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Church of Christ at Fifth Street
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|What is a Living Letter?
|"You yourselves are our letters
of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be
known and read by all men; and you show that you are
a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not
with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not
on tablets of
stone but on tablets of human hearts." (2
|"A Christian should not follow the crowd, but
rather show them the way."
Take Away the Frogs
Because of Pharaoh's hard heart, the Lord was forced to
perform miracles and send plagues on the land of Egypt in order to secure the
freedom of his chosen people. After a few days of a plague, Pharaoh and his
people were tired of the plague and its inconvenience. Pharaoh would then call
Moses and Aaron and ask them to end the plague in return for a truce. Some
plagues were particularly loathesome and troubled Pharaoh greatly. When frogs
came upon the land in response to Moses' command, they covered the land. There
were frogs in Pharaoh's house, in his bedroom, in this shoes, in his food, in
his bowl--they were everywhere. Pharaoh's misery came to a climax and the Bible
records that Pharaoh begged Moses to "Take away the frogs from me" (Exodus 8:8).
We like to think of stories with happy endings. Stories
where the protagonist dies or is foiled and where the bad guys win are not
popular and do not entertain nearly as much as those that end with the couple
falling in love, the meanies foiled, and people living happily ever after.
Humans like to dwell upon the happy times and ignore the miserable times.
Suffering is part of the human condition, however, and, as such, the Bible
records many instances of the misery of mankind. Some sorrow is random and not
brought about by any particular sin. We know this to be true by Jesus'
statement that God "causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends
rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). Job struggled with
the very premise that a righteous man could endure suffering. His friends
assured him that he must have sinned or else he would not have been punished
(Job 4:7-8). Job, we know, was not being tested because of his sins, but
because Satan was allowed to tempt him.
Most of the misery of mankind in the Bible, however, IS
brought about by the sins of individuals. Everyone gets up for work some
morning and wishes he could go back to bed. It can get wearisome to work year
after year at the same job. Imagine how it must have felt for Adam. He had
been given a small amount of work by God to cultivate the Garden of Eden
(Genesis 2:15). After his sin, the amount of work and the difficulty increased
not only for him, but for every man and woman since him: "Cursed is the ground
because of you; In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both
thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the
field; By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the
ground..." (Genesis 3:17-19).
Adam's trouble had been greatly increased due to his sins.
Imagine that you had from birth great wealth so that you did not have to keep a
job. You just did a few chores around the house to keep it up and then had the
rest of the time for leisure. This was Adam's situation. If he had only not
eaten of the forbidden fruit, he could have lived a life of ease. He cursed
himself and all future humans by his sin. Now we face a daily grind of getting
up early and going off to work.
Israel in the Wilderness
When the Jews left the slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh's misery
turned into their joy (Exodus 15:1ff). It wasn't long before the Hebrews found
themselves the recipients of God's wrath. Their own sins condemned them to
misery during their trek to the promised land. They believed themselves
suffering when they got thirsty or hungry and cried out to the Lord for relief.
The Lord was eager to provide for them while they fulfilled his will. He gave
them water from the rock and fed them on the bread of heaven, manna. Nothing
was ever good enough for them, however. They worshipped idols, complained even
when circumstances were good, and provoked God's anger.
After all God's loving care, they had the nerve to complain
that they were tired of manna and that they didn't have enough water (Numbers
21:4-5). To punish them, God sent poisonous snakes into the camp and many were
bitten and died. They were miserable due to their sins and begged Moses to
intercede with the Lord and "remove the serpents" (Numbers 21:6-9). In their
sin, God again provided relief.
David had his share of suffering brought about due to his
failings. One of the most infamous was the pain he endured at the death of his
first son by Bathsheba. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then
murdered Uriah, her husband, to endeavor to cover up his mistake. Two wrongs
did not justify him in God's eyes, and Nathan the prophet assured David that
nothing could be hidden from Jehovah God (II Samuel 12:1-14). David did not
realize the magnitude of Nathan's words, I'm sure, until they were fulfilled in
his life. His sufferings were multiplied in life. First, his son died (II
Samuel 12:15-16). His pain suffered was due not just to the physical demise of
his child, but his conscience plagued him. Psalm 51 records the feelings of
David after his tryst with Bathsheba. In that Psalm, David acknowledges his
transgressions and asks God for forgiveness and a clean heart.
He recovered from this tragic event, but it wasn't long
before disaster struck again in the household of David. His son Amnon raped his
daughter Tamar, according to II Samuel 13. As if this weren't bad enough,
Tamar's brother Absalom was scarred for life by this tragedy. His feelings of
hate toward Amnon boiled over and Absalom murdered Amnon (II Samuel 13:24-31).
This was cause for more grey hairs on the head of David. This event resulted in
the loss of life on one son, but it also resulted in the flight of Absalom.
From this time forward, David and his son Absalom were never reconciled.
The enmity that Absalom developed for David came to a head in
Absalom's rebellion and attempted coup d'etat. Rather than fight his son, David
left Jerusalem and hid. War was inevitable. The love that David had for his
son never diminished. When his generals were setting out to fight Absalom's
army, David pleaded with them: "Deal gently for my sake with the young man
Absalom" (II Samuel 18:5). The lust for blood during the ensuing battle was not
assuaged until Absalom tasted cold steel. When David heard, he was destroyed
(II Samuel 18:28-33). This most emotional scene can't help but move us.
Remember that all the turmoil in David's house was due to a single night of
pleasure with Bathsheba.
A distant descendant of David's likewise had miseries to cope
with. Hezekiah was a good king in Judah many years after the division of
David's kingdom into two parts. Hezekiah had fought a life's battle for the
Almighty. He defeated the enemies around with the assistance of God. The Bible
records that he placed his heart in the Lord's camp (II Kings 18:3-6) and
followed the commandments and prophets his whole life. It was during the reign
of Hezekiah that Sennacharib the Assyrian descended on Jerusalem. He conquered
massive amounts of territory for the Assyrian kingdom, but he could not defeat
Hezekiah. The prophet Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah and told him not to fear
Sennacharib. Hezekiah prayed to the Lord and the Lord delivered the city.
Hezekiah had health problems. He was on his death bed when
Isaiah came to him to pronounce his impending death. Everyone has been sick
before. Sometimes the smallest cold or allergy can drive us crazy with
sneezing, sniffling, or coughing. More serious diseases can really knock us off
our feet and cause us to suffer. Perhaps you can remember the worst sickness
you ever had. You were miserable, suffering, and just wanted it to be over
with. We have all seen cases of the terminally ill. These people reach a point
where even death is viewed as a end to suffering. Hezekiah hadn't reached the
point where he desired death. He wanted to live. He rolled over in his bed and
prayed (II Kings 20:1-5). Most people would rather cling to life than face the
unknowns of death (Psalm 6:4).
Jonah was one who brought anguish to his own mind due to his
prejudices. He evidently hated Ninevites and absolutely did not want them to be
saved from destruction. He ran away from God in order to avoid preaching to
them. When God caught him with a great fish and Jonah finally obeyed, the
Ninevites responded exactly as Jonah had predicted. They repented and this
drove Jonah crazy. He believed he was suffering because this mongrel, heathen
city was turning to God and being saved. In order to teach Jonah the lesson
that God loves everyone, God used a natural instance. During the summer months,
when you have been outside for a long time, you probably suffer the effects of
the hot sun. It causes you to sweat; your heart may race; your skin gets burnt;
you get thirsty, hungry; you may get sick at your stomach or dizzy. It was no
different for Jonah thousands of years ago. This vine grew over him to offer
him shade. When the vine died the next day, Jonah was miserable and had to
endure all the effects of a blazing desert sun (Jonah 4:5-11).
You can probably commiserate with the people we have
mentioned thus far. You have felt the revulsion of working day after day. You
have sinned and suffered the consequences like David. You have been sick and
felt terrible for days or weeks from your illness. You have either voluntarily
or involuntarily worked or sat in the hot sun during the summer. What no human
being on earth has ever suffered is the fire of hell. We can, however, obtain a
rich description of the conditions of that place from the Bible.
Jesus told a story about a man who had been banished to the
abode of the dead where he endured affliction in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). Of
particular note are the conditions that the man lived in. He was tormented by
flames. We read in the book of Revelation (20:10) that those who go to hell
don't have any breaks from punishment. There is no intermission, recess, or
time off for good behavior. Rather, they are tormented by flame-like conditions
day and night forever. Each of us has suffered various degrees of burns from
touching a hot stove to being burned by fire. None of us wants to repeat the
In addition to the sheer pain resulting from the punishment
of hell, other circumstances add to the suffering. The rich man in Jesus' story
was thirsty. The regular needs of the body are not met in hell. You can't get
room service or even a drink of water. The rich man was denied any comfort.
Jesus on several occasions taught that those who did not obey God would be
punished with weeping and gnashing of teeth (e.g., Matthew 8:12). It takes
severe pain of body and mind to cause a person to gnash or grind his teeth
together. There is an absence of light in hell (Jude 13).
More severe than the physical conditions are the mental and
spiritual conditions suffered in hell. People in hell will know why they are
there and how they could have avoided it. Father Abraham, in Jesus' story, told
the rich man to remember his circumstances during life and implied that he could
have avoided hell if he had conducted his life differently (Luke 16:25). Those
condemned to eternity in the flames will be aware of their lives and how they
ought to have lived. They will recall discrete events where the opportunity to
obey God was presented and rejected.
Worst of all is the banishment from the presence of God. I
just can't imagine what this would be like. Through God, I live, breathe, have
my being. He provides for me and cares for me. Jesus went through a time of
separation from God on the cross. For the time that Jesus took upon himself all
of our sins, God forsook Jesus (Matthew 27:46). This was a brief one time
separation. In hell, the separation from God is permanent (2 Thessalonians