Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Living for God in a Dysfunctional World

Lessons from the Life of Joseph


The story of Joseph is a story of a life lived under the providential care of God, because of a whole-hearted co-operation in His higher purposes. It is an inspiring story in its own right, but has an added dimension since it prefigures the story of Jesus of Nazareth. While the life of Jesus is unique and cannot be mirrored exactly by any other person, nevertheless the elements of similarity enable us to see that there have been those individuals that have lived in the will of God, and this in turn, encourages us to seek to live lives more like the Saviour.

Joseph’s life was not easy, punctuated as it was with setbacks. He was rejected, sold as a slave, falsely accused and imprisoned before being elevated to high office. In the larger purposes of God, he was the instrument used to preserve the family, which carried the seed of the future Saviour of the world. This elect family had to be protected from losing its identity among the nations of Canaan. It would have been so easy for them to be assimilated as the example of Judah testifies, for he took a Canaanite wife. At the time of Joseph, the family of Jacob were only few in number, and although the land of Canaan had been promised to them under the Covenant that God ‘cut’ with Abraham, it could not yet be theirs, because the sin of the inhabitants had not, at that time, ripened. The tenancy of Canaan was only forfeited when its inhabitants descended into idolatry and wickedness. For the nations of Canaan at the time of Jacob, that was not yet fully the case (cf. Gen.15:16). But they would suffer judgement for gross iniquity some four centuries after Joseph’s elevation. In the meantime God was working out His purposes through the family of Jacob.

Jacob, from his earliest days, was something of a wheeler/dealer. He lived up to his name ‘supplanter’, and obtained both the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn by dubious means. He, in turn, was victim to the dubious practices of Laban, when he was working for a bride. Having laboured for seven years for Rachel he was duped into marrying Leah. So he worked for another seven years for Rachel. But the beautiful Rachel could have no children, while Leah was very fruitful – bearing six sons for Jacob. Leah took every opportunity to remind Rachel that it would be her sons who would be heirs to Jacob, and continue the blood-line. Her son Reuben, was the first born – He will have the double portion and the blessing. This blood-line, you will remember, is the one under the Abrahamic covenant that is destined to bring blessing to all nations. But God, using His telescope with a long lens, could see there was trouble on the horizon. When this dysfunctional family returned from Haran to Canaan, as they must, they would easily be absorbed into the nations that occupied the territory. God needed a plan - He had a plan – He always has a plan - the family of Jacob should journey to Egypt, there to grow into a great nation (Gen. 46:3); a nation that could be a channel of blessing to the world. In Egypt, there would be space for them to grow, and they would remain safe from being integrated because Egyptian culture did not look favourably on shepherds.  

The Birth of Joseph

But God’s plan needed a catalyst – it needed a man.

As a Noah was needed to preserve both humanity and the animal kingdom when the earth was flooded;

as a Moses was needed to lead Israel out of Egypt;

as a David was needed to establish the kingdom of Israel;

so a Joseph was needed to take them down to Egypt.

So God intervened in the affairs of this family: “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach.’ So she called his name Joseph, and said, ‘The Lord shall add to me another son’” (Gen. 30:22–24). Miraculously, a son was born to a woman that was barren. In this dysfunctional family, God has ensured that there will be one who will not only take a stand for Him, but also be a willing instrument to fulfil His purposes.

Because of the circumstances of his birth, he is named Joseph; a name which can carry two meanings –‘remover’ and ‘increaser’. ‘Remover’ because Rachel was initially thought to be barren but with the birth of Joseph she said, “God has taken away my reproach”: ‘Increaser’ because she expected more children, “The Lord shall add to me another son”. Both meanings are prophetic: ‘remover’ because the ministry of Joseph will mean the family of Jacob being removed from Canaan to live in Egypt; and ‘increaser’ because that same ministry will allow them to be fruitful, multiply and increase greatly.

So, in less than perfect circumstances, the birth of Joseph took place. He was born into a dysfunctional family with squabbling between the four wives of Jacob, and quarrelling amongst the children. This aggravation increased when Jacob showed favouritism towards Joseph, dressing him in a coat that implied nobility and authority. Jacob should have known better inasmuch as the favouritism his father Isaac, showed to his brother Esau, caused him many difficulties. Joseph’s brothers ‘could not speak peaceably to him’ (Gen.37:4), that is, offer him the accepted salutation, ‘Shalom’ or ‘Peace be with you’. That this family is dysfunctional is not unexpected – historically they come from a line of dysfunctional families - there was feuding between Ishmael and Isaac and then between Esau and Jacob; so this quarrelling between Joseph and his brothers should come as no surprise. The aggravation in the family was compounded when Joseph revealed that he had received dreams which indicated that he would have authority and be a ruler. The first dream suggested he would have supremacy over his brothers; and the second, while confirming the first, also implied authority over the house of Israel. For this his brothers hated him all the more. At that time he was just about 17 years of age.

Joseph’s Rejection

The key incident takes place far from home. There were occasions when the sons of Jacob were away from home for long periods of time because they had to travel further afield to pasture the family flocks. At these times Jacob kept Joseph near to him, partly because he was young and partly because he was his favourite. But needing to hear news of his sons, and Joseph now being more than 17, he sent him out to find them and return with tidings. Jacob did not see his own flesh and blood as being a threat to Joseph. Joseph, well aware of the animosity of his brothers, nevertheless was obedient to his father. His compliance to his father’s will is seen in the use of the word ‘Hineni’, which means ‘I am ready and willing to do what you ask’. This is the same word that Abraham used to respond to God, when his name was called (Gen.22:1), before he was asked to offer Isaac on the altar; and it was the word that Abraham used in response to the Lord when he was restrained from completing the sacrifice of his son (Gen. 22:11). Joseph said it to his father - ‘Hineni’. Like Abraham and Joseph we need to cultivate the use of the word ‘Hineni’.

Joseph started out on his journey. Little did he know that it would be many years before he would see his father or his younger brother Benjamin again. Joseph first travelled some sixty miles to Shechem, the last known location of the flocks of Jacob; but they had moved on, and Joseph was at a loss to know what next to do. Fortunately, a “man” rescued him from his bewilderment. The unidentified “man” who informed Joseph that his brothers had moved on to Dothan reminds us of the “man” with whom Jacob had wrestled (Gen. 32:24–32). Jewish tradition considers him an angel in the form of a man. Whoever this man was, his intervention was providential, for he directed him to Dothan, the exact location where he found his brothers. Whether the ‘man’ is an angel or a human, the unseen hand of the Lord is apparent here. He directed Joseph to discover his brothers so that the divine plan for the salvation of Jacob and many people (Gen.50:20) might be realized, although it will mean a troubling time for the house of Jacob. The question has been asked, ‘where are Joseph’s custodial angels who might have saved him from his brothers, as they did when his father Jacob was protected from Esau (32:1ff)?’ Luther has commented, “In such danger we see the deepest silence of God and the angels … But behold how much good God draws forth from this.”

That Joseph needed the protection of God is clear. The devil’s strategy is always ‘deception with a view to destruction’. ‘Deception’ because the Bible says he is the father of lies; and ‘destruction’ because he is also described as a murderer from the beginning. This is the witness of the One that really knows, Jesus the Son of God: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Always on the lookout to do mischief, he is a ‘roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’. When they saw him coming a long way off, they began to plot against him. “Then they said to one another, “Look, this dreamer is coming! Come therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, ‘Some wild beast has devoured him.’ We shall see what will become of his dreams!” ” (Gen. 37:19–20) Thus the purpose of the plot is revealed – it was to make sure his dreams did not come true. Little did they know that they were fighting against the will of God, and although they mean it for harm, God meant it for good.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Discipleship Considered (Continued)

Lessons from the Life of Daniel

Belshazzar’s Feast

As was the custom with some of the great oriental rulers, Belshazzar hosted a great festival in his palace, and invited a vast number of dignitaries to the feast. This seemed very foolhardy since his kingdom was under threat at the time, for the Medo/Persian army was encamped a short distance from Babylon. But thinking his fortified capital city was invincible, he refused to recognise the warning signs. Instead, in an act of defiance against the God of Israel who had given his father, Nebuchadnezzar position and power, he commanded his servants to serve wine in the sacred vessels that had been brought from the Temple in Jerusalem to toast the gods of Babylon. During the festivities a most remarkable event took place. A man’s hand was seen writing on the wall of the banqueting suite. It was a message from God. Sent by the same One who had written on tablets of stone centuries before: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3), for Jehovah is the only true God; and “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exod. 20:7), where Jehovah demands total respect. The message on the wall was: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” (Dan. 5:25).

It is no wonder that great fear gripped Belshazzar and his nobles. But as yet, they did not know what the writing said, or meant, or why it had appeared. Yet there was a man who knew – Daniel! They sent for him and he delivered a very solemn message. After reminding the king of the personal history of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel rebuked Belshazzar for not acknowledging the God of Israel. Events and circumstances had taught his father that there was only one true God, a fact that he had proclaimed to all his subjects. So Belshazzar was clearly familiar with the family history and should have known better. Daniel drew the conclusion that in spite of the knowledge of Jehovah’s reality and power, demonstrated through Nebuchadnezzar’s experience, Belshazzar had deliberately chosen to worship the idols of Babylon. Daniel made a double accusation against the monarch. The first, that Belshazzar had failed to respect the God of Israel: “... you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine from them” (Dan. 5:23). Then, he charged him with blatant idolatry: “... you have praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified” (Dan.5:23).

Daniel intimated that these were the crimes that brought judgment from above, and the meaning of the writing was: “MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (Dan. 5:26–28). That night the Medes and Persians entered the city through a water course under the fortifications and the Babylonian empire ended. Belshazzar was executed a few hours later. But Daniel continued and prospered! Our God reigns!

Daniel faces yet another test

After the fall of the Babylonian empire, the narrative records Daniel’s work and witness before another powerful ruler, Darius the Mede. He continued to hold high office because of his wisdom and fidelity. However, such godliness will always be a rebuke to those who despise truth and honour, and a plot was hatched against him. It appears the plot, Satanic in origin, was designed to disrupt his prayer life. It was about this time, in the first year of the reign of Darius, that he had calculated that the deported Israelites should return to their homeland. He based his conclusion on the prophecy of Jeremiah that said that their exile would last only seventy years. Now that the end of that period was approaching Daniel gave himself to prayer. The plan of his enemies was that he should be prevented from praying to Jehovah. Since, generally in Babylon prayers were offered through priestly mediators, they persuaded Darius to issue an edict that, for one month, all prayers should be directed through him – he was to be the only priestly mediator. Those that broke this restriction should be executed. It could be that Darius saw in this new law a mechanism by which he could test the loyalty of the latest citizens of the Median Empire; and perhaps he was also flattered by the suggestion that he should be the only conduit by which his people could petition their gods. Darius signed the new law. Daniel’s opponents were elated with their success. If Daniel ignored this restriction he would be executed.

However, realising the importance of the prayer, and also feeling the compulsion of the Spirit of God, Daniel continued to pray regularly for the restoration of Jerusalem. The spies of his enemies kept watch so when he knelt in prayer he was observed, arrested and brought before Darius, charged with lawbreaking and disrespect of the king. The success of the plot against Daniel caused great consternation to the emperor Darius, but there was no mechanism which allowed him to show clemency. Although Darius saw through the devilish plans of Daniel’s enemies he could do no other than find Daniel guilty. He sentenced him to be thrown to the lions, which would mean certain death. This event reveals that Babylon does not rest in its opposition of God’s people.

Daniel’s sentence was carried out. He was cast into a den of lions and a stone rolled over the mouth of the cave to prevent his escape. It seems, during this time he was the only calm person involved in these events. He spent a quiet night in the company of man-eating lions. Then, in the morning when orders were given for the stone to be taken away from the mouth of the den, with great sadness and fearing the worst, Darius called out, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” (Dan. 6:20) To his amazement a voice rose from the depths of the den: “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you” (Dan. 6:21–22). The Scriptures speak of Daniel as a man of faith and a man of prayer and this episode supports that assessment of him. Daniel has demonstrated once again that in a hostile world the Just must live by faith.

The lessons from the writings of Daniel seem to be clear – that Satan will use any and all resources to negate our Christian witness in the same way as Babylon sought to negate the witness of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. We live in a world that the Bible says “... lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). It is against God and will aim to make us conform to its culture, diet and practices, whereas the Bible encourages us to live lives that are godly, seeking to glorify the God who has called us. Paul advises, “... walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10).

A last post-script

But the story of Daniel in the lions’ den also reminds us of the death of the Saviour, the Lord Jesus. Like Daniel, he suffered from a plot hatched in high places: He was unjustly accused, condemned and sentenced to death: He was placed behind a stone: but like Daniel (and yet not like Daniel) He emerged in the morning triumphant. It is because Jesus died and rose for us that we must maintain a testimony that honours Him.

Our God Reigns

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Discipleship Considered (Continued)

Lessons from the Book of Daniel

The Most High rules, even in Babylon

Now we come to the most remarkable incident when the sovereignty of God was demonstrated to an even greater degree. Nebuchadnezzar had a second dream in which there was a great tree. The tree provided sustenance, shelter and comfort to both beasts and birds. But in the dream the tree was cut down although the stump was retained and protected by a metal band. The interpretation provided by Daniel was that Nebuchadnezzar would lose his position as absolute monarch – his mind would be confused and he would live like an animal until he acknowledged that Jehovah ruled from heaven. The dream was again a prophecy which was fulfilled about a year later.

Nebuchadnezzar while walking in his garden was in a reflective mood. He mused, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30) While the words were yet in his mouth, a voice from heaven sounded, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:31,32). The very same hour the judgement began. Nebuchadnezzar’s intellect deserted him, and as predicted he lost his place as absolute sovereign over the Babylonian empire. With his mind confused he lived as an animal until all was fulfilled.

Then when his sanity returned, he acknowledged the sovereignty of God. “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honoured Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:34,35) Nebuchadnezzar was brought, through the work of God and the ministry of Daniel, to praise Jehovah. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (Dan. 4:37).

But were there others who faced similar tests?

Yes! There were many Israelites in Babylon at that time that had to face these issues in different ways and at different levels - among them a man named Asaph, who was a musician and a Psalmist. The Bible provides us with his testimony. He said he found it extremely difficult to live for God and had almost given up. “My feet had well nigh slipped”, he said. “For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, Nor are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride serves as their necklace; Violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes bulge with abundance; They have more than heart could wish” (Ps. 73:2-7). Asaph had witnessed the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem – those that had taken axes to the Temple of the Lord were prospering, and it looked as if they would never be brought to account. But when he went into the presence of God, he was told to take a long-term view. In the short term it might look as if the wicked prosper, but in time they will also have to face judgement. Asaph said, “Then I understood their end” (Ps. 73:17).

We live in Babylon (a hostile world). Babylon will try to stop us going into the presence of God. It will say – not your God but my gods. In our current culture that could be idolising possessions, that is, getting caught up in a material culture and seeking to acquire more and more trinkets; or it could be the pursuit of pleasure to the detriment of health and relationships and ethical living. But we must stay faithful to the Father and the Saviour. Read and study His Word, pray, maintain fellowship with other Christians and speak often about Him to others. We must lay up treasure in heaven (Matt.6:20) and acknowledge that godliness is profitable for all things (1 Tim.4:8).

In God’s presence Asaph was strengthened and encouraged. He wrote: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. … it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God” (Ps. 73:25-28). He had learnt the lesson God taught Habakkuk: “the just shall live by faith”. Daniel’s three companions grasped it when faced with execution by fire. Daniel will yet have to embrace it when faced with execution (thrown to the lions). Asaph embraced it as well, during his captivity. In our lives, which might or might not, be as difficult as those recorded in the book of Daniel, we must seek to live by the same principle.

Remember - our God reigns!