Ebon Who?

Our songbooks contain some beautiful and rich songs, many of which happen to have been written decades ago. Sometimes, however, the images and language are a bit difficult to understand. I am reminded of the story about the little boy who after services one Sunday morning asked his mother, “Who was Ebon Pinion, and what was he doing in the garden with Jesus?” Let’s consider some of the more difficult passages in our songbooks as we seek to truly understand what we sing (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15).

“Night with ebon pinion, brooded o’er the vale…” — The word, “ebon” is a form of the word “ebony,” which is a dark shade of the color black. “Pinion” is an old word for “feathers” or “wings.” “Vale” is a form of the word, “valley.” Therefore, when we sing this line, we might paraphrase it in this manner: “The night’s black wings covered the entire valley.” It is an image of the valley near Jerusalem where the Garden of Gethsemane was located, and it paints a picture of the heavy burden and loneliness that Jesus felt on that occasion. That must indeed have been a terrible night for the Savior as He waited and prayed earnestly to God.

“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come…” — Just as we Americans have our monuments to great battles, so did the ancient Israelites. In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel set up a stone monument to commemorate Israel’s victory over the Philistines. Samuel named the stone “Eben-hezer” which in Hebrew literally means, “stone of the help.” When Samuel set up the monument, it was to recognize that God was the One who had granted the victory to His people. When we sing, “here I raise my Ebenezer,” we are declaring that without God’s help and blessings we could not have come to this point in our lives. Further, we are expressing confidence that God will not abandon us now (cf. Heb. 13:5).

“In vain in high, in holy lays…” — As we sing the first verse about the “Wonderful Love of Jesus,” the author seeks to help us recognize that nothing we merely say could fully express the praise and worth of Jesus and His love for us. A “lay” is an old Scottish psalm or poem. So the author is here saying that the highest and holiest poetry available is merely a vain attempt to describe the wonderful love of Jesus. No matter how beautiful or eloquent our words, we can never do full justice to the beauty and richness of God’s love. What a humbling thought!

“On Zion’s glorious summit stood…” — This image derives from any number of scenes described in the book of Revelation. “Zion” was the name of a literal hill in ancient Jerusalem, but it also became a figurative Old Testament image of the place where God dwelled in a covenant relationship with man (cf. Isa. 2:1-4). In Revelation 7:9-17, John describes an “innumerable host” standing before the Lamb of God, having their robes washed in the Lamb’s blood. The message of this song, then, is that the suffering we endure in this life is not worthy to be compared to the rich inheritance that awaits us in heaven, “on Zion’s glorious summit.” We may indeed suffer sword or flame in this life, but the victory is ours through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 8:18).

Though many congregations of the Lord’s church are beginning to discard some of these older songs, I believe we would do well to consider their rich meaning. With a little helpful explanation, they can draw God’s people nearer to Him. May we always sing with understanding! — JB

“Top Ten” Biblical Days I Would Like to Have Seen

Some Bible stories seem to thrill the heart and imagination more than others. I enjoy meditating on Scripture, and the following is my own brief “top ten” list of days for which I would like to have been present. What days would be on your list?

#10 — The day Paul preached in Athens (Acts 17) — Not only did Paul address some of the most learned men on earth at the time, but he boldly preached God’s message of judgment and repentance (Acts 17:30). Such wisdom and courage is rarely seen.

#9 — The day Daniel and his friends were judged (Daniel 1) — These Godly young men stood firm for the principles of their faith, and God blessed them for it. Where are the young people today who will do likewise?

#8 — The day Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20) — Paul’s exhortation was moving enough, but the tenderness and depth of relationship between Paul and these elders makes this a day worth remembering. I only wish that all Christians could love each other with such a pure-hearted fervency.

#7 — The day Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 14) — It’s hard to imagine the sheer energy of that day, as millions of people were delivered from captivity by the power of God. He is indeed a Great Redeemer!

#6 — The day Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) — I would like to have witnessed the faith of this man who could genuinely say that he loved God more than anything else in this life. Sometimes we all try to hold on to our blessings too tightly.

#5 — The day the exiles re-laid the foundation of the temple (Ezra 3) — Few accounts in Scripture are so emotional and profound. A mixture of weeping and shouting was heard, “a great distance away,” as these people recognized that God had not abandoned them. It was a day full of all the emotions involved in coming home after a long absence.

#4 — The day Jesus fed the 5000 (John 6) — The only miracle recorded in all four Gospel accounts must have been something extraordinary. I can only imagine the amazement of the crowd (and the apostles!) as a boy’s lunch provided twelve leftover baskets of food after everyone had a full stomach. Jesus is indeed the Great Provider.

#3 — The day Elijah challenged Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18) — It’s hard to imagine one man standing alone against 850 false prophets. I would like to have seen the fire rain down from heaven as it consumed even the water around the sacrifice that Elijah had prepared. What an amazing victory for truth!

#2 — The day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — I would like to have heard the very first preaching of the resurrected Christ. I would like to have seen the faith and response of those 3000 who “gladly received the word” and were baptized. How stirring it must have been to see the very first gathering of the church of Christ on that day.

#1 — The day Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) — Jesus is the Master Preacher. He spoke with simplicity, clarity, and depth, and His authoritative tone and words caused those who heard Him to marvel. The “heart” of Christianity has never been more fully and profoundly explained than it was on that day.

This personal list is presented in order to stimulate others to think, dream, and meditate upon God’s word more. For what Biblical days would you have been present? —JB

How NOT to be a Dad

When God instituted the family (cf. Gen. 2:18-25), he gave the responsibility for leadership to the father. Dads are to be the spiritual leaders and nurturers in the home, according to God’s ideal (cf. Eph. 5:22-33; 6:1-4). Dads are also imperfect, however. The Bible is literally filled with men who seemed to have their heart in the right place at times, and yet were spectacular failures when it came to being Godly dads. What does the Bible say about how NOT to be a dad?

Show favoritism toward one or more of your children — Isaac was the father of twin boys, but he seemed to prefer the rugged Esau to Jacob the “home body.” As a result, a Isaac’s family was torn apart when Jacob deceived his father and brother (cf. Gen. 27:5-17). The tragic lessons of family favoritism were lost on Jacob, however, who clearly preferred his sons Joseph and Benjamin over the other ten (cf. Gen. 37:18-20). Both Isaac and Jacob learned too late that a father cannot afford to have his “favorites” where children are concerned. Genuine love does not seek its own or play favorites (1 Cor. 13:5). Such behavior will assuredly lead to strife and division in the home.

Fail to discipline your children — Many fathers seem afraid that discipline will somehow cause their child to love them less. Others seem to have “rose tinted glasses” where their kids’ behavior is concerned. Eli the High Priest was one such man. His sons, the Bible says, were corrupt (1 Samuel 2:12-17). They defiled themselves and the Lord’s tabernacle by their wickedness, and for some reason, Eli did not restrain them (1 Samuel 3:13). Fathers everywhere need to hear this warning: we cannot really love our kids the way we ought unless we are willing to discipline them in a godly way (cf. Hebrews 12:5-11).

Behave immorally in your own life — David was a man after God’s own heart in many ways (Acts 13:22), but it seems he failed miserably where his kids were concerned. One of his sons, Amnon, raped his sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22). Amnon was subsequently killed by Absalom, another of David’s sons (2 Sam. 13:23-33). Later, Absalom also became rebellious and sought to usurp his father’s throne (2 Sam. 15:1-12). Where did so many of his sons and daughters go wrong? They saw immorality in their father’s life. David’s sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah her husband must have made a tremendous impression on his older sons and daughters (2 Sam. 11-12). Even though David was forgiven by God, he still suffered the consequences of his terrible sins. Fathers, do not be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows in his life, that shall he also reap (Gal. 6:7)! Our kids desperately need to see Godliness in us.

Provoke your children to wrath — Heavy-handed discipline, an unChristlike spirit, and a lack of interest in our kids may all spell trouble ahead. Dads provoke their children to wrath when they are harsh and critical. Matthew 7:1-6 commands us to examine ourselves before we offer criticism to others — such a principle, properly applied, would squash all ungodly criticism! Dads can provoke their kids to wrath by ignoring them. In a world that demands more and more of our time, serious thought and meditation should be given to the priority of families. To paraphrase Jesus’ words, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own family?” We provoke our kids to wrath when we demand that they compete with our jobs and recreational activities for time and love. May God help us NOT to be fathers apart from His will! — JB

Thanksgiving All Year Long?

On November 11, 1620, about 102 settlers aboard the famous Mayflower arrived in the New World, and there was nothing to greet them except the harsh reality of a New England winter. Within five months, over half their number had died of starvation, cold, and disease. How amazing, then, that these “pilgrims” could still find reasons to be thankful in spite of such hardship!

In more modern times, Thanksgiving brings to mind warm memories of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie, family togetherness, and football games on television. Thanksgiving is a time when we pause to remember how blessed we are as well as to reflect on how we are using those blessings. Sometimes, family members whose hearts are full of joy at such occasions are heard saying, “I wish it could be Thanksgiving all year long!”

You know, we really ought to make every day a day of thanksgiving. The Bible says, “in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess 5:18).” I honestly don’t believe that the pilgrims concentrated all their thankfulness into one single day, and neither should we! God’s word teaches we would be much more joyful people if we would simply learn the habit of being grateful people. Let’s strive to make every day of our lives a day of thanksgiving. Here are some practical ideas:

Every night, write down five specific blessings you experienced that day. It’s amazing how many blessings will flood into our minds when we really stop and think about it!

At least once a week, take the time to write a note of gratitude and encouragement to someone who has blessed you with their life. You’ll be overwhelmed by the results!

Every time you pray, listen to what you are really saying to God. Are my prayers concerned mostly with saying, “I want, I want, I want,” or, “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You”?

Each day, make it a point to tell just one person in your life something you admire and appreciate about them. Be specific, and DO NOT BE NEGATIVE.

When you read the Bible each day, keep a journal in which you write down each promise or blessing God has given. Then, as you read over the blessings you have recorded in your journal, be sure and prayerfully thank Him for each one.

No matter what your circumstances, never forget that everyone has three basic blessings: Life (Acts 17:28), Opportunity (Galatians 6:10), and the Lord (Titus 2:11). With these three blessings, even the poorest of the poor can be grateful.

These are but a few practical ways to develop the habit of gratitude in your life. So many of us grumble and complain when in reality God wants us to rejoice in Him (Phil 4:4)! If you are skeptical, I dare you to try the activities listed above for just a month! You will find you have drawn nearer to God (James 4:8), and that your joy in Him is fuller. Let’s have thanksgiving every day! — John Baker


Seeking Balance in a Distracting World

I love college football. To me, few things are more exciting than watching the season unfold each Saturday afternoon during the fall. However, I freely admit that some fans are more devoted to college football than I am. You know the type I’m talking about. These loyal patrons can rattle off obscure and detailed statistics on every team and player in their never-ending quest to predict the outcome of this week’s game. To them, their work is deadly serious. We know these people as “truly devoted fans of the game.”

I also love the church of Jesus Christ. I can’t think of anything more exciting than seeing people’s lives changed by the gospel. Over the years I’ve known a great many Christians who have exhibited marked maturity in their spiritual lives. Again, you know the type. Many of these loyal subjects of Christ’s kingdom will quote Scriptures you’ve never read and go places you’ve never even heard of in their never-ending quest to reach the lost. Their work really IS a matter of life and death. Society knows these people as, “religious fanatics.”

When we are serious about our jobs, our families, and our recreation, the world admires us for our zeal; yet when we seriously try to reach the lost with the saving message of Jesus Christ we are often branded, “fanatics.” Can there be any logic in this? More to the point, can there be any balance in this?

I really believe that one of Satan’s most ingenious tactics is to encourage us to ungodly extremes. Many endeavors, in and of themselves, are not wrong, but when taken to extremes, they might well cost us our souls! Jesus described the lives of many Christians by saying, “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). It’s deceptively easy for us to become so engrossed in the things of this world that God’s word will no longer affect us. That’s a scary proposition!

Christians must lead a life of balance. It’s good to have a job and do it well (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8, Eph. 6:5-8), but to allow our work to keep us from glorifying God is sinful (1 Cor. 10:31, Col 3:17). It’s wonderful to have loved ones, but did Jesus not say that He must still come first in our hearts (Luke 14:26-27)? We can even be sports fans, so long as our zeal and love for Christ are stronger still. Christian balance involves prioritizing our lives and seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness above all things (cf. Matt. 6:33).

Friends, let’s not allow Satan to push us to ungodly extremes. We’re fighting a spiritual war that’s more important than any football or baseball game (cf. Eph. 6:10-17). We’re working for a cause that will outlast and outshine the most brilliant career. We’re part of a family that has been purchased by the blood of the Savior (Eph. 1:7), and that’s a stronger bond than any human blood could ever be.

We exist to win the world for Christ (cf. Matt. 28:18-20). Too many Christians are caught up, “majoring in the minors.” Many of us have made our careers the reason for living. Still more of us see our total preoccupation with recreational activities merely as a harmless pastime. Some preachers spend more time preoccupied with where “Brother X” stands on a particular issue than with preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We’ve become fans of the world instead of fanatics for Jesus.

What about you? Are you merely a “fan” of mundane and temporal things, or do you know the joy of a relationship with God? Eternity hangs in the balance! — John Baker

How to Have a Great Gospel Meeting

Our Fall Gospel Meeting with Freddie Anderson, Carl McCann, Josh Linton, and Bruce Morgan begins today. This is a week in which the elders have asked us to set aside our normal evening schedules to focus on eternal things. Indeed, abundant blessings come from seeking first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33)! Let’s focus on some ways we can help in the success of OUR meeting:

Invite others to attend  All of us know someone who needs to hear the gospel of Christ. His word has the power to save (Rom. 1:16), and it is being preached at this place nightly! Our friends, our families, and our neighbors cannot afford to leave this life unprepared for eternity. If we fail to help people understand their need for salvation, we are not loving them as we should (cf. Luke 10:27)! The Lord’s church is not a parking lot for Christians; rather, it is a launching pad from which we receive strength and encouragement to accomplish Christ’s will in the world. Let’s launch out in faith to the glory of God!

Expect to grow — The word of God is like a seed (Luke 8:11), which will produce fruit in the lives of those who hear and do (James 1:22). This week we are exploring the, “Challenging Questions of Christ,” in an effort to challenge ourselves to greater holiness and faith in our living. Gospel Meetings are not just academic exercises in Biblical teaching, they help each of us grow as we ought (cf. 2 Pet. 3:18). Let’s be present for each assembly with the essential keys to growth: open minds, open Bibles, and receptive hearts!

Fervently pray for this effort  Our prayers are effective when offered to God in sincere and fervent reverence (James 5:16). We ought to believe more in the power of prayer as God works in us to accomplish His purposes (cf. Phil. 2:12-13). It’s entirely possible that many programs and activities of the church are not as effective as they should be because we have not been as prayerful as we should have been (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17). A great Gospel Meeting is ALWAYS shrouded in the prayers of faithful saints.

Encourage others to be attentive  Nothing is more discouraging to those who are teaching and preaching than an inattentive audience. Conversely, nothing is more encouraging than to know people’s lives are being touched for eternity with the message of Christ. Just imagine how much more encouraging we could be to each other if we were focused on the “furtherance of the gospel” no matter what the circumstances (cf. Phil. 1:12). We can be an encouragement to others (including the ones speaking) by showing interest in the lessons presented. In addition, our lives will be influenced for good as we accept God’s word in our hearts.

A Gospel Meeting can be both effective and beneficial, but it takes effort on the part of all involved. What are YOU willing to do to make our Gospel Meeting a success? — John Baker

Learning to Pray Like Jesus

Jesus probably spent more time in prayer than any human who has ever lived. So fervent was His prayer life that the disciples (who already knew a thing or two about prayer) once begged, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Far more insightful and fascinating than the amount of time Jesus spent in prayer is the content of Jesus’ prayers and petitions. In an effort to be more like Him, we should ask, “What would Jesus pray for?”

He would pray about God’s will — “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Jesus subjected His will to the Father’s (Jn 17:4), and thus became our perfect example. Our prayer life ought also to focus on God and His will. Prayers are many times concerned too much with our own will and too little with God’s. James rebukes this attitude in us: “You ought to say, if the Lord wills we will live and also do this or that” (James 4:15). The Lord wants us to be concerned with His will being accomplished in our hearts, in our lives, and in the lives of others!

He would pray for His enemies — One of the most heart-wrenching prayers in the entire Bible was uttered on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus prayed for those who were guilty of putting Him to death. While God will not forgive an impenitent sinner, Jesus realized how desperately these men needed the salvation He was providing. How much more should Christians be willing to forbear persecutions in bringing others to the Lord? We should bless our enemies by praying on their behalf (Matt 5:44-45).

He would pray for unity in the church — Before His death, Jesus uttered a magnificent prayer on our behalf in John 17: “that they may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and as I am in You, that they may be one in us” (John 17:21). Jesus was not praying for unity at the expense of truth, but make no mistake, He was praying that Christians be united in God’s cause. Around our brotherhood today there are churches that have been splintered and fractured by personality disputes, sin in the church, and the continual turmoil of brethren trying to be, “Greatest in the kingdom.” Mark these words: Jesus prayed for the kind of unity that only comes with a firm commitment to the truth and a humble spirit displayed on the part of all. Let’s pray for more churches like that!

He would pray for those who are struggling in faith — As He prayed on a mountaintop, Jesus witnessed His disciples struggling in the midst of a storm (Mk 6:47-48). Jesus knew this storm was testing their faith in Him, and we should have no doubt that He prayed for them. How often are we concerned for those we see who are struggling? Many of us have daily opportunities to minister to people that need our love and encouragement, but we do well to remember Jesus’ example: He prayed for His disciples before He walked out to them on the sea. Let’s remember those who are struggling with storms of their own when we pray.

He would pray with gratitude — When Jesus rejoiced, it was because He was grateful to God (Luke 10:21-22). The Bible inseparably links the characteristics of real, lasting joy and gratitude toward God (cf. Phil 4:6-7). Our prayers ought to reflect a genuine sense of thankfulness for God’s abundant blessings (James 1:17). One of the greatest sins we can commit is to fail to be thankful (cf. Rom. 1:21). Learning to pray like Jesus means that we should spend more time, “counting our many blessings” as we pray. How’s your prayer life? Do you pray like Jesus? — John Baker