Sunday, September 23, 2007

Humanity in Sin Part 28 - Abraham's Integrity

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 9th September 2007 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Note: There is no preaching in Newton Life on 16th and 23rd September.

Passage: Genesis 23

Genesis 22 told us about the sacrifice of Isaac. Genesis 23 talked about the death of Sarah. Abraham was 137 when Sarah died. Isaac married at 40 years old. About 3 years after Sarah died, Isaac married. So she did not witness the marriage of Isaac. She lived to 127 years. Abraham mourned for her. They had a good relationship and Abraham loved Sarah till she died. Abraham lived 38 years as a widower after Sarah’s death. It is very sad to lose one’s spouse at old age. It is very hard to adjust because they have spent such a long time to adapt.

We do not know how long Eve, Esther, Rahab, or even Mary lived. This is the only passage of the Bible where the lifespan of a woman is recorded. Sarah was 10 years younger than Abraham, and died earlier than Abraham. Hence for a long period of time Abraham had to live alone. A widow often would be able to arrange for her husband’s burial even though she never does it before. But a widower would find it hard to bury his wife. It is harder for a man to live alone than for a woman to live alone. In fact, the Bible says, “It is not good for a man be alone” but never says it is not good for a woman to be alone. Generally woman is able to live an orderly life alone, but it is difficult for a man to do so.

This is due to the differences between man and woman. Generally, man looks at big picture while woman looks at detail. Man takes care of career while woman takes care of the house. Man tends to rationality while woman to emotions. But here we see Abraham burying his wife.

Abraham is a man of integrity who knew his status very well. God had led him to Canaan and given him that land. By the promise of God, he was the rightful owner of the land. But practically he would not abuse that to demand his right from the inhabitants of the land. So he humbly said to them he was a foreigner living among them. This is the correct attitude. A lot of times Christians become arrogant and start to bully others on the basis that they have spiritual promises from God.

We are children of God. The earth and all that is in it belong to God. But temporarily God allows Satan to control the world. God says we do not belong to the world. He saved us from evil but put us in this world to live among the sinners as witnesses to His righteousness. Do we ask the Lord to bless us through the pagans or do we let others receive blessings through us?

As guests, we have to respect the owners of the house and appreciate what they have done. We cannot just take whatever they have and say this is our Father’s world. Abraham lived among the heathen. He pleaded with them to buy a property for his wife’s burial. He did not become arrogant or self-centered but followed the rules and regulation.

The leaders of the Hittite responded by saying Abraham was well-respected and they could give any land he wanted for free. Every pagan family knew him, honored him and liked him. Whichever land he chose, nobody would refuse him. It means Abraham was very successful socially. He had very good relationship with his neighbors. All the pagans honored him.
How many Christians are like that today? What sort of reputation do Christians have today? Unfortunately, although many people think Christianity are great they think Christians are not great. Many people agree the Bible is great but the believers are not. And many acknowledge Christian teaching is good but the teachers are not.

Abraham was a man of integrity. His relationship was real. He does not want to receive the things he ought not receive. He is not quick to take gain from others. He is different from Lot. At the saddest time of his life, he still stood by his principles and did not let his emotions to take over. He feared God and respected men. Once the price of the land was revealed, Abraham immediately paid.
When others are good to us, we should not grab the opportunity immediately. They might be testing us. They might want us to fall. Only those who are wise would not haphazardly accept the goodness of others. But even when we know it is genuine goodness, we still have to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate for us to receive them.

But today we do not distinguish what is from God and what is from Satan. Many Christians are quick to seize whatever they can gain. They base their meaning of life on profit and loss. We need to understand that when we gain something, it is not necessarily from God. Sometimes God also wants to test us whether we love money or we love Him, whether we will glorify God and will do things beneficial to mankind with what He gives.

Abraham became our example. He did not take advantage of others. He was very willing to pay the price. He was honored by the Hittites. He did not sell away his birthright and receive things haphazardly. 400 shekels is a lot of money. He paid the full price.
He dared to pay what he should, honor what he should and held fast to the right principles. The unbelievers would honor this kind of believer.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Humanity in Sin Part 27 - Give Me Your Only Son

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 2nd September 2007 in GRIIS. It was preached in Indonesian and I personally translated to English. Newton Life has it preached in Mandarin with English translation.
Note: I did not attend the service but did my transcript by translating from Indonesian transcripts.

Passage: Genesis 22:4-18

On the third day, Abraham looked up and knew that he had reached the place where he was to sacrifice his son to God. This is a very good example for us to follow. He was very sensitive and responsive to God’s command. Once he heard it, he headed towards the right direction, he did not turn to the left or to the right and reached the correct destination. How many of us could follow God so closely?

When God asks for our “only son”, we should be willing to dedicate him to God. Genesis 22 is the only passage in the Bible where God asked man to sacrifice his only son to Him to see man’s reaction towards Him. But more important than that is the significance and meaning behind this event, that is the fact that God gave His One and Only Son to us. In the Old Testament, there is only one instance where a man gave his only son to God. In the New Testament, there is only one instance where God gave His only begotten Son to men.

When God asked Abraham to offer Isaac to Him, Abraham did not discuss with his wife. He simply obeyed. When he was about to kill Isaac, God asked him to stop. We need to be sensitive to God’s leading, to be ready to change and not have our thinking bounded by tradition. In our difficulties, we too often complain to God and judge Him. But God cannot be judged. When men judge God, He keeps silent. When He keeps silent, instead of becoming irreverent, we need to quiet our heart and ponder how we should react before Him.

What is the meaning of the fear of the Lord? That means we are willing to accept everything under His sovereignty, even when we cannot understand. Faith is acknowledging God’s sovereignty and submitting our soul to our Maker who reigns over all.

Abraham did not discuss with his wife in this matter. There are times where husbands have to make tough decisions in ministry and avoid the influence of emotions from their wives. Many ministers fail because their wives have too much say in their ministry and they obey their wives while men ought to be the head of the household. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman. This order cannot be violated because God has ordained it according to His will. If we want to do God’s will, God has to be the first before our family. The church has to be more important than ourselves.

Abraham asked his servants to stay while he continued to walk with Isaac. The Bible said Abraham carried the fire and the knife while he placed the wood for burnt offering on the shoulder of Isaac. A father who allows burden on his son is a very good father. A father who gives all the facilities his son needs deprives his son of fighting opportunities. Young people who are willing to work hard and to face difficulties, but willing to live a simple life, will be used by God. The world will become a better place when there are people who are willing to sacrifice and deny themselves. This is the teaching of the Scripture.

On their way up, Isaac asked Abraham where the lamb of the burnt offering was. At this point, Abraham continued to walk up. There was no point of return. This is the way to obey God. Many people give God promises but never fulfil them. But Abraham simply told his son that God would provide the lamb. Is this an honest statement? The Scripture did not comment. Isaac might run away and told Sarah if Abraham told him that he was the lamb to be sacrificed.

When they reached the place, the prepared the altar together. After that, Abraham bound Isaac and laid him on the altar. This is an existential moment for Isaac, where he realized that he is a human being and not a lamb. But at this point Isaac was submissive. Serving God is not easy. We need to be willing to obey first. When we willingly obeyed, we will see the glory of God. The Levites need to step their feet on the Jordan river first before the river was split into two. Without obedience, we will not see the glory of God.

Did not God promise Abraham that his descendants would multiply as the sand of the sea and the stars in the sky? But the reality was that Isaac was the only son of Abraham at that time. Abraham was already very old and it would be even harder to have another son. But when God speaks, that is final, supreme and there is no return. Great artists like Rembrant and Carvagio take this theme as an inspiration to draw how Abraham killed his son. They would have read and reflected the Bible many times to capture the significance and detail of this event. In this way, their drawings could portray the meaning of the passage. In the same way, pastors and preachers ought to deeply reflect on the Scripture to deliver preaching responsibly.

Just when Abraham was about to slay his son, an Angel called out and asked him to stop. And God re-confirmed His promise to Abraham that He would make his descendents to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand of the seashore. Here God swore by His own name. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament quotes this. God swore by Himself because there is none greater than Him.

The Book of Hebrews gives very amazing and accurate arguments on why Abraham was able to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is because he could see with the eyes of faith. Since God promised that his descendants would multiply through Isaac and since God asked him to sacrifice Isaac, he believed that even if Isaac died, God had the power to raise him from the dead and God would raise him from the dead. Here we see the concept of resurrection for the first time in history. The concept of resurrection did exist in one of the Egyptian myth at that time. So did Abraham get his inspiration from these myths? Not at all. Myth is myth but what Abraham was facing was the reality of sacrificing his own son and he believed God would resurrect him. This is true faith. Faith is walked out in daily life and does not rest in mythology.

Abraham did not sacrifice his son because God stopped him. However, God did sacrifice His One and Only Son. When Christ came to earth, He really suffered and died and rose from the dead. God tested Abraham whether Abraham really loved Him by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. But more than that, God let us see how much He loved us when He sent His Son to be born in a manger, to suffer persecution and to shed blood and die on the cross. Only once in history did God ask man to sacrifice his only son as an expression of love to God. And only once in history God sacrificed His Only Son for our sin. This will never be repeated.

Are we willing to give our best to God? What and who is our “only son”? It could be our career, our hobby or our loved one. God has the right to take anything away from us. A lot of times His demand seem to be illogical based on our fallen logic.

When Jesus asked Matthew to follow Him, he simply left everything and followed Him. When Jesus asked Peter to follow Him, likewise Peter left everything and followed Him. But today we like to follow half-heartedly. We want to hold both worldly and spiritual riches. If God calls us fulltime, we should not dedicate ourselves as part timers.* If God calls us part time, we should not dare ourselves to be fulltimers. It is not by might nor power, but by the Spirit of the Lord.

* Translator’s Notes: According to the doctrine of vocation, all Christians are fulltimers in that we do everything unto the Lord. In the past, being a parttimer and fulltimer are more straightforward. But in today’s society, in the age of labor mobility and globalization, there is blurring distinction between what is “full time” and what is “part time”.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Humanity in Sin Part 26 - Abraham Offered Isaac

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 26th August 2007 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English Translation.

Passage: Genesis 22:1-18

Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. Abraham was a person with a simple faith towards God. Sarah made use of her life experiences and rationality to respond to God’s promises. This is the method of liberal theology in 19th century, which put a lot of emphasis on science, human phychology, experience and rationality. They want to use science and medical principles to determine whether it is reasonable. Christianity accepted this kind of method in 19th century. This is anthropocentric methodology. Man-centered approach can never produce great faith. All sort of explanations will be subjective through limited reason and tools of knowledge that has been stained by sin.

The revealed truth of the Bible, on the other hand, not only has the content of the truth, but the principles and approaches towards faith. The Scripture is not constraint by systems of thought and transcends nature. Abraham believed that God creates reason, nature and humans, so God must transcend reason, nature and humans.

Abraham viewed the world as an open system, while Sarah viewed it as a closed system. These two represent the two great systems in history. Apostle’s Creed’s first statement, “I believe in the Father, Creator of the heaven and earth.” already broke through Greek’s close system. Christianity starts a new page in history and reveals the relationship between God and the created world in creation and salvation. This is the foundation of Abraham’s faith.

He demonstrated his faith in God the Creator when he believed in God’s promise that he would have a son in his old age. If God could create all things out of nothing, why can’t one believe that God can enable an old person to have a child? For nothing is impossible for God.

After God gave him Isaac, God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But Isaac was still a child, not married and had no kids yet, so if he died, God’s eternal promise would be disrupted. What kind of faith did Abraham have when he sacrificed Isaac? The New Testament reveals that Abraham acted in obedience based on his faith in God who could resurrect the dead. This is salvation.

According to Islam, Isaac was never the only son of Abraham. He already had Ishmael for 13 years before Isaac was born. So Islam believes that the Bible’s record is wrong. Islam accepts four books of revelation, the Law, the Psalms, the Gospels and Quran. It also has the concept that the newer revelation is more important and accurate than the older revelation.

Reformed theology believes in continuity between the old and the new testament but emphasizes that there should be no contradiction because of God’s consistent character. It has a different doctrine of revelation from Islam.

The Scripture says only through Sarah would the seed be reckoned, hence in that sense, Isaac is the only son of Abraham. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him. This seemed very cruel. Since God had given Isaac to Abraham, the long-awaited promised son, why then He asked him to offer his child as a sacrifice?

When Abraham heard this command, he replied with the instinct that God is the Lord. Early in the morning, he woke his son and got ready to move. This time the Scripture did not record that he discussed with Sarah. Sarah might have argued with him if he did.

Abraham saw the place God had prepared on the third day. It means the journey was quite a long one. Why would God demand he travel so far away? This is related to God’s timing. The theology of time is greatly neglected because people want instant- noodle theology. People cannot wait and want to see results right away. But God wants us to learn to wait on His timing. God’s timing often transcends our thoughts, which through our trials and reflections, we will gradually learn. We often do not realize that we are proud and think we have the ability to do what God wants us to do with our own strength and in our own way.

When Israel was about to enter Canaan, God did not let them go through the nearer path, but through the wilderness. God is not constrained by time, so He never hurries, but for us as human beings, we are anxious because we feel we have not much time. In our actions that are based on our anxiety, we often clash with God’s timing.

On the third day, Isaac asked Abraham where was the lamb for sacrifice. In this great difficulty, Abraham said, “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for burnt offering.” This is the extension of Abraham’s faith. The God who could not make a mistake had commanded something so difficult and seemingly contradictory.

Abraham could escape God’s command for a thousand reasons. Didn’t God promise that his descendants will be reckoned through Isaac? Would not His eternal will be thwarted if Isaac died? He had reasons to disobey. But Abraham saw this from the eyes of faith. The book of Hebrews said that Abraham believed that God would resurrect Isaac from the dead. God is the God who creates something out of nothing, who provides all our needs, who resurrects the dead. The extension of our faith would enable us to understand that God would provide on His mountain.

Whatever God has given us, He has the right to take it away. Are we willing to surrender to Him what is most precious to us? Let us learn to respond in worship and submission like Abraham.

Humanity in Sin Part 25 - Isaac and Ishmael

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 19th August 2007 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English Translation.

Passage: Genesis 21:1-21

Abraham was already very old and Sarah’s menstruation had stopped. It is beyond reason, science and experience for Sarah to give birth to a child in her old age. Beyond all these, God fulfilled His promises. Sarah felt ashamed that she once mocked the words of God using human reason. Using her own finiteness, she judged God as finite too. The covenant did not seem to be reasonable. It is normal for Sarah to feel that way because God’s promise was not normal.

Yet Abraham believed in God beyond the limits of nature. The God Abraham believed in is the God who creates something out of nothing (God the Creator) and resurrects the dead (God the Savior). The Bible tells us that Abraham is the father of faith. If we believe in God as Abraham did, we are Abraham’s children. Therefore the New Testament refer Abraham’s children as those who are spiritual descendents rather than physical descendents of Abraham.

When God’s timing comes, all the things He has promised will come true. But when does God’s timing come? This is a difficulty for us. Many people have academic knowledge, but the time to truly understand the knowledge might not have come. Systematic theology lacks the study regarding theology of time. Many people spend a lot of time to achieve degrees but they still do not know God. It has to come through our struggles when we walk with God.

Abraham was obedient to God. Whatever God told him, he almost never debated. It seems like Abraham was not a rational person. But Abraham did know that God’s promises transcended nature. Sarah seems like a rational person but allowed her rationality to hinder her faith. So she walked ahead of God and suggested to Abraham to sleep with Hagar her maid. But God’s promise never needs the intervention of man. When we try to help God, we will create mess for ourselves.

Many spiritual failures result not because we do not have enough knowledge, but because we do not follow the timetable of God. We want to see the results now. The Bible shows that Sarah was 14 years ahead of God’s timing. Ishmael was born as a result. Just because of this one mistake, it resulted in wars between two nations for thousands of years. The most difficult problem today is religious hatred, not political, environmental or scientific problems. Judaism and Islam could never solve their problem because their faith does not have the concept of forgiveness for their enemies.

When Jesus Christ came, we are taught to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. These statements are the greatest breakthroughs in history on ethics. Not only He taught these, He walked them out. Later on, Stephen was inspired and walked in the same path. It became a new ethical history for Christianity. Whether Judaism or Islam, they could not produce such a high standard of ethics and the spirit to pray, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

At the height of technological development, we will see the war of Armageddon. It would surpass all other wars. The Arabian population is increasing today and their hatred for Judaism is very great. The Arabian population came from the descendants of Ishmael. And Ishmael was born because of Sarah’s suggestion.

Man is the head of the household. A good wife is the glory of a family. This is the status of a crown. It was a mistake for Abraham to accept Sarah’s suggestion immediately and forgot his status as the head of the family. Sarah rationalized God’s promise and asked Abraham not to wait, but to get a child by sleeping with her maid. This sort of suggestion would be accepted by many men because it sounded very reasonable and gave men a kind of ‘freedom’ to enjoy themselves. We are in danger if we listen to our wives when we should not.

Sometimes we have great ideal but we cannot reach it so we give it up. As is the case, both Abraham and Sarah misinterpreted God’s promise. God must have been disappointed by Abraham’s decision. After 13 years, God told Abraham that he would become a father, although Abraham had been a father for 13 years. He was far too early from God’s timing.

The time God has appointed is something we cannot alter on our own. The Scripture frequently emphasizes the importance of right timing. When the time had not come, Jesus would not go to Jerusalem. When the time had not come, Jesus forbade the disciples to proclaim He was the Son of God. He lived according to the timetable of God. Why would He be born only many thousands of years after Adam’s Fall? Why would Jesus preach only when He reached 30 years old? Why would God abandon Moses for 40 years in the desert? Because the time has not come.

We cannot fight against it, we can only obey. We should not reject God’s timing, but we should learn. Scripture says that at the appointed time, Jesus was born under the law through a woman. Scripture says that Jesus died on the cross according to the time set by God. When entering garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sang the Psalms 118, with this phrase. “This is the day that the Lord has made.” That was the day for His passion, not earlier, not later.

Abraham and Sarah could not understand this. So they are 14 years ahead of God. The descendants of Ishmael become a terrorist group today. There are many good Muslims as well and although not all Muslims are terrorists group, almost terrorist groups are Muslims. They have become the greatest threat in the civilization of mankind.

Do not be too eager when God’s timing has not arrived. When we oppose the will of God and do not follow His timing, we create disasters for ourselves. Going against God’s timing, a lot of charismatic churches want quick growth so they throw away God’s principles and do things their own way. God’s judgment would come to those who treat Him lightly, like Uzzah who tried to hold on to the ark of God and was smitten by God.

Sarah realized her mistake when she saw 14-year-old Ishmael mocking her 1-year-old Isaac. Till today, Islam still looks at Christianity and Judaism with this attitude of seniority because they reckon their ancestor was the elder brother.

Sarah was very furious. She went to tell Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael could not stay with them anymore. Abraham was very distressed because Ishamel was his son after all. The heart of a woman is often more narrow in this matter because she wants to protect the orthodoxy of the family.

It is difficult to turn around once a mistake was made. It was easy to do the first thing, but difficult to solve it. Abraham was indecisive about this. Abraham could be harsh to Sarah and said he was the head the household, but he kept quiet. This became a great conflict in the family. At the most crucial time, the wife thinks she is right, the husband thinks he is right and both look at each other as ridiculous. This is the time they need to get back to the Word of God.

God said something unusual. He asked Abraham to listen to Sarah. It was a difficult moment. 14 years ago, Abraham accepted immediately when she suggested him to sleep with Hagar. But now he was not willing to accept when she asked to send Hagar off because of Ishamel. On Hagar’s side, she lived under a mistress and accepted the love of a married man. After so many years living in this condition, Hagar could not solve her family problem and in the end she had to leave with nothing. We are inviting trouble when we get involved in family conflict. We should never accept the love and feelings of those who are already married.

When all these happen, God stood with Sarah. This tells us that God honors the status of othodox marriage. So God commanded Abraham to listen to Sarah. It was a humbling moment for Abraham because he did not need to defend this wrong sexual relationship anymore. He had to admit it was wrong and to banish her with her son. Abraham did not debate or defend himself. He obeyed God. He brought water and food to Hagar and sent her away. God told Abraham that His promise is to be reckoned through Isaac, but He would bless Ishmael as well.

After Hagar was asked to leave, she finally had to accept that the man in the house was not her husband. After so many years of living in luxury, she was now without any house and possessions. Hagar left because she could not bear to see her son die. But the angel of God heard the boy’s cry because Ishmael after all was still a son of Abraham. God still had grace on Ishmael. The child of illegitimacy is still God’s creation.

In the second commandment, God says He would bless the descendents of those who love Him up to 1000 generations, but will punish the children of those who hate Him down to the third and forth generation. It is hard to understand how 1000 generations of blessings relate with 3-4 generations of curses.

If a man hates God and worship idols, he put himself under bondage of evil spirit for a few generations and God allows that. But if someone under this generational curse turns to God, the blessings of a thousand generations will be upon him. The Apostle Peter said He saved us from the bondage that come from our ancestors. If one generation is about 40 years, then 1000 generations is about 40,000 years. Since Abraham until today, we have not even passed 10,000 years yet. So this 1000 generations should be understood as partaking in the blessings of eternal life.

In matters of sex, we need to be extra careful. We have to follow the will of God. In the way we treat time, we cannot rely on our rationality and impulse to change the will of God. In selection of our spouse, we need to be cautious to follow God’s principle. Family conflicts are difficult to solved in a short time. A mistake could bring a lifetime pain. With an attitude of carrying the cross, we need to learn to accommodate and love one another.