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.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Where Do You Start?

A question occurred to me as I was considering the four different Gospel accounts of Christ.  Many do not realize that the typical Nativity Scene consists of several biblical accounts compressed into one scene.  Part comes from the book of Matthew and part from the book of Luke.  Rather than occurring on the same night, it is likely that some of these stories occurred in different months.  

The question that occurred to me is this:  In telling the story of Jesus, where do you start?  Matthew begins with Jesus’ lineage through David back to Abraham, and then moves to the announcement to Joseph, worship from the Magi, and the conflict with Herod.  Luke starts with the announcement of the coming of the birth of John the Baptist, then moves to the announcement of the coming birth of Jesus to Mary.  After the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Like gives the account of the worship of Jesus by the shepherds.   Mark, on the other hand, skips over his birth stories and begins with the start of Jesus’ public ministry.  In contrast, John begins with who Jesus was before his birth, then moves from there to the testimony of John the Baptist.  The four Gospels all begin quite differently, focusing on different aspects of Jesus and his arrival.  There have been those who have noted that these differences of emphases likely stems from who the original recipients were.  How and where the Gospel writers began depended on who they were telling the story to.  

This reminds me of another account from Acts 8, where Philip comes across an Ethiopian Eunuch on the road to Gaza reading from Isaiah 53, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,…”  The Ethiopian did not understand the passage, so Philip “…opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).  In this case, Philip began with Isaiah 53 and told the Gospel of Christ, which would have included his death, burial, and resurrection.

On the other hand, Paul began at yet a different place when he spoke to a group of Philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Beginning with philosophical truth that lined up with biblical truth, he began with God and his creation of all things, especially man.  He then taught the necessity for repentance and the coming judgment by Jesus whom God raised from the dead.   

All of these demonstrate that it is important to consider who you are teaching so you can know where best to start in teaching the Gospel.  More importantly, these also demonstrate that you must know where to end up in the teaching of the Gospel.  Even though the telling of the Gospel begins in different places, they always end in the same place.  In fact, if you lay the four Gospels side by side, you will notice that they all come into remarkable sync when it comes to the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.  His death for our sins, burial, and resurrection is what is of “first importance” according to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.  

However we begin, it is imperative that we move to the Gospel of Christ, which at its core involves the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah for our sins as well as his requirement that we, in repentance, accept him as Lord and Christ.  This involves commitment to him as his servants when being buried with him in baptism to put to death the old man so that we can be raised with him as a new creature that is redeemed, reconciled and reforming into the image of Christ.