With the aid of only a little imagination, you can quickly think of a number of Bible characters who knew something of isolation, real “social distancing,” in their experiences. Isolation, loneliness, monotony, and boredom likely crept into all their hearts. And they had no internet, twitter, Instagram, or face time. The only thing they knew about Zoom is that it was the opposite of the way time was moving.

Noah knew isolation. He was, of course, with his family. I think I hear someone say, “So what!” Being together with wife, three sons, and their wives may have its own inherent trial, but we will not go there. Like many of us, he was quarantined with his family. How long did his enforced “social distancing” last? He was in the ark for a full year (Solar year, not lunar). You may not have thought about it, but while in the ark, he faced:

An Undisclosed Time Frame

When Noah entered the ark, he was obeying God. But he entered with no promise as to when he would exit. He labored for perhaps 100 years to build the ark according to the pattern. When it was finished, God instructed him and his family to enter. He walked into the ark not having any idea when he was going to exit.

In a similar manner, we are going through a time of social distancing, isolation, and sheltering in place; we are going through this time with no precise date on the calendar to circle, no firm prospect as to when it will end. Like those described in Zechariah 9:12, we are “prisoners of hope.” We listen eagerly to any hint of restrictions being lifted, of liberties being restored. We wait (impatiently) for news of stores reopening, barber shops (a real emergency here) cutting hair once again. All of this is without a firm date.

An Uncertain Future

Have you ever thought that Noah had no idea what to expect when he finally would exit from the ark? He knew that God was going to destroy everything that had breath. But what of the earth itself? Would he recognize anything? Would everything be changed and foreign to him?

If you listen to the “experts,” they are telling us that every-day life will never be the same. The work office will change, social life will be different, even sport’s venues will have to alter in many ways. I suspect that the experts do not know how quickly we fall back into patterns of behavior developed over decades. But that is not the point. Noah did not know what to expect; we do not know totally what to expect. We do expect masks and six-feet rules to be in effect for a period of time. But what about school, meeting together as believers (can we sing with face masks on?), shopping, and the myriad of other things which constitute normal life?

An Unfailing Faithfulness

While there were many things that Noah did not know, what he did know was enough to carry him through the flood. He knew he had a faithful God. The God Who had instructed him to build an ark could be depended upon to see to his welfare. God had promised to confirm a covenant with Noah before he went into the ark (Gen 6:18). Noah had God’s word for an eventual safe exit and future covenant. He may not have known all the details ahead of time, but he knew His God, and he knew He was faithful to His word. If He acted in keeping with his promise to send the flood, He could be depended upon for the future.

We have a God upon Whom we can depend. He does not tell us all the details. He has not told any of us when all this pandemic will end. He has not told us how different the future will be. But He has told us that He will never leave us nor forsake us. As a result, we may boldly say, “The Lord is my helper” (Heb 13:6).

As we face an unprecedented challenge to our mental sanity and spiritual balance, may we rest in the absolute confidence of the faithfulness of God. Eventually, we will be able to meet together and remember the Lord. We will meet to offer worship, pray, and enjoy the Word of God. The one negative feature is you will no longer be able to wear your pajamas to meeting.

Enlarged (Part 2)

The name of Jabez will forever be associated with the thought of prayer. His request is one of those bright spots as you work your way through those early chapters of Chronicles where you feel as though you are reading through an old white pages phone directory.

He wanted to be blessed, and among the blessings he asked God for was, “O that Thou … enlarge my coasts (borders)” (1 Chron 4:10). Here is just one verse which stands out amidst a long list of names. Here was a man who wanted his inheritance to be enlarged or greater. He wanted to claim more of the land for himself.

Paul actually prayed this prayer for the Christians in Ephesus. He very likely had prayed it for himself many times, but the prayer in Ephesians 1 was for the readers of his letter. He asked the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ for three things for these Christians. That the eyes of their hearts might be enlightened to know:

  • The hope of His calling
  • The riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints
  • The exceeding greatness of His power, the power that was at work in raising Christ from the dead.

He wanted to shake the believers from being mediocre Christians to become enlarged in their vision and understanding. Comfortable Christianity is a danger to us all. At times, God has to rock our world a bit to make us sit up and take notice, to take inventory and ask ourselves some painful questions. When our routines and predictable lives are upset, we lose our sense of security, a security based on how we have ordered our lives. There is nothing evil in this; but He wants us to find everything in Him. Maybe, just maybe He will use the current pandemic to do that in my life.

As you watch your retirement plan bottom out, as you see the economy in dire trouble, as you endure the lockdowns and the curfews, and as you see all the avenues of service which you once did for the Lord closed, you have to stop and think. In my own case, the economy is not a big worry. It was an economic depression that took a grandfather from Italy to New York in the early 1900s instead of to Argentina where he really wanted to settle. When he came to the USA, he heard the message of the gospel and was saved. That brought the gospel eventually down to me. So, at times I say, “Thank God for recessions!”

But life has changed for now and you realize that the real point about Christianity is not the work I do for the Lord but the work He does in me. Can I use this time to begin to appreciate the “land,” the blessings into which salvation has brought us? If so, I can be enlarged. My vision will be enlarged, my worship will be enriched, and my life will be more conformed to His.

During this time of economic downtown and unemployment, lots of things are getting “smaller,” from your savings and investments to your plans for the next few months. But you can enlarge the one aspect of your life which will bring the most profit.

Getting Enlarged

No, this is not a reference to overeating while we are on lockdown, although that is a real concern.

David said, “Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress” (Ps 4:1). Literally, he was saying, “I grew under pressure.” We think in the natural sphere that pressure makes something smaller; but in the spiritual realm, pressure leads to growth.

The background of Psalms 3 and 4 is when David had to flee for his life from Absalom. His life was in danger. As well, he had no idea when the danger would end. He did not know whom to trust. His best advisor and friend had turned against him. He didn’t know where he was safe.

Sound familiar? The flood of news feeds keeps telling us of the danger. Then, as though to further beat us down, they assure us that really no one, even the experts, have any idea when all this will be over. We are reminded that no one is really safe – keep six feet away. And don’t leave your house but somehow be sure to exercise, and above all, don’t get discouraged!

And yet, though we may think this is all a deterrent to spiritual progress, all this “pressure” can actually “enlarge” us spiritually. It is a tremendous comfort to always keep in mind that God will never allow a circumstance in your life or mine that does not have the potential for spiritual growth. Even the present pandemic with the limitations it has imposed on us to meet together as believers cannot hinder our growth. But growth will not occur automatically. Growth will require effort on our part. With added time, can I use it for studying the Word of God, listening to ministry, or for prayer? Can I turn the long hours of the day to profit by reaching out to other Christians, those who are alone, to encourage them?

Spiritual growth is not a matter of doing but of being. It is not what I accomplish for God (as valuable as that is), but what I know of God and how much of Christ I can reflect in my life.

David Livingston the famous missionary to Africa of the 1800’s was once hindered from going down river. Sadly, the obstruction was the corpses of dead slaves who had been thrown into the river. When his assistants came to him telling him that they could not navigate the river, and asked where he wanted to go, he gave his famous answer: “Anywhere as long as it is forward.”

We can go forward despite the barricades on our parks and walking paths, the curfew which says we must be in at 8 pm, and the myriad of other restrictions which tell us to stay put! We can move forward and enlarge ourselves even amidst the present circumstances. Allow the pressure to make you a bigger Christian!

The Fourth Watch

“And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them”

Mark 6:48

The fourth day, the fourth man, and the fourth watch all have related truths in which we can find comfort and confidence.

They had entered the boat at His request. He had constrained them to enter it and to go to the other side to Bethsaida while He sent the people away. Did they wonder about how He would get there? Were they wondering what was delaying Him and what He was doing?

They had obeyed His request. And yet … the wind suddenly arose, perhaps a gale was blowing. There was among them, seasoned fisherman, accustomed to storms. But this was a challenge even for them. Why should things go wrong when they had obeyed Him and where they were supposed to be? Wasn’t everything supposed to go smoothly when you obeyed?

Two things are worthy of note before looking at the Lord’s arrival on the scene: He had prepared them for this trial. Earlier, He was with them in a storm on the sea. He was available to them and they only had to awaken Him and call upon Him for help (Mark 4:35-40). 

Second, He was not really away from them. He was upon the mount praying (v 46) and His eyes were watching them (v 48). They did not know it, but He was as much with them while on the mount as He had been when in the ship.

They must have wondered as well, how everything would work out. He had said He would get them to the other shore, but it looked hopeless. They kept rowing as the hours passed. Finally, the fourth watch of the night, as late as it could be before the sunrise, He came. The waves they were fearing became the very vehicle which brought Him: He came walking on the waves. They did not recognize and understand everything at first, they thought it was a spirit. But when He entered the small boat, the wind ceased, and all was calm.

We can be faced with things which “do not make sense.” Our plans and goals can be upset. We think we are in the mind of the Lord and yet problems seem to arise. We struggle and wait, and things do not get better. It may not be the fourth watch of the night yet. He had to let them exhaust all their own strength before He came. It is not that He finds delight in seeing us struggle; He delights in having us depend on Him. We would want Him to arrive in the first watch of the night; to come immediately when problems begin to arise. He is not ignorant, impotent, or indifferent to our situation as we face COVID-19. Especially with being homebound, we want this thing over now if not yesterday. Maybe it’s not the fourth watch of the night as yet.

The fourth day became the day of His presence in their sorrow; the fourth Man was His presence in the fire; the fourth watch was His presence in the storm. Each provided a revelation of His greatness and sufficiency.

The Fourth Man

“Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? … Lo I see four men loose, walking … the fourth is like the Son of God” Dan. 3:24, 25

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is familiar to every Sunday school child. Who cannot marvel at the courage and conviction of the three Hebrew boys who refused to bend and blend in with everyone, falling down to worship the image? Their resolute faith in God has been an encouragement and example to generations of tried believers ever since. They not only did not fear before the king, but they were willing to stand out even from their fellow countrymen.

The words they spoke to the king are a testimony to both their scriptural intelligence and spirituality: “Our God Whom we serve is able to deliver us … but if not … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image” (Dan 3:17, 18).

As a result of their stand for God, they were cast alive into the burning fiery furnace. To the astonishment of the king and his entourage of onlookers, what they saw were four men walking freely amidst the fire.

The fourth Man is always there in the trial! There are times when He delivers from the trial and the believers do not know the furnace experience. But even if He does not, then He is always with us in the furnace of trial. As a result of being in the furnace, they knew His presence: He was with them, walking together. They knew His protection: the fire did not consume them. And they knew His power as there was not even the smell of smoke on them. The fire that slew the men who cast them into the furnace had no effect on them at all.

We are in a time of trial, perhaps the worst societal trial which many have experienced in a lifetime. We have no promise in the Word of God as to when this will end or what we can expect. We do have the promise of His presence. For the believer, while we look for deliverance from it, we have His presence with us in the trial. I doubt if the three Hebrew young men would have traded the trial for anything Babylon could possibly offer.

Just as there was a fourth day in the experience of Mary and Martha, so there was a fourth person in the experience of three young men. Never forget the fourth man in any trial which comes into our lives.

Great is Thy Faithfulness

You likely do not read the book of Lamentations very often. It is a sad, heart-rending sob from the heart of Jeremiah. He was standing amidst the rubble of a once-great city, Jerusalem. The Chaldean nation had come and destroyed it. We are back in 586 BC. The unthinkable had happened! The poetic book reads almost like a funeral dirge, a long, low song in the minor key, expressing the grief of Jeremiah’s heart. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, looked upon the devastation and ruin, the end result of a nation’s rebellion, and wept.

It was a sad day. No longer were the pilgrims streaming up to Zion to worship. The streets were now empty; the collective worship of God ceased. Had the work and things of God come to a standstill?

Fortunately, we can turn from the melancholy versification of Jeremiah to a few triumphant notes he strikes amidst his grief. Listen to the expression of his faith rising amidst the ashes of the city, “His compassions fail not; they are new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness” (Lam 3:22, 23) It does not end there, he closes his lamentations with one of the great expressions of confidence and faith, “Thou O Lord remainest for ever, Thy throne from generation to generation” (5:19).

Jeremiah lived amidst change and confusion. While he had prophesied of the coming invasion, the majority of Israelites were taken by surprise. They had thought that something such as this would never happen. Jeremiah himself was overwhelmed when the reality was realized.

But Jeremiah’s refuge is the same refuge which each of us has in difficult days. While we have the prospect of being able to meet in the near future and have not suffered devastation, we have been under “siege” by a pandemic. We have known confusion and perplexity. Where do we turn? 

Jeremiah turned to what was the single constant in a changing world: The throne of God remains, unchanged from age to age. Men come and go; disasters move in and then subside; dictators rise and fall – God remains.

Linked with that throne is a God, not only of stability and constancy, but One marked by compassion, mercy, and faithfulness (3:22, 23). So comforting are the words of Jeremiah in chapter 5:19, that many of the rabbis wanted the book to end with those words of hope. But for us, the truth remains whether in verse 19 or at the end of chapter 5.

We need not despair or become discouraged as we look above to a throne that is unmovable and unassailable.