Archive for April, 2013

As I mentioned in an earlier post, some characters are only set upon the stage of Scripture for a brief moment, and then they are gone; some leave lasting legacies, some barely register. In the grand scheme of things, what could we possibly learn from these minor, transient personalities? What, indeed? Let’s consider one of the most-well-known-but hardly-discussed people in the Bible: Joseph, husband of Mary, father of the siblings of Jesus (but of course he was not Jesus’ father). He has only a few lines, stars in but a couple of scenes, and he is gone…so why is he even here?

I must give my wife credit for suggesting Joseph, and the reason for his significance…she  reminded me how the exercise of faith often comes down to just moving forward, despite not fully understanding (or believing) everything going on around you. The most ordinary people, when moving in faith, can become the greatest heroes for the rest of us, by being living examples of trusting in The Lord to sustain us; Joseph is exactly that kind of person.

A simple carpenter, living a simple life in a simple village in Galilee, Joseph probably never imagined he would find himself in the center of prophetic fulfillment; like most of us, the routine of normal life was enough to think about. Then, his world is turned upside down by a series of events: his young, virgin fiance turns up pregnant – a scandal, and no one would think wrongly of him for just walking away. He nearly does, until an angel of God appears and confirms what Mary has told him: she was not guilty, but blessed; to his credit, he believes. He may not understand it, but he goes along with the plan. This act of faith (because what else can you call it?) is repeated practically every time we see Joseph – when he takes his radically pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the census, despite the dangers; when they are visited by a horde of shepherds in the stable, telling wild stories of visions of angels singing praises; when they are visited again, this time by wealthy foreigners who bow and offer worship to their young son, calling Him “the King of the Jews”; when the angels warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt, to avoid the Slaughter of the Innocents; still later, when the angel bids Joseph return to Nazareth, because Herod has died. All these incidents contain a common thread: the faithful, trusting obedience of Joseph to the voice of God. If he could hear and believe, in spite of everything his upbringing and his culture told him he should do…how much more should we, with the testimony of Joseph as our evidence, be willing to do likewise?

The structural arrangement of the Bible is not commonly discussed, except in the most scholarly of venues; but there is oneunfortunate consequence which must be diligently avoided: modern readers have a tendency to treat each book as a discrete story, more like an anthology rather than chapters within one narrative. This causes us to miss the simultaneous occurrence of some key events in God’s history with His people. The ministry of the Old Testament  prophets is a good example. In the previous post, for instance, we saw Isaiah speaking the Word of God to King Hezekiah; but that was only one of four kings during whose reigns he served The Lord (Ussiah, Jotham, and Ahaz came before), and other biblical prophets  – Amos, Hosea, and Micah – were his contemporaries. These facts make the stubbornness of the people, their refusal to repent, all the more damning…they could not claim ignorance, the news was on every channel!

The Book of Isaiah is by far the longest and most extensive passage of prophecy we have in Scripture, and the most revealing of Jesus. I have seen some commentators call this book “the Gospel of Isaiah”, so accurate are the details about the coming Messiah. Yet about the man himself we see very few details. The title above is used nearly every time he is introduced; this sparse answer to the questions, “Who are you, what is your job, where did you come from?” is apparently all the information we need; much like John the Baptist, who quotes this prophet when asked to identify himself, Isaiah is content to be nothing more than –

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.”

So many preachers today (in my opinion) make themselves the center of attention. I live in Houston, Texas: home to three of the ten largest “mega” churches in this country, and I can tell you far more about their senior pastors than any of their ministries; their names and photographs are on all the billboards and websites (often with a link to their newest books), but sometimes you have to scroll around or read a little to find the name of Jesus…and I have to wonder at that. Isaiah and the other prophets lived to speak God’s words to God’s people, or anyone else who would listen, for that matter; it was not in the least about themselves – how far we have strayed in these days!

In an earlier Challenge post, I referenced the fact that at times I have been guilty of “lightly” reading the Scriptures, i.e. turning the pages but only skimming the text; not really paying attention to passages (or books, in some cases) that did not seem relevant to me. As I also said, we do ourselves a gave injustice when we undervalue the Word of God.

Another example I have recently unearthed regards the parallel books of Kings and Chronicles (and portions from several of the prophets), which detail the history of the twin nations of Israel and Judah, following the division which arises from the sins of God’s people, in general, and King Solomon in particular. Solomon prayed for and received an enormous gift of wisdom, to lead the people and prosper as their king, as well as carrying out the commission of building the Temple. Yet, he married incessantly and politically, drawing wives from all surrounding nations (in conflict with God’s commandments) and as a consequence being led to compromise his worship, going after other gods as the behest of his wives.

Once the kingdom has divided, it seems the decline into unrepentant sin becomes irreversible…so much that the northern Kingdom is carried away into captivity, and Judah is attacked and threatened repeatedly; King Ahaz goes so far as to begin worshiping the gods of his enemies, in an attempt to fend off disaster. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) He goes so far off the plan of God that his own subjects cannot bring themselves to bury him with the kings of old when he dies; instead he rests in the tombs with the common people, and the throne passes to his son, Hezekiah.

According to the account in 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah wastes no time putting things right. He orders the Temple to be cleansed and re-consecrated; he finds priests and Levites worthy to serve before the Lord; and he restores sacrificial worship, making sin offerings and burnt offerings on behalf of the people; once again Passover is observed, which (according to the story) had not taken place since the time of Solomon, a span of twelve generations. I cannot imagine how they could let such an important practice lapse…or can I? Perhaps I have been equally negligent in some aspect of my own worship, and have suffered an equal decline? Have I fallen out of fellowship with other believers, or spent insufficient time reading and studying the Bible, or allowed my prayer life to grow stale? Perhaps you have as well?

The good news, both for us and for Hezekiah, is that we serve a God of second chances; and third chances; and thirty-third chances, if necessary. The title of this post appears 8 times in Scripture, and every time Hezekiah prays to God, he is answered with something positive: rescue from his enemies, forgiveness for his people, even a reprieve from death. Likewise, God yearns that we would pray to Him, call on His name in our distress, and trust that He will save us, bless us, preserve us. The way God treated with His people in the Old Testament is the same way He will treat with us…we know this to be true, because He is the same…yesterday, today, and forever, AMEN!

There is a great amount of pop-culture hoo-hah surrounding angels…there are movies, books, TV shows, and an infinite universe of knick-knacks, statuettes, posters, wall hangings, etc. A Google search for “angels” returns hundreds upon hundreds of images of female figures with soft faces, pale skin, flowing white or pastel gowns…and, of course, delicate white wings. I wonder sometimes where the artists received their inspiration? Because Biblical angels don’t seem to bear any resemblance to these icons.

The creatures known as angels are depicted as warriors, battling on behalf of the people of God (see Elisha’s revealed vision in 2 Kings); or lone executors of God’s will (the Angel of Death, as seen in the final plague in Egypt, and as a reprimand to David for his arrogance in ordering an unauthorized census); or as worshipers in the courts of heaven, praising God night and day. Some others serve as messengers, bringing the Word of God to Balaam, sitting on his donkey; to the shepherds outside Bethlehem one starry night; to the women at an empty tomb on Sunday morning, to name just a few.

The Christian canon of Scripture gives proper names to only two beings described as “angels” – Michael and Gabriel. Both appear in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament; Michael, (a warrior) is named in Jude and Revelation, while Gabriel (a messenger) famously delivers the news of the coming birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah, and of Jesus to the virgin Mary. (I do not include the naming of “Lucifer” in Isaiah, as this word appears only that one time, and in context is as likely to refer to the king of Babylon as any other person; nor do I include “Raphael”, listed in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. There are also extra-Biblical lists of angels, but I am not qualified to discuss this material, so I won’t – I mention it only in an effort to be complete.)

I feel that sometimes modern believers allow themselves to be distracted by these vague, modern, decidedly romanticized ideas about angels – watching over us as guardians; interceding for us by carrying our prayers to heaven; intervening in the affairs of humans to prevent “bad things” from happening. While God certainly could use them for some of these purposes (and probably does at certain times), they are only another tool at His disposal. These beings, when they appear in Scripture, consistently discourage and actively prevent any adoration of themselves, redirecting it instead to the only One who is worthy. Maybe we would be better served to pay a little less attention to the messengers, and a little more to the message, and the Author?

Throughout the Bible, there are incidents where foreign kings and officials interact with God’s people; whether it be Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia, or Caesar himself, these men typically believe themselves to be in ultimate control of their own destiny. But they are included in the Scriptures to demonstrate that all people and all things are subject to the will of God, and are disposed according to His design. The Roman governor Felix, whom we see in the later chapters of the book of Acts, is another such individual.

In Acts 23 and 24, the Apostle Paul is being hounded and hunted by the Jewish officials in Jerusalem. Having declared a religious war on those who follow the Way of Jesus, they now must deal with the “defection” of one of their most formidable inquisitors, Saul of Tarsus; who has been transformed by an encounter with Christ into a new creation, the Apostle Paul. Paul has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus raised from the dead and promising forgiveness of sin and eternal life; things in opposition to contemporary Jewish teachings. The Jews wish Paul dead, nothing less, and attack him in public. This forces the involvement of the local Roman authorities, who step in to quell civil unrest. Upon learning of a plot to ambush and murder Paul, the commander orders him sent to appear before the provincial governor, Felix.

Felix is a consummate politician; he is familiar with the social structures of the province he rules over (he is in fact married to a Jewish woman), and knows that Paul’s conflicts with the high priest do not involve Roman criminal law; he therefore has no compelling reason to find fault. He does have, on the other hand, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the religious authorities in Jerusalem (helpful in preserving peace, which is one of his most prominent duties to Rome), as well as the potential of receiving a payoff to deliver a suitable verdict on Paul’s behalf (helpful for living a comfortable lifestyle, one of his prominent duties to himself). Felix finds himself in an ambiguous place, uncertain of how to proceed, but aware of the dangers of choosing wrongly;  this becomes strikingly clear to him as Paul speaks about righteousness and the coming judgement – a time where every man will be held accountable for the choices he has made. Felix is not a bold man, he is a cautious  man, and has governed according to what was best for Felix, rather than seeking truth and justice in his administration; he is not thrilled to learn of a time when he will be required to answer for himself. In typical bureaucratic style, he therefore makes no decision whatsoever, and keeps Paul in custody for over two years, until he is finally replaced by another governor.

I am not thrilled to learn of a time coming where all my choices will require an accounting; I know I have acted selfishly, more than not; or given in to anger, fear, greed…any number of weaknesses. I do have something, though, that Felix apparently did not possess – I have hope; the hope that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; hope that forgiveness of sin is available to me through His atonement; hope that in Him, I will stand before God and be accounted as washed in the Blood of the Lamb, white as snow; and be welcomed into my Father’s rest. Thus, I can make decisions; I can take risks; I can declare what I believe to be true without concern for how others will receive me. Because He lives, I no longer have to be afraid!

In Genesis, the book of Beginnings, we see the continuing development of the covenant between God and Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; in each generation, the promises made by God to the father are repeated, renewed, and refined for the son, in the form of a blessing at the end of each father’s life. Traditionally, the father’s blessing would confer favor to the eldest son above any younger brothers – yet God remains sovereign in the affairs of humans, and will overrule our conventions for His purposes, despite what we think or do about it – let’s look at the record.

When Abraham tried to provide his own heir by lying with Hagar and fathering Ishmael, God superseded him by giving Issac to Sarah; Abraham recognized this by sending the older boy away and placing his blessing upon the younger. In his turn, Issac fathered twins, Esau and Jacob; Esau was the firstborn, but even in the womb the Lord had promised that Jacob would inherit the promise; this came to pass when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, and then it was sealed when Rebekah assisted Jacob in deceiving Issac, so that he received his father’s blessing – just as God intended.

When Jacob, now renamed Israel, came to the end of his life and prepared to pronounce his blessing upon his sons, the same pattern repeats itself, with one unique and significant exception – there are two sets of blessings delivered, foretelling the two nations which would arise later. In Gen 48, Jacob calls Joseph, his favorite son, to his side to make his dying request, that he not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of Canaan.  He then blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger), even before blessing his own sons (see Gen 49, and notice that the three oldest are likewise passed over in favor of Judah, from whom our Savior Jesus is promised), crossing his arms to place his right hand upon the head of Ephraim when he does so. Joseph tried to switch the blessings, believing that his older son should receive the greater promise, but Jacob demurred, insisting that he knew what he was doing; this was obviously so, for in fact the descendants of Ephraim became the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while the sons of Judah ruled over the southern Kingdom, following the line of David. In all the acts of men, we must remember that God has see the end from the beginning, and His will shall always prevail – if you ever wonder what the “will of God” was in any historical event, just look at what happened…you will see exactly that which God intended.

There are those who who teach that women should not have a public role in Christian leadership; surely these people are not reading the same Bible I am? Scripture is rich in wise, powerful, inspired females used by the Lord. We find a particular example in the book of Judges, chapters 4-5, in the person of Deborah. Now, I must admit, the first few times I read through the Bible, I skimmed over this section, in a rush to get to King David. We do ourselves (and the glory of God) a grave disservice if we do this…ALL of Scripture is inspired by God, we should try to take all of it in, as best we can. I had always assumed that the Judges served pretty much the same purpose as a Sheriff in the Old West – keep the peace, administer the Law, maintain order; but that is not at all what they were doing…there is barely a consistent character trait between any of them – other than one very important one: they listened to God, and as best they could, they obeyed what He said. Some served as leaders, some as warriors, some as prophets – but all served God, not the people.

Deborah is listed as the fourth Judge in Israel, but to me she is more of the classic OT prophet: she hears the word of the Lord and pronounces it to the people. I imagine her administration of justice resembles that of Moses – people realized that she is not following her own standards, or those of the world, but only those of God, which provides the wisdom and correct moral compass to steer the people. Her other function as we see it in chapter four is to reinforce the commandments that God has given to the leaders of Israel; when she confronts Barak, she is reminding him of what God has already said…metaphorically tugging his ear to get him to obey. I believe this is what inspires the description she uses in 5:7, when she calls herself “a mother in Israel”; “mother” here is rendered from the Hebrew as “one who provides what is needed” – the people (and Barak) had gotten off course again, following after false gods, and needed a swat on the backside to remind them whose they really were!

One version of the old saying goes “Behind every great man stands an ever better woman.” In this case, perhaps the man isn’t so great, but God raised up a mighty woman indeed to stand beside and behind him. Maybe we should take a minute and consider the Godly women in our lives, and praise Him for the Deborah’s He has provided for us.

Cain rose up…

Posted: April 3, 2013 in A to Z Challenge
Tags: , , , ,

Many times in the Old Testament, characters and themes are introduced with little fanfare, and often dispatched just as quickly; the “trick” is to discern the meaning inherent in even these briefest of encounters. We see one such example in Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain, who appears and is gone in less than 20 verses. Yet, there is a wealth of truth revealed in this scant space – let us examine this together.

Some context: Genesis 3 ends with the “first family” being driven from Eden after their Fall into the knowledge of sin and death. Chapter 4 begins with the birth of their son Cain, whose name can be translated as “Here he is”; perhaps Eve considered this child to be the fulfillment of the promise made by God in Gen 3:15 of a Seed, One to deliver them from their doom. He is quickly followed by his brother Abel (breath, something transitory, quickly dissipated…names have significant meaning in Hebrew) We fast forward to find them mature and working hard at their professions: Cain is a farmer, while Abel is a shepherd; at some point, they bring their respective offerings to God, and it is here that we find the lesson.

Scripture tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering, but Cain…not so much. We are not given any specific reasons for this, (there may be some clues in the description of their offerings) but I think it is more significant to examine the reaction that Cain has to God, and to his brother, and to then attempt to relate it to ourselves. This is, I believe, one of the primary purposes of Scripture – to reveal the nature of God to His creation, and then by this illumination, point to where we deviate from His design, that we may know best how to pray for His grace and forgiveness. (Sorry, I’ll get off the soapbox now.)

Cain reacts with anger and disappointment at the fact that his offering was not accepted; at no point does he inquire about the nature of his shortcoming – instead, it seems that he is offended; after all, he brought an offering…isn’t that enough? God isn’t having any of it, and calls Cain down for this rebellious self-righteousness, warning him where his attitude will lead him, but Cain cannot hear – he is too filled with his pride to listen…echoes of how God warned Adam and Eve about the consequences of thinking of themselves more than of God. Sure enough, Cain’s anger leads him to commit the first recorded murder, and suffer his own consequence, becoming an outcast among outcasts, and fathering a legacy based on vengeance for slights real and imagined (see Lamech in Gen 4:23-24).

So where is the parallel, what in us does this light of truth shine upon? What, indeed? I would venture that the vast majority of conflict among humanity is rooted in the notion that anything I offer to another should be deemed worthy because I gave it; any failure in this relationship is a reflection on them, not on me. The “problem” is that God is worthy to be worshiped, and anything offered to Him must be worthy of Him; He is the standard, not me. Cain had a problem with that, and it cost him. Guess what? I have a problem with that, too, and so do you; that problem is original sin – when Adam ate the fruit, and learned what right and wrong were, he took that knowledge with him out of the Garden, and passed it down to all of us, along with the overwhelming tendency to choose wrongly.

We are blessed that the same love that God showed when he promised Eve a Seed is still in effect; that Seed is Jesus, who became the new Adam, and overcame that first wrong choice – He chose to obey God, and every act He does is worthy of the Father. In Him, we can find acceptance; by submitting to His Lordship, we can find peace, and once again have intimate fellowship with God, in the cool of the evening.

In the book of Ruth, we meet two people listed in the genealogy of Jesus, as detailed in the first chapter of Matthew: Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose husband and sons had died while residing in Moab. This circumstance had forced Naomi to return home to her family in search of support, as the culture of the times held little hope for widows with no sons to care for them. Ruth had been married to one of Naomi’s sons, and in a rare display of loyalty, had left everything she had known and returned to Judah with Naomi.

Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s husband, and he was a wealthy landowner and respected member of the community. As a means of supporting herself and Naomi, Ruth asks for and receives permission to glean the fields belonging to Boaz, as provided by Jewish law. But Boaz, upon learning who this young woman is, and hearing her back story, makes extraordinary provisions for her well-being. When Ruth reports this to Naomi, she identifies Boaz as a relative, and “one of our redeemers.”  A redeemer was a person who had the right and obligation to re-purchase a parcel of land that had been sold away from a clan by its rightful owner. Naomi’s husband had indeed sold his land, and the deadline for repurchase, or redemption was drawing near. Naomi sends Ruth back to Boaz to request that he perform this duty on her behalf, which she does. Boaz tells her that he is blessed by her request, but there is another with a better claim, who must be appealed to first. He goes the next day to present this appeal.

When he learns of the opportunity to acquire the land, this other man is eager, but there is a catch: if he takes the land, he also must take the responsibility of caring for the deceased man’s women, including giving them an heir – passing all the privileges on, and sacrificing his own rights in the process. While the short term gain is inviting, he has no interest in getting a wife and losing his own fortune in the process. He defers the honor to Boaz, who promptly accepts, receiving both the land, which he really did not need or want, and Ruth, which was his entire desire; in a sense, he bought the land to gain the woman. They are married, and the child Ruth bears is Obed: father of Jesse, grandfather of Israel’s great King David.

In Matthew 13:44, Jesus relates a parable which mirrors this story:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

For Boaz, Ruth is the great treasure hidden in the field, and he gives up his inheritance – “all that he has” – to get her. So how does this apply to us? To Jesus, we are the treasure hidden in the field of the world. Our field was sold to Satan when Adam chose sin over obedience to God; but Jesus comes to repurchase the land, by paying the price for our sin with His blood; and in the process, we are redeemed. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and has no need of the earth, but as it says in Rev 5:9-10:

“Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer, paying the price to buy us back from sin and death; Boaz serves a type of Jesus, an example to aid in our understanding of the eternal plan of God to save His people. Blessed are we to be covered by the blood of the Lamb!

Most of us are  familiar with this guy: according to the bible, he and his wife Eve were the prototypes for the human race, created by God in His image and His likeness (and yes, those are two different things – one speaks to appearance, the other to characteristics, but that is a topic for another time).  Sometimes Christians can be harsh and judgmental towards this “first couple”, which is a shame; in truth we are not really very different, and certainly not any better!

The bible tells us that from the very beginning, God’s plan was that His creatures were integral elements of His plan; as we read the first two chapters of Genesis we see that Adam and Eve lived together in this perfect world, with all their physical needs met; their roles and purposes established; and enjoying the companionship of their Creator. So what went wrong? Adam did, that’s all…he did what came naturally to him, even though he knew better.

Adam was given power, and authority, and above all else, the one thing that separates humanity from the animals: free will. With this gift came an opportunity to either succeed or fail, of his own volition; to submit himself to the commandment and intentions given to him by God (remember, at this point there was only one explicit prohibition – to not eat the fruit of one particular tree), or to set out on his own path, contrary to the wishes of the One who made him. We know which path Adam chose, and the consequences of that decision, and it is easy to blame him for all that has happened since – I have heard more than one person joke that the first thing they wanted to do upon reaching heaven was to kick Adam in the shin! But what makes us think we would have done any differently? How many of us have been given everything we ever wanted or needed, at the cost of simple obedience, and yet cannot maintain this minimum standard? No wonder we needed a Savior, a new Adam to replace the original and restore humanity to the original purpose, free from original sin.

Jesus, in His incarnation, was also given power, and authority, and the same free will as Adam – yet He consistently chose to submit His will to the will of the Father; there are dozens of verses, but allow me to quote one of my favorites – John 6:38-40:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

As we approach Easter, I am reminded again that I am grateful that Jesus came to be the New Adam, and that by Him, we have opportunity to be restored to our original place and purpose in God’s plan. This wonderful gift is available to any who will acknowledge the grace of God which supplies our need, and accept the words of Christ right above,  and receive eternal life.