These excerpts are uploaded to supplement a classroom study of the book Life in the Middle.
3 Participating With God: The “Curtain” Passages
In each of the following passages, which I have come to call “curtain” passages, movement on earth and movement in the heavenlies are bound together. That is, we see God acting in heaven in cooperation with humanity on earth in order to bring about His will. Many times, it is a picture of God’s response to His children when they begin to ask for that which He already wants to do. At other times, it reveals God’s initiative in inviting His people to participate in what He has decided to do. These stories are unique because of the human steps that initiate a heavenly response or the human response that comes as a result of heavenly initiation. In each of the stories a unique glimpse at a heavenly process is evident. Sometimes the uniqueness is an outcome dependent on human follow-through. Sometimes it is a glimpse into heavenly timing. At other times it is a glimpse into the strategic moving of spiritual forces both good and evil. At any rate, these stories pull back the curtains and provide a glimpse into heavenly realities and say something to us about the desire for divine-human participation in the heart and will of God. Moses’s Uplifted Hands: The Battle in the Balance (Ex 17: 8-13) In this story we have an account of a particular battle between the Israelites (led by Joshua), and the Amalekites. It would have been a typical battle but something curious happened! The text tells us that “as long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning” but when Moses would let down his hands the tide would turn and the Amalekites would start winning (Exodus 17: 11). So important was it that Moses’s hands remain raised that Aaron and Hur found a rock for Moses to sit on and then stood beside him (one on each side) and held his hands up until sunset! One cautious, unimaginative writer explained that Moses may have been giving signals to the army which helped them win the battle. Most would agree that constantly upheld hands make for a non-descript signal! It is obvious that the story of the upheld staff or rod is told in the context of the miraculous intervention of God seen in the Meribah story. In Exodus 17: 6, God tells Moses to strike the rock with his staff. When he does, water comes out. Then, in verse 9, Moses makes a point to tell them that he will be on the top of the hill “with the staff of God in my hand.” We are then told specifically that Moses held up his hands. Grounded in the actions seen within the context of the passage, we can easily infer that God is again choosing to do a miracle through Moses with the staff of God in his hands. I call this grounded inference. What was happening behind the curtains? God had determined that as long as Moses held up the staff, the battle would advance in Israel’s favor. In this we can see that it was necessary for Moses to cooperate or participate with God for when Moses would let down his hands, or the staff, the battle began to go in Amalek’s favor (verse 11). A miracle is determined in heaven, but participation is required on earth in order to bring the miracle to pass. Banging the Arrows for Victory (2 Kings 13: 14-24) In this story, the evil king Jehoash (v 11) came to the prophet Elisha needing help to obtain a victory over a particular enemy, Aram. The prophet told him to “Get a bow and some arrows . . . take the bow in your hands . . . open the east window . . . and shoot (2 Kings 13: 15-17)!” When that happened Elisha cried out, “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!” and declared to the evil king, “You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek.” Then, Elisha told him to take the arrows and strike them on the ground (v 18). When the king only struck them to the ground three times, the prophet got angry and announced to Jehoash that he should have stricken the ground five or six times and that he would now not have a complete victory but instead that he would defeat Aram only three times (v 18-19). This passage gives us important insight into a few things. First, we see that the king was pursuing victory through spiritual means. In other words, he consulted the prophet in an effort to elicit help from him. The king obtained a complete victory over his enemy through spiritual means. He would still have to fight the enemy with the conventional weapons of the time, but he would be victorious because he had gained a supernatural guarantee of victory through his participation in a spiritual process (thus a picture of spiritual warfare to a certain degree).[ 6] Second, his participation was needed to complete the process. He was told to strike the ground. Somehow, the act of striking the ground in the proper way was part of the key to victory. A complete victory had been decreed but required the proper response from the king. Third, we observe that when the king cooperated with the prophet a victory was declared. Of course, the prophet Elisha could not have made that decision on his own, so through the principle of grounded inference, we can assume that God decreed the victory in heaven and revealed it to the prophet.[ 7] 7 God granted the king’s desire of a total victory over his enemies but the victory was contingent upon the king’s cooperation. The victory that did ensue was proportionate to the king’s participation! The Servant’s Eyes Opened (2 Kings 6: 18) This passage is fairly easy to unpack and is one of the most direct demonstrations of spiritual warfare in the Bible. When Elisha and his servant had been surrounded by the enemy, the servant panicked and wondered what they would do. Elisha told him, “Don’t be afraid, those who are with us are more than those who are with them (2 Kings 6: 16).” The servant’s eyes were opened and he saw that the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire. As the curtains are parted, Elisha’s servant (and the readers of this story) learn that militant, spiritual forces of heaven array against evil human militant forces. However, through grounded inference (taking other passages into consideration such as Daniel 10 and Ephesians 6), we can assume that there were evil spiritual militant forces behind the earthly ones as well. A Delay in the Heavenlies (Daniel 10: 1-14) In this passage, Daniel is seen fasting and seeking God in order to “gain understanding” and to humble himself before God (Daniel 10: 2-3, 12). Three weeks after he began to fast, he encountered a powerful angelic being, likely an archangel.[ 8] This being informed him that he had been sent from God as soon as Daniel had set his mind to pray and fast, but he had been detained by the Prince of Persia. Since we know that a human prince of Persia would never be able to detain an archangel, we know that the Prince of Persia was the evil spiritual authority over the godless nation and region of Persia. For twenty-one days the archangel tried to press through in order to bring Daniel a word from the Lord but was unsuccessful until Michael the archangel came and helped him (v 13)! This passage gives us a clear picture of the battle that rages in the heavenlies and how we can be, and are, caught up in it. The Harbinger Sword (Joshua 5: 13-15) On the eve of the Battle of Jericho, Joshua looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn (Joshua 5: 13). As we continue to read, we discover that the “man” was actually the Son of God in His pre-incarnate form, thus making it a theophanic appearance. We know it was a theophanic appearance because Joshua, hearing that this man was “the commander of the army of the Lord,” fell down in reverence and was not reprimanded for doing so. Then, the man said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy (v 15).” This was of course reminiscent of Moses’s experience with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3). The salient point for this study is the appearance of a heavenly being, in this case a theophanic appearance of the pre-incarnate Son of God, inserting himself into the human realm. In this case, the “being” was holding a sword. We can surmise that, on the eve of battle, this lifted sword was a picture of God’s posture, if you will, in heaven. It was an indication that war had been declared in heaven and that as they entered into battle against Jericho they could expect total victory. The “Sound of Marching” (2 Samuel 5: 17-25) Another passage demonstrating the importance of humans participating with God and the insertion of heavenly beings into the affairs of men is the story of David and the “sound of marching.” In this story, an occasion arises on which there is the potential for a battle between the people of God and the Philistines. What makes this passage interesting is that, indeed, David consults the Lord before going into battle, thus bringing to bear upon the earthly battle the spiritual resources of God. So, we see a picture of spiritual warfare in its simplest form: praying to God for help. The Lord gave David permission to go, assuring him of a victory. David and Israel went to battle and won a great victory. Next, we see another opportunity for battle, situated exactly as the first one (same place, same enemy), and yet, when David inquires of the Lord, he receives instruction to fight the second battle differently. In the first battle, David got permission to fight, went forward and fought a traditional battle. In the second, battle, God told David, Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army (2 Samuel 5: 23-24). David obeyed God, waited to hear “the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees (KJV),” and the Lord went out in front of him to strike the Philistine army. Why the difference? Isn’t God able to enable David to fight in any situation? Couldn’t God have done it the same way both times? Of course, the answer is yes. But the profundity of this story is that, for whatever reason, God chooses to do things one way and then, in seemingly identical circumstances, chooses to do things in a different way, letting us participate in the process! The Demon-Possessed Boy of Mark 9 In Mark 9, Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration only to find that the disciples could not cast a demon out of a young man who was there. The expectation of the people, the disciples, and the father of the demon-possessed boy was that the authority to cast out the demon had already been granted to the disciples. There was reason to expect that the demon would be cast out. But the disciples couldn’t do it. When they asked Jesus why, He said, “This kind comes out only by prayer (and fasting in some versions of Scripture; v. 9).” That is, the disciples would have to pray in some particular way other than had already been done in order to cast out a demon like the one encountered. God was willing and indeed authority had been granted, but further participation on the disciples’ parts was needed. Apprehending the Promise The truths that arise from the concept of God’s participation with us are simple, yet profound. God was willing to save a remnant of creation from the flood, but someone would have to build an ark (Genesis 6: 5-22). In Exodus 17, He was willing for Israel to win the battle over the Amalekites, but only if Moses continued to hold up his hands and the staff of God. He was willing to let the people cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land on dry ground, but this time, instead of parting the waters first, as at the Red Sea, the priests would have to “get their feet wet” first, then God would do His part (compare Exodus 14: 10-31 with Joshua 3: 8-17). Healing was available for Naaman, but first he would have to dip seven times in the Jordan’s muddy waters (2 Kings 5: 1-14). Hannah can have that baby boy she longs for just as soon as she yields her vision to God’s (1 Samuel 1). Our Remarkable Partnership with God When you think about it, it is remarkable, this partnership we have with God! We have not seen Him, yet we can hear His voice, know His will, and do on earth what is done in heaven! God delights to see us complete the circuit when we, through prayer, begin to do on earth what He has ordained in Heaven. He inspires us to ask Him to do what He was longing to do in the first place! The insight gleaned from these stories may be a stretch for some. But for those who can receive it, it will be a powerful revelation for their lives. Here it is in a nutshell: God, usually in response to our prayers but always according to His timing, reveals from heaven what He has determined to do. And yet, though the blessing has been granted, it must be appropriated through our participation with Him. Before moving forward… Pope Benedict XVI wrote: The recitation of this prayer. . . “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one LORD…” was understood as the act of taking upon one’s shoulders the yoke of God’s sovereign lordship. This prayer is not just a matter of words: the one who prays it accepts God’s lordship, which consequently, through the act of praying, enters into the world. The one who is praying helps to bear it on his shoulders, and through his prayer, God’s lordship shapes his way of life, his day-to-day existence, making it a locus of God’s presence in the world.[ 9] What a powerful statement! Did you imagine that your “life in the middle” was a locus of God’s presence in the world? That somehow, through your participation with God, in worship, prayer, and obedience, God makes your life a place of His Presence? Before moving forward, take a moment to meditate on that reality. Then, finding a place where you can pray and worship undisturbed, enjoy that reality! Thank God for making your life a place of His Presence in the world and ask Him to continue doing so in an even greater way.