Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Humanity in Sin Part 53: The Silver Cup

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 4th May 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: Genesis 44

When we read the difficulties the brothers went through, we started wondering why Joseph brought so much problems on their brothers. He put back the money in their sacks on their first journey, hence the brothers could not return in peace. The second time, he also put back their money, but in addition he added his silver cup into their sack, so that this time the brothers really could not go home in peace.

Joseph did not have intention for revenge. Joseph was really lonely and wanted to have more moments with his brothers but he still could not reveal his identity. Hence he swallowed his own sufferings and did not reveal his feelings to his brothers. We need to train ourselves to wait on God’s timing.

Joseph was a very special person. He was only 17 when he was sold to Egypt. He had no friends there and did not know the culture. He entered Egypt with the lowest status as a slave. In this difficult situation, he maintained his integrity.

Joseph used some words that belonged to the Gentiles. Israelites are the people of God and should not use the word “divination”. But Joseph was using the words of the Egyptians so that the brothers would not suspect that he was a Hebrew. He could not reveal his identity until God’s timing came. His brothers did not check the content of their sack before they left. Joseph planted the cup in Benjamin’s sack and then asked his steward to chase after them. He did not want to them to leave him.

The brothers bravely said that whoever was found with the silver cup would die and the rest of them would become his slaves. They did not steal the cup but had been rash with their words, not realizing that it was a set-up. We should not easily tie ourselves with covenants. People who do no wrong could be very brave to declare their innocence but forget that others might set trap for them. When they found that the cup was with Benjamin, they were astonished and tore their clothes, and went back to the city.

Judah spoke up and begged to take the place of Benjamin. Judah was more righteous than his brothers in this matter. He had a lot of mistakes but he was self-sacrificing and stood forth when there was great trials. Although he had adultery with Tamar, he immediately repented when he knew he was guilty. God would later send the promised Christ through his lineage. Joseph was the most righteous and examplary of all Jacob’s sons, but it was Judah that God blessed the most. This is the mystery of God’s grace.

Judah explained to Joseph about his covenant with his father that he had made himself a surety for Benjamin. His words moved Joseph deeply. After these words, God’s timing had come for Joseph to reveal his identity.

My Personal Note:

From Calvin’s commentary, Joseph’s motivation in all those actions was to test his brothers’ character. Since his brothers did such wicked thing as to sell him to Egypt many years ago, it was necessary to put them to the test to find out if they were still the same way. It was Judah’s words that finally convinced him that they had changed. Regarding the term ‘divination’, Calvin believed that Joseph sinned greatly in this matter. As a man who feared God and gave all the glory to God before Pharaoh even when all Egyptians believed he interpreted dreams by divination, Joseph failed here by claiming to use divination to find out that his brothers had stolen the silver cup. In his plot, he combined falsehoods to make his story sound more convincing to his brothers, but it was wrong for a man of God to attribute something to divination.

On the motivation of Joseph’s actions, and his error in claiming to use divination, and Judah's words convincing Joseph that the brothers have repented and he could finally reveal his identity without fearing their pretension, I am more inclined to Calvin’s interpretation.

Humanity in Sin Part 52: Second Journey to Egypt

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 27th April 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: Genesis 43

Jacob was unwilling to let Benjamin go after losing Joseph as Benjamin was the only son of the woman he loved that was left. He asked why they told the man in Egypt that they had another brother. Judah explained that the man kept asking about their family details, including their father. If Benjamin did not go, they would not go. At this time, nobody could follow Jacob’s order. Eventually Jacob released him, implying that he had given away all his hope.

When we come to the end of our lives, there is only one source of hope we have. That is that the Almighty God has grace on us. Within this hopeless situation, Jacob blessed his sons that the Almighty God might grant them mercy with the ruler in Egypt. These brothers who used to sin actively in their youth now had to passively go to Egypt because of hunger, which was in line with God’s plan. Above the will of men, the acts of men, is the power and sovereign will of God.

Nobody understood Joseph’s misery and loneliness. Pharaoh trusted him and his subordinates might envy him, but deep inside Joseph suffered a lot. Joseph’s steward brought the brothers to Joseph’s house while Joseph stayed to do his work and only came back during lunch hour to eat with them. This showed his responsibility towards his duty. He had enough power and position to be flexible with his work, and he was dying to reunite with his brothers, but he stayed faithful to his duty.

The brothers were very frightened when they were brought to Joseph’s house because they thought he would attack them and make them slaves. They did not trust the Egyptians. They forgot the blessings of their father Jacob before they left. They did not see it as a privilege to be brought to the prime minister’s house. They only looked at the bad possibility, their pessimism infected one another, not realizing that Jacob’s blessings upon them had come true. They had really been granted favor.

They thought they were arrested because of the money that was put back into their sacks. So they told the steward about it and begged to be given mercy. The steward assured them that he had received their silver and it was their God, their father’s God, who blessed them with the money. The steward had probably heard from Joseph about them, their father and testified about their God. He brought Simeon to them, who was in a good condition. So a lot of their worries were not founded. Problems are not worse than their worries.

The steward washed their feet and gave food for their donkeys to prepare them to eat with Joseph. When Joseph came back for the feast, the brothers gave gifts to him and bowed to the ground. That was exactly what he dreamed many years ago. They hated him and envied him because of that dream. Even his father could not accept the dream. But Jacob kept the matter in his heart while his brothers took the matter into their own hands to harm Joseph. The course of events showed that men’s will could not go against God’s will.

When he saw his brother Benjamin, he could not disclose his identity so he simply said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” But he missed him so much and felt so moved that he ran out to cry. Still wanting to keep his identity a secret, he came back and asked to prepare the feast. There were 3 tables, one for Joseph alone, one for the Egyptians and the rest for his brothers, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews.

But Joseph brought all his brothers to sit at his table, and arranged them to sit in order of age. It must have been puzzling to his brothers that the ruler of Egypt could accurately arrange them to sit in such order. He also gave Benjamin extra portion as his blood brother. With all these, the brothers still could not understand that this was Joseph.

Joseph was different from his brothers. He did not take revenge. He was calm and waited for the Lord. He submitted in all his sufferings and waited for God’s deliverance. The brothers always did things out of self-interest, sold him because of envy and came to Egypt because of hunger.

There are three motivations that would make us weak in life, that is to do something for money, for self, and for pleasing the rich and the powerful. But if whatever we do, we do it for the truth, for God’s glory and for building up other people, our lives will be strong and we will walk in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Humanity in Sin Part 51: Joseph's Brothers Returned Home

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 20th April 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: Genesis 42:25-38

In Joseph’s wisdom, he demanded his brothers to bring along Benjamin the next time they came along to prove that they had not lied to him. He kept one of his half-brothers, Simeon, in Egypt. Joseph also ordered his men to put back all the money in their sacks. The brothers were afraid when they found their money and quickly returned home. All their fears were because they were haunted by their past guilt.

When they returned, there were only 9 of them. So they had no choice but to tell the father the whole truth. Jacob was deeply saddened. When they told him that they had mentioned about Benjamin before the ruler of Egypt who required them to bring Benjamin over, Jacob was really troubled. He would not want to release this one because he had lost Joseph. He said if Benjamin was taken he would be brought to the grave (seoul) in sorrow.

When Jacob was young, he was so intelligent. But when he grew old, he could not handle his household problems. His life was dramatic, very different from Isaac. All kinds of tragedies happened to Jacob. His sons ganged up and did very wicked things. He felt he was at the mercy of his 10 sons.

Jacob was determined not to let Benjamin go, but Joseph was determined to see him. Gradually as their food supply was exhausted, they had to go again. Reuben said to let him bring Benjamin along and if he could not bring him back, he would sacrifice his two sons. There was so much distrust between Jacob and his sons that Reuben had to put his sons to the line to assure Jacob that he would take care of Benjamin’s safety. Jacob had no choice but to release Benjamin.

Nobody could oppose God and He would hold us accountable. We cannot do whatever we want and think we can escape from God. Whatever we do in the past would become our bondage in the future. We cannot interfere in the sovereignty of God. He would bless whomever He wills. We should not be jealous when God has special grace on certain people.

The brothers bowed down to him when they saw him. God’s revelation through Joseph’s dream were now fulfilled. God would raise anyone He wills, no matter how men are against it. Blessed are those who fear God from the beginning. They would try to avoid unnecessary mistakes. Their lives would not be constrained by jealousy.

There are three great characters of Joseph. Firstly, he never succumbed to the crowd. He did not partake in the sins of his brothers and of the world. He held on to his holy living. We need to honor such a person.

Secondly, he never grumbled when he suffered unjustly. He paid the price for living a holy life. He was attacked by his brothers, sold as a slave, and imprisoned unjustly. But he submitted to God and continued to be a testimony through his faithfulness.

Finally, when his enemies bowed down to him, he did not take the chance to revenge. He encouraged others for their good and did not count the evil deeds his brothers committed against him. The Bible recorded 3 times that the brothers hated Joseph and once that they were jealous of him. But Joseph had no hatred in his heart. He was willing to understand and to forgive others.

Through the life of Joseph, we see the sovereign will of God controlling all things in the midst of human decadence. He is a shining example for all generation.

Humanity in Sin Part 50: The Famine

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 13th April 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: Genesis 42

It is hard to transit from prosperity into poverty. But sufferings will trigger us to think about the meaning of life. We also learn to enjoy life more after we have gone through sufferings.

In Egypt, after 7 years of abundance, 7 years of famine came. How many of us will prepare ourselves for the days of sufferings? When we are in safety, we need to think about crisis. The entire land around Egypt was affected. But God had prepared Joseph to become their prophet and lord. Pharaoh was not the real ruler over Egypt, Joseph was. Pharaoh did not have the wisdom to deal with the famine. It was Joseph that had the wisdom to rule over Egypt.

God said to Israel to seek after His face and His favor. But few people are looking for that. People look for status, fame and their own interest. Joseph did not graduate from any great school. His wisdom came from his fear of the Lord. This is greater than Socrates’ statement that knowing oneself is the beginning of wisdom.

Jacob asked his sons to go to Egypt to buy food but refused to let Benjamin come along. He loved Rachel so he especially loved the sons of Rachel. He was afraid of losing another son.

Joseph immediately knew the 10 men were his brothers as he had a sensitive heart. He wanted to know whether his father and brother were still alive. So he devised a strategy to find that out. He accused the brothers as spies. They immediately defended themselves, saying that they were honest men, they had one father, and two other brothers. One was at home and another one was no more. Joseph was so moved that he went out to cry. None of the brothers could recognize him. They would never have imagined that a slave could become a ruler. The ways of God far surpass men’s ways. No matter how lowly a person is despised, God could raise the person up. We should not be afraid that others would look down on us. We should only be afraid that we depart from God’s ways.

Joseph did not want to let his brothers go because he still wanted to find out other things. When jailed, the brothers began to speak to each other in their own language. They started to talk about how they sold Joseph off in the past and believed that they were punished because of their great sin. But God used the event to save the Israelites. Through sufferings, Joseph became an important person in history of mankind. It showed that the power of God surpasses the power of politicians.

May we learn to see the hand of God when we encounter the things we do not welcome naturally. The Bible says God works through all things for the good of those who love Him. We should not fear whatever sufferings we encounter, but should go through all sufferings with a heart that fears God and loves God.

Humanity in Sin Part 49: Pharaoh's Dream

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 6th April 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: Genesis 41

What is the difference between dreams and revelation of God? What kind of general principles did Joseph and Daniel used? When God reveal the truth to men, it did not happen only once and through one method. But He revealed through many different methods and progressively, culminating in Jesus Christ. Prophets are God’s spokesmen. On one hand we need to listen to God’s messengers but on the other hand we need to reject false prophets. From Genesis to Malachi, there were times when God used dreams to reveal His will. But not all dreams are God’s revelation. In the few thousand years of Old Testament, not many people receive God’s revelation through dreams, not many were recorded. If a dream is from God, it will certainly come true.

In the latter days particularly, there are many false dreams. Why are the dreams in the latter part not as important as the earlier dreams? Because as God’s revelation progresses, we understand God through His written Word. The importance of dreams therefore diminishes.

There are four incidences of the Holy Spirit descending in the book of Acts but they happened in a span of 28 years and were not repeated on the same group of people. Jerusallem, Samaria, Cornellius’ household and the church of Ephesus received the Holy Spirit only once. It is a mistake for the Pentacostals to think that the Holy Spirit would keep descending year after year.

The cupbearer forgot Joseph after being released from prison. It is human weakness to forget people’s goodness but to remember people’s offence. But even when people forget, God does not forget. Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream and he did not know the meaning. He summoned all the magicians and wise men to interpret for him but none could do it. That was when the cupbearer remembered Joseph. Why did Joseph have to wait so long in jail? Why must it be Pharaoh’s dream? It was all in God’s timing. Often times we could not wait for God’s timing. We move before God’s timing and find ourselves in all kinds of troubles. Jesus Christ left a good example for us on following God’s timing.

When Joseph was summoned and told of the dream, he was very conscious that he did everything for the glory of God. Joseph told Pharaoh that God revealed to Pharaoh what was to come. Here we see that God’s special revelation was sometimes given to the Gentiles. There would be 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine. Pharaoh’s two dreams had the same meaning, implying that God had determined to let it come to pass. Joseph suggested to Pharaoh to find the wisest person to take care of this. Immediately Joseph became a second man to Pharaoh. A prisoner was raised to glory in a day. Joseph did not grumble during those years of silent sufferings. He knew he was treated unjustly but he also knew to submit to God’s timing. God used people like that.

There is a group of people who do not grumble, who wait for God’s timing, who are always thankful, and keep doing their work faithfully in the midst of sufferings. They are not jealous and will praise God for others’ successes and ask for God’s mercy for people’s failures. They will be used by God. People who are narrow-minded might escape being fooled by others but they are seldom used by God. God would not use a person who keep grumbling.

If we always care for our own interests, God will not remember us. If we work for God’s glory and do not remember ourselves, God remembers us. Honor is not the result of our strife. It is given from above. Joseph was maligned and suffered greatly. But when God’s timing came, he became the prime minister in the most important country in the ancient world.

Do not keep thinking about our own glory and honor. We only owe the debt of glory to God, the debt of love to our neighbor, and the gospel to the lost.

Joseph was also given the daughter of a priest in Egypt as his wife, which was considered a great honor in Egypt. In Egypt, he worked for God. How many Christians today are the representatives of God before the non-Christians? Pharaoh said he could not find anyone better than Joseph. It was not from Joseph’s mouth, but from the words of Pharaoh. When others look at us, what kind of person do they see?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Easter Message 2008: Mystery of the Death of Christ

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong on 23rd March 2008 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Scriptures Passage: Rom.5:6-8, 10; Acts.3:12-16

When Christ died, was it a normal person who died? Was it a common person who resurrected? It was not. It was the Lord of Life. He is the Second Person of Trinity. If Christ is God but not man, there can be no mediation between God and man. But if Christ is man but not God, He cannot bring men to God. Christianity is about Christ. He is the intermediary between God and man, the Holy One and sinner, Eternity and temporal world.

There is a representation between the visible and invisible. No culture can reach this understanding. All other religions cannot have this essence. Because He who is from heaven has come to earth, we can go to heaven. The Christian faith is not imaginary. The Eternal God came in flesh in history as intermediary between God and men. Christians ought to understand how precious their faith is. They need to surpass the constraint of contradictions in their life by faith.

There is enlightenment by many religions. But like us, they struggle in sin. They try to find their way out. Five similar elements that religions believe in:

1. Sin is undeniable.
2. There must be a way out.
3. It is important to do good.
4. Death is not the end.
5. There is supernatural strength to rely on.

There is a lot of contradiction in religions. On one hand, they believe in the supernatural power, on the other hand they continue to rely on themselves. Religion starts from human beings looking for God’s grace, blessings and prosperity. Men make the first move. But Christianity starts from God. God seeks the lost, reveal grace to those who do not know Him. God is the Initiator. There is a difference in essence.

The content of Christian faith is not based on doctrines, but on a Person. For many religions, they can survive on doctrines alone. All doctrines of other faith are results of fallen men’s thoughts. But Christianity finds all promises in One Man, Christ. If Christ is taken away, the content means nothing.

In 1 Cor.15 the Apostle Paul said that the gospel is the Jesus Christ died, was buried, resurrected based on the Word of God. So His death, burial and resurrection were set and revealed by God. When the time came, He truly died for us, was buried for us, and resurrected for us. The eternal plan was manifested in history. When Jesus Christ was born, the eternal Word entered history. He is the only One who can link us to God. All other religious leaders could not.

Salvation truth is different from scientific truth. No matter how well you feed a person, he cannot have eternal life. Christ came to the world to become the Son of Man. But if we were to treat him just as the Son of Man, we will never know Him. We need to see Him from another angle. Jesus told Nicodemus that unless he was born again he could not see the kingdom of God. It is impossible for a person on earth to understand the things in heaven. John the Baptist said the One from heaven is above all things and speak of heaven. The one from earth see things on earth and speak earthly things. A person needs first to be born again from above to understand the things from heaven. People born from earth can only understand the things on earth.

The Jews always saw Jesus only from the earthly point of view. Jesus told them, “If you are brought to where the Son of Man come from, what would you do?”

Jesus was the Eternal One so He could not die. He came to earth so that it was possible for Him to die. This became salvation. In contrast, those who are in the flesh want eternal life. Those who should die are not willing to die. This is religion. The One who should not die is willing to die. This is salvation.

When Jesus died on the cross, with what identity did He die? As a son of man, or the Son of God? If He simply died as a human being, He could not accomplish salvation for the entire human race. But if He died as the Son of God, how could we understand that God died? The book of Romans said Christ died, not Jesus died. In Rom.5:10, it said, the death of God’s Son.

The 7 words of Jesus on the cross:

- Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
- I tell you the truth, today you will be in paradise with Me.
- Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
- My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
- I am thirsty.
- It is finished.
- Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.

The first, forth and the last words were addressed to God. The first and last addressed God as His Father. Only on the forth statement, Jesus called God as God. When Jesus called His Father, He was calling as the Son of God towards His Father. The Son of God had the right to die for sinners. As the Son of God He finished the task given by His Father. He died as the Son of God.

In the middle, He called “My God, My God.” He could not be addressing as the Son of God as He was God Himself. Here He spoke to God as the Son of Man.

When He was forsaken by God, He represented human beings who were in sin, abandoned and forsaken by God. But how could He call upon God to forgive sinners as a finite human being? God cannot die, surely He must have died as the Son of Man. But human beings are finite, so He cannot

All these mysteries are found in Him. In Christ, He is God and not Man. It is not possible for Him to die. In order to die, He came in the flesh. If Christ is man but not God, He can die a great death but this would not be sufficient to wipe away the sin of humanity.

The Apostle Paul said while we were still sinners, Christ died for our sins. In verse 10, it said we were reconciled to God through Christ’s death. It was the death of the Son of God.

There are 4 important mysteries in His death:

1. It is substitutionary death.

It is a death that takes our place that fulfil God’s demand for justice. It is not something that anyone can do. If a person will die himself, he is not worthy to die for sin. He cannot fix his own problem of death, how can he help others? Hence no religious leaders can stand in the stead of others. This is the problem of religion. How can a person in sin saved others who are in sin? Only the sinless Christ can do that.

2. It is a saving/redemptive death.

It is an exchange of value. He bought us with a heavy price, through His blood and His life. So we ought to glorify God with our lives. With what do we measure our value? Before we are saved, where were we? We were in the hands of Satan. But to whom did He pay His blood and His life to? The church did not understand it in the first few centuries. Why is there a need to pay this price? This is related to justice. When we sin against God, there is a price to pay. We have fallen short of God’s glory. We owe God His glory. Jesus Christ paid the price to God. We did not owe the devil, but to God. Jesus Christ paid to God. When God abandoned us, He did not throw us to the devil, but the devil took this temporal opportunity to capture us. The devil is not the legal owner of my soul. So Jesus Christ paid the price to God and snatched us from the devil’s hand. We now belong to Him.

3. It is a propitiative death.

We should have been punished. Nothing could stop His anger. Only the holiness of Christ could satisfy the justice of God. He stopped the wrath of God. He is no longer angry with us. Because of Christ, He forgives us.

4. It is a reconciliatory death.

Not only have our debts been paid, not only have we become God’s, not only have God’s wrath stopped, even our relationship with God is reconciled. This is even more proactive. Paul said we should be reconciled to God. Only we reconcile to God, not God reconcile to us. It is because it is human being who first damaged the relationship.

Salvation came because Christ died for us. In His physical body, He suffered and died for us. But because He was divine, when He died, the power of God is manifested. He purchased us by His own blood. His blood is divine and becomes the medium for the New Testament. The Old Testament was based on the blood of lamb, but the New Testament was based on the blood of the lamb of God.

The Jews crucified Christ because He was seen as a threat to their culture. Christ had declared two things that were most offensive to them. First, He said it was because He told them the truth they wanted to kill Him. Immediately Jesus told them their greatest weakness. They prided themselves for having the law the God above other people, yet they resisted the truth. Not only did they not repent, they were against others who were seeking the truth. People who are self-righteous are those who are most daring in commiting sin. The second most offensive statement Jesus said to them was that their father was not God nor Abraham, but the devil. In the entire world, only these people had the law of God. They were not aware of their errors. They thought they were worshiping God. It was the irony of religion.

They hated Him so much that they killed Him on the cross. But the Bible said they killed the Lord of Life, not a life. The Lord of Life is the Source of Life. This is a very frightening thing. Can we kill the Master of Life? The Master of Life cannot be murdered. We can use a knife to cut all kinds of things, but we cannot cut water. No matter how sharp the knife is, the water is still one. The Lord of Life is not a receiver of life, He is Eternal Life Himself, the Creator of all life. Hence He resurrected from the dead. When He resurrected men, He did not need to pray for God’s help. When Elijah, Elisha and Paul raised the dead, they need to pray first. But Jesus Christ immediately commanded the son of the widow, the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus to come to life. He is the Author of Life. He cannot be killed. His resurrection proved that He had power over death.

May our faith be re-established on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. May His sovereign will be done in our lives.