Thursday, February 28, 2013

Peculiar People

Good morning.  Today is the fourth day in our eighth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Leviticus 19-20 and Hebrews 7.

Our Leviticus passage is filled with all sorts of seemingly random rules for behavior, covering topics like rules for harvesting, rules for employers, and rules for courts.  Leviticus addresses issues of sexual misconduct, farming, fortune telling, personal grooming, tattoos and piercings.  Leviticus continues with matters of child sacrifice, respect for the aged, and eating rare meats.  These all seem to be a mishmosh of miscellaneous laws, but there are a couple of things that unite them:

The first unifying factor is the concept of separation.  Leviticus 19:1-2 says:  And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Child sacrificed on heated metal arms of Molech statue
The word "holy" literally means "different, other, or separate."  God was calling the Jewish people to be a separate people, different than the other nations who lived in Canaan.  As much as Yahweh was different than the evil god Molech who demanded child sacrifices, so God wanted the Hebrew people to be different than the Canaanites.  All these laws were intended to create a Jewish culture that separated the people from their neighbors.  They would speak differently, act differently, eat differently, trim their beards differently, dress differently, practice sexuality differently, worship differently, farm differently, go to court differently, and do almost everything imaginable differently from their neighbors.  This was not racial segregation, but a separatism based on differentiating God's people from the abominable practices of those who lived around them.  

The second unifying factor is the concept of justice.  Laws regarding farming were really designed to take care of the needs of the poor, and even of the land itself.  Many of the sexual laws involved not violating the sanctity of family and neighborly relationships.  Treating everyone with equality means that no one person gets preferential treatment.  Jesus thought that this was so important that he quoted Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself," as one of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:28-31).  Loving your neighbor as yourself means speaking the truth about him, not defrauding him, certainly not offering him up as a human sacrifice.  It involves respecting her enough to keep proper sexual boundaries.  The word "justice" literally has to do with equality.  The image is one of an old-fashioned scale with two arms.  Justice means that everything weighs out equally on both sides.  This is embodied in 19:36, which says:  You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  God's desire for his people is that all our relationships be just.

Necromancer conjures the spirit of Samuel for King Saul (1 Sam 28:3-25)
The third unifying factor is God's desire for true worship.  Thus, He gives laws prohibiting child sacrifice, idolatry, and occultic practices like fortune telling, necromancy (consulting the spirits of the dead), and reading omens.  In this passage, God gives laws for how to properly sacrifice to Him, and reminds the people to keep the Sabbaths.

All of this is to create a separate culture from the pagan Canaanites who already live in the land.  God doesn't want them to be like the unbelievers around them.  In fact, it is because of their evil practices that God is driving them out before Israel.  Leviticus 20:22-24, 26 says:

22 “You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. 23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. 24 But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples...26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.

When you read some of the Old Testament laws that seem random or arbitrary (like how not to trim your beard, or not to get tattoos (By the way, you can click here to read my article, "Is it a Sin to Get Pierced or Tattooed?" ), you have to consider the context and understand what God was trying to do.  He was trying to create a culture that was different from that of the Canaanites, because He wanted His people to be holy, separate, distinct.

Christians today need to ask ourselves, in what way have we assimilated into the culture so much that we are no longer holy, separate, and distinct?  We are to be in the world, but not of the world.  In 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV), God says that we are to be "a peculiar people."  Exodus 19:5 (KJV) says we will be a "peculiar treasure unto me above all people."  This means that God doesn't want us to assimilate and be just like all the people who live around us.  God wants us to be different.  Now, Gentiles aren't bound to all the Jewish laws like beard trimming and Kosher foods.  But it's not a bad thing to ask yourself whether you're loving your neighbor as yourself, whether you've been religiously unfaithful to God, or whether you've been unjust with your fellow people.  Beyond that, you might ask yourself how your ethical, sexual, or religious practices have borrowed too much from the culture around you rather than deriving from God's holy Word.  Today, I pray that God will show you how you can be a peculiar person for Him.

May He guide you into all truth.

*Unless otherwise specified all scriptures are taken from the ESV.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

There is Power in the Blood

Today is the third day of week 8, reading the Bible together in a year.  Our scripture today is Leviticus 15-18; Hebrews 6; Psalm 31.

From a cursory reading of Leviticus, it seems that early Hebrews seemed downright squeamish about blood.  All these laws dictating who is clean and unclean because of contact with blood make you wonder what's up with this sanguine Hebrew obsession.  Then, you read about the sacrificial laws which require dipping of the right finger in blood, and the application of blood on the right earlobe and the right big toe, and you start to think that they're getting a little weird.  Sacrificial blood was sprinkled on people and on animals.  There were clean and unclean places to deal with blood as well--they even had a law about how to dispose of blood, by burying it.  Also, eating meat with the blood still in it (no rare meat for me, thank you very much), or drinking blood (yuck!) was forbidden.

So, what's going on here, with all this blood?

Leviticus 17:11 makes a big theological statement.  It says, "For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life."

Now,  science might say that DNA is in blood, and this is true.  But I think there's something more mystical happening here than simply a DNA issue.  We know we can exchange one person's blood for another's (a transfusion) in order to save that person's physical life.  We know that a mother's milk is made (essentially) from blood, and so that when she nurses her child, she's literally giving her blood to her child that he might live.  But Jesus did something even more remarkable.

Jesus shed His blood not to give us physical life, but that we might have eternal life.  In Old Testament times, every sacrificial animal spilt its blood in expectation of the One who would one day die as the ultimate sacrifice.  No animal's blood could truly atone for human could only cover our sin, or maybe delay judgment.  But the blood of the God-Man Jesus could atone for the sin of all humanity.  

So when you read the Old Testmament laws about blood and wonder why there seemed to be so much obsession with it, just peer forward to the New Testament and see that actually, it's all about the blood!  There's power in the blood--power to save, power to redeem! 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

At What Age Should You Start Teaching Your Children About God?

Today is day two of our eighth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scripture today is Leviticus 12-14; Hebrews 5; Psalm 111.

Leviticus 12 (NIV) gives regulations for a mother's purification after childbirth:

“‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

We see this enacted in Luke 2 (NIV), with the family of Jesus:

  22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

Though we know intuitively that it was true, how wonderful to see the family of Jesus carrying out the Law, down to the letter.  He who was so often accused of breaking the Law came from a pious family.  Even before the infant was aware of it, his parents were carrying out the traditions of their ancestors and following the Word of God.

How early should you begin teaching your children about God?  As early as they can hear you sing to them.  How young should you teach them the Bible?  As soon as they can heart you read to them.  I pray that the young children in your life can never remember a time when they "started attending church," but that they will be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord from their very first days.  But, if you haven't followed that kind of schedule, then there's no time like the present to make up for lost time.


For those of you who are baffled by the Levitical laws regarding "leprosy" (defiling molds) on tents or fabrics, try Matthew Henry's Commentary on for size...

This is the law concerning the plague of leprosy in a garment, whether linen or woollen. A leprosy in a garment, with discernible indications of it, the colour changed by it, the garment fretted, the nap worn off, and this in some one particular part of the garment, and increasing when it was shut up, and not to be got out by washing is a thing which to us now is altogether unaccountable. The learned confess that it was a sign and a miracle in Israel, an extraordinary punishment inflicted by the divine power, as a token of great displeasure against a person or family. 1. The process was much the same with that concerning a leprous person. The garment suspected to be tainted was not to be burnt immediately, though, it may be, there would have been no great loss of it; for in no case must sentence be given merely upon a surmise, but it must be shown to the priest. If, upon search, it was found that there was a leprous spot (the Jews say no bigger than a bean), it must be burnt, or at least that part of the garment in which the spot was, Lev. 13:52, 57. If the cause of the suspicion was gone, it must be washe 966 d, and then might be used, Lev. 13:58. 2. The signification also was much the same, to intimate the great malignity there is in sin: it not only defiles the sinner’s conscience, but it brings a stain upon all his employments and enjoyments, all he has and all he does. To those that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure, Titus 1:15. And we are taught hereby to hate even the garments spotted with the flesh, Jude 1:23. Those that make their clothes servants to their pride and lust may see them thereby tainted with a leprosy, and doomed to the fire, Isa. 3:18-24. But the ornament of the hidden man of the heart is incorruptible, 1 Pet. 3:4. The robes of righteousness never fret nor are moth-eaten.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Clean and Unclean

Good morning!  Today is the first day of our eighth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:
  • Leviticus 8-11; Hebrews 4; Psalm 110
  • Lev 12-14; Heb 5; Psalm 111
  • Lev 15-18; Heb 6; Psalm 31
  • Lev 19-20; Heb 7
  • Lev 21-23; Heb 8
Today I want to focus on the topic of cleanliness and uncleanness in the Old Testament.  The Hebrews had no idea about germs, and certainly didn't think about cleanliness in the same way that you and I do.  as you read through the Leviticus passages today, you'll be struck by so many demands for cleanliness.  Aaron and his sons are called to be ritually clean before they can serve at the Tent of Meeting.  The tent itself, and all its implements were anointed and made ritually clean.  Nadab and Abihu were killed because they violated some law of cleanliness, using unauthorized fire.  Aaron and his sons were told to drink no strong drink before serving at the Tabernacle, because they were supposed to be sober, or ritually clean, as they served. Certain animals were considered clean and unclean--authorized for sacrifice and consumption, or banned from the camp.

 This is in stark contrast to Acts chapter 10 (ESV), where Peter sees a vision of a sheet with all kinds of animals coming down from heaven.  Some were clean animals, and others were unclean.

13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

In an instant, God declared that there is a different way of living in the new covenant that there was in the old.  The old covenant had its rules and rituals to keep people pure.  The new covenant just has Jesus.  Peter not only learned a lesson about food that day, but he also learned a lesson about people.  Notice the visitors at Peter's door in the picture above.  God was symbolically telling Peter that "unclean" gentiles were also cleansed by the blood of Jesus.  Peter would accept his Roman visitors, and accompany them to the house of the centurion Cornelius to share the gospel, and the whole household would be saved.

When I read all the cleanliness laws and other regulations in Leviticus, it just makes me glad that I live under the New Covenant with Jesus--where we don't have to worry about ritual cleanliness or missteps that result in being consumed by fire.  

The problem is that many Christians, though they have been set free by the pure and spotless Lamb (Jesus), still live as though they are under the Law.  They live as if they could buy their salvation with good works, and judge others who don't live up to their righteous expectations.  James 4:12 (ESV) says:  "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?"  

We must be careful, in our considerations of what's clean and unclean, that we don't take up the old covenant again.  Why, when we have been set free by the new covenant, would we want to be enslaved again by the old covenant with its laws and regulations?  Instead, as Peter did, we can live as free women and men--free to enjoy the grace that God has given us, and free to share His grace with others.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Who is the Author of Hebrews?

Good morning.  Today is the final day of week seven, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are  Leviticus 4-7 and Hebrews 3.  Rather than discussing any of these specific scriptures today, I'm going to talk about the author of Hebrews.

The question of biblical authorship intrigues me.  The common (though often debated) understanding is that the books which have a person's name affixed to them were written by that person.  So Luke was written by Luke, and Habakkuk was written by Habakkuk, etc.  Then, there are the books that have a longstanding tradition of authorship.  For example (though some debate it) the first five books of the Bible (called the Pentateuch) are commonly attributed to Moses.  Still, there are some books that never claim an author at all.  The book of Hebrews is one of these.  

Recently, a colleague of mine said she had heard somewhere that Lydia has been suggested as a possible author of Hebrews.  I liked this idea, first because my daughter's name is Lydia and I've always tried to show her that she could be like this biblical character, a wealthy businesswoman with a can-do attitude who also practiced the gifts of hospitality, generosity, and service.  So adding "biblical author" to the list seemed like a good idea to me.  Secondly, I like the idea that women might have some representation among the long list of biblical texts penned by men.  After all, if Deborah and Huldah and the daughters of Phillip can prophesy, then why couldn't a woman write a Biblical book?  Galatians 3:28 (NIV) says, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

So I did a little research to find out who wrote the book of Hebrews.  I've come up with a lot of suggestions, including Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Priscilla.  The fact is that nobody really knows, but conjecture can certainly be fun.  I found an online discussion board, called Ship of Fools, that debates the authorship of Hebrews. I will copy some of the posts below, simply because the debate that they share reflects the debate that continues to circulate in academic settings.  One poster said: 

"I once heard the late Dom Bernard Orchard (OSB) a great scripture scholar advance the hypothesis that Mary the Mother of the Lord had dictated the letter to St Paul. I don't know how widespread the theory is but I find it even more heartening than the Priscilla one."   

Another points out that Priscilla was one of Apollos' first teachers, so even if it were Apollos who wrote it, Priscilla's influence must definitely be there. 

Yet, another person points out that there's a masculine participle that excludes the possibility that the author could be female: 

"the masculine participle diegoumenon in 11:32 which modifies the personal pronoun me (a male author)."   

But this doesn't mean that the author must be male.  For example, one article, "10 Famous Females who Used Male Pen Names" points out that the author George Elliot was actually a woman named Mary Ann Evans.  Both the Bronte sisters published under the last name Bell.  In their day, female authors were looked down on, so they took up male nom de plumes in order to expand their readership.  Even in modern times, author J.K. Rowling chose to do this.  The article says:

As author of the outrageously popular series Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling gained widespread popularity in a span of only a few years. Known almost solely as J. K. Rowling to the public, Rowling’s full name is Joanne Rowling (with no middle name). Rowling wrote the first installment of the Harry Potter phenomenon and submitted the work to her publishers under the name "Joanne Rowling". Her publishers urged her to use only initials for the publication with fear that the target audience of young boys would not read something written by a woman. The "K" as the second initial of Rowling’s pen name is completely fabricated.

So it is possible that a woman may have written the book of Hebrews, even using the masculine participle for "me," simply because social convention dictated it.  But this is still conjecture.  
Another poster writes:

" should be recalled that Flannery O'Connor used the masculine pronoun to refer to a writer when speaking of what obviously came from her own experience. She didn't exactly use the masculine directly of herself, but that tendency to think of the masculine as "generic" was still alive in her day.

Given the sentiments in much of the early Church that women who got involved in Church leadership or in teaching were spreading silly doctrines or outright heresies, if a woman did write that book, she very well might have used the masculine in referring to herself."

So...who wrote Hebrews?   Personally, I'd like to think that the author was female, if only to add a woman to the list of biblical writers.  What about the possibility of Priscilla?  Click here for an article that pursues this question.
But if the writer isn't a woman then I lean toward the Apollos theory, agreeing with someone who posted:  

"he seems to have been the sort of erudite up-on-Jewish-geeky-details that the writer of Hebrews clearly is. If it comforts anybody, Priscilla was his first teacher in the faith, so her influence would certainly be there!"

In addition to this, Apollos was well-known for his eloquence, and Hebrews is certainly a well-crafted piece of writing.  One poster says:

On the subject of the authorship of Hebrews, Dick (R.T) France follows Luther in suggesting Apollos as a credible suggestion, and I think his argument worth quoting:

“From the contents of the letter we may deduce quite a lot about what sort of person wrote it. He ... was Jewish to his fingertips, deeply learned in the Old Testament, a scholar with a subtle philosophical mind and a fine grasp of Greek idiom and style. Some of the language he uses is similar to that of Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, and the author must have been well-acquainted with Alexandrian thought (as opposed to the more conservative Judaism of Palestine). But he is a clear-sightedly Christian Jew, and experienced in controversy with non-Christian Jews. And he is a caring and conscientious Christian pastor.”

“Apollos fits this portrait remarkably well: a learned Jew of Alexandria, ‘eloquent’, ‘well-versed in the scriptures’, an enthusiastic propagandist for ‘the Way of the Lord’ ... he travelled around the Mediterranean as a preacher and church leader, ‘powerfully refuting the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus (Acts 18:27-28). His influence at Corinth was great, bidding fair to eclipse even that of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-9,22; 4:6); ... Such a man could well have written Hebrews. But of course we don’t know whether he did!” (Timothy Titus and Hebrews / Dick France. BRF, 2001. (The People’s Bible Commentary) p.107) 

Still another posts:

Another point that may support Apollos as author is that 1 Cor makes it clear that he was regarded in Corinth as highly as Paul and Peter, but as representing a clearly different "strand" of Christianity. You could argue that Paul was the leader of the Gentile faction, Peter the leader of the Judean Jewish faction and Apollos the leader of the Alexandrian Jewish faction - which Hebrews certainly seems to reflect.

So...when we come to the end of all that discussion, who really wrote the book of Hebrews???

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT) says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work."

The fact is that when we talk about authorship of Biblical books we often lose sight of who the Author really is.  We can debate who wrote Hebrews, or whether Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, or any of these questions, all day long.  But in the end, the scripture is clear that God is the Author.  What do we mean when we say this?  Well, I believe that in the places where it says, "thus saith the Lord" (or some such phrase), in those words of prophecy that put God's words in quotation marks, these places were given by word-for-word revelation from God.  Yet throughout the rest of the Bible (which is the majority of the Bible) the human writers were free to put the thoughts that God gave them into their own words.  We see the personalities, and even opinions, of the biblical writers in the pages of the text.  Yet it was God who prompted them to put pen to parchment, and God who impressed upon them the subject matter upon which they were to write.  It was God who placed ultimate truth in their hearts and God who helped them choose their words carefully.  Further, it was God who through the centuries has maintained the integrity of His Word by inspiring those who chose the canonical books of the Bible.  (Click here for an article about the canonicity of the Bible.We pray that today God continues to direct Bible translators who put His Word into the hands of unevangelized people groups around the world.  

I'm very aware of the debates that scholars have in their ivory towers about the authorship of many of the Biblical books (I Isaiah and II Isaiah, etc).  Frequently, though, these debates do nothing but undermine the idea of divine authorship.  To me, the point is not whether Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch or whether Apollos or Lydia or Priscilla penned the book of Hebrews.  Neither is the point whether I'm reading the Koine Greek, the King James Version, or the Living Bible.  Instead, the point is that when I hold a Bible in my hands, I'm holding the Word of God for me today.  As I approach the text, I'm not asking questions of canonicity, but seeking to hear God speak to inspire me or give me some wisdom for my life.  

That's not to say that scholarly pursuits are fuitless--but there is an end to learning.  At some point, you've got to put down the academic studies and, as James 1:1 (NLT) puts it, "humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls."  

You see, it's not just about God's inspiring the biblical writers.  It's about God inspiring you--the biblical reader--to understand and obey what God is telling you today.  I pray that as you read the Bible today, and as you read it through with us this year, God will inspire you perfectly.



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Leviticus - Some Strange Laws

Today is day four of our seventh week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are Leviticus 1-3; Hebrews 2; Psalm 27.
As we embark on our journey through Leviticus, I'm aware that many people get bogged down in their Bible reading because of this book.  It seems strange, arbitrary, and boring to many people.  But I invite you to look beyond the words, to the meaning and symbolism behind them.  Then, a bigger picture of God's purpose will come to light.

For example, in Leviticus 2, Moses gives instructions for the way grain offerings are to be made.  He says:

 “‘If you bring a grain offering baked in an oven, it is to consist of the finest flour: either thick loaves made without yeast and with olive oil mixed in or thin loaves made without yeast and brushed with olive oil. If your grain offering is prepared on a griddle, it is to be made of the finest flour mixed with oil, and without yeast. Crumble it and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering. If your grain offering is cooked in a pan, it is to be made of the finest flour and some olive oil.  Bring the grain offering made of these things to the Lord; present it to the priest, who shall take it to the altar. He shall take out the memorial portion from the grain offering and burn it on the altar as a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. 10 The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the food offerings presented to the Lord.
11 “‘Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord. 12 You may bring them to the Lord as an offering of the firstfruits, but they are not to be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma. 13 Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.
14 “‘If you bring a grain offering of firstfruits to the Lord, offer crushed heads of new grain roasted in the fire. 15 Put oil and incense on it; it is a grain offering. 16 The priest shall burn the memorial portion of the crushed grain and the oil, together with all the incense, as a food offering presented to the Lord.

All these regulations seem strange to our understanding, but we have to appreciate the symbolism behind it.  Here, "finest flour" refers to quality, but it also refers to how much grinding the grain has undergone.  This represents a person who is crushed and broken, their ego gone and their self-will eliminated, ready for God's use.  The offering is to be made without yeast, because yeast represents sin.  (Remember Jesus telling his disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees in Mark 8:15, and Paul who says "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough" in Galatians 5:9 NIV.)  So we are to offer a pure and spotless offering, a sinless offering, to God.  Oil represents the presence of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of God's people, and incense depicts the prayers of the saints.

When we read the Old Testament ritual laws, they often seem arbitrary or strange to us.  But try to see the symbolism behind these regulations, and suddenly a brand new vista opens up before you.  In the minute details of the tabernacle furnishings you will find images of Christ who is to come.  In laws regarding ritual cleanliness, you'll find God's desire to rid people of sin and corruption.  These things are but physical representations of a spiritual reality that God is trying to teach His people.  If, of course, they have eyes to see and ears to hear.  

I pray that your eyes, ears, heart, and mind will be open to God's Word...that as you read through boring and strange laws like those found in Leviticus, you'll find new truth about God's nature, His desire for purity and truth, and His plans to redeem His people. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Job Well-Done

Good morning.  Today is the middle of our seventh week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scripture today is Exodus 38-40; Hebrews 1.

Everybody likes to get the blessing of their boss when they've done a job well.  You might know that you performed well, but there's just something about the affirmation you get when your employer, parent, teacher, or mentor tells you that you've done good work.  Exodus 39:42 says:

42 The Israelites had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. 43 Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them.

Making the Tabernacle was a monumental task.  Just in the writing of the plans alone, it took several chapters (we've been reading about it now for days).  Imagine how much labor went into its actual construction!  Imagine the physical and emotional investment the people had in its completion.  It was a team effort involving seamstresses, metal workers, carpenters, tent makers, hunters, weavers, jewelers, priests, and more.  The tabernacle represented the efforts of the whole people, as the bronze implements were made from the contributions of the people (Exodus 38:8).  The people also made financial contributions to the work (Exodus 28:25-26).  When Moses inspected the final product and found everything complete, he gave his blessing for a job well-done.

Who do you need to give your blessing to today?  It means so much to hear that you've done well, that you're good enough, that your efforts have been fruitful.  God may have put you into someone's life today, just so that you could be a voice of affirmation and blessing to them.  In James 3, the brother of Jesus reminds us that our tongues can be instruments of great good or great evil.  I pray that you'll use yours as a tool of righteousness, of blessing, and of peace.  I pray that your words will build up, rather than tear down.

After Moses recognized their good work, God also imparted a divine blessing to the people by settling His shining presence among them.  Exodus 40:33-38 says:

33 Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
36 In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. 38 So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.

Israel had a tangible reminder of God's blessing in the presence of the Shekinah glory of God, a shining cloud that filled the Tabernacle and led the people in the wilderness.  God's blessing remained with them as they were faithful, but departed when they were faithless (Ezekiel 9-10).  

Every one of us wants God's approval.  Just as you might crave the blessing of a parent or boss for a job well-done, you also want God to recognize your successes in life.  You need to understand that salvation (God's acceptance) is one thing, and blessing (God's approval) is quite another thing.  Your salvation is a gift, not because you are good enough to earn it but because God is good enough to give it.  God's blessing, however, is something that you can earn by a job well-done.  When you're faithful in the small things, God will put you in charge of greater things (Matthew 25:23). 

We receive God's acceptance simply by trusting Him.  We earn God's approval by doing our best.  As in the Parable of the Bags of Gold (Matthew 25:14-30), God wants to see His people succeed.  He wants to see them grow in their faithfulness to Him and in their good deeds.  Just as others might need your blessing, so you may need to know God's blessing for a job well-done.  The best way to receive this blessing is to be obedient to Him.  As the Israelites followed God's instructions to a T, so God calls you to obey His commands.  Then watch as God settles His glory into your life and leads you each day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Contentment in Christ

Today is day two of week seven, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are  Exodus 35-37; Phil 4; Psalm 26.  In keeping with the season of Lent, I want to focus briefly on Philippians 4:11b-13:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

During Lent, many people are fasting.  Whether that means you've given up TV or bread products or cussing or your cell phone, you may be feeling like you've had to do without something that you're used to.  A sense of lack is what makes most people break their fasts.  They start out with good intentions, but then the sense of lack kicks in, and they say to themselves, "I don't really need to give up __________ .  This is a silly exercise.  What good does it do to deprive myself?"

Well, you should understand that Lent isn't about self-denial for the sake of self-denial.  It's about giving up those things that have a hold on your heart, that have become idols and obstacles to your obedience to God.  By breaking your fast during Lent, you've decided that those things are really more important to you than your commitment to God was, when you began your fast.  

Fasting is about choosing your focus.  It's about making a decision not to focus on your hunger pangs or your ringing phone or the TV show that somebody else is watching right now.  It's about finding contentment in Christ, rather than depending on devices or food or drink or something else for your comfort.  

Paul says that he has learned contentment in every situation, whether he has enough or whether provisions are scarce.  Fasting is about regaining that kind of contentment, and understanding that God's grace is enough for us.

I pray that during this season, you'll keep your Lenten fast--or, that if you haven't already begun one, you'll consider what idol you can give up, so you can find your contentment in Christ. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Frisco Kid and Discipleship

Good morning.  (I have to add a note today, before I get started.  I just checked my stats, and today my blog's "odometer" hit 40,000 page views!  Woohoo!  Time to get the oil changed, the tires rotated, and the spark plugs replaced!

Today is the first day of the seventh week, reading the Bible through together in 2013.  Our scripture this week is:
  • Exodus 32-34; Philippians 3
  • Exodus 35-37; Phil 4; Psalm 26
  • Exodus 38-40; Hebrews 1;
  • Leviticus 1-3; Heb 2; Psalm 27
  • Lev 4-7; Heb 3
There is so much I could write about today!  From Exodus, I could write about the golden calf, and the fact that we are also idolaters when we put other things before our relationship with God.  I could talk about Moses' anger in breaking the tablets that God had written on with a divine hand, and how through our anger we often destroy what God brings about in our lives.  I could talk about God's glory or the "cleft of the rock" experience, and how we can experience God and talk with God as a friend.  I could talk about picking up the pieces and renewing that which is broken in our lives, even as Moses remade the tablets.  Or, looking at Philippians, I could talk about having no confidence in the flesh, or straining toward the goal.  Instead, I think I'll highlight two verses that might otherwise go unnoticed:

Exodus 33:11 ESV
Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

Philippians 3:17 ESV
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

I told my congregation that this year, they'd be hearing more than they ever wanted to hear about discipleship--that they'd hear so much about it, that they'd want to become disciples themselves, just to get me off their backs.  Today, the theme of discipleship just leaps off the pages of the Bible.

In the 1979 comedy western film The Frisco Kid, a hapless rabbi named Avram (Gene Wilder) comes to America from Poland in hopes of taking on a new congregation and a bride--both of which await him in San Francisco.  He takes on the most unlikely traveling companion, a bank robber named Tommy (Harrison Ford) who never shoots anybody in his heists.  The rabbi knows nothing about traveling in America, and thinks that the bank robber has something to teach him about survival in the west.  Together they share many misadventures as they make their way from the east coast to the west coast.  In a voiceover, the rabbi narrates: "In the Talmud, it says 'find thyself a teacher' and this I have done. However, there were times I feared that he would find another pupil."

Just as the rabbi found an unlikely teacher in the bank robber, so we can find teachers in the strangest places.  Every one of us needs a teacher.  Even teachers need teachers.  And you might be surprised at the people God brings into your life, to disciple you.  

In Exodus, we see Joshua learning how to meet with God by watching Moses.  We can only assume that he became an imitator of Moses in his own prayer life, and in the way he would eventually lead the people after Moses was gone.  In Philippians, Paul encourages the people to imitate him, and also to keep their eyes on others who walk in godliness.  In The Frisco Kid (as seen in this picture), Avram learns what to do in many situations by imitating what he sees Tommy do.  

Today, I wonder--who are the people that God has placed in your life, that you can imitate as you grow in godliness?  Then let me ask--is there anything in you that's worth imitating, as those who come after you may look to you as an example?  God wants us to grow as disciples.  Then He wants to us to become disciplers ourselves.  I pray that you will grow in both ways.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Unity and Humility

Today is the final day of week six, reading the Bible through together.  Our scripture today is  Exodus 28-31; Philippians 2.

Paul writes about unity in the body of Christ, which can only be accomplished through the humility of each and every member.  This morning, as I read through all five chapters, my spirit homed in on Phil 2:1-11, as a recipe for unity. 

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Now, this would be a recipe for disaster, instead of unity, if it were not accomplished by every member of the church.  For example, if some people began to practice the kind of humility that puts other people before themselves while others maintained their own self-importance, the church would devolve into an organization where the majority of good honest folks serve the whims of the few who puff themselves up in imperious arrogance.  In order for Paul's recipe to work, everyone in the church needs to follow it.

There are a lot of reasons why some members of the church might think of themselves more highly than they ought.  One reason may be heredity.  In other words, their family has been in the church for generations, whereas others have only begun attending in recent years.  They may think they have more of a right to lead the church than others who may be equally gifted.  Others assert their importance because they see themselves as more spiritual than those other "worldly" people in the church.  They parade around with their pharisaical facades of self-righteousness, declaring to others what their spiritual giftings are (just in case you missed it) and implying that if you don't listen to them, then you must not be as godly as they.  Still others believe that their affluence or high status in society has purchased them the right to call the shots at church.  They believe that the more dollars you put in the collection plate, the more votes you should get in the business meeting.  

Jesus had had it up to here with religious leaders like these.  This is why he denounced the aristocrats, the spiritually smug, and those whose confidence lay in their genealogy.  This is why He modeled humility and lifted the lowly.  This is why He said that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  This is why He said that whoever wants to be a leader must first be slave of all.  Leadership isn't something you assert because you want to put yourself first.  Leadership is something you're given because you have proven yourself to be a servant.

Today, I ask you--what kind of leadership is your church following?  Is it bending to the will of the wealthy?  Is it listening to the subtle suggestions of the spiritually smug?  Is it following the "from-here's" just because they've "been here longer"?  Or, does your church emulate the lives of humble disciples who are committed to seeking the will of God?  

Paul reminds us that encouragement, comfort, participation, affection, sympathy, and unity can only come when every member of the church takes on the humility of Christ.  This means emptying yourself of ego and taking on the form of a servant.  It means becoming obedient, even to the point of self-sacrifice.  When we do this, not only will we have effective churches but we will also make the Lord's joy complete as He sees us taking on His very nature and truly being the Body of Christ.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Love Letter

Happy Valentine's Day!  Today is day four of our sixth week, journeying together through God's Word.  Our scriptures are: Exodus 25-27; Philippians 1; Psalm 90.

Since today is Valentine's Day--a day for love letters--I want to focus on Philippians 1:3-11.  Obviously, it's part of a larger letter to the church at Philippi.  This section of the epistle is a love letter from Paul to the church.   Paul writes:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

I hope that you'll take the time today to write a love letter to someone who's dear to you.  It doesn't need to be a letter that pledges your romantic love--there are many different kinds of love that are important to express to people.  If you're having a hard time finding the words to say to that special person in your life, then why not borrow some of the words of the Bible?  

Rather than writing a long epistle myself today, I'm simply going to recommend a website in which pastoral counselor Christ Legg talks about the five words for "Love" in the New Testament.    I hope you check it out, and that you'll consider the type of love that you have for a number of different people.  Then, I pray for you the same thing that Paul prayed for the Philippians (verses 9-11), that your love will abound with knowledge and discernment, that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless, and that you'll be filled with the fruit of righteous.  There are so many kinds of love that the world wants us to give and receive that are impure and unholy, but God wants us to keep our love clean and godly.  I pray that your love may be blessed today!