Sermon Message: Extravagant Devotion
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Sermon Message: God Is For Us!
Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
Sermon Message: O Worship the King
"Principles for Spiritual Health"
(Delivered Sunday, September 8, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
If you're in the habit of reading the Bible regularly, you occasionally come across a passage that presents you with wise, practical instruction that is so simply put that it almost surprises you. Such passages are so plain in what they say that anyone could understand them; but to put what they say into practice would radically the course of one's life. Such passages should be memorized, meditated on, and diligently woven into our thinking and living. I recently rediscovered just such a passage tucked in the middle of Scripture in Psalm 34.
Come, you children, listen to me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the face of the earth (Psalm 34:11-16).
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One of the things that made this passage stand out to me not long ago was the particular circumstance I was in when I read it. I have the habit of reading my Bible for daily personal devotions in the morning. And it's usually right after I have my daily reading in the Scriptures that I do my morning exercises.
I have to be honest - I do my exercises; but I definitely don't enjoy doing them. I have tried to keep a very simple program of physical exercise; but even then, it doesn't come easy to me because I just don't like doing it. Frankly, I would much rather sit in a nice easy chair and be reflective then having my feet under that chair doing set-ups.
But I've reluctantly come to understand over the years that a habit of physical exercise in the morning is an investment in the "quality" of my life. It will eventually pay off in better health, more stamina, and a general sense of well-being. And I think that, as I was reading my Bible and anticipating my exercises after I was through, this whole idea of disciplining myself today for the goal of a "quality of life" in the future was what drew this passage to my attention so powerfully. It calls us to embrace certain spiritual disciplines and practices - certain "exercises of the soul" if you will - that promise to lead to a very desirable quality of spiritual life in the future.
One of the distinctive characteristics of our culture is its emphasis on the physical. Few things are considered more important to spend one's time and resources on than the care for one's personal health. And yet, the truth is that to pursue the right spiritual "quality of life" is much more beneficial a thing to do than to focus our efforts on a physical health. It certainly isn't wrong to do both; and in fact, good stewardship before God demands that we indeed do both. God has given us our bodies as well as our spirits; and it's our duty before Him to treat our bodies responsibly as a precious tool that He has entrusted to us. We are to respect our bodies as "the temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19). But there are some folks who only care for the temple, and do nothing at all to pursue a relationship with the One who gave it to them, and for whom it was intended to be the dwelling place. Bible makes it very clear that, of the two concerns, one definitely takes precedence over the other: "... Exercise yourselves toward godliness," Paul told Timothy. "For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
How about you? How fit is your soul? Have you sought to exercise yourself toward godliness? There are definite benefits to bodily exercise; but they are really quite minor compared to the benefits of exercising yourself toward godliness. In this morning's passage, God invites us to embrace certain habits - certain exercises toward godliness - that advance the health and happiness of our spiritual lives now, and prepare us for an eternity in heaven.
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Let's begin by understanding this passage in its context. It comes to us in the middle of Psalm 34. This whole psalm is wonderful; and as I've meditated on it, I've concluded that a whole sermon series could be preached just from this one psalm alone, and plenty could be found in it to enrich our spirits for months.
The context of the psalm itself is a rather strange one. It was written by David during the time he was being pursued by the jealous King Saul of Israel. God had revealed to David that he was destined to become the king of Israel. He had even been anointed as king by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-13). He had just been informed by Saul's son Jonathan - David's deeply beloved friend - that his father intended to kill him. David, along with a group of men who knew that God had anointed David to be king, escaped from Saul's hand and eventually fled to Achish, the king of Gath.
If you are acquainted with the stories from the Old Testament, the name "Gath" will probably have a familiar sound to you. It was the name of a chief city of the Philistines - the very city, in fact, that the giant Goliath came from (1 Sam. 17:4). The city of Gath was hostile to Israel; but David felt safer running to a king of the Philistines than he felt remaining any longer in the presence of Saul's murderous hatred.
But while in Gath, things took a dangerous turn for David. The Bible tells us;
Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, "Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'" Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them, pretending madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, "Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me? Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?" (1 Sam. 21:10-15).
There are ethics classes in seminaries and Bible colleges that discuss this strange story. The discussion generally centers on how God could bless David with rescue, when David resorted to such an apparent deception. Sometimes it's argued that David really wasn't being "deceptive". After all, he really DID scratch on walls, and he sincerely DID drool all over his beard; and if Achish responded to it all by considering David mad and allowing him to slip out of his hands, that was his problem. Others argue that David fell victim to his fears and really did resort to deception; and that while God blessed him with rescue, He in no way condoned David's method. Perhaps we don't know enough of the details of this strange incident to make any solid conclusions; but we can see enough in it to know that God did indeed bless David with rescue from what was certain death. And David gives praise to God for that rescue in this psalm.
I love this psalm, because whenever I read it I think of the "testimony time" we often enjoy in our church family. It's not written in the form of a prayer to God, as many of the psalms are. Instead, it was written as if for our teaching and instruction. It's as if one testimony after another of God's faithfulness toward those who cry out to Him is being shared in it. "My soul shall make its boast in the LORD" (v. 2). "I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears" (v. 4). "This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles" (v. 6). "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!" (v. 8). "The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned (vv. 17-22).
This psalm has an interesting feature, in that, in the original language, it's in acrostic form. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet; and each verse in this psalm begins with a different Hebrew letter - hence twenty-two verses. But more important than its structure is its message to us; because this psalm literally gives us the ABCs of God's faithfulness. If you'd like to have a portable "testimony time" at hand - one that can encourage and uplift you at any time - then I recommend this psalm. Time spent meditating on it will definitely awaken you to God's faithfulness toward all those who cry out to Him in times of trouble. Time spent memorizing it will be time very profitably spent.
And in the middle of this "testimony" psalm, we find the wonderful word of instruction that's the focus of our attention this morning. It's here that we find that God sets before us some practices that constitute a wise investment in future spiritual health and happiness.
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First, take a look at ...
I. THE BLESSED QUALITY OF LIFE BEING OFFERED TO US (vv. 11-12).
"Come, you children," David says to us; "listen to me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?" (vv. 11-12). David presents us here with three characteristics of the blessed life: "life" (that is, a quality of life), "many days", and "seeing good". He is giving an invitation to anyone who longs for these things, telling them "listen to me". He will tell us how to obtain them.
First, he asks, "Who is the man who desires life ...?" "Life", here, means more than just simply biological life. It refers to a life that is blessed and enriching. I remember one of my professors in Bible college saying, "Some people are dead by the time they're twenty and get buried sixty years later." Just living doesn't mean that someone is experiencing life. In fact, the Bible teaches us that apart from Jesus Christ, we are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). Jesus has said, "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
Second, he asks, "Who is the man who ... loves many days ...? Longevity is almost universally recognized as a sign of blessing; and the Bible often presents it very clearly as a blessing from God. "Honor your father and mother," the fifth commandment says, "that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you" (Ex. 20:12). It was God's will that the Jewish people walk carefully in obedience to His commandments, "that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess" (Deut. 5:33). Who among us wouldn't love "many days"?
Third, he asks who wishes to "see good". In the Hebrew, he asks who it is that desires life and loves many days specifically SO THAT he may see good. In other words, the crowning point of a long life and many days is that one may look back upon it all and "see good". The NIV combines this characteristic with the one that proceeds it; and translates it this way, "Whoever of you loves life and desires to see good many days ..." When godly Abraham died at the age of 175 - a man who was, as all would agree, most remarkably blessed of God - the Bible tells gives us this obituary: "Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man full of years ..." (Gen. 25:8).
Wouldn't you like to be able to have such a thing said of you? Bodily exercise is certainly profitable; but not for such things as that! Wouldn't it be much more profitable to give yourself to the things that lead to being able to look back on God's blessing of a long life on earth, lived well and crowned with good? The psalmist is about to offer to us the things that we need to do to help make that possible.
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But before we look at those things, please notice the way he begins this word of instruction: "Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD" (v. 11). There are certain attitudes we must possess if we would gain the benefit of his instruction and obtain this blessed quality of life.
First, we must come with a humble frame of mind. He calls us "children"; and the word that he uses isn't meant to be demeaning. Rather, it's a tender, warm name that a teacher - wise and experienced in a walk with God - would use toward his students; or a name that a loving father would use toward his own sons and daughters. We mustn't come to this matter with a proud, independent, "self-help" mentality, but of the simple, sincere neediness of a little child being instructed.
Second, we must come with a teachable frame of mind. He says, "I will teach you ..." We must come to this matter with the recognition that, in and of ourselves, we don't know how to live as we should. "O LORD," the prophet Jeremiah prayed, "I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jer. 10:23). We must have God tell us. We must come recognizing that we are weak and ignorant; and that we need to be instructed by God in how to live the kind of life that He would see fit to bless.
And third - and perhaps most important of all - we must come with a reverent frame of mind. He says "I will teach you the fear of the LORD." "Fear", here, refers to the idea of "reverential respect; and If you were to sum up all that he is about to tell us in this word of instruction, it would be "how to walk in the fear of the Lord". In the end, a life that is characterized by a faith in God's plan for our salvation through His Son Jesus; and a reverent trust and obedience to Him in every area of life, is the main dynamic of a life that He chooses to bless. "Fear God and keep His commandments," wrote Solomon - the wisest man who ever lived - "for this is man's all. for God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecc. 12:14).
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How then do we live out a life of reverence toward God, so that our life is crowned with His blessings? What are the exercises we should do in order to enjoy spiritual health? David now goes on to show us ...
II. THE LIFE-STYLE DISCIPLINES THAT LEAD TO THIS QUALITY OF LIFE (vv. 13-14).
First, he says, "Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit." Now who but God would have thought present that to us as a crucial spiritual exercise? The Bible tells us, "... We all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body" (James 3:2). One of the most decisive things we can do to exercise ourselves toward godliness is to learn to keep from sin in what we say.
I have known people who boasted, "I just say what I feel." They mean that, of course, as a way of saying that they're honest and forthright; that they don't cover things up, but shoot straight and say what's on their mind. If they don't like someone, they say so. If they have a problem with something, they spit it out. Most of us who know such people, however, know that such a freedom with their mouths ends up doing more harm than good. This is because, in our falleness, we can't really "say what we feel" without sinning in the process.
In words that are classic, and perhaps all too familiar to most of us, James goes on to tell us the destructive potential of our tongue:
Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilate desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh" (James 3:3-12).
I would suspect that, if most of us look at the last really big foul-up we have made in our lives - and maybe it's still very fresh in our minds - you'll find it was because of something we said. We sin more with our mouths than just about any other way. And a strategic exercise toward godliness would be to let God gain control over our tongues so that we keep our tongue from evil and our lips from speaking deceit. We should discipline ourselves to do as Paul taught; "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of god, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:29-30).
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A second "exercise" toward godliness that the psalmist advocates to us is "Depart from evil and do good ..." That's about as plain and simple as a thing can be, isn't it? But what a life we would live if we would only do it!
The first exercise had to do with our words. This one has to do with our actions. And it comes to us in two distinct commands. The first is that we "depart from evil. It's interesting that the psalmist doesn't say, "Stay away from evil", as if we were out of evil's reach and simply needed to avoid it. Rather, he says, "Depart from evil"; and this assumes that we are already easily within its influence and must make it our determination to leave it behind. And the second distinct command must follow; that we "do good".
I'd like to suggest two principles from this. First, we must allow God to inform and develop our consciences, through continual exposure to the Scriptures and through submission to the work of the Holy Spirit through our brothers and sisters, so that we grow skilled in knowing the difference between good and evil. The conscience is a wonderful gift of God to guide us - and some have called it "the preacher within our breast"; but it's not a perfect guide. It must be sanctified by the Spirit of God and trained to function as it should. It can be made defective through years of neglect or misuse. Some, through years of sin, have "seared" their consciences into insensitivity as if "with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:2). But a sin-damaged conscience can be restored and retrained. The writer of Hebrews says that, as we mature through our exposure to the "solid food" of God's word, we become "those who by reason of use [that is, practice] have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14).
And as a second principle, we must understand that God's goal for us is not merely that we stay away from evil, but that we positively do good. Many people think that, if they just stay out of trouble, they're pleasing to God. But the Bible tells us that Jesus "gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Paul says, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). May we certainly depart from evil, because Jesus died to redeem us from evil deeds; but more than that, may we genuinely do the good that Jesus redeems us to perform!
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The first exercise involves our words. The second involves our actions. And this final exercise involves our relationships: "Seek peace and pursue it." As you can see, then, these exercises impact every possible area of life - what we say, what we do, and how we interact with others.
Again, we see this final exercise coming to us in the form of two distinct but related commands. The first is the command that we "seek peace". The peace that the psalmist refers to is not an inner state of tranquility and serenity. He is speaking here of a cessation of enmity between ourselves and others, and in a removal of what ever divides us from someone else. To "seek" such a thing is to do whatever we can to bring it about. This, of course, doesn't mean that we are always successful; but as far as it's within our power to do so, we are to seek such peace. Paul says, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18).
And the second command in this exercise is that we not only "seek" peace, but also "pursue it". This suggests that there are times when such peace is illusive; and that we must be aggressive about making it happen. "Peace" is sometimes mistaken by us for passive tolerance of things we shouldn't tolerate. We think peace means ignoring matters of sin in order to not offend or come across as judgmental. "Peace" is often taken for "not rocking the boat". Another way of putting that would be "compromise", however; and that's not a kind of peace God would want us to have. The idea that we must not only "seek" peace, but also "pursue" it, suggests to me that the true genuine peace God wants us to work toward involves seeking to deal with matters of sin in one another's lives - even when we're told to 'mind our own business'. "Peace" must never be construed as to mean passive toleration of sin.
Think about this: the Bible tells us that Jesus has "made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). That means that He did not compromise with sin in His work of establishing peace, but rather dealt with sin in a decisive way - forever removing it as a barrier between Himself and us. And likewise, our pursuit of peace must at times mean that we seek it through dealing with matters of sin one another's lives and removing it as a barrier between us. "Pursue peace with all people", the writer of Hebrews says, "and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).
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These three spiritual disciplines - keeping our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking deceit; departing from evil and doing good; and seeking peace and pursuing it - are "exercises" that will lead us to a blessed spiritual life. If you desire life, love many days, and long to see good, then these are the disciplines you should build into your life.
This leads us, finally, to consider ...
III. THE REASONS WHY THESE DISCIPLINES LEAD TO A BLESSED QUALITY OF LIFE (vv. 15-16).
These things lead to a blessed life because we live in a moral universe. God Himself is holy; and His holiness is an expression of His very nature. Therefore, if we would have a life crowned with His favor and blessedness, we must live in a way that is in conformity with His own holiness.
The psalmist expresses this in two ways. First, he says, "The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry" (v. 15). That is, He is inclined to look favorably upon the man or woman who trust Him for righteousness through faith in His Son Jesus; and who then walk in conformity with His righteousness in their daily behavior and conduct. He is inclined to listen to their prayers and answer them when they call out to Him.
But second, he says, "The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth" (v. 16). To say that God's "face" is "against" those who do evil is a figure of speech for His displeasure and disfavor toward them. But even more, it is an expression of His intention toward them. While He offers us life, many days and the privilege of seeing good, He acts in an opposite manner toward the evil - cutting off the remembrance of them from the earth.
"Do not be deceived", the Bible says, "God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life" (Gal. 6:7-8). God "'will render to each one according to his deeds': eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness - indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 2:6-10). These are inescapable principles of the universe; because God is who He is. And so, if we would have a blessed spiritual life on earth, then we should exercise ourselves in godliness according to the practices the psalmist describes. They help us conform to the hoiness of God.
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It's interesting to me that in 1 Peter - a letter that the apostle Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering persecution for their faith and who needed encouragement - we find this passage quoted in full (1 Peter 3:10-12). It's a passage that God wants to keep before us, because we need to practice the "godly exercises" that it advocates to us.
I hope you will be encouraged by our look at this passage to give attention to the fitness needs of your soul. There are lots of things we can do to build up and protect our temporal bodies; but it's more important by far that we do what we must to build up and provide for a sound spiritual life. May God help us to practice these principles for spiritual health, and to His glory.
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