Friday, December 23, 2022

The Manger

When I was growing up, it did not dawn on me that nativity scenes were at attempt to take several biblical events which may span over a two year period and compress them into one single scene.  Why?  As I understand it, the original reason for putting together a nativity scene in the 13th century was for a visual teaching tool to tell the story of Jesus.  In light of the fact that a larger portion of the population would have been illiterate, it makes sense to use this method as a teaching tool.

I have been spending time reflecting on the manger.  I prefer the word, “manger” because “feeding trough” sounds too crude.  Yet, this is exactly what it was.  Was it made of wood, or stone, which would have been more typical of that time?  I think a more important thing to consider is that this was not something that was designed to be a baby bed.  The one whom Gabriel said would be called, “holy” and “The Son of the Most High” who would sit on the throne of his father David in a kingdom that would have no end, did not have a bed of his own.  One might expect a royal birth to take place in a palace with a monogramed bed.  But this is not how God chose to come into the world.  

I am sure that Mary, in her motherly care, made the manger clean and suitable with whatever bedding she had in order to properly care for this precious baby.  It may have looked as nice and inviting as we see in many of the nativity scenes due to her attentiveness as a good mother.  However, it was still not a baby bed.

This reminds me of something Jesus said during his ministry.  In Luke 9:57, someone told Jesus that he would follow him wherever he went.  I am not sure what type of life this man thought he was volunteering for, but Jesus made it clear what it would look like to follow him.  Jesus responded with, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Where was the palace of the Messianic King?  Where was his bed chamber?  Where was his royal pillow?  It was nowhere on earth.  Unlike wild animals that have their dens, he had nowhere to lay his head.  This was foreshadowed on the day he was born.  Even in his birth, there was no permanent place to lay his head.  He had to be laid in a manger.  Throughout his life, there continued to be nowhere to lay his head.  Even in his death, there was nowhere to lay his head.  Joseph Arimathea provided a place for Jesus to lay his head in death.  But he did not need a permanent place to lay his head in death.  He wasn’t there very long.  In three days, he sat up and walked out of that tomb, never to return.

Once he completed his ministry, he went back to his true home, which is with the Father in Heaven.  This world was not his home, he was just passing through.  The same is true for us.  When we follow Jesus, we have no permanent place to lay our head on this earth, whether in life or in death.  Our home is Heaven.  Think about these things the next time you see a manger and use it to tell the story of Jesus.

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.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

God's Love as Phileia

I pulled out my Greek concordance to look up the words for love in the New Testament.  The two most common words for love in the New Testament are agape and phileia.  I used to think of agape as distinctly Christian love, and phileia as a love based on feeling and therefore inferior and not godly.  When I discovered that this was not the case, it was an eye opener for me.  Phileia, or a form of it appears numerous times in relation to God’s love or the love that we are to have for others. 

Titus 3:4-5 says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,…”  loving kindness is philanthropia, which literally means love for mankind and is the origin of our English word philanthropy.  God’s love for man, which led to the cross is the ultimate philanthropy.  There is no love for mankind like the love of God.

In John 15:13-14, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Friend is philos.  The greatest love one can show for his philoi is to lay down his life for them, which is what Jesus did.  If his people follow his commands, Jesus calls them philoi.  How amazing is that that the creator and Lord calls human beings friends!  This indicates the type of love that our Lord has for his people.

Romans 12:10 says, “Love to one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Love here is philostorge, a combination of phileia (love/affection) and storge (family love).  Brotherly affection is philadelphia, which means brotherly love.  We are called to have familial affection for one another.  That means that we must get along and like each other.  This may seem impossible, but I can remember siblings who could not stand each other.  The parents’ solution was to make them hold hands for several days and do everything together.  It was not acceptable that they had disdain for each other.  If that is the way it is with a physical family, how much more so would this be for the family of God?  After all we are blood, but it is blood that goes for beyond this life.  We are related by the blood of the Son of God who shed it in order to adopt us into God’s family. 

Romans 12:13 says to “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”  Hospitality is philoxenia, which literally means, “strangerly love.”  Not only are we to show brotherly love to our brethren, we are also to show strangerly love to the stranger.  This implies a level of kindness and compassion that we see demonstrated in Jesus as he welcomed people from all walks of life, whether they tax collectors or pharisees.   

Several passages tell us to greet each other with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14).  Kiss is philema, which is in the same class of words as phileia.  As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this expression seems to be much more intimate than our typical handshake.  But even though this was a typical cultural expression for that time, the word, “holy” indicates that this is not just the typical kiss of greeting, but is special.  Our relationship with each other in the family of God is different than associations we have with those outside.  We greet each other with holy tokens of affection because we have been sanctified and adopted by God to be his family.

Looking at these uses of phileia alongside the description of agape in 1 Corinthians 13 seems to indicate a lot of overlap between agape and phileia.  I am reminded of the conversation between Jesus and Peter at the end of the Gospel of John.  When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love (agapao) me?”  Peter responded with “Yes I dearly love (phileo) you!”  Peter wanted to use a stronger word of affection when he responded to Jesus.  The text says that Peter was grieved when Jesus asked a third time, “Peter, do you love (phileo) me?”  Phileia and agape do not seem to have a sharp difference in meaning from each other. 

This has caused me to reflect on the nature of love.  I remember a time when I used to think, “I have to love you, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you!”  This came from the mistaken idea that love, specifically agape, had nothing to do with emotion or liking someone.  I now see the ludicrous nature of trying to love without any kind of affection.  The instructions to love in the passages above seem to indicate just the opposite.  We are not called to like someone, but are called to love, which is much deeper than like. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Those Who Challenged God

Our God is an all-powerful, holy, holy, holy God. It is not unusual for someone who encounters God in his holy splendor to prostrate himself flat on his or her face in fearful reverence. The call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6 is a classic example of this. The covenant people of God at the base of mount Sinai had a similar reaction. The holy presence of God covered the top of Mount Sinai with smoke, thunder and lightning along with his great voice. They were so fearful that they wanted to hear the voice of the Lord no more, and asked Moses to be their mediator so they would not have to hear God's voice directly.

Knowing this about our God, many believers would not want to question or challenge God. Few would even dream of implying God might do something too extreme or unwarranted. Yet that is just what Job does in the book of Job. However, Job is not the only one in scripture who is so bold and daring. Maybe it's understandable in Job's case. After all, from a human standpoint he doesn't have much to lose. If God were to smite him, he would die and that would be the end of his suffering. But that is not what Job wants. He wants vindication, but that's another study.

Is it ever okay to challenge God's decisions and actions? Leaving aside the whether there could ever be an appropriate time to do this, there are some illuminating examples of prominent servants of God who boldly challenged the Almighty. 

The first example comes from Genesis 18:22-33. God revealed to Abraham that he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. The Hebrew of the passage emphasizes the greatness of their sin in verse 20. Their sin is great "to the extreme" or to put it in contemporary terms, "to the max."  He refers to the great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, which suggest a pattern of grave injustice and cruel wickedness.  The story that follows about the treatment of Lot’s guests shows the sheer depth of the depravity of the people there.   Even after being blinded, the text says that they were still groping to find Lot’s door in order to rape his guests.

God had every right to destroy these cities, and it is likely that anyone who knew anything about these cities would agree. Then Abraham did the unthinkable. It wasn’t that Abraham tried to change God’s mind.  It wasn’t even that he tried to bargain with God to spare the city for a handful of righteous people if they are found in the city.  Rather, it was his bold question which could implicate God - "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen 18:25).   What was Abraham saying?  Why would he ask such a thing?  Did he really believe God might do a grave injustice by slaying the innocent along with the wicked? Abraham knew he was going out on a limb, so he pled with God not to get angry as he tried to save the city for the sake of the righteous in it.  In the end, Abraham could not save the city, but as someone once put it, "Abraham has saved God." In other words, if there was any doubt about the justice of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the encounter between Abraham and God and subsequent salvation of Lot and his family has removed all doubt as to God's justice in destroying every man and woman in the city.

Another case in Moses.  When God made a covenant with the newly formed nation of Israel at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. Israel responded with, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex 19:8).  But just over a month later, they built an idol and had a feast to the Lord. In response, "The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” (Ex 32:9-10). There is no doubt that the people are guilty. God redeemed them out of Egyptian bondage to be his own people, and they have already rebelled. There is no doubt that God would be justified when he carries out his intent to destroy these people.

What is curious is God’s words to Moses, “Let me alone so that…”  What is that supposed to mean?  Can Moses really stop God from unleashing his wrath?  In saying this, God practically invited Moses to intervene. Just as God revealed to Abraham what he was going to do to Sodom and Gomorrah, thereby allowing Abraham to respond, God appears to do the same with Moses.  Moses responded to try and save Israel.  However, unlike Abraham, Moses cannot appeal to God’s justice to try and save them.  There was no doubt that they had sinned and dishonored God even though they could look up and see the presence of God that had enveloped the top of Mount Sinai.  God would have been justified in destroying Israel and starting over again with Moses and make of him a great nation.  This would also been in keeping with the promise God made to Abraham, since Moses was of the seed of Abraham.  Instead, Moses responded with, Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” (Ex 32:11-13)

God had called them "this" people when he wanted to destroy them, but Moses continues to call them "your" people.  Moses appeals to what the Egyptians might say if God destroyed them in the wilderness, and the promise God made to Abraham to multiply his descendants and reminded God that this is “your” people.  Moses simply asks God to relent and change his mind, and the text goes on to say, So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Ex 32:14).

Unlike Abraham, Moses was able to get God to relent, which was because of the covenant that God had made with theses people.

Another example comes from Amos 7:1-7.

Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, He was forming a locust-swarm when the spring crop began to sprout. And behold, the spring crop was after the king’s mowing. And it came about, when it had finished eating the vegetation of the land, that I said,  “Lord God, please pardon!
How can Jacob stand, For he is small?” The Lord changed His mind about this. “It shall not be,” said the Lord. Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, the Lord God was calling to contend with them by fire, and it consumed the great deep and began to consume the farm land. Then I said, “Lord God, please stop!
How can Jacob stand, for he is small?” The Lord changed His mind about this. “This too shall not be,” said the Lord God.”

Twice, God announces judgement on Israel in two visions. Twice, Amos pleads with God, and twice God changed his mind.

The picture Amos paints of the nation and her sins in the previous six chapters of Amos makes it clear that God is justified in unleashing his wrath against Israel. God had caused the nation to become prosperous. However, many were getting rich at the expense of the poor, so God decides to withdraw his blessing and unleash his judgement.  These include judges taking bribes and perverting justice, exploitation of the poor and needy, idolatry, incest, violence against the helpless, etc.  There was do doubt that Israel deserved the justice God planned to bring.  However, when God showed Amos what he would going to do, Amos managed to swerve the nature of God’s judgment.     

There are other examples of men challenging God and/or changing God’s mind However, there is something unique about the examples above. What is amazing is that God intentionally involves men in his decisions.  Moses could have consented and said, "I'm just your slave, I can't stop you. Besides, you're the boss, do what you see is best". Instead, Moses boldly tells God it would be better if God were to spare Israel so that Egypt would not think that God brought Israel out to the wilderness with the evil intention of destroying them. So Moses boldly gives God what he perceives to be a better option, and God takes it! The same could be said of Abraham and Amos.

This demonstrates something about God’s character.  God’s righteous anger is aroused by wickedness and rebellion.  However, his compassions are also kindled by the pleads for mercy.  Here is what God said about himself to Moses when he revealed himself to him in the cleft of the rock:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Ex 34:6-7)

This passage from the New American Standard translates the Hebrew word, “hesed” as lovingkindness.  The word, which has no English equivalent, is sometimes rendered, steadfast love, unfailing love, loyalty, or even kindness/mercy.  An acceptable translation would be, “covenant love.”  This word refers to love by covenant.  In other words, love that is a choice.   I can’t help but notice the contrast of God visiting the iniquities of the fathers to the third and fourth generations, but covenant love to thousands. 

This self revelation of God and his character became the basis of Moses pleading to God for Israel once again.  After rebelling and making a short-lived plan to elect a new leader and return to Egypt,  11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? 12 I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they” (Num 14:11-12).

Once again, God wanted to stary over again with Moses,  Israel had a pattern of grumbling and rebellion against God.

“13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Your strength You brought up this people from their midst, 14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, 16 ‘Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’ 19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (Numb 14:13-19).

Moses once again pled with God to forgive Israel.  This time, he repeats God’s own words about the kind of God he is: “slow to anger and abundant in covenant love.”  Based on this, he prayed that God pardon them “according to the greatness of your covenant love.”

“So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word” (Num 14:20).

It occurs to me that all of this demonstrates that God is eager to forgive.  Indeed, the Psalmist wrote,

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You” (Ps 86:5).

God is ready to forgive.  He is eager to forgive.  He is so eager that he has at times invited the righteous to pray for and plead of behalf of his people.  Based on the greatness of his unfailing love and the pleading of someone to advocate for his people, God changes his mind and relents. 

I know there may be those who might claim this is heresy because it attacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and the immutability of God.  However, instead of starting with doctrinal statements and looking for scripture to support them, one should simply read the scriptures and allow them to speak for themselves as to the kind of God we serve. God does not reveal himself in theological propositions, logical deductions, and doctrinal formulas. To reduce God to a proposition does him injustice. God reveals himself through his actions, which are preserved for us in scripture. The Biblical authors do not make the attempt to minimize God to the lowest common denominator. The closest thing you have to this are the statements made about God in various Psalms in the Psalter and Psalms sprinkled throughout the rest of the Old Testament. However, these are not mere abstractions, but are often connected with a story. Even the law given at Sinai is inseparable from the history connected to it. To separate law from the story leads to legalism. God is our Father who has come to live among us, not an abstract theological deduction.

God is holy, but he is not so sensitive that his people cannot question him. God is much bigger than we are. He can take it.  As uncomfortable as this may be at times, it can be considered a great act of faith and is often the time of the greatest spiritual growth. 

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Exodus 26): God's Covering

God’s meticulous instruction concerning the tabernacle included instructions on how to construct the holy of holies.  God’s presence would symbolically sit enthroned above the cherubim of the Ark, which was hidden behind the inner veil, which was further hidden inside the Tabernacle.  It occurs to me that God has covered himself since Genesis 3.  Adam and Even covered themselves us trying to hide from God, probably due to the shame and fear that came from their guilt.  God has also covered himself up for a completely different reason.  It is for our safety.  God is holy, and we are tainted by sin.  For sinful man to be face to face with a holy God would mean his death.  So, when God came down to meet with the people, he was hidden in the thick smoke of Mount Sinai.  When Moses and the elders came up to the mountain, they saw God’s feet, but apparently saw no more of God than this.  I imagine that the glory of God above his feet was hidden in the smoke of the mountain.  The text remarks that they were able to be this close to God and eat in his presence without dying.  When God invites Moses to come up higher, Moses still could not see God face to face.  I am reminded of the instruction that will come later for the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.  Before entering the holy of holies, one of the tasks God instructed him to perform was to burn incense on the incense altar which stood in front of the veil so that smoke would fill the holy of holies.  Even on the Day of Atonement, God’s symbolic presence in the Holy of Holies would be enveloped in smoke.  I am also reminded of Isaiah’s traumatic experience of seeing God in his heavenly temple.  He did not see God directly, because he was covered by seraphs as they called out, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the LORD of Hosts!”  Isaiah may have thought he was going to die, but God sent one of the seraphs to purify Isaiah.

This helps to more appreciate our Lord’s atoning work through Christ.  God came out of the holy of holies and into a human body.  God came near, but covered himself this time in human flesh.  He shared in our flesh and blood to provide a permanent solution for sin by offering up his own blood.  He entered into the human experience so that he could sympathize with us in mercy and faithfulness.  He has come near in such a way so that we can refer to him not only as our God, but also our Abba, our Papa, our Father.    

Thank you for being faithful and not giving up on us. You have drawn near to us, may we draw near to you.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Exodus 12): Hosts of the LORD

In the daily Bible reading, the phrase, "Hosts of the LORD" jumped out at me in Exodus 12.  At the end of 430 years, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt."  The word "hosts" is usually a military term that refers to an army.  The verb form means to make war.  The phrase, "LORD of Hosts" literally means "Yahweh of Armies."  It is interesting that the text refers to the enslaved Israelites who were exiting Egypt as the "Hosts/Armies of Yahweh."  They were not trained in warfare.  They did not have chariots.  They did not have battle armor or training in tactical maneuvers.  

None of this mattered.  It was the LORD of hosts that did battle with Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt in a way that no human could.  From Yahweh's first strike against the Nile River, to the ninth strike against the sun with darkness, God demonstrated his universal power and authority over their sacred Nile and their so-called sun god, Ra.  After the crossing of the sea, Israel worshipped God and declared, "Yahweh is a warrior!  Yahweh is his name!"  Yahweh's hosts only need to trust and obey their warrior God.  God demonstrated this time after time, whether it was in the days of Gideon or David. 

This reminds me of two passages to meditate on regarding what it means to be the host of the Lord:

“His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Ps 147:10-11).

“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4). 

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Exodus 10-12): Hardened Heart and God's Name

I still remember having difficulty with the claim by skeptics that God is a manipulative and vengeful God.  After all, didn't he harden Pharoah's heart and not allow him to repent so that God could inflict all kinds of plagues on him and Egypt?  Only after reading the text carefully did I realize that this difficulty only came from an ignorance of the events that led up to this and a possible misunderstanding of justice.  No one would have an issue with God doing the same sort of thing to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.  Pharoah fits in the same category with other despots in history who are responsible for mass murder.  

It occurs to me that the text does not give the same amount of space to Pharoah’s genocide probably because the focus of the story is the living God’s judgment on Pharoah and Egypt for their brutal oppression of God’s people and murder of their babies in the Nile.  The text gives more space to how God came down and delivered his people from them while demonstrating his righteous wrath and judgment on Egypt.  Pharoah and the Egyptians are not innocent sufferers at the hands of a vengeful God.  They rightly become the objects of God’s righteous justice for their heinous wickedness against the Hebrews.  

I have reflected on why God artificially prolonged the conflict.  Sometimes Pharaoh hardened his own heart but most of the time the text says God hardened his heart.  Several times throughout the text, God says he does so to make his name known.  In chapter 6, God said, “You will know that I am Yahweh your God when I bring you out from the burdens of the Egyptians.”  In chapter 7, God said “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Yahweh, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”  He also told Pharoah, “By this you shall know that I am Yahweh: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.”  This is a marvelous answer to Pharoah’s disdainful question in chapter 5, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him and let Israel go?”  When God removed the plague of frogs, he did it “so that you may know that there is no one like the Yahweh our God.”

However, God prolongs the conflict.  A few times Pharaoh hardened his heart, or the text simply says that his heart “was hardened” without specifying who hardened it.  However, the majority of the time, it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, especially when the plagues began to intensify.  The conflict could have been over long before it ended, but God artificially prolonged the conflict.  God’s purpose was not merely to punish Egypt and redeem Egypt from bondage, but to make this a learning lesson as well.  In chapter nine, God explains why he prolonged the conflict.  He said to Pharaoh, “For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”  

Not only did God want his name to be known to the Egyptians and to Israel, but he wants his name to be proclaimed in all the earth.  God’s name comes with a history that reveals who he is and what kind of God he is. 

To further make his name known, God set apart the land of Goshen after the third plague.  God’s people, who were living in Goshen, did not suffer any more plagues that God afflicted Egypt with.  God communicated that he did this “that you may know that I am the Yahweh in the midst of the earth.”  Not only did God make known his power over Pharaoh and the impotent gods of Egypt, but God made his favor toward the Hebrews known as well.  He demonstrated his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham and his ability to keep it in the midst of danger and opposition.  He made his name known as the living and faithful God who is present for his people that he make covenant with.

What a fantastic contrast between the name of Yahweh and the name of Pharaoh.  Unlike the name of the Pharaoh in Exodus 1, whose name we are not sure of, we know the name of our living God who is righteous, just, and all powerful.  God demonstrated the truth of Psalm 148:13 –“Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven,” and Proverbs 18:10 – “The name of Yahweh is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.”

God, whose name we know, also gives his people a name.  I am reminded of this when I consider the contrast between Pharaoh and the midwives of Exodus 1.  We are not sure of the name of the Pharoah, but we know the names of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  God gave them families for doing what they could to protect the Hebrew newborn sons.  In that sense, they were given a “name.”  But more significant is the name that God gives to all of his people.  In Revelation 3:12, the Lord said that, he will write on the faithful the name of God and his own name.  Nothing is more precious than the name that is above all names.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Gen 27-29): Where is My Life Focused?

It was not uncommon for God’s chosen family to act less than honorably.  The recent daily Bible readings covered Isaac and their two sons, Jacob and Esau.  We usually refer to them as Jacob and Esau, but I wonder if they were originally referred to as Esau and Jacob because Esau was older? 

I have contemplated the events that led to the rise of Jacob over his brother with puzzlement.  Why did God bless Jacob who took what should have belonged to Esau?  Why did their mother conspire to steal what belonged to one son to give it to the other?  What kind of mother does that?  Why did the chosen family have so much drama from generation to generation?  It occurs to me that none of these things are unusual among human beings.  Family drama seems to always be part the story of many families.

Several details stand out in these events.  Before the brothers were even born, they were struggling with each other.  Yahweh told Rebekah that there were two nations in her which will be divided, one would be stronger, and the older would serve the younger.  Did she tell Isaac?  Did he know?  The text does not say.

Esau did not seem to care about his birthright as the older son.  He sold it away to Jacob for a single pot of stew.  Even though he despised his birthright, he would later come to regret it.  This seems to paint a picture of Esau as an impulsive person who is ruled by his passions rather than a sense of destiny from God. 

In addition to this, Esau married before Jacob.  He married two Hittite women and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.  The text does not mention how, but I wonder if any of it does not stem from the fact that they were of a different ethnic and religious background. 

When it came time for Isaac to give the final blessing to his posterity, he was going to give it to Esau, and not Isaac.  All of these details - from the prophecy that Yahweh told her about the older serving the younger, to Esau selling his birthright, and his marriage to Hittite women rather than those of his own clan, may have been the motivation behind Rebekah's conspiracy to make sure the blessing went to Jacob, the one whom God had chosen.

There was one final thing that Rebekah wanted to see happen.  She did not want Jacob to marry Hittite women as Esau did.  She went to far as to tell Isaac that her life would be over if Jacob married a Hittite woman.  So Isaac sent Jacob to Rebekah’s brother, Laban, in Haran to find a wife from his own clan and charged him not to marry any of the Canaanite women.  Before he went, Isaac blessed him, saying, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you that you may become a company of peoples.  May he give you the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that Gave gave to Abraham.”  Giving him the blessing of Abraham shows a clear sense of the big picture from God that did not seem to be important to Esau at all.

What a contrast!  Esau did not care about God’s big picture, and Jacob spent his entire life grabbing at the heels of what God had already determined would be his!  What lessons should we draw from this?  I don’t often hear people draw lessons from Jacob, who acted less than honorably.  I don’t often hear lesson from Esau either.  However, the Bible draws lessons from both of them. I am reminded of two passages from the book of Hebrews that draw lessons from both Jacob and Esau.

In Hebrews 11, which gives numerous examples of faith, it says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God“ (Heb 11:8-10).

Jacob, along with his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, is an example of a life of faith.  This shows that faith is tied to hope, which is always looking forward to the distant future.  The takeaway is not Jacobs heel-grabbing, deceitful designs on trying to get what God had already determined would be his.  The takeaway is that he lived in life in the shadow of the destiny that had God had planned. 

In Hebrews 12, the text gives an exhortation using Esau as a negative example.  It says, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.  Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.  For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb 12:12-17).

The text describes Esau as one who let a poison root grow in his life that caused trouble and defilement.  It refers to him as sexually immoral and unholy.  He evidently did not regard himself as holy to the Lord, as can be seen by all his actions.  He did not feel any obligation to Yahweh’s plan for the future.

This message, be like Jacob and not Esau, is focused one thing:  Hope.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, according to the opening lines of Hebrews 11.  The examples in Hebrews 11 of faith is not a list of people who had no flaws and shortcomings, but a list of people who lived their life in commitment to the shadow of the future which God had promised.

Everyone has hopes and dreams, but if our hope is in this life only, then we are of all people most to be pitied.  The question to ask myself is this:  Do I live my life in the shadow of hope that is rooted in God’s plan?  Do I order my life according to the Christian hope?  How does this affect my overall plans?  How does this affect my marriage?  How does this affect my friendships?  How does this affect my vocation?

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Gen 19-21)

So many questions about the bizarre  incident with Lot and the men of Sodom.  Did Lot know that these men were from God? Does that explain his actions in regard to his daughters? And after so forcefully defending them against the perpetrators who tried to break down his door, why did Lot practically have to be pulled by the hand out of the city even after their warning that it was going to be destroyed and he along with it if he did not leave?  After the men of the city were struck blind, how could they be so depraved as to wear themselves out still looking for Lot's door?  Can depravity be so deep that being struck by divine judgment such as blindness has no effect? Knowing the character of this place, why did Lot's wife look back?   Why was she turned into a pillar of salt?  How was her look at the destruction different from the look of Abraham who saw the destruction in the morning? 

Maybe I am asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the controlling focus of all of this is simply that God is fulfilling his promise to bless Abraham and to bless those who bless Abraham while cursing those who lightly esteem him.  This would also help make sense of the whole Abimelech affair as well.  Abraham seems to be making a habit of saying that Sarah is his sister so that people will not kill him in order to steal his coveted wife.  God told him not to fear, but God does not criticize Abraham, but apparently strikes Abimelech and all who are his was some sort of pestilence that keeps them from having children, at least until he returned Sarah back to Abraham.  Perhaps this is more of the same focus, which is God blessing Abraham just as he had promised, and cursing those who lightly esteem him.

Perhaps the message, then, is that God keeps his promises.  Even if one does not act it the most exemplary manner, God continues to be faithful to his promises.  This should remind me to be humble and thankful because it is about God's faithfulness and not my own weak righteousness.  

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Bible Reading Reflection (Job 32-34): Where Does Wisdom Come From?

Where does Wisdom come from?  Most would answer that wisdom comes with age and experience.  However, the Bible says otherwise.  I was reminded of this in a Bible reading from Job.  After listening to a wisdom debate, young Elihu responds:  “I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you.  I said, ‘Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right…” (Job 34:6-10).

Young Elihu received no rebuke from God at the end, which seems to indicate that he spoke more rightly than Job’s friends.  Elihu both spoke and demonstrated an important truth.  Wisdom does not automatically come with age.  In fact, there are aged people who are fools and young people who are wise. This is why the book of Proverbs declares, “The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your possessions, acquire understanding” (Prov. 4:7).  Wisdom doesn’t fall into one’s lap with age.  Wisdom doesn’t just happen with age.  One must make a focused and intentional personal investment to grow in wisdom.

The book of proverbs also says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov 9:10).  The foundation for wisdom is honoring God and knowing him.  One who tries to gain wisdom without God becomes foolish rather than wise. Romans 1 says that who did not honor God or give him thanks “became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:21-22).  Those who increase knowledge without God become crafty instead of wise, which is a form of foolishness.  I am reminded of the quotation from C.S. Lewis: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that it is Christ Jesus “who became wisdom to us from God” (1 Cor 1:30).  However, this wisdom is not the same as the wisdom of the world.  Earlier in the chapter Paul quotes God from Isaiah, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the understanding of those who have understanding, I will confound” (1 Cor 1:19).  Therefore, Paul went on to ask, “Where is the wise person? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20).  If he had been writing in today’s time, he might well have asked, “Where is the university professor?  Where is the politician?  Where is the scientist?  Where is the celebrity?”  These may claim that God’s wisdom is foolishness, but God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:25).

Those without the Spirit of God do not accept the things of the Spirit of God because they seem to be foolishness (1 Cor 2:14).  They cannot understand the wisdom of God because the wisdom of God is revealed through the Spirit (1 Cor 2:6-10), which they do not have.  In other words, wisdom is not something we seize by our own ability but is ultimately a gift from God for those who faithfully love, honor, and obey God: “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov 2:6).

Fully understanding and appreciating this should help to decrease pride and increase humility.  This prepares our hearts to receive wisdom from God through its various avenues, which include living in his Word (Ps. 119:98; 2 Tim 3:15), listening to godly people who instruct us (Prov 1:8), fear of and obedience to God (Ps 111:10), and personal reflection (Ps 49:3; James 1:22-25). 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Bible Reflection (Gen. 11): The First Skyscraper

In a recent reading on my daily Bible reading schedule for the year, I once again read the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  I used to wonder what the issue was with the people wanting to make a name for themselves.  Was there something wrong with wanting your life and accomplishments to be meaningful and significant?  Was there an issue with working to have a reputation and legacy that lasts for generations?  I also wondered about what the problem was with building a city.  Most of us live in a city, or in proximity to a city.  There are many good things that come from the city.  Even if you live in a remote rural place, you typically get supplies, medical treatment, education, and other useful things from the city.  What was the problem with an impressively tall tower?  Are structures such as the Washington Monument or the World Trade Center somehow evil?

I wonder what was going on in the minds of men as they built a magnificent city with its impressive tower that reached into the heavens in Babel.  I remember reading that the Mesopotamian translation for Babel was “Gate of God,” but the Hebrew translation is “Confusion.”  Did they intended to reach God by building a gate to the heavens?  Was this one of those Ancient Near Eastern towers that archaeologists have discovered with the long, tall stairway all the way up to the top?  If the size and scale of these are impressive by modern standards, I can only imagine how impressive they would have been by ancient standards!

Isn’t it comical then, that even as high and impressive as the tower was, that God still had to come down from Heaven to see what they were doing?  This made me wonder about God’s concern, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  I am pretty sure that this was not the omnipotent creator feeling threatened by man’s puny accomplishments.  Perhaps the concern was with the attitude of man.  Through growing in strength, knowledge, and ability, nothing would be “impossible” for man.  They were living life on their own terms.  They even built a tower into the heavens, seemingly to meet God on their own terms as well.  

This is the height of hubris.  The only stairway to Heaven is the one God builds.  I am reminded of the stairway that Jacob saw at Bethel in a vision.  Unlike the Tower of Babel, this stairway touched the earth and actually extended into Heaven with angels ascending and descending on it with God at the top of the stairway.  With this stairway, God showed Jacob that he was with him wherever he went.  This was not something Jacob could have built.  It was a gift from God.

I am also reminded of what Jesus said to Nathaniel when he said, “You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  This reminds me that the only stairway to God is not one that I can build, but one that Jesus builds for us.  He is the only way to the Father.  I can only come to God humbly on his terms, not my own.  I cannot build my own religion and expect to reach God with it.  This is arrogance and pride, and the Bible says that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.

This attitude often expresses itself with words such as, “I know that the Bible says_____, but I don’t accept that.  I believe ________ about God.”  This is what the pride of building a tower into the heavens looks like.  

So, it seems that God’s concern that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” was about man’s attitude.  As with the case in Genesis 3 where man tried to be “like God” by doing this without regard to God, man once again did the same thing with the Tower of Babel affair.  Building a tower into the heavens was the start of another man-made religion, which is idolatry.  Instead of magnifying and glorifying God’s name, man tried to make a name for “himself,” which also amounts to idolatry.  The most deceitful form of idolatry is when man makes an idol out of man because it does not look like religion.

But, if I avoid idolatry and serve God, is it wrong to want to make a name for myself?  People want to be remembered.  It could be a building project, like the Woolworth Tower in Manhattan, which was once the tallest building in the world.  However, even though the name lived on, many people had no idea who Frank Woolworth was.  Whether it is an endowment in the name of a person, an institution, or a building, people want to try and make a name for themselves that lives on.  

I need not worry about making a name for myself.  God is the only one who can make a name for me that counts.  Every now and then, I read a story about how archaeologist have discovered a building or city in the dirt.  Who were they?  What did they do?  What were their names?  How many names have been forgotten throughout human history?  I don’t know, because they have been forgotten.  On the other hand, my name is recorded in God’s book.  Unlike other books or monuments, it will not pass away.  What I do for God in fulfilling his purposes is the only thing of lasting significance.  It doesn’t matter whether people of this earth stand up and take notice and build a monument to my name, because this, like everything else, will rot and pass away.  However, the true treasure in Heaven will never decay or pass away.