Be Stirred, Not Shaken

"We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled…" ~ II Thes. 2:2 *** "But stir up the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of hands…" ~ II Tim. 1:6

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Spiritual strongholds:  laying siege to the “walled city” inside us

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Cor. 10:3-6)

As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, this is a verse that I’ve always struggled to make super meaningful in the past.  High things that exalt themselves against God, sure, that makes perfect sense to me.  Even casting down arguments, assuming those are arguments against God’s way and truth, I can wrap my head around.  But strongholds aren’t a concept that is immediately tangible to me.

A while back, though, I did have a little bit of a breakthrough where strongholds are concerned, and what they can represent in our lives as followers of Christ.  These strongholds or “walled cities” can be external—the obstacle in front of us that we see as bigger than God (covered in the previous post)—or they can be internal.  The internal strongholds are where we have built fortresses protecting pieces of our carnal nature from being conquered.  Both types need pulled down.  This part of the study deals with the hostile spiritual strongholds quietly occupying our hearts and minds.

Enemy strongholds in the heart and mind

While the strongholds in front of us are generally easier to see (if still difficult to overcome), spiritual strongholds’ power lies in their ability to fly under the radar.  If you consider yourself a disciple of Christ or a Christian, at some point in your life you decided to turn from your previous life and asked God to put His spirit in you.  You repented and were baptized, and ostensibly gave Him unlimited access to every part of your heart and mind—asking Him to transform your carnal mind into one led by Him.

Every one of us that has gone through this process did so with the complete intention of letting God conquer everything in His path, burn it down, and start from scratch.  But every one of us also—mostly unknowingly—built walls around a few particular areas to fortify them against this process.  We don’t like to admit it, but it’s generally true of every person.  We’re pretty good at identifying and rooting out certain kinds of sins and correcting wrong behaviors.  We can refrain from lying, avoid adultery, keep the Sabbath and holy days, and maybe we even had to quit smoking or stop eating certain meats when we came into the knowledge of God.  But despite all of this, we still have trouble recognizing or acknowledging the spiritual strongholds located within the deepest regions of ourselves.

When an army conquers a land, they must breach and take every single one of the strongholds, because if an enemy-occupied stronghold remains in the land then the native people there can continually attack whenever they sense weakness.  The battle will rage on and peace can never come—the land will never be fully conquered.

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What We Can Learn From Haggai About Zeal: Just Do It

“…Not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord”

~Romans 12:11

The book of Haggai is the second-shortest in the Old Testament, and like many of the minor prophet books it’s often skimmed over or overlooked altogether.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t spend much time in these books, simply because I find the contents challenging to relate to.  But at the Feast last year I heard a message given from this book that really resonated with aspects of my life over the past several months.

Written during the Babylonian exile, Haggai’s story tells of a complacent and lethargic people.  Roughly 16 years prior, the Persian ruler Cyrus had granted them leave to return to Israel and rebuild the temple of God.  The people returned to the land filled with excitement and immediately set to building.  But they fairly quickly allowed discouragement and their personal concerns to delay and derail their efforts.

As a result, God had stopped blessing them and allowed significant trials to befall them.  Eventually, He gave Haggai this message for the people:

“Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, ‘Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled [luxurious] houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?’ Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider your ways!  You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes.’  Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider your ways!’” (Hag. 1:3-7)

God points out that they had been working on improving their own lives, establishing and beautifying their own homes, but not accomplishing what He had sent them there to do.  Over time they had lost sight of their purpose, and because of their misplaced priorities God had ceased to bless them—all their daily work wasn’t actually accomplishing anything.  It was, as Solomon says, “vanity of vanities” (Eccl. 1:2).

Haggai shows us what happens when we neglect His house and put our own priorities first, and there are some really important warnings for us.  The Israelites were required to build a physical temple for God to dwell in, but the stakes are much higher for God’s people today.

Our commission:  to build His house

Much like He had centuries earlier in Egypt, God plucked the Israelites from subjugation in a foreign land and sent them back to their homeland with a specific directive—to build His house.  Our situation is the same today, except we are building a spiritual temple rather than a physical one.  He called each of us out of the bondage of this world, brought us into covenant with Him, and promised to provide His spirit as a helper.

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“Salt of the Earth” – What’s the Significance of Salt?

We’re told to be the “salt of the earth”, but what does that really mean?

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” (Matt. 5:13; also Luke 14:34). I don’t know about you, but this statement has never really fired me up spiritually. I mean, salt? The stuff that comes in tiny little paper packets at McDonald’s? What about gold or precious gems, something beautiful and special and rare? In our society, salt is the most mundane of commodities. You can buy a giant canister of it for a dollar and throw it on everything. It’s pretty much impossible to run out of salt, and it never goes bad. When I read a verse like Matthew 5:13, my brain has all these questions about salt but I’ve always just pushed them to the back of my mind and kept going. Recently the questions have been nagging at me, however, because if Jesus says we’re supposed to be something (or be like something), then we should do our level-best to understand the analogy. So I recently decided to try and get a better context around His statement.

Though today it’s something we totally take for granted, salt has a fascinating history. A precious substance in the ancient world, salt can be credited with building civilization. Since it allowed for preservation of food beyond immediate consumption, it gave people the ability to travel more than a day’s journey away and led to the development of trade. Throughout the centuries wars were fought over it, trade routes sprung up around it, and at times it was worth more than gold.  In fact, it was often accepted as currency and is where the word salary (literally “salt-money,” or allowance a Roman soldier was given to buy salt) and the expression “he’s worth his salt” come from. So to put us back in Jesus’s time, salt was very valued and useful, and the people listening to Him would have known this.

A precious, useful material

“Useful and valuable” is a good place to start in terms of describing what a true Christian should be. Salt has myriad properties that make it as useful today as it was in the ancient world. As mentioned above, one of its first uses was as a preservative and purifying agent, to keep food from spoiling or to purify or disinfect something. While the world will ultimately go down a path of destruction, God’s people are called as examples to preserve themselves and their families from the spiritual and moral decay of society. James tells us that pure and undefiled religion before God is this, “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Purity (both physical and spiritual) is perhaps the key theme underlying all of God’s commandments, and is the crowning achievement of the Bride of Christ, composed of the resurrected firstfruits. Paul says Christ will “present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish”—that is, pure (Eph. 5:27).

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Pulling down strongholds:  the “walled city” in front of us

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” 

 ~ Ps. 27:1 (NIV)

In a letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, Paul challenges them to be strong and bold in their daily lives, and then says this:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Cor. 10:3-6)

I’ve always found that a curious verse, specifically the part about strongholds.  It kind of sat there in the back of my mind for a while, until I happened to be reading something that talked about the concept of obstacles between us and God as being strongholds or walled cities, like Jericho.  Then something clicked.

Strongholds are kind of a foreign concept to those of us in the U.S. because we don’t have any, but the remnants of ancient strongholds are all over the world—and in particular the Middle East and Europe.  A stronghold is a strategically-located fortified structure able to resist the assault of enemy forces (Google pictures of Masada or Bamburgh Castle to get a good visual).  When gazed on from the outside, they are imposing and will discourage all but the most determined and able forces.  They are typically very difficult to overcome, demanding long sieges or subterfuge to breach.  But overcoming them is critical to winning the war for a conquering army.

These strongholds or “walled cities” can take a couple forms—the big obstacle you see in front of you that (consciously or subconsciously) you allow to be bigger than God, and the fortresses inside of yourself that are still protecting pieces of your carnal nature from being conquered.  Both types of strongholds need torn down.  As I got deeper into this study it kept getting longer and more complicated, so I’ve split it into two parts for simplicity’s sake. This article addresses the first—the fortress that stands between you and the Promised Land.

Read the second part in this series here

Stronghold as obstacle – a faith issue

In Numbers 13, Moses commanded the twelve spies to go into the land of Canaan and do some reconnaissance.  He told them to come back and report on the quality of the land, its fruit, its inhabitants, and their cities or settlements.  The spies went out in pairs and spent 40 days in the land (symbolic of a time of testing or trial), and then reported back to Moses.  The land, ten of them said, was everything God and Moses had promised them—lush, prosperous, bountiful, and beautiful.  But, they continued, the people were terrifying giants inhabiting mighty strongholds, who the ragtag Israelites could never hope to defeat.

Rather than counteracting the other spies’ testimony, Caleb and Joshua simply said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”  The other spies argued, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we” (Num. 13:30-31).  And the children of Israel listened to the ten spies and were distraught and sought to turn back toward Egypt.  Caleb and Joshua pleaded with them to reframe their perspective, saying:

“If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us…only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.”  (Num. 14:8-9)

The confused and terrified people wanted to stone them for saying such things.  Then God showed up and Moses had to intercede to keep Him from destroying the rebellious Israelites then and there.  Instead, He punished them and sentenced them to wander the desert for 40 years, with all of the adults dying during the journey and never entering the Promised Land.

The Israelites didn’t trust God to be big enough, to be powerful enough to clear their path.  Even though they’d experienced firsthand the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, miraculous manna every day in the desert, and the pillar of cloud and fire leading them, they could only see giants inhabiting the Promised Land and the big, foreboding walls of Jericho blocking their way.  And they knew they weren’t strong enough to overcome them, so they tried to turn back to the life they’d had before, even though it was a life of miserable slavery.  Before any battle was ever fought on the field, it was fought in the mind, and the stronghold—fear—won.

We say we have faith in God, but how big do we truly believe He is? When an obstacle is placed in front of us—be it a conflict between work and the holy days, financial difficulties, a little white lie that will seemingly make our lives easier—do we try to solve it on our own or cave to the more obvious worldly solution, or do we trust in God’s ability to work things out to His satisfaction?  The trouble is that even if we do pray about certain situations or trials, we already have a solution in mind that we’re asking God to bring about.  And our human minds can only see certain types and numbers of solutions, while God’s mind is infinite and He sees far more of the situation than we do.  So while He might be working out a far better resolution for us in the long-term, all we can see is that He didn’t answer our prayer to our specifications.

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The Lie of Independence and the Freedom of a Bondservant

“Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17)

When you hear the word “liberty”, what does it mean to you?

A few days ago Americans celebrated Independence Day, and the fact that 240 years ago a group of irritated land owners and businessmen announced the birth of a new nation.  Most of us could quote that declaration on command:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Particularly with a circus of an election coming up this year, we’ll hear a lot of talk about freedom and independence and democracy in the upcoming months.  But I think if you asked ten different people on the street what freedom means, you’d get ten different answers.  Today, our society tells us that freedom means that each of us has the right to do whatever we want, regardless of the cost to ourselves or others, and that we have the right to be offended if someone disagrees with or opposes those actions.  Society tells us that the bible is an oppressive list of rules written by a harsh, egotistical God—good enough for Christians to cherry-pick homilies from but not a wholly God-breathed, life-governing document.

That’s because our country was really founded on independence, not freedom or liberty.  People use them interchangeably, but there’s a huge difference, and it’s a very important one for Christ’s followers to understand.

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Seven Days You Shall Eat Unleavened Bread…Now What?

As the sun set last night on the Days of Unleavened Bread, each of us had probably heard several messages about various themes that these holy days are meant to help us remember.  For a lot of people, a heavy emphasis before and during was probably placed on the process and concept of deleavening, and over the past few years that major focus has given me pause.

When you take a step back and think about it, the way many of us have been taught to deleaven is all about how WE are getting rid of leavening—how we vacuum every nook and cranny of our house and car, scour the ingredients of every label to find a little-known chemical that’s technically leavening, and find deeper meaning each time a box of baking soda hides in plain sight or we find a pack of crackers in our purse.  The spiritual analog for this in the days leading up to the Passover for many people is making a checklist of everything they’ve done wrong in the last year to see where they’re falling short and how they can do better in the next year, and not to only look in the obvious places for sin.

None of that is wrong necessarily, but in doing so we’ve made these holy days a time that symbolizes how WE put sin out of our lives.  And that’s not something we have the ability to do by ourselves (nor is it something we can finish by a certain date).  It’s hypocritical.  We’ve accidentally hijacked the Days of Unleavened Bread and made it into a time all about us, not about Christ and what He’s made possible in our lives.

“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread”

This hyper-focus on deleavening (and making it about us) has also caused focus to shift away somewhat from the much more emphasized command to put the unleavened bread of Christ into us.  In fact, the passage that lays out all the holy days in in Leviticus 23 doesn’t even say anything about putting out leavening.  However, ALL the commands say we must eat unleavened bread for the seven-day period.  Here’s the initial command in Exodus:

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Leaving Egypt & The Fall of Jericho:  Prophetic Implications of the Days of Unleavened Bread

“By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe” (Heb. 11:29-31)

The spring holy days are aligned with, and represent the firstfruit harvest, and each has specific themes that keep showing up.  Passover is a sacrifice and redemption from slavery.  The Days of Unleavened Bread are overcoming sin and acceptance or victory.  Pentecost is a celebration, receiving an inheritance.

The holy days show us God’s plan for His people and all mankind, and give us a framework for prophecy.  But while we often talk about the fulfilled prophecy of Passover and future implications of the fall holy days, people get really mealy-mouthed around both the Days of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost.  We’ve been told the Days of Unleavened Bread picture our journey out of sin and putting sin out of our lives.  These are likely true, but what if there are even more concrete fulfillments?

This time of year I think it’s important to look at two significant occurrences on the Last Day of Unleavened Bread that help us begin to figure out its place in the future prophetic framework.  God performed similar baptism-like miracles for two generations of Israelites, then destroyed the worldly system standing in the way of establishing His chosen nation in the land He had promised them.  Together these show us a picture of the future when God will destroy sin and the carnal world—the death knell of Babylon—and help His people enter His kingdom.

Coming out of Egypt

The children of Israel started their journey out of Egypt on the first holy day during the Days of Unleavened Bread, after experiencing the horrifying and humbling tenth plague and God’s favor as their own firstborn were spared death.  Over the next few days, God led them away from the heart of Egypt, by day with a pillar of cloud and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light along the dark path.  His presence was visibly with them every second of the day.

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Flee vs. Pursue: What Does God Command?

“Flee from the midst of Babylon [representing sin], and every one save his life! Do not be cut off in her iniquity” (Jer. 51:6)

Our society seems to tell us that running away from something is cowardice, or maybe the act of a victim—that it’s better to face things head-on.  And while that might be true for some things, the bible tells a different story when it comes to how we must react in the fact of temptation.  That, we’re told, we must flee.

What comes to mind when you think of the word “flee”?  It’s a word that isn’t used as often in today’s world, but shows up pretty frequently in the bible.  The main word translated “flee” in the New Testament is pheugo, which means to run away or escape—pretty straightforward.  But its underlying meaning has a greater urgency, a “run for your life to avoid getting caught” aspect that’s critical to understanding the command.  This isn’t just “run”.  I run because I’m in a hurry, for health, sometimes even for fun.  Instead, this is a dead sprint because you are under attack, and you might not survive.

It’s interesting to look at what we’re told to flee in the bible, and more importantly, why God commands this.  But God gives us something to move toward, beyond just running away, and that’s just as important to understand.

Fleeing our own human nature—the danger of “what if?”

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Being “In Shape” – Spiritual Endurance

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified”

~ I Cor. 9:24-27

Everyone is born with a different innate level of athleticism—some people can go out and run a few miles without any training or warm-up, while others feel like they’re dying on that first mile and have to train for a 5K. But no one is born with innate endurance. It’s one thing to get out there and run a 5K without preparing, but even the most athletic person can’t go out and run a marathon without extensive training. Long-distance runners or triathletes train specifically for their races and shape their entire lives around their training regimen. Without this preparation, they’ll run out of gas and have nothing left for the final push to the finish line.

The fact is, we’re running a spiritual marathon, not a quick 5K. We need to understand what it takes to be spiritually “in shape” so we can endure to the end. The elements of a spiritual endurance training program are the same as those for a marathon runner—cardio, strength training, and diet, intensified with rest, discipline, motivation, and a commitment to finding and working on weaknesses.

Cardio – conditioning the heart

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Book of Ecclesiastes & the Feast of Tabernacles

A while back I was speaking with someone and they mentioned their group was getting ready to go through the book of Ecclesiastes, and they weren’t really looking forward to it. They said they’d always kind of struggled with this book and found it depressing and nihilistic—basically “life sucks and then you die”.

I was surprised. Apparently I’m in the minority, but I’ve always loved Ecclesiastes. In college it was my go-to set of scriptures (along with the latter half of Romans 8) when I was having a bad day, when I felt shaky on my foundation, when I needed a dose of perspective. What I’ve always taken from Ecclesiastes is that buying into this carnal and physical world—the pleasures, the pursuits, the ambition, the struggles—is ultimately a path to destruction.

If I were to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, it would be thus:  all you try to accomplish on your own on a physical level will eventually pass away, so look to God now and follow His ways above all else and you will succeed. To me that is actually a very encouraging, inspiring message. We may have it hard in this life or we may have it easy, but the only thing that ends up mattering is not how far we got in our career or how big our house was, but how much our character reflects Christ’s.

A few weeks later while studying the holy days and their meanings, I learned that the book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally read by the Jews every year during the Feast of Tabernacles. I didn’t see the immediate connection, so I decided to look into it more. And the more I studied, the more it made sense and gave one of my favorite books of the bible even deeper meaning.

The Book of Ecclesiastes Summed Up

At its heart, Ecclesiastes asks the question, “In what direction is your life headed? Toward man or toward God? Toward death or toward life?” In its very lyrically-written 12 chapters, the narrator tries to find fulfillment and happiness through all the things man values—seeking after human wisdom, the pleasures of food and drink, great accomplishments, hard work, wealth, having children. His take on it all? It’s all vanity (futile, meaningless). People live and die, civilizations rise and fall, everything in life has a time and purpose, but it all eventually passes away. All of the work of man will come to nothing, and only God’s way works and lasts.

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