Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gender Relations in Galatians

Today is week four, day four, reading the Bible through together in 2013.  Our scriptures today are Genesis 47-48, Galatians 3, and Psalm 25.

In the Galatians passage (ESV), Paul writes about our relationship to the law:

  24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 

Of verse 24, The Reformation Study Bible, generously provided by Ligonier Ministries, says:
A “guardian” was a slave responsible for a child’s training, especially for pointing out and punishing misbehavior. Like a guardian, the law pointed out sin and punished it. Another important function of guardians was to separate and protect the child from the influence of outsiders. The law functioned in a similar way to separate Israel from the Gentiles. That function of the ceremonial law has also ended. See “The Law of God” at Ex. 20:1.

One of the jobs of the "guardian," or paidagōgos was to take the child to school.  He would hold the child's hand and guide him to the schoolmaster, and at the end of the day he would pick him up from school and walk him home.  The law serves the same function for us.  It leads us to the point where we understand our need for a Savior.  Just as the guardian doesn't have any power to teach, so the law in and of itself is powerless to instruct us.  But it leads us to God, who teaches us righteousness.

God expects that when faith comes (v. 25) we will develop spiritual maturity and no longer need to be under the guardian of the law.  But how many of us still need the do's and don't's of the law, just to keep our morality in check?!

Not only do we feel like we need the law to keep our moral integrity--too often we rely on the social structure that the law provided, rather than relying on the Spirit to guide us.  

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

One particular application of this is in the area of gender relations.  Many people hang onto outmoded ideas of gender inequality, insisting that men are the chosen leaders in church and that women need to sit down, be quiet, and submit.  But Paul says in verse 26 that through Jesus, we are all sons!  In Paul's day, only sons had rights, position, and inheritance in the family, and daughters were nothing.  But Paul says that in Christ, everyone has equal rights--the same as if they were a son.  

He goes on to say in verse 28 that there are no racial differences, no social-class differences, as well as no gender differences in God's eyes.  Because of this, verse 29 says we are Abraham's offspring (recipients of His faith, as well as seeds of faith to be sown into the world).  Not only are we Abraham's spiritual descendants--we are also heirs according to the promise.  Note that all believers are heirs--a concept that goes against the ancient construct of gender relations.  In the ancient world (with few exceptions), only men could be heirs.  But here, the Holy Spirit says through Paul that all believers are on equal ground, receiving the promise and the privileges of God.  This is why thoughtful and prayerful churches and denominations have been recognizing for a long time that women have an equal role in church leadership, right alongside men.  

Galatians says that whether we are male or female, gentile or Jew, slave or free, we are created equal in God's sight, and given equal rights and responsibilities.  James 2:1 (ESV) says, "My brothers,show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory."  In verse 9, James says, "If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."  Now, James is specifically talking about not showing favoritism toward the rich and disdain toward the poor--but the principle still applies that we should not make outward judgments of any kind, but inwardly discern people's worth as equal before God through Jesus Christ.  Remember the words of 1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV):  "For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Once you've graduated from school, it would be foolish to go back and re-take those same classes, wouldn't it?  Yet how many Christians, having graduated from the Law, go back to its enslaving doctrines?!  Jesus came to set us free from the power of sin--but He also wants to set Christians free from the legalism of the law.  He wants to empower all His people to serve Him as He calls them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fight or Blight?

Today is day 3, week 4, reading the Bible through together.  Our scriptures today are Genesis 45-46, Galatians 2, and Psalm 108.
Along with Ephesians 6:12, Galatians 2:20 has long been a "life verse" for me.  "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."  This is a verse that I pray as a Logos Prayer.  When I feel tempted by sin, I pray this prayer, asking God to remind me that because I am dead to sin, sin has no power over me.  It reminds me that the only life that I live is in Christ--rather than trying to find life through sin that brings death.  

This verse also speaks to me when I'm feeling attacked.  Psalm 118:6 (HCSB) says, "The LORD is for me; I will not fear; What can man do to me?"  Galatians 2:20 has the same affect, reminding me that because I'm already crucified with Christ, there's nothing that people who come against me can really do.  In ministry, you've got to expect to get crucified along with Christ--because there's always somebody who doesn't want you to upset their little kingdoms.  But how can they crucify someone who's already on the cross with Christ?

Galatians 2 is all about a time when Paul upset some little kingdoms in the Jerusalem church.  Fourteen years after his conversion, or eleven years after his first visit, Paul went to Jerusalem.  He had been working independent from the apostles, though the message he preached was the same.  The only difference was Paul's emphasis on gentile conversion.  But this openness to gentiles sparked much controversy in the church at Jerusalem.  Peter, James, and John accepted Paul nonetheless, understanding that God had simply called Paul to a different ministry emphasis.

But later, when Peter visited Paul at Antioch, Paul opposed Peter to his face.  The chief apostle, who had accepted gentiles into the fold himself (Acts 10), and who normally ate with gentiles and lived like a gentile, drew back from the gentiles when members of the Judaizing party were watching.  Paul couldn't just let that be--he had to confront Peter publicly because the matter was of too much import to let it go.  Just imagine these two giants in the church staring each other down, over a fellowship meal!  

If you've attended any church for very long, then unfortunately you don't have to imagine it.  Our churches today are not exempt from their squabbles...and usually they're over little kingdoms.  One group within the church wants to appeal to outsiders, while another group wants to keep the outsiders out--or at least minimize their influence.  After all, we were here first!  Or, there may be other wars that your church is waging right now.  You name it, and God's people will fight over it!

Which is why Galatians 2:20 is so important to me.  It reminds me not to get embroiled in battles at church.  How can a crucified man fight, anyway?  If I'm crucified with Christ, then my position as willing victim of scorn, shame, and abuse leaves no place for fighting anymore.  This is the position that the true Christian must put themselves in--a crucified posture rather than a fighting position.

So, what kind of Christian are you?  Someone who's willing to fight, or someone who suffers the blight of a Jesus-follower?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Grace and Peace

Today is day 2 of our fourth week, reading the Bible through in a year together.  Our scriptures are Genesis 43-44, Galatians 1,  and Psalm 24. 

These two scriptures stand out to me from my Bible reading today:

Psalm 24:1-2 ESV

The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,
    the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
    and established it upon the rivers.

Galatians 1:3-5 ESV
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Psalm 24:1-2 reminds me that the whole earth is the Lord's--everything and everyone in it belongs to God.  This is an important thing to remember, when I have to deal with difficult people.  This may be a difficult thing to believe, but I don't like everybody!  There are some people who just grate on my nerves, who serve as adversaries to what I'm trying to do, who try to tear down what I build up.  Maybe you have people in your life like that as well.  Just as Paul had a "thorn in the flesh" that he asked God to take away, but the Lord refused, saying "My grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9)," so you might have a person or people in your life who do nothing but irritate you.  You've prayed that God would remove them from your life in one way or another, but God's answer comes back, "My grace is enough."  In other words, you have enough grace from God to be able to deal with them.

Verse 2 of Psalm 24 reminds me that everything that God has made, He has founded on the seas and established on the rivers.  I take this verse figuratively to mean that God has established everything in the universe on the principle of ebb and flow.  Sure, there are things in the earth that are difficult, but "the fullness thereof" reminds us that all things belong to God--even those difficult things.  Those things won't be around forever.  Their influences and effects will rise and fall, flow this way and that according to the way of God's Spirit.  Rather than trying to fight the current, the best thing that we can do is trust God to buoy us up when the tides are against us.  We can see that just as we are floating in the waters of God's creation, so also are those who bother us.  We drift together in the ocean of God's love--even if we do bump into each other painfully from time to time.  So rather than focusing on those painful bumps, it's better to focus on the ocean that holds us all--and find unity in God's love.

In that love, it becomes possible to say to our enemies, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."  Even if you're not feeling it, it's not disingenuous to extend God's grace and peace.  Even if you don't have enough grace and peace of your own to give to those who torment you, you can offer them God's blessing.  You can do this because you remember that Jesus gave Himself to deliver us from the present evil age (including the evil things they're doing to you), and that the pain you're experiencing will soon flow away into God's everlasting love.  You place yourself, and your enemy, in the will of the Father, and trust that God will bring His glory out of a difficult situation.

Are you struggling with being able to give grace and peace to your neighbors?  Don't give your own grace and peace--that will always fail. Instead, extend the grace and peace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ--and the Holy Spirit will take that gift you give and take care of the rest. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Multiple Endings of Mark

Today is day 1 of the 4th week in our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" journey.  I hope that you've been blessed so far as much as I have.  Yesterday at church, people shared about their Bible reading experience.  One said it's my fault that he hasn't killed any deer lately, because he's been taking it in the woods and reading it while he's hunting!  I hope that when you hunt for God's truth in His Word, you'll find it today.

Our weekly schedule is:

 Week 4
  • Genesis 41-42; Mark 16;
  • Gen 43-44; Galatians 1; Psalm 24
  • Gen 45-46; Gal 2; Psalm 108
  • Gen 47-48; Gal 3; Psalm 25
  • Gen 49-50; Gal 4
Though there is much to say about Josephs's story in Genesis, we need to look at the last chapter of Mark--not so much for what is said, but for how and when it's said.  Here's the chapter in its entirety, from the English Standard Version.  I've also included the footnotes, which will become important to our discussion.


Mark 16

The Resurrection

16 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.][a]

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

[[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

Jesus Appears to Two Disciples

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

The Great Commission

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]


  1. Mark 16:9 Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9–20 immediately after verse 8. At least one manuscript inserts additional material after verse 14; some manuscripts include after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. These manuscripts then continue with verses 9–20

With so much talk about the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible, this last chapter of Mark causes trouble for some.  The fundamentalist position that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts seems to lack strength here, because we see a book that has had multiple endings at various times.  What, then, do inerrantists mean when they use the phrase original manuscripts?  Do they mean the first time that the book was published, or the second, or the third?  Many are baffled by this.  (Click here for a study on possible reasons for the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8)

To me, it seems to make more sense not to say that the Holy Spirit was done with the writing of the Gospel of Mark when the writer put down his pen the first time--but that the Holy Spirit continued to be active in the subsequent perfecting of the book, by later members of the Markan community.  Rather than saying that the multiple endings make the Gospel unreliable, I'd say that our glimpse into the revision process makes it even more reliable.  As a writer, I know that the things I write become better with editing.  When I begin preparing a sermon on Monday, for example, I believe that God is active in the process of preparation.  Throughout the week, the Spirit continues to guide me.  Sometimes my vision becomes clearer, and the message changes a bit.  By the time I deliver the sermon, there have been multiple versions of that message.  What matters is the finished product.  Knowing that I've taken the time to listen to the Holy Spirit in the entire process is an encouraging thing.  It means that the message wasn't a shoot-from-the-hip , but bathed in prayer the whole way.

If the Gospel had ended with the disciples running away in fear, not saying anything to anyone, that kind of wraps the story up on a sour note.  Much better to continue the account with the briefly added ending, found in some texts: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.  But better still to add verses 9-20, which give some details about the resurrection appearances and the Great Commission.  We have an evolving narrative that shows that God was speaking all along the way in the gospel-writing community.  To me, that's even better than the idea that when the original writer wrote "The End" at the end of his scroll, that all the work was done.  Don't get me wrong--I do believe that the Canon is closed today, that there can be no more changes made to it.  But in those early formative days, when these were simply written accounts and couldn't yet be called The Bible, the Holy Spirit was active not only in the writing, but also in the editing process.

In the end, what shall we say?  Don't let this bother you--that's my best advice.  All along the way, God knew what He was doing.  No matter what happened with the endings of the Gospel of Mark--with all the conjecture and uncertainty--this much is clear:  God intended for you to read the last chapter of Mark's Gospel today, and He intends to speak to you through it.  If you open your heart and mind, you will hear Him.  And you'll find that His Word is sweeter than honey from the comb (Ps 19).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Jacob's Children and Sexual Ethics

Today is the last day of the third week of our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" voyage together.  Our scriptures are Genesis 38-40 and Mark 15.

Today I want to focus on how the author of Genesis distinguishes between the children of Jacob, in the lifestyles they choose to live.  In chapters 38 and 39, we have two opposing stories--one of a branch of the family that has poor sexual ethics, and another of a branch of the family that practices righteousness.

Chapter 38 shows Judah's family running amok in their sexual lifestyles.  Verses 1-11 deal with the plight of Tamar, who is widowed and can bear no children in her late husband's name.  (Remember how important it was in this culture to have an heir to carry on your name, and how important it was for widows to have grown children to care for them in their old age.)  Onan is told to carry out his legal duty (called levirate marriage), but he engages in intercourse with his sister-in-law only for his own pleasure, refusing to conceive an heir in his brother's name.  The narrator says that his death was the direct judgment of God for this action.  Then poor Tamar is told that she has to go back to her father's house and live as a widow.

Years later, when Judah's next son Shelah is grown and should properly have been given to Tamar as a groom and sire for her first husband Er's children, Judah her father-in-law overlooks this duty.  However, he doesn't overlook Tamar on the roadside.  When he sees her dressed as a prostitute (veiled, so he can't identify her) he lies with her and conceives.  So Judah becomes both the father and the grandfather to this child.  As you can see, the author of Genesis really wants to accentuate how messed-up this family is--sort of like the family in Ray Steven's song (below).  This account is a simple reminder that not every sexual partner a person wants to have is supposed to be available to them, if they want to remain in God's will.

Contrast this with the story of Joseph, in Genesis 39, where the attractive young man is brought out of prison into the house of Potiphar.  His skill lets him rise to become chief of the Egyptian nobleman's household.  When Potiphar's wife (no doubt pampered and beautiful) makes sexual advances toward Joseph, he refuses.  He could have used a new position as her consort to gain even further advantage within his master's house, but he didn't.  He might have enjoyed the pleasure of her company, without any of the responsibilities associated with marriage, but he refused.  Joseph's sexual ethics were impeccable.

When God created humanity, He saw that it wasn't good for man to be alone.  So He created one woman for one man, and blessed that kind of marriage.  Those who find sexual union outside of that context have violated God's plan.  Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that this makes the difference between "good guys" who keep themselves sexually pure and "bad guys" who are somehow deviant and damned.  But the Bible does make it clear that there are sexual ethics to be followed, and God blesses purity.  The good news is that nobody and nothing is irredeemable.  While we like to shake the finger at Judah in this story, we have to remember who Judah's descendant is--Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5)!

So, I hope that as you consider your own sexual ethics, or as you look at the sexual ethics of those around you, that on the one hand you'll understand right from wrong--but that on the other hand, you'll refrain from labeling the "good guys" and the "bad guys."  That's for God to decide--not us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Forgettable Characters

Today's scripture readings are Gen 35-37; Mark 14; Psalm 12. 

Though many things could be discussed in these passages I want to zero in on some forgettable characters.  The Bible is full of folks who have no name, or whose mention in the Bible is obscure and fleeting.  In the Gospel passage, we encounter one such forgettable character.

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Her name is never mentioned.  Some suggest that this may have been Mary Magdalene, but ultimately Mark wants us to leave her anonymous.  Yet, because of her extravagant love and worship, Jesus says that wherever the gospel is proclaimed, she will be remembered.

Later, when Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee, we have another forgettable character.  My guess is that as many times as you've read the story of Jesus' arrest, you have probably never noticed this guy.

51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

What a strange micro-story, embedded in the larger narrative of Jesus' arrest.  Who was he?  Many Bible scholars suggest that this could have been the gospel writer Mark, writing himself into the story but reluctant to make the story about himself.  It was really about Jesus, after all.  But in the end, we'll never know--until we get to Heaven and ask Mark who that fellow was.

The point I want to make is this--the Bible is full of people whose names are never mentioned, and yet they become part of the story of what God is doing among His people.  Maybe you're one of those people yourself--sort of in the background, never standing out, never having your name mentioned.  Yet you are just as important to God as the heroes that get all the attention.  Maybe your name won't be mentioned in the annals of history.  Maybe you see yourself as one of the forgettable characters.  But God knows your name.  He knows your story.  And sometimes the things done by anonymous people are the very things that touch the heart of God the most. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Praying the Psalms

Today is day three of the third week of our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" saga.  While there are certainly many things to write about in today's scriptures ( Gen 32-34; Mark 13; Psalm 145), I simply want to give some direction on how to pray through the Psalms.  At times, praying straight from the heart with no direction at all is the best thing.  But even the most spiritual person needs some direction in prayer from time to time.  Without spiritual direction, our prayers can get stale and dry.  So try praying through the Psalms, which were the prayer book and hymnal of ancient Israel.  To do this, simply go through a Psalm, verse by verse or section by section, using the theme of each as a guideline to expand upon.

Psalm 145 (ESV)

1 I will extol you, my God and King,
    and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
    and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
    and his greatness is unsearchable.

Take some time to continue praising God.  Tell Him how great He is.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
    and shall declare your mighty acts.

Pray for the generations before you and the generations after you.  Ask God to show you how you can bridge the generation gap and tell God's goodness to people from a different generation.

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
    and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
    and I will declare your greatness.

 Take a few minutes to meditate on God's glory, His awesome deeds, and His greatness. 

They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
    and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

Sing aloud about God's abundant goodness.  You might have a hymnal or song book handy.  If not, then make up a song to sing to God.  It doesn't have to be beautiful, as long as it's a joyful noise!
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his mercy is over all that he has made.

You are greatly in need to God's grace and mercy.  Spend some time confessing your sin to God, and asking Him to forgive your iniquity.  Take joy in God's goodness that extends mercy to all who fall on His grace.
10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
    and all your saints shall bless you!
11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
    and tell of your power,
12 to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
    and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
[The Lord is faithful in all his words
    and kind in all his works.]

 Pray that God will give you more opportunities to speak with others about what God has done in your life.

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling
    and raises up all who are bowed down.

Pray for those who have fallen, and who are bowed down.

15 The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food in due season.
16 You open your hand;
    you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

 Ask God to provide food for the hungry and provision for those who need God's sustenance.

17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and kind in all his works.
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
19 He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
    he also hears their cry and saves them.
20 The Lord preserves all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.

Pray for the wicked who are in danger of destruction.  Pray for those who have no fear of God to call on God for salvation.
21 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
    and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.

Finish your prayer by praising God once again.  

When you pray on your own, you often use the same words over and over again.  Many denominations (including my own Baptist denomination) shun prayer books, feeling that written prayers are not from the heart.  Yet when you get into a free-style prayer rut, praying the same thing all the time, you also can quit truly praying from the heart.  When you go to (some of) the Psalms and use them as an outline for your prayer, you keep your prayer life fresh--but you also know that you're praying God's will because you're praying God's Word.

I pray that as you experience a renewal through reading the Bible through this year, that you'll experience a revival in your prayer time as well--because the Bible and prayer go hand in hand.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bible Heroes and Witchcraft

Today is day two of week three in our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" plan.  Today's scriptures are Genesis 30-31, Mark 12, and Psalm 11.  My focus today is on the Genesis passages, and on the negative example that we can see in the lives of these characters.  While Jacob is called a patriarch in our faith, his family put the "fun" in "dysfunctional."  In these stories, his dysfunctionality revolves around magical practice.  Let's take a look at just these two chapters:

Verses 1-24 show that Jacob's polygamous marriage (not a good idea, by the way) fosters jealousy between the sister-wives, and results in a competition to see who can have the most children.  Even when Rachel and Leah are unable to continue childbearing, they employ the services of their maids, allowing Jacob to sleep with them in order to produce more children "in their name."  Verses 14-18 tell a confusing little story within this larger narrative of competition, in which Leah's son Reuben finds some mandrakes which he brings to his mother.  Rachel wants some of them, and when she is refused she pimps Jacob out to Leah in exchange for the mandrakes.  (For his part, Jacob doesn't seem to mind the attention that he gets from the four women involved in this competition.)  So--what's the deal with the mandrakes?  Some Bible commentators say that they were an aphrodisiac.  While this may be true, it's only part of the truth.  Actually, mandrakes were known for their magical properties.  Because they are shaped like little men, consuming mandrakes was thought to aid in conception.  This is called 'sympathetic magic.'  Like affects like.  If you eat something that looks like a little man, then a little man will grow inside you.  Rachel planned to use these mandrakes for their supposed magical properties.  (In Harry Potter, Hermione says it's used to turn those who have been petrified to their original state...but this fantasy story has nothing to do with the actual practice of witchcraft, either as the patriarchs knew it, or as occultists know it today.) 

Just because biblical characters--even those in the first family of patriarchs--used magical means to accomplish their desires, that doesn't mean that believers should do so today.  The fact that they did so, and that the Bible records it, doesn't mean that God endorses such things.  Witchcraft and magic are forbidden in the Bible.  Click here for a good Bible study on the biblical prohibition against the occult.  The trouble was that Jacob's family had not yet received the Law forbidding such practices.  They still borrowed from the pagan religions around them--and this caused a lot of trouble for them.

In 30:25-31:16, we read about Jacob's prosperity.  He attributes his successful breeding practices to a technique that he says he received from God.  A subtle point needs to be made here.  The author of Genesis never says that the dream and breeding instructions came from God.  The narrator says that Jacob (whose name means "trickster") claimed that the instructions came from God.  In fact, we see that while Jacob (as in the case of the stairway to Heaven) did indeed have communication from God, he also mixed his practices with the pagan rituals around him.  In verse 27 (ESV) he says to Laban, "If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you."  Mixing occultic practices with the worship of Almighty God--not a good idea!  We see this mixture, or syncretism, both in the way Jacob and his wives breed people, and in the way they breed animals.

Sympathetic magic indicates that if you breed animals in front of striped or mottled sticks (phallic symbols), then the resulting offspring will be striped or mottled.  This isn't good genetic theory--but it is sound magic in the mind of an occultist.  While Jacob attributes his secret knowledge to a revelation from God, the author of Genesis never actually says that God commanded him to do so.  Just because a patriarch does something--that doesn't mean his example should be followed by Christians.

Genesis 31:17-15 tells about Jacob fleeing from Laban, along with his family.  Rachel steals her father's household god, maybe because she is still attached to its occultic lure, or maybe because she wants to hinder her father by robbing him of his god.  Either way, it seems clear that she attributes some kind of power to the object.  (A strange idea, because if it was so powerful, why would it need her to protect it by sitting on it?)  Simply put--this family, although Jacob bore the promise of God and entered into covenant with God, was greatly immersed in pagan practices.

Which leads me to you--

Are there any magical practices in your life?  Though you say you're a Christian, are you also reading the horoscope religiously?  Are you seeking spiritual guidance from tarot cards instead of from reading the Bible and praying?  Are there "harmless superstitions" that you carry out, that really aren't so harmless?  Are there any "like affects like" things that you're trying to do--trusting in your own techniques rather than trusting in God?  

Just because a notable Bible character like Jacob practiced witchcraft and divination, that doesn't mean it's something available to believers.  Prayer is asking God to do something, and then trusting God to do it.  Witchcraft, or magic, is when you believe that you have the supernatural power to make something happen, irrespective of God's will.  It's when you manipulate spiritual forces to do your bidding, rather than trying to understand God's will so you can do His bidding.  Meditation is discerning God's will through silent listening to God's spirit.  Divination is trying to learn the truth from the spirith realm by manipulating objects so that they form some sort of message.  Be careful how you experience the supernatural--because God says...

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:6-9 ESV)

Now...just for fun...a funny look at mandrakes.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sacred Space

Today, we begin the third week of our one-year Bible blitz.  Since I invited the folks in my congregation to read the Bible through in a year with me, I've been encouraged by their stories about the way the Bible has touched their lives.  I hope you've been enjoying God's Word as much as we have.  You can find the year's schedule that we're using by going to  The schedule for week three is as follows:

Week 3
  • Genesis 28-29; Mark 11
  • Gen 30-31; Mark 12; Psalm 11
  • Gen 32-34; Mark 13; Psalm 145
  • Gen 35-37; Mark 14; Psalm 12
  • Gen 38-40; Mark 15
As I read the stories in Genesis and Mark, I'm impressed by the importance of sacred space.  In my January 14 post, I said that I'd be writing soon about creating sacred space, and I featured a short video by Ginger Ciminello about her special place that she has in her house, where she has her quiet time.  You may ask, "If heaven is God's throne and earth is God's footstool (Acts 7:49), then isn't every place holy ground?"  Of course it is--but throughout the Bible we see certain spots being designated as holy sites.  We refer to Israel as "The Holy Land," separating it from the rest of the world as sacred space.  In the Holy Land, there were many sacred places such as Bethel, the Mount of Olives, the Temple in Jerusalem--just to name a few.  Your sacred spaces are just as important to you as these were to ancient people.  I hope you'll cultivate a sense of sacred space in your life.

Even before Jacob goes to Luz, that place is known as somewhere people could inquire of God.  It's no accident that Jacob makes his way there--his grandfather had also gone there to call on the Lord (Genesis 13:4).  Abraham had built an altar in this place.  Legend had it that if you slept in that spot, with your head on a stone from that holy ground, that God would give you divine dreams--so it makes sense that for Jacob to go there when he needs to hear from the Lord.  He follows tradition, and sleeps with a stone for his pillow (perhaps one of the stones from the altar built by his grandfather).  God indeed gives him a dream, and makes a covenant with him.

In order to commemorate this event, Jacob erects a stone monument and pours holy oil on top of it, naming the place Bethel, which means, House of God.  For centuries to come, people would be able to return to this spot and see where angels had ascended and descended a stairway to heaven, and where their ancestor had renewed his commitment to the Lord.

In our New Testament passage, we read about another sacred site, just ten miles south of Bethel, in Jerusalem.  Jesus goes to the Temple and finds the sanctuary blocked off by vendors who create such a traffic jam that they keep the people from actual worship.  Incensed by this affront to His Father's house, Jesus drives the merchants and money changers out of the Temple, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers (Mark 11:17).”  Jesus knows the importance of worship, and of prayer.  He knows that for people to have a good spiritual life, they need a holy place where they you can go to feel peaceful and secure and meet with God.  You've got to guard these sacred places jealously--because they set the stage for you to have an experience with the Lord.

For every believer, church is one of those sacred places.  Sanctuaries and Sunday school rooms, pastor's offices where you've received counseling, cemeteries and fellowship halls--these are all places where Christians can have an experience of God.  But equally important are the sacred spaces you carve out in your home, for your daily quiet time with the Lord.  You may have a favorite armchair or porch swing.  You might have a special table where you keep all your devotional items like your Bible, pens and a journal, a candle or incense you burn when you pray, anointing oil, or similar things.  I know Christian believers who have adopted the practice of praying beneath a prayer shawl, or TallitMaybe you like to play quiet instrumental music while you meditate on God's Word.  All these things give you a sense of sacred time and space, and make it easier to get into an attitude of prayer.  Being in a mood where you're receptive to God makes it more likely that you'll be listening to what God has to say to you during your prayer time.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus says, "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."  Whether you have a whole room dedicated to prayer or not, take the time to make a sacred place somewhere in your house or in your yard.  Make that the place where you go on a regular basis to meet with the Lord.  As Jacob did, decorate it, design it, and make it special.  Then, as Jesus did, guard it closely.  Because for you, it is the "house of God."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Like Father, Like Son

Today is day 5 of the second week of our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" extravaganza.

Today's scriptures are Genesis 26-27, and Mark 10.

It has been a very busy day for me today, and at 9pm, I'm just now sitting down to read these scriptures and blog about them.  If you're anything like me, then you also get behind from time to time.  But no worries--we have time to catch up.  That's what the weekend's for.  If you've gotten behind...maybe by more than a few hours...maybe by a few days' worth of reading...that's why we have a 5-day reading schedule.  I encourage you to use the next couple of days to catch up.

But what if you're so behind that you're ready to just give up on it? 

Don't even try to catch up--just catch on!  Catch on to the Bible-reading movement, and trust God to get you in line with His will through His Word.  It's not really about checking chapters off a list.  It's about letting God check your heart and bring you back to Him. 

Today's Genesis passages are all about passing things on from father to son.  Some of these are wonderful, and some of them aren't.  In chapter 26, verses 1-5, God the Father promises that He will bless Isaac just the same way that God blessed Isaac's father, Abraham.  But this promise was contingent on Isaac's obedience, just as it had depended on Abraham's faithfulness to God.

In verses 6-45, we read about Isaac inheriting not only God's blessing, but also his father Abraham's propensity for deception.  Twice (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-16), Abraham deceived a king by telling him that his wife Sarah was actually his sister, so that Abraham wouldn't be killed and his wife taken.  Actually, she was his half-sister (don't even get me started on this one!), so it wasn't really a lie, but it was deception.  Now, Isaac takes it a step further and outright lies, telling the Philistine king that his wife Rebekah is his sister.  You'd think he would have learned not to do this from his father's stories, wouldn't you?  Instead of hearing these stories and saying, "Now, that's a bad idea," he heard the stories and said, "Yeah--that sounds like something to put on my bucket list!"  Like father, like son--we have a choice whether to pass on the blessings of God, or the wickedness of man!

Chapter 27 tells about Jacob stealing Esau's blessing from their aging and blind father Isaac.  Without going into the whole story, I simply want to note that both blessings and curses may flow from the lips of parents, and that once they're spoken, they can't be taken back again.  We must be careful what we say, and careful what we pass on to the generations that come after us.

Like father, like son.

Like mother, like daughter.

What will you pass on to the generations that come after you?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Bride for Isaac

Today is the fourth day of week two, in our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" foray into God's goodness.  Today's scriptures are Genesis 24-25, Mark 9, and Psalm 4.

With its sixty-seven verses, Genesis 24 is a long chapter.  It tells about Abraham sending his servant (whose name, we found out in Genesis 15, is Eliezer) to find a bride for his son Isaac.  Eliezer goes to the well and prays for wisdom.  He devises a test to see who God's choice may be.

  12 And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

God honors this request, and when beautiful Rebekah offers to water the camels (an act of tremendous generosity, considering how much just one camel drinks), Eliezer gives thanks to God, who has shown him this sign.  He gives lavish gifts to Rebekah, and she takes him to the house of her father, Bethuel, and her brother, Laban.  There, everything that has just happened is explained, and it is evident that what has taken place is divinely ordained.  They give her the choice, and she agrees to go and marry Isaac.  Even so, in verse 55, they want to delay her departure.  Yet, Eliezer insists that they not delay him.  They load up the caravan and return to Abraham's people.  

62 Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb. 63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. 64 And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel 65 and said to the servant, “Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.

What I love in this chapter is the symbolism that soaks every word.  "Abraham" means "Father of a Multitude."  "Isaac" means "Laughter."  "Rebekah" means "Noose," or "One who is Bound."  "Eliezer" means "The God of Help."  In a kind of symbolism called typology, we can see that here, Abraham represents God the Father (Father of a Multitude), who sends Eliezer (The Helper, or the Holy Spirit) to bring "One who is Bound" to "Laughter."  

These types are carried still further when we see the jewelry Eliezer gives to Rebekah, representing the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church.  Rebekah is properly a member of the household of Bethuel (whose name means "Man of God," or "House of God,") and yet she really seems to be under the authority of her brother Laban.   "Laban" means "white," but refers to the whiteness of leprosy--so his name connotatively refers to one who is cursed.  We find out later what a trickster he is--he certainly is a type of Satan in this story.  Just as Rebekah has free will and can choose whether to marry Isaac, so each person who is bound by Satan has the choice whether or not to follow the Holy Spirit's leadership and become the bride of Christ.  Satan does his best to delay the believer's departure, but is ultimately unable to detain the Christian.  

This chapter has Isaac meditating in the desert, after coming from a place called "Beer Lahai-Roi," which means "Well of Living Water."  Similarly, Jesus offers us His living water, saying that all who drink of Him will never be thirsty again.

Verse 67 says that Jacob married Rebekah, and he loved her.  This was no political union.  It was a loving marriage.  So too Jesus invites you to be married to Him--to let Him love you and care for you forever.

From the pages of the Old Testament come foreshadowings of the New.  How beautiful is the Word of God, in its many layers of meaning!   I pray that when you read God's Word, that you'll look beneath the surface and explore the gold mines beneath!  It's worth the time it takes to do some studying--you never know what treasures you might find!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Peacemaking Costs You Something

Today is the third day of week two in our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" excursion.  Our scriptures today are Genesis 21-23, Mark 8, and Psalm 107.  There's a lot of good reading here, and I hope that God speaks to you through it.  This morning, I want to focus on just one section of our reading: Genesis 21:22-34.  I've copied it below in its entirety.

22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech's servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.

This is a story about peacemaking, and how sometimes it costs you something.  

Unless you live in Antarctica, everyone has neighbors.  Abraham's neighbor was Abimelech, a man with whom Abraham had a tenuous peace.  Easton's Bible Dictionary says this about Abimelech:

my father a king, or father of a king, a common name of the Philistine kings, as "Pharaoh" was of the Egyptian kings. (1.) The Philistine king of Gerar in the time of Abraham (Gen. 20:1-18). By an interposition of Providence, Sarah was delivered from his harem, and was restored to her husband Abraham. As a mark of respect he gave to Abraham valuable gifts, and offered him a settlement in any part of his country; while at the same time he delicately and yet severely rebuked him for having practised a deception upon him in pretending that Sarah was only his sister. Among the gifts presented by the king were a thousand pieces of silver as a "covering of the eyes" for Sarah; i.e., either as an atoning gift and a testimony of her innocence in the sight of all, or rather for the purpose of procuring a veil for Sarah to conceal her beauty, and thus as a reproof to her for not having worn a veil which, as a married woman, she ought to have done. A few years after this Abimelech visited Abraham, who had removed southward beyond his territory, and there entered into a league of peace and friendship with him. This league was the first of which we have any record. It was confirmed by a mutual oath at Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:22-34).

Sometimes peacemaking costs you something.  In fact, if you want to make a lasting peace with someone with whom you have a difficult history, it's almost always going to cost you something.  In ancient times, treaties were often struck by giving gifts and by making sacrifices.  Sometimes, members of one family would be given in marriage to members of the other family, to seal the deal.  They didn't take peacemaking lightly, but understood its importance by investing even their own posterity in the contract.

Easton points out the price that Abimelech paid (Genesis 20:1-18) in order to make peace with Abraham.  Compared to this, the seven ewe lambs that Abraham paid to keep the peace in the matter over the well was a small price to pay.  In fact, Abraham was simply giving back to Abimelech a portion of what the king had given to him.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God (Matthew 5:9)."  Making peace isn't free--it isn't even cheap.  It costs something.  When we were enemies of God, Jesus made peace by giving Himself as a sacrifice on our behalf.  To seal the deal, we offer ourselves up as the Bride of Christ. Peace with God is just that important--we give whole selves into the covenant.

Today, I wonder--who do you need to make peace with?  What price are you willing to pay in order to make that peace?  I pray that you will find, and make, the peace that you need to make today--and that by God's grace you will be able to keep that covenant. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lot's Door - Open and Closed

Today is the second day of the second week of our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" adventure.  I hope that you're staying on track.  I've been impressed with how many people have told me that they're along for the ride, and I pray that the Lord will bless it.

Today's scriptures are Genesis 19-20, Mark 7, and Psalm 1.  There is a lot here that I could talk about, and I don't have time to go into all of it.

Today I'd like to talk about the theme of opening and closing in the Genesis passage.

In the story of Lot, our antihero discovers two travelers in the town square of Sodom.  He knows how dangerous the city is, so he opens his home to the visitors and gives them shelter.  It's not clear whether either Lot or the residents of Sodom recognize the strangers as angels at this point, but there must have been something remarkable about them to elicit a response like the one garnered by the citizens.  They gather at the Lot's house, and demand to have sex with the travelers.

Here, the doorway to Lot's house becomes a symbol of the doorway to our hearts--at one time open to receiving divine messengers and messages, and at the next moment a place of danger.  Just as Lot welcomed the angels, so we can open our hearts to God's truth.  But then the enemy comes, demanding entrance as well.  Lot makes the mistake that many of us make--he goes to his door, opens it, and bargains with evil.  This doesn't make any sense.  Once you've got angels in your house, why would you bargain with evil?  But we do it all the time.  Believers who have received Jesus into their hearts flirt with temptation and the devil on a daily basis.

Finally, the angels reach through the door, pull him back inside, and close the door.  We must realize that in our own foolishness and weakness, we are incapable of saying no to the tempter.  Human nature makes us want to go to the door and open it to the Evil One.  Only God can pull us back to a place of safety.  We can't do it ourselves.  The citizens tried to break down Lot's door when the angels closed it against them.  So the Tempter would like to break down your defenses.  He wants nothing more than to get you to open your heart to him.  Like the Big Bad Wolf, Satan would love to huff and puff and blow down our house of faith.  But thank God that "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4 ESV)."  Just as the angels closed the eyes of the attackers, so God in you has the power to render Satan's assaults useless...if you will trust Him.

In this story, Lot's door opens one more time--to permit his family to escape from the land of temptation altogether.  Sometimes God provides defenses against temptation.  James 4:7 (ESV) says, "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."  But at other times, evil is so great and so threatening that you must "flee from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18 ESV)."  2 Timothy 2:22 (ESV) says, "So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart."  If you're struggling with temptation today, click here to find a great list of Bible verses that can get you out of hot water right now.  You've got to know when to barricade yourself against the attacks of Satan, and when it's best to just get out of there!  Whatever you do, don't open the door to him and bargain with the Tempter.  His bargaining skills are always better than yours.  Only God can get you out of the kind of trouble that bargaining with the devil causes.

It's too bad that Psalm 1 hadn't been written yet, for Lot to have learned from it.  Perhaps the author of this psalm was thinking about Lot's predicament when he wrote:

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

When Lot parted company from Abraham, he decided to pitch his tent near Sodom.  He didn't make his home in the city--because at the time Abraham's righteous influence had been enough to give him the wisdom he needed.  He knew to keep his distance from such wickedness.  Yet, he was so enticed by their behavior, or by their economy, or whatever it was that drew him, that eventually we see Lot sitting in the gate (a place of influence where the town council would meet with the city elders).  He started out walking in the counsel of the wicked.  Then he must have paused to consider whether their counsel was true, and stood in their path.  Finally, he took his seat among them and would have fully become one of them, but for the mercy of God.

What will it take to keep you from a downward spiral into the world's system of rebellion and sin?  Psalm 1 says you need to plant yourself like a tree by the nourishing water of God's Word, and meditate on it day and night.  I pray that as you read the Bible through this year, that you will be...

like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that [you do, you will] prosper.