From Suffering to Praise: A sermon on 1 Peter 5:6-11

Peacekeeping vs Peacemaking (Be a peacemaker)

PeaceMakerThe great book of Esther, which I have been studying for the last year plus, concludes with stating that Mordecai (Esther’s cousin and now second in command of all Persia) “spoke peace to all his people” (Es 10:3). Likewise, the apostle Paul spoke peace upon the churches. In fact, every epistle in the New Testament, except for Hebrews, James and 1 & 3 John open with the author pouring “grace and peace” upon his readers.

And Jesus? Jesus is called the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6), he brings peace on earth (Lk 2:14) and he gives peace (Jn 14:27), he makes peace for us with God (Rom 5:1) and he is our peace (Eph2:14).

And us? We are called to be peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Notice Jesus calls us to be peacemakers… not peacekeepers. Important distinction.

Peacekeeping assumes everything is ok and strives to maintain the status quo. Peacemaking assumes things are broken and in need of repair.

Peacekeepers detrimentally overlook the pains, heartaches and realities of life in a sinful world. Peacekeepers try to pretend everything is okay. Peacekeepers sweet the dirt under the carpet and hope nobody notices. Peacekeepers shove the skeletons in the closet and tell people not to open it. And what does the Lord God call peacekeepers? False prophets. “My hand will be against the prophets… Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ez 13:9,10). Peacekeepers try and whitewash the problem and make it go away. And that is no peace…

True peace, biblical peace, is not marked by safety and security but by reconciliation and restoration. Peace is not by a temporary ceasefire, but by ultimate victory. Peace is not cheap, but the price of peace is the blood of Jesus (Col 1:20). Peace is not the absence of a threat but the presence of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was a peacemaker… and he made peace by giving his life. The call for us, and what I pray is the yearning of my life as I long to be called a son of God, is that I would, like Jesus, make peace. Not that cheap, meaningless temporary ceasefire of peace, but a peace that is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit… to put together what has fallen apart, to reconcile that which is broken, and to restore that which is damaged.

I want to speak peace. I want to be a peacemaker.

You Bled: A Good Friday Responsive Reading

goodfridaybloodIn preparation for our 2015 Good Friday service, I wrote the following responsive reading as part of a service that will call our congregation to reflect on blood: its importance Scripturally, its unique role in God’s story of redemption and the preciousness of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Leader reads L / Congregation reads C

L: When in the earnestness of your prayer, sweat formed on your brow, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: When you were arrested and beaten, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: As the nails drove through your hands and feet, hanging you on the cross, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: When they pierced your side, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: While I was your enemy, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: Even when I denied knowing you, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: For the sins of the world, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: For my sins, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

A: By your blood we are forgiven. By your blood we are saved. We cling to the blood of Jesus. Amen.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Bible Interpretation

The Bible employs many different genres of literature. There is poetry. There are personal letters. There are visions and dreams. There is narrative. Good interpretation of the Bible requires recognizing the genre of the respective passage and applying the appropriate interpretive rules for the genre.

One interpretive decision to make that crosses over genres, but occurs most especially in personal letters and narrative, is whether to understand the passage as descriptive or prescriptive. Let me explain…

Descriptive: Some passages are descriptive. That is, they tell you what was happening. It’s not necessarily telling us whether it is morally right or wrong, just that it is what happened. Example:

He [Solomon] had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart (1 Ki 11:3).

Was it good for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. Was it right for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. So this passage is a clear example of a descriptive passage that tells us what was happening, but never infers that it was good or what was should have been happening. The Bible is clear on marriage… one man, one woman, forever.

Prescriptive: Other passages, however, are intended to prescribe moral imperatives upon the reader. Example:

You shall not murder (Ex 20:13).

Murder is wrong. That is clear. This verse (and the 10 Commandments in general) are moral prescriptions of how God’s people are supposed to act (praise God for grace that covers us when we don’t do what we are supposed to do). But the point is that this verse is prescriptive.

In short, when reading the Bible, ask yourself this question: Is this passage describing what should be (prescriptive) or describing what is happening (descriptive)?

Of course, the challenge is, it’s not always as easy as the passages I used as examples above. And sometimes it may even change in the course of a chapter from description to prescription and back again. Let’s look at one more example:

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him (1 Cor 11:14).

So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? If prescriptive, that means it is morally wrong for a man to grow long hair. But if it is simply descriptive, is the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul teaches on the Lord’s Supper? Here are back to back sections on Godly worship in the same chapter. So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? It’s a big decision…

Deciding whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive is one of the most important decisions we make in properly interpreting the Bible. And if you are ever not sure, ask a friend…

Interact: What passages of the Bible do you struggle to decide if they are descriptive or prescriptive?

Esther as Literature: A well written story

One of the distinctive of the book of Esther is the very high literary quality. It is a good story, and a well-told story. Actually, one of the “evidences” that people use to prove that the story is not historically true is that it reads more like a good novel with character development, scenes, a climatic moment when the people are saved, etc. Good storytelling does not, though, need to undermine the historicity of the story it is telling.

That said, there are a few important literary motifs that would be helpful to note:

Feasts and gallows as literary device

Throughout the story, there are frequent and recurring references to both feasts and gallows. Each time a feast or gallows is referenced, it serves as a sort of mile marker in the development of the story. And while the next post will demonstrate this through a framing of the book of Esther as a play in 3 acts, plus an epilogue, a few initial observations on feasts and gallows can be made.

  • Feasts (or banquets, or parties, depending upon translation)
    • There are a lot of parties in this story
    • Hebrew word for “feast” is used 20 times in Esther
    • That same word only appears 24 times in the rest of the Old Testament combined!
    • Study Esther and one thing becomes very clear: the people like to party
  • Gallows
    • Gallows appear 4 times in the story
    • The first three serve almost as the end of an act in a play or end of a chapter in a book
    • The gallows on which the Persians “hung” people are not like what we imagine from old western movies
    • They were tall poles that the victim was impaled upon, sometimes using nails to hold them to the impaling pole
    • What does that sound like?
    • Crucifixion: the Romans perfected it, but it was the Persian empire here that developed this form of attaching someone to a pole for executive
    • For more, read this article from Ligionier: Was Haman Hanged or Impaled?
  • Irony
    • There is a great use of irony throughout the story
    • The “great” king Xerxes is revealed as a tool being used by his subjects
    • The “wise” men are anything but
    • Multiple times in the story something happens to make you think, “Boy that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” (Cue Ron Burgundy)RonBurgundyEscalatedQuickly
    • Example: Mordecai would not bow to Haman, so Haman moves to eliminate all the Jewish people in the empire
    • Example: Mecumen (Es 1:16) declares that Vashti disobeying Xerxes is a wrong not only against the king but against men everywhere who are now going to see their wives revolt against them
  • Character Comparisons
    • Story is set up to invite the reader to make comparisons between the characters, both within the story and with other characters in Biblical history
    • Examples: Haman vs. Mordecai | Vashti vs. Esther | Esther vs. Daniel | Xerxes vs. Jesus
  • Reversals
    • “the reverse occurred” (Esther 9:1)
    • Like any good story, this one has a climatic scene that leads to a series of reversals

Before venturing on deeper into Esther, I encourage you to sit down and read the story. Not in chapters and verses. But as a novel. Read the whole thing and enjoy the high literary quality, the character arcs, and see the subtle providence of God at work.

Where is God?

WhereisGodThe book of Esther is unique. There is something different… unexpected… unique about Esther when compared to all the other books of the Bible: the name of God is never mentioned!

That should lead us to ask a question: Where is God in Esther?

Where is God?

  • Esther is the only book of the Bible that never mentions God
  • In fact, the people don’t even seem particularly “religious”
  • No one prays, no one reads their Bibles, no one goes to temple or sings worship songs
  • God is, seemingly, absent from the story

There is a difference between the presence of absence and the absence of presence – Pastor David Strain at FPC Jackson

Did you hear that? What an important distinction. You may observe what is there… or not observe what is there. Just because Esther never tells us about God explicitly, doesn’t mean he isn’t present. The story of Esther is the story of God’s providential control of all things, even when he seem to be missing in action.

With that, let us establish a theme for the book of Esther

The Theme of Esther

The book of Esther teaches God’s people that even when God’s face is unseen and his name is not mentioned, his sovereign hand is still at work protecting his people.

What are God’s works of providence?
God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preservation and control of all his creatures, and all their actions (WSC 11).

Esther is, in short, the story of God’s providence. There are no miracles and no divine intervention. There is, simply, a faithful God ordaining all the ordinary, mundane details in just such a way as to protect and preserve his people.

Esther: The Time, Place and Occasion of the Story

EstherAs noted in my previous post, I am in the midst of a year long personal study of Esther that has resulted in me teaching a class on the book.

Part of studying any book of the Bible is to ask questions regarding authorship, when it was written, who the original audience of the book was, etc. Our interpretation of the book is shaped by the answers to these questions. Sometimes the answers are really clear (Paul wrote the book of Philippians… very little dispute here). Sometimes the answers are less clear, though generally agreed upon in the evangelical world (Moses wrote Genesis). Sometimes we don’t know at all, but we still need to ask.

Where we are in history: the time, place & occasion of Esther

  • Authorship and Date of writing
    • Authorship is often attributed to either Ezra or Mordecai
    • Truth is, we don’t know
    • Esther was likely written after Mordecai, but before 330BC when Alexander the Great conquered Persia
    • Evidence: The Hebrew used in Esther shows no signs of any Hellenistic influence, something that would have been expected if it was written after Alexander’s conquest
  • Original Audience
    • Esther was written to Jews, likely still scattered throughout the empire
    • Story of Esther served as an impetus for the celebration of Purim
  • Historical Timeline
    • 722 – Northern kingdom (Israel) fell to Assyria
    • 586 – Southern kingdom (Judah) fell to Babylon, the beginning of the exile
    • 539 – Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon
    • 538 – Cyrus decreed that Israelites could return to Jerusalem / their homeland
    • 515 – Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem
    • 486-464 – Ahasareus reigned in Persia
    • ~479 – Esther named queen
    • Two other historical notes of interest
      • Xerxes infamous failed attack on Sparta’s 300 men takes place between chapters 1 and 2 of Esther
      • Whole of Esther takes place between chaters 6 and 7 of Ezra
  • The People

    Ahasareus, aka Xerxes

    • The story of Esther has 4 main characters
    • Ahasareus, better known as Xerxes
    • Haman the Agagite (Boo!)
    • Mordecai the Jew
    • Esther, the orphan girl become queen, raised by her cousin Mordecai
  • The Place: Susa, the winter capital of Persia
    • 2 important location notes
    • First, turns out King Xerxes was a snowbird!
    • Second, and more importantly, the Jews should never have been in Susa. They should have gone back to Jerusalem when they had the chance. So this story reflects part of what happens when God’s people are more interested in acclimating to the systems of the world than to being part of God’s kingdom.
    • See the map of the Persian kingdom below