israel and its lowlands, from Mount Halak and the ascent to Seir, even as far as Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings, and struck them down and killed them. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings.
(Jos 11:16-18)

The victories in the south in chapter 10 were accomplished “at one time,” namely in a short period of time. But in chapter 11, it tells us that in addition to the southern lands, the rest of Canaan took a long time to conquer. A parallel to our spiritual lives is easy to develop. Some battles are short, where we need only to rely on God for a moment to attain victory. Examples might include an exam that we need to do well on, a sickness/injury that we sustain, or a decline in business as a result of observing Sabbath. Others, however, are long, drawn out struggles that require a persevering reliance on God and resolve to fulfill His commandments. Examples here might include a personal weakness that we struggle to overcome, trying to convert a loved one to Christ, or building up a local church in unity and harmony. A biblical example that I’ve heard others mention is David. His confrontation with Goliath was brief, but he was on the run from Saul and others for much longer.

There are two main takeaways that come to mind.

First, we need to always remember that some struggles will be short and others long. As people we tend to be impatient, especially since technology is continually allowing us to do things faster and faster. We want our problems to be resolved quickly, and there’s an expectation for God to remove our obstacles at will. We want the best way to be the fastest way. Consequently, when things don’t pan out the way we wish, disappointment and bitterness start to creep in our hearts. These sentiments can cause our faith to become cynical and our love to grow colder. They may cause us to doubt God and question whether He really is with us or not. All because we are impatient. On the other hand, if we always keep in mind that some struggles will be long and drawn out, we will be less likely to feel such disappointment when something doesn’t work out the way we expect. We’ll understand that this is normal, and we will not allow our faith and love to be affected by setbacks. Our servitude remains pure.

Second, in the long struggles, we need to continue working tirelessly. There is a tendency to slack and lower our guard or standard during extended periods of work. The more time and energy we put into something, the less we are inclined to expend going forward. Arguably, we are more susceptible to compromise the longer we do something. But we see in Joshua chapters 10 and 11 that Joshua and the Israelites were always on the offensive, traveling far from their camp on foot to attack the other cities. They continued to fight every city, never trying to make peace with them (11:19-20), and thoroughly destroyed the inhabitants as God commanded Moses. Despite the length of time it took, Joshua “left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (11:15).

Furthermore, sometimes in long struggles, we may not see God working as evidently. In chapter 10, the work of God was very clear; He sent hail stones on the enemy that killed more men than the Israelites killed (10:11), and at Joshua’s word, the day was extended so that the Israelites could continue pursuing the enemy, not allowing any to escape in the darkness (10:12-14). No such sign, however, was recorded in chapter 11. Despite this, Joshua and the Israelites were still able to persist in their resolve to thoroughly obey God’s commandments. The lack of a sign did not discourage them. Similarly, we should not allow ourselves to be discouraged either if it seems that God is not working with us.

The life of a Christian is full of spiritual warfare. We need to arm ourselves with the fact that some battles may be taxing but short, and others painfully long. And that regardless of the length of the struggle, we must strive to uphold our determination and resolve to obey God’s commandments without compromise. This is the attitude we need to maintain when conquering the sin in our lives, and in fulfilling the commission of the church.

A Noble Task

1 Timothy 3:1 NIV

“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.”

This chapter describes the criteria and qualifications of being an overseer (or “bishop”) and a deacon. As indicated by the first verse, the description that follows is not for those who are already a deacon or overseer (though I’m sure it serves as excellent reminders), but for those who desire to become one. It is not a list of requirements by which we judge existing church workers, but a set of spiritual goals and standards which we are to diligently pursue if we wish to dedicate ourselves to and become worthy of serving the church.

And to pursue diligently is by no means an overstatement. The standards are high, beginning with “above reproach,” or blameless. To desire to serve the Lord is no casual matter; it’s an ambition.

In our society it is typical for people to have ambitious career goals. If we want to get into a prestigious university, we have to study hard and take up a lot of extracurriculars to develop our intelligence and well-roundedness. If we want become a technical expert, we must do a lot of hands-on and theoretical training, and constantly keep up with the latest tools and technologies. If we want to become a doctor we need to score well on the MCATS and excel in medical school. If we want to become a patent agent, there’s this assessment called the patent-bar exam which requires hours upon hours upon hours of memorizing all the material in a ridiculously thick book (ask my sister). Bottom-line: when we want to achieve something or become someone noteworthy in society, we take it seriously, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to fulfill any prerequisites and pass any test or assessment with flying colors. Only those who excel in the necessary qualities will make the cut, and so in this way, we egg ourselves on.

Again, to serve the Lord in His church is an ambition. We might think “as long as I have the desire to serve, then God will accept me,” maybe because it’s more politically correct, or because it seems more loving. But in my opinion, this is a gross oversimplification.

If I have the desire to be a doctor (hypothetically speaking of course), then can I just begin treating patients? If I have the desire to get a PhD (again, hypothetically speaking), then can I just expect to get a diploma?

Is not God higher than all these? Is not His house more honorable than any worldly office? Thus, if I have the desire to serve God in His house, then can I just begin to be lead and teach others or make decisions? Of course not.

At the end of Joshua’s life, Joshua told the Israelites to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” (Joshua 24) and the people emphatically said,

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”

This is a good and touching response. But how did Joshua answer them?

“You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins…Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord God of Israel.”

Thus, in order to serve the holy God, we ourselves must be holy, set apart, above reproach, blameless. When others commit adultery, we are faithful to our spouse. When others indulge, we exercise self control. When others are given to drunkenness in wine or pleasure, we remain sober-minded. When others are inappropriate and despicable, we are respectable and of good behavior. The list goes on – not violent, not greedy for money, not quarrelsome, not covetous, able to manage his family. When others’ hearts are inclined towards themselves, our hearts are inclined towards God and his household. Only those who excel in these necessary qualifications are worthy to serve.

“They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.”

We may devote much time and effort in becoming somebody of consequence in this world, but no matter how much we invest, the results are temporary. But if we dedicate and offer ourselves for a spiritual ambition, the results are eternal. Wouldn’t obtaining an eternal reward require a much greater investment than something temporary? Therefore, let us reevaluate our perspective towards serving the holy God. If we are given an opportunity to serve the church in any capacity, let us not regard it casually but rather in reverence by keeping holiness with all diligence.

If anyone desires to serve the Lord, he desires a noble task. But the privilege and honor of serving is not simply only given, but also earned.

Serving Two Masters

Mat 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Mat 6:25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

Maybe this is a “duh” realization to other people, but recently I started to think about this serving two masters concept differently from how I used to think. I used to think that this passage was saying serving two masters is wrong, that it is a sin to serve both God and mammon (or money, wealth, etc). Serving two masters is akin to idolatry, and God deserves our undivided heart.

That’s all true and I’m not disagreeing with any of that. But upon reading the whole worrying segment of Jesus’ sermon with a clean slate, I felt that these verses were plainly emphasizing a slightly different concept.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

This verse doesn’t say it is wrong to serve two masters; it’s saying we can’t. As in, it is impossible to actually serve two masters, and even if we tried to, we’d end up serving one. We can relate this to the thorny soil in the parable of the sower.

“Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.”

This can be thought of as a person who was trying to serve two masters. He heard the word and wanted to grow in it, but the cares (or worries, anxiety, etc) of the world made him spiritually unfruitful. In other words, although he tried to serve both God and riches, he ended up serving riches.

What does this mean for us? I’ve already talked about how much we tend to worry about our education and careers – after all, these are for our livelihood and future prosperity. But is our livelihood taking priority over our desire to grow in the Lord? Are we trying to bear fruit among thorns?

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life…”

The fact that this immediately follows vs.24 was a bit jarring to me. If we find ourselves worrying often, that is a symptom of trying to serve two masters. If we let this worrying continue, most likely the deceitfulness of riches will win out. “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!”

So, the conclusion is the same as the previous post’s – don’t worry :) How can we get to a point of not worrying? One way is to learn from the multitude of the 5000. They valued the words of God more than their livelihood, and followed Jesus for three days and did not have food. Some of them may have worried about not having anything to eat and may have returned home on day 2. But for those who worried and endured till day 3, Jesus had compassion on them and filled them, and they realized their worrying was needless. Once we experience and are aware of God’s grace, I believe we can leave behind a lot of worrying. Another way to alleviate our worrying is to simply read the rest of Matthew 6 after vs.25 :p

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Note, not worrying is not equivalent to being complacent (and lazy) and not working hard, thinking we’ll get food or riches or whatever spoonfed to us (that was a lot of “not’s” in that sentence!). Being diligent and being worrisome are obviously two different things. Jesus concludes Matthew 6 with “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.” That means that today, we still do what we need to do to carry on, without getting caught up in worries over the future.

God has many promises for us; but in order for us to obtain those promises, we must pull our own weight. There are many examples of this in the Bible – if you can think of one off the top of your head, please share in the comments!

If God is For Us

Rom 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

This is a verse that is often quoted, but sometimes out of context or without a specific enough reason. I’ve heard it used for encouraging us to be bold about our beliefs and preach with courage. I’ve heard it used for general exhortation, as a “If we want to do the will of God, nothing can stop us” sort of message. And I’ve heard it used for generic encouragement – if someone comes up to us and tells us he is struggling with something, say, trying to bring a family member back to church, all we need to do is throw out this verse.

Although there is nothing wrong with these messages, I think because we’ve heard them so much, they may have hindered us from thinking about this verse in a fresh perspective (actually I think this applies to pretty much every frequently-quoted Bible passage and story). Thus, I would like to offer another perspective, graciously given to me by God, of Romans 8:31 that has been floating in my mind over the course of the last half year or so. Continue reading

Borne by Four

And again he entered into Capernaum, after some days, and it was heard that he is in the house, (2) and immediately many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door, and he was speaking to them the word. (3) And they come unto him, bringing a paralytic, borne by four, (4) and not being able to come near to him because of the multitude, they uncovered the roof where he was, and, having broken it up, they let down the couch on which the paralytic was lying, (5) and Jesus having seen their faith, saith to the paralytic, `Child, thy sins have been forgiven thee.’
Mark 2:1-5 YLT

East Bay Fellowship studied Mark 2 this past week, which includes the famous healing of this paralytic. This account is often referred to when talking about the importance of spiritual companionship and tight friendship. After all, it is indeed touching how these four friends went out of their way to bring the paralytic to Jesus. However, I want to bring up a slightly different way of looking at this passage.

Let’s look at verse 3:

And they come unto him, bringing a paralytic, borne by four…

We frequently say these four must have been good and close friends with each other and with the paralytic because of their actions. But if we just look at verse 3 alone, there isn’t any indication of such a relationship. Many modern translations say “four men” probably for completion’s sake, but even that doesn’t imply any sort of  relationship. For all we know, these four could’ve been close friends, mere acquaintances, or random strangers who, on their way to see Jesus, saw the paralytic and out of the goodness of their hearts decided to lend a helping hand.

How could this change the way we think about this passage? Let me share my own personal example and thinking.

After a sermon, the speaker typically goes over prayer requests before prayer which often include those who are sick physically or spiritually, and those who seldom or never come to church anymore. This summer I had the opportunity to visit many True Jesus Churches in other countries and attend service, and at each one the speaker would mention people to pray for, some by name. Being a visitor, I didn’t recognize any of the names since I didn’t know everyone. Whenever I heard these prayer requests, I never felt a strong urge or obligation to pray for them, particularly for lost sheep. I found myself thinking, “members who don’t come to church anymore – not really my problem; they’re the responsibility of their close friends and peers.”

And yet, the paralytic was carried possibly by four strangers; four people who climbed onto the roof, dug through it, and lowered the paralytic down in order to bring him to the presence of Jesus. And I was one of the many in the multitude who passed by the paralytic and did nothing, like the priest and Levite who saw the man beaten by the road and passed by on the other side. But the four, who may have coincidentally walked by the paralytic on the side of the road, had compassion – they were living examples of the good Samaritan.

We know the moral of the story of the good Samaritan well; we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and our neighbor is whoever is in need. When we listen to prayer requests, we are learning who our neighbors are, and Jesus commanded us to love not just our friends, but our neighbors as ourselves. Doing a favor for a friend? No problem. But how much out of our way are we willing to go for people we may not know so well or not know at all? Those who are sick either physically or spiritually, those who are lost, those who are paralyzed – whether strangers or friends – they are our responsibility. We can either be part of the multitudes who pass them by, or be part of the few good Samaritans. Let us choose to have compassion.

An Admirable Faith

So I’m quite behind in posting my reflections on the book of Joshua, which I finished reading last semester. Hopefully with better time management I can sort of catch up in Bible reading and reviewing lessons learned from Bible study, sermons, seminars, etc, and then try to post some for mutual edification. And as always, discussion is welcome.

I’d like to share something about Joshua that I find very admirable, humbling, and very much worth learning from. Those who are Christian know the character – after Moses died, Joshua was the one who lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan, and had victory upon victory upon victory over many of the nations inhabiting the land at the time. Joshua chapter 12 lists 31 kings that the Israelites conquered under Joshua’s leadership, with an army that had never seen war prior to entering Canaan. Sometimes we take this for granted because we’ve heard the stories many times, but if we really think about it, that’s simply amazing. Joshua was the man! Continue reading