Today at lunchtime family devotions I read Luke 4:1—
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness
I started out “What did the Holy Spirit do in this verse?” The answer: The Spirit led Jesus.
Then I asked, “What happened before the Spirit led Jesus?” Ah, this wasn’t as obvious. My daughter ventured, “Jesus was baptized”— which was true, I added, but it wasn’t in verse 1.
I explained that part of learning about God and His ways was studying the Bible verse by verse, word by word, and knowing that each word is important, that each word and phrase is there for a reason. So I answered that verse 1 says that before Jesus was led by the Spirit the Bible teaches us that he was full of the Holy Spirit.
I went on to explain that since we are to be Christians, Christ-like, Christ-followers, part of the reason the Gospels were written was for us to understand how Christ lived, for us to understand how to relate to God, to live and walk before God. Why God let us know that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit before he was led by the Spirit is because He wants us to be full of the Holy Spirit before the Spirit leads us.
Then I asked my next question: “How are some ways that we can be full of the Holy Spirit?” Everyone started jumping on this one, and everyone contributed to a list, which ended up being:
- Reading the Bible
- Worshipping God
- Studying the Bible
- Obeying what the Bible says
I still have a long way to go on being consistent with family devotions, but I was reminded today that often just a simple thing, like talking about a single verse, can lead to teachable moments that can plant seeds of truth.
I also was reminded myself of that truth. So often all of us talk about God’s will, wanting to find it for our lives, desiring to be led by the Holy Spirit. How often, though, are we willing to do the hard work of reading, studying, and obeying the Bible daily, of consistent times of prayer and worship, that cause us to be filled with the Spirit who will then lead us through all the decisions and journeys of our lives?
This week’s Bible study looks at the book of Esther, specifically the first two chapters. To approach studying Esther or any book, it’s helpful to consider its type or style, technically called genre. The book of Esther is historical story: it contains accurate historical facts, but it is much more than just a news briefing: it highlights plot twists, constructs parallels, brings out ironies, and masterfully interweaves other elements of good story-telling into one of the truly great writings of the ancient world. It is not prophecy or law or theology: in fact, God’s name is not even mentioned in the book.
So, we need to realize that Esther is not a theological tome to be dissected, but a story to be enjoyed, pondered, and applied to our lives. And that is indeed how God wants us to see historical sections of Scripture. Paul speaks of God’s purpose for historical narrative in 1 Corinthians 10 when he says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did….they were written down for our instruction.” So, we need to ask what examples, what lessons, what principles about the nature of man and the nature of God are contained in this book that God wants us to understand.
Another important question to always ask is who the original audience was— who originally read the book and why? The Book of Esther was written to the Jewish nation to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. It still occupies an important position in Judaism, being one of only five books that are ceremonially read aloud every year by every orthodox Jewish family.
Finally, when you approach any passage from the Bible, you try to discern its purpose. “Why is this passage in the Bible? Why did God sovereignly choose this information to become part of His inerrant Word?” Now, obviously, we cannot fully know the mind of God in this matter, but at least framing our minds to seek out what God is trying to teach us in a passage is a sound foundation for study.
With that background, let’s plunge into chapter 1. The first eight verses describe a six month long party given by a guy named Ahasuerus, which is a Hebrew name corresponding to the Greek name Xerxes I. Now why spend eight verses just to describe a party given by one man, when the Bible only spends one verse to describe the party his wife gave in verse 9? I think that God wanted to make clear what kind of man this Ahasuerus was. When you try to picture who Ahasuerus was, just think Donald Trump. No, really, think about it. Guy with an ego the size of a planet, filthy rich, loved to let everyone know how rich and powerful and special he was, threw lavish parties, had a trophy wife, and get this: enjoyed firing people. And to top it off, both of them had major setbacks which left them with big chips on their shoulder. The Donald has had all his financial near collapses, and Xerxes had the Battle of Thermopylae: yes he was the king that got his 2 million man army’s butt kicked by 300 Spartans. That had to have left a nasty bruise on the old ego.
So, how does this story start out? Donald, err, Ahasuerus throws a six month long party celebrating…himself. At the end, he commands the trophy wife to come out and parade in front of his drinking buddies. Now, here is a crucial juncture, and one that we would do well to think about. Was this a righteous, honorable ruler? No, and God wants to make sure we understand that fact. Was he asking his queen to do something that offended her? Yes. So what was the Queen’s response? She said no. And here’s another interesting thing to note: the Bible doesn’t say why she refused. There’s all kinds of theories, but we don’t actually know. Whenever the Bible is silent on something, even a little thing, it means one thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. She might have had a very “good” reason, or a petty one, but God didn’t put it in because he didn’t want us debating on the supposed merits of whether she had a “good” reason or not to disobey her husband and king.
See, here is where this whole “these things took place as examples for us” theme kicks in. The point of the story is not whether she had a “good” reason to disobey the king, but rather the point is that she chose to disobey. There is a basic Biblical principle of obeying authority, even evil authority, if it does not cause us to disobey God. Our natural man, however, wants to buck on this, just like the Pharisees tried to buck Jesus in Matthew 22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in His words. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.
Check it out: the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into giving them a “good” reason to disobey evil Roman authority, but Jesus would have none of it. Queen Vashti’s response to her evil authority was ungodly, and even the ungodly king and his court saw it. And what was the consequence for Vashti’s ungodly response? “You’re fired!”
In fact, the Bible spends the rest of the chapter going into great detail of this very concept, and how Vashti was a poor example of obeying authority and that this example would affect not only her but many others. This whole concept of giving honor and respect and obedience to authority seems foreign and backward and simplistic and offensive to 21st century ears, but Jesus and the apostles clearly established it as not just cultural, but Biblical and God-honoring behavior.
If Chapter 1 of Esther looked like The Apprentice: Persian Edition, then Chapter 2 is definitely the very first season (like, from 2500 years ago) of The Bachelor. Here we had dozens, perhaps hundreds of women gathered from all over the kingdom obviously strictly for their physical beauty, and this young woman Esther who the Bible plainly states “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” was among them.
But verse 9 says something very important in the Hebrew which is not obvious in English: Esther won the favor of Hegai, the administrator of this whole contest. This word favor is the Hebrew hesed, which is a very powerful & rich word in Hebrew that describes the covenant loyalty love, mercy, kindness, benevolence & devotion that God has for His people. Esther did not win the hesed of this powerful man just by her looks. It is evident that she won his hesed by listening carefully to his words (verse 15) and the words of her cousin Mordecai (verse 8 & 20).
So, verse 17 shows the result of God’s work—His blessing Esther with beauty, both of soul and body, His placing her “in the right place at the right time” and her heart responses of respect and obedience to authority. She gets five responses from Xerxes: First, she gets love, which in Hebrew is a broader word than mere sexual desire: the word is actually first used in Scripture in Genesis 22:2 to describe Abraham’s love for Issac. She gets grace, the word first used in Genesis 6:8 “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and she gets Xerxes’ hesed favor. She gets the crown, and lastly she gets a great feast.
So, just to make sure, let’s review the contrast: Vashti has feast, disobeys authority, loses crown, bummer. Esther obeys authority, gets crown, has feast, ends up saving the entire nation (read the rest of the book!).
So what does God want us to learn from the book of Esther? Not that she had a beautiful body, but that she had a beautiful heart, for this is what God looks on (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Peter 3:3-4). Esther teaches us that God wants us to glorify Him by showing the difference between living in a imperfect, sinful world among corrupt authority figures with a human, self-centered heart versus a God-honoring, submissive heart. The Greek word hupataso (click the hyperlink to do a word study), submit, is used in the New Testament in multiple books to describe a believer’s response to authority. It is used to describe our relationship to God, to employers, to parents, to government, to husbands, and to other members of the body of Christ. The application is pretty clear: where in our lives do we need to have the heart of Esther to glorify God by submitting to authority? Where can we advance His kingdom by giving up our own way?
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 ESV)
How do we decide what to do? This is a question that scores of writers have devoted books to answering.
Of course, we all like to say that we try to follow God’s will for our lives (and there’s scores of books on that subject too!).
How often, though, we often make decisions based on our feelings, experiences, desires, basically our own will, and then assume our will is God’s will because we are Christians or because we are seeking God’s will or because the thing in question is a “good thing” to do or because or because we are sure God would bless it or… well, you get the idea. We are all looking to follow a “trail of candy” that we are sure that God has laid out for us.
Unfortunately, contemporary Christian thought is just full of this philosophy. Although I like John Eldredge and he writes some good stuff, take a gander at this quote from Wild at Heart:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Follow the trail of candy, follow what makes you “come alive.” Now, in fairness, there is some wisdom in this quote. It’s true that a lot of people get into trouble because they plunge into something just because they decide it’s a need. And it’s true there are a lot of people walking around “dead”— not plunging themselves into any kind of risk for the glory of God. And it’s true that as you do God’s will, God sometimes is gracious and gives you a feedback loop of joy and fulfillment. I think that Eldredge is sincerely trying to lead people in the right direction, and I don’t think that he is personally looking only for self-fulfillment in his life.
BUT— using “what makes you come alive” or any such measure of personal desire or will or fulfillment as a guide to making decisions has several major problems:
- It assumes our personal wills are in perfect tune with God’s will, or at least in the same general direction. Well, duh, if Jesus had to pray “not as I will” we certainly can’t trust our much more falliable feelings.
- Sometimes God’s will is not personally fulfilling or even attractive to us. As the old Don Francisco song goes, “Jesus didn’t die for you because it was fun.”
- Finally, as I alluded to above, choosing what to do because of its personal fulfillment is putting the cart before the horse. God never intended for us to use the hope of immediate personal fulfillment as the guide for our wills. There will be rewards and God does love to give us gifts, but he doesn’t lay out a trail of candy for us to follow step by step through this life.
As a contrast, let me provide the steps George Mueller used to help him make decisions:
- I seek to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in a given matter. When we are ready to do the Lord’s will—whatever it may be—nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome.
- Having done this, I do not leave the result to feeling or simple impression. If I do so, I make myself liable to great delusions.
- I seek the will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, God’s Word. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Spirit guides us, He will do it according to the Scriptures, never contrary to them.
- Next I take into account providential circumstances. These often plainly indicate God’s will in connection with His Word and Spirit.
- I ask God in prayer to reveal His will to me.
- Thus, through prayer, the study of the Word and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge. If my mind is thus at peace and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. I have found this method always effective in trivial or important issues.
One of the tenants of the study Experiencing God is that the servant obeys, then God works and accomplishes. So often we tend to search for God’s will with anxiety and trepidation—what if I don’t find it? will He ask me to do something I can’t or won’t want to do? Will I mess up? But searching for the will of a Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children should be like an Easter egg hunt—you have to look, but the “eggs” aren’t hidden to not be found, but precisely the opposite, in order to be found, and for there to be joy in the journey of finding them, joyous expectation of finding the egg and more joy when you find it and open the plastic egg and find the treasure inside. So God is with His children—when we walk with God and obey Him, we can do so with expectant joy that we will find His will and that it will be something wonderful for our lives and for the Kingdom.
It has been several weeks since the Wall Street Journal article on Bruce Wilkinson’s departure from his ministry in Africa, and every blog on the theological spectrum from Boar’s Head Tavern to Master’s Seminary Alumni has taken a turn on commentary.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Dr. Bruce Wilkinson of Prayer of Jabez fame decided a few years ago to move to South Africa and devote his ministry to the crisis in that country, kinda like Bono without sunglasses. After several plans didn’t pan out, he somewhat abruptly decided to move back to the United States.
Although different pundits give different reasons why, most have basically labeled this a “failure”, even Wilkinson himself. But why? Are we so caught up in the form of the world that we have forgotten how God defines success?
What would the blogs be writing about Job after the death of his children and the eradication of his earthly goods? (Maybe Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were the first bloggers!) Would some of us get the same reprove from God?
God calls us to be faithful, not to have all our plans work out. God tests our faith by things not going our way (James 1), and warns us not to boast about tomorrow (James 4). Yes, there are questions of correct theology and correct common sense regarding Dr. Wilkinson’s venture, but had his venture succeeded those questions wouldn’t have been asked, now, would they?
I think the question to ask is how we are all viewing our measure of success. How are we measuring “success” in our career or ministry or marriage or web site? Whether God grants “a dream” to succeed or fail is up entirely to God, and the failure of Dr. Wilkinson’s “dream” was ultimately in God’s hands. The real question is whether Dr. Wilkinson understood that, and whether we understand it.