Thursday, March 24, 2022

Reflections about Studying, Reading, and Meditating on God's Word

Sometimes I really dive into the text in my study.  I am reminded, though, of something I heard from a very wise and spiritual tuned person.  He said that one of the challenges for someone that has training in the biblical languages, exegesis, and theology, is engaging in what could be called "simply reading" the text.  

When I am trained to be able to study, analyze, and dissect the text, it is not unusual for me to be the one "in control" of the process.  The scriptures can easily become an object of study.  I believe it was Søren Kierkegaard that observed how scholars used the tools of scholarship to keep the scriptures at bay.  In other words, scholars used scholarship to avoid doing what the scriptures instructed.  The scriptures became an academic exercise, an artifact to be studied.  On the other hand, what can be called "simply reading," takes all of this and turns it on its head.  Rather than me approaching the text with my scalpel in order to dissect it, I get out of the driver's seat and let the scriptures take its scalpel to me.  Rather than me analyzing and dissecting the scriptures, the scriptures analyze and dissect me.  After all, the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two edged sword.  It dissects the thoughts and intentions of my heart.  This can be a challenge to someone with theological and scholarly training.  My first inclination is to grab my Greek or Hebrew text, my lexicons, word studies, historical studies, etc. 
It occurs to me that this is not a temptation just for those with scholarly training, but for anyone who engages in Bible "Study."  I look back on my own history and remember that even before I had theological training, I often did the same thing.  It can happen in Bible Classes, study groups, or in individual study.  This is a pitfall for everyone who approaches the Bible.  It seems that the only way to avoid this pitfall is to recognize the word of God as living and active.  It is not like other words because it is the word of God.  It is breathed out by the breath of God, which gives life.  When I read the words of scripture, I am reading something in a completely unique category.  This means that whether I am just "reading" or "studying," I need to begin with prayer.  I need to ask questions such as, "What is God communicating to me?"  or  "What does this teach me about God?"  I need to conclude with prayer and respond to the scriptures, which includes thanksgiving, praise, or repentance.  I need to recognize that God's word is the major tool that God uses on me, whether I think of it as the pure milk of the word that makes me grow, or the sword of the Spirit that helps me to overcome the schemes of the evil one, or something sharper than a two-edged sword, like a spiritual scalpel for my heart, mind, and soul.  

Thank you Lord for the incalculable blessing of your word!  My I meditate on it day and night and be as a tree that has been transplanted by living water, bearing fruit for your glory!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Length VS. Depth of Eternal Life

It has occurred to me recently that what the Bible calls eternal life is not about existing forever.  The Gospel and epistles of John include a lot of teaching regarding life and eternal life and it does not appear to be about length of existence.

The book or Revelation describes those who enter eternity allied with the beast rather than in Christ describes them in this way:  “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev 14:11).  Even though this is eternal existence, the Bible never refers to this type of existence as eternal life.

Jesus gives a completely different dimension regarding eternal life in his prayer.  Jesus stated, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  This indicates that eternal life is not about eternal existence but is about knowing God.  

What does it mean to know God?  It is much more than just knowing some facts about God, but involves living in faithfulness to him.  Throughout 1 John, John teaches that in addition to accepting the Son and the Father and keeping God’s commands, one must love as God loved.  He wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8). 

If one knows every fact about God, but does not love, then one does not know God.  Love is central to God’s character and therefore central to our relationship with God.  This is why Jesus identified love for God and love for neighbor as the central and foundational commands of God (Mt 22:36-40).  This also is why Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” in Matthew 12:7.  Steadfast love (hesed), which does not have an exact equivalent in Greek or English, is translated as mercy in Matthew because it fits with the context.  In effect, Jesus is making steadfast love, expressed as mercy/compassion, an interpretive principle of God’s law.  If we correctly understand love as central to God’s character, then we will better understand how to apply God’s law.  Our motivation for obedience, faithfulness and service must be from love.  In fact, Paul states that all kinds of religious service without love is nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).  Truly love is the greatest thing.  

Here is what is interesting.  In 1 John chapter 3, John connects this love with eternal life: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 Jn 3:14-16).

This means that eternal life is about knowing God, which is about loving as he loved, which is one of the indications that we have eternal life abiding in us.  This seems to suggest that eternal life is not about length, but about depth. It is about knowing God, which includes loving as God loves.  Remember this the next time you state that you have eternal life.  Your compassion, benevolence, and service in the name of Christ is a demonstration of eternal life in you.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Lev. 11-15) – Purity

I have often puzzled over many of the purity laws God gave to Israel.  Some of them seem connected to physical health issues, such as how to handle Leprosy or bodily discharges.  But some of the animals considered "detestable" or "unclean" do not seem to be stem from the same sort of issue.  There is nothing inherently dirty about these animals that makes them inedible.  In fact, the New Testament considers these unclean or detestable animals acceptable.  As far as I know, a pig is till a pig, and a catfish is still a catfish.  It does not seem to be connected to health benefits because many people who eat these animals sometimes live extremely long lives.  

The only principle that I can find that ties all of these together has little to do with health benefits, germs, and other such things.  Obviously, health benefits applies to some of them but not all of them.  When I consider that the end of a period of a person being rendered unclean  usually involves some sort of interaction with a priest, a sacrifice, and blood, which is sometimes sprinkled on the formerly unclean person, it tells me that this is not a matter of physical health, but of holiness and inner purity.  As a whole, these purity laws seem to be designed to set apart God’s people as a holy people and to teach them to remain pure.

These instructions demonstrate that there were so many, many things in life that could make one impure that the Israelite needed to be aware of them in order to avoid them.  Becoming impure was not just an individual issue.  Impurity could spread from one object/person to another.  It could affect a person’s family, neighbors, and the entire community.  Impurity cut a person off from the community and from God.  Therefore, the Israelite also needed to know God’s instructions on how to be purified in the case of accidental contact and be restored to the community and to God.  

Our list today of what is impure and can defile us today as Christians is much more narrow than the list given to Israel.  However, this does not mean defilement is any less serious.  Jesus said that it is the pure in heart who will see God (Mt 5:8).  If impurity is allowed in, it defiles not the body, but the heart and the mind (Tit 1:5).  A defiled heart will not and cannot draw near to God.  In fact, a defiled heart may not even be aware of being defiled!  1 Timothy 4:2 speaks of those who have a seared conscience.  The idea is that the conscience no longer feels, and therefore no longer functions the way it is supposed to.  This is how the defilement of sin affects the heart.   The most serious consequence of all is that impurity affects one’s relationship with the pure and holy God, and therefore one’s relationship with the church.  

There is a clear New Testament example of this.  In dealing with sin in the Corinthian church, Paul asked, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).  Just as impurity could spread in the camp, so impurity can also spread in the church.  So he went on to write, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Cor 5:7).  Paul is referring to the unrepentant sinner in the church.  Earlier in the chapter he instructed the church to withdraw from the unrepentant sinner using very strong language: “deliver this man to Satan…”  The purpose was not only to motivate this person to repent and become pure again, but also to keep sin from spreading in the body.  He explained, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—  not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:9-11).

Jesus taught about a much more subtle form of defilement.  We think of what we see, listen to, and engage in as being the things that defile us.  This is true, but Jesus warns us that what comes out of our mouths can also defile us.  

"And he called the people to him and said to them, 'Hear and understand:  it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.'  Then the disciples came and said to him, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?'  He answered, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”  But Peter said to him, 'Explain the parable to us.' And he said, 'Are you also still without understanding?  Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone' " (Mt 15:10-20).

No wonder the Bible teaches us to guard our heart (Prov 4:23)!  No wonder the Bible instructs us to season our speech with salt so that we can give grace with our lips (Phil 4:6)!

The old purity laws have a very important and timeless lesson for us.  Since the law is our schoolmaster, the question to ask in reading these purity laws is this: What do they teach us?  Even though the Levitical purity laws do not apply to us, they teach us some very important truths about purity and holiness.  There are still many, many things that can defile the Christian mind and heart.  This is a reminder to be vigilant of those things.  If we discover defilement in our hearts, the question to ask is whether we will take the steps for purification without delay.  Impurity never stays the same.  Unchecked, it always grows and takes over.  Being swept under a rug and hoping it will go away only causes it to grow and become more deeply entrenched.  Instead of going to a priest, Christians are instructed to confess their sins one to another and pray for each other.  All of us are priests and Jesus is our High Priest.  We are instructed to boldly approach the throne of grace through Jesus, our High Priest, to find grace to help in time of need.  The result of approaching our Lord is that his blood cleanses our conscience and renews us.