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Who Fights for You?Sunday, May 28, 2023
God rescued the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, made a covenant with them, and gave them his law at Mount Sinai; then, he led them toward the land he had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. The plan was straightforward: they were just supposed to march into the land. But there was a major hitch. Moses recounts,
“…and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’
“Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where are we going up?”
We can understand their fear—this was not a nation bred for war, and since the land was such a prize, convincing its inhabitants to give it up would be a challenge, to say the least! But there’s more:
“Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.’”
The Anakim were literal giants! No one wants to fight a giant! A giant defending his homeland, nation, and family was about the worst fight the Israelites could imagine, and they didn’t consider it winnable. But Moses continues:
“Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God…”
It was so simple. It was supposed to be comparatively easy, but they just wouldn’t do it! As a result, they got forty years of wandering in the wilderness instead, as a punishment for their rebellion. Eventually, God led them toward the promised land again, coming through the countries to the East of the Jordan River. The two Amorite kings of those lands, Sihon and Og, attacked Israel. Israel fought back, won the victory, and took the Amorites’ possessions, their lands, and their lives. Moses tells about these events in Deuteronomy 2 and 3, mentioning in passing (2.11 & 20, 3.11 & 13) that these were the lands of the Rephaim—who, he mentions nonchalantly, were giants like the Anakim (2.11)!
The point is subtle, but clear. The generation that was now poised to cross the Jordan and enter the land, had already fought Amorite giants and prevailed. Could there be any reason left, to repeat their fathers’ display of cowardice when they learned what kind of people they were going to have to fight, in order to take possession of their promised inheritance? Moses continues:
“Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.”
As usual, God was using Old Testament events to teach New Testament principles. He was willing to give his people some incredible blessings, and he fought their battles for them, conquering the unconquerable. The Israelites’ fears had been reasonable—would you be happy to go toe-to-toe with an armed and angry giant? God’s tactic here wasn’t about winning that fight, but instead was focused on winning the trust and devotion of his chosen people. He could have simply destroyed Israel’s enemies away from their sight, and allowed them to walk into a pristine new homeland, without shedding blood. On other occasions, he did this sort of thing (e.g. 2Ki 7.5-7, 19.32-36), but he wanted Israel to stick its neck out, so to speak, in taking hold of its promised inheritance. That didn’t mean they actually won the victories themselves—as Moses said, “it is the Lord your God who fights for you.” But he wanted their participation—for them to take a leap of faith, and then another, and another, always trusting that God would see them safely through.
Is it all that different, today? We also face giants, of a spiritual sort. A hostile culture, anxiety, depression, addiction, temptation, uncertainty, and creeping doubt all compete to tear us away from our promised home in heaven, and just like the Israelites of old, we are inadequate to the task of defeating them! “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co 15.57). We don’t have to rely on ourselves. Jesus can defeat our enemies—and what’s more, he already has! He’s been through it all, living as a man, yet conquering all weakness and temptation. He never gave in to Satan, and he defeated death when he rose from the grave. If we’ll take those constant leaps of faith, follow where he leads, and participate in the story of our own redemption as he has instructed us, then
in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
ConversionSunday, May 21, 2023
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1.13-14)
This isn’t the only time Paul alludes to his personal history in order to make a point. In this instance, his immediate purpose in bringing this up is to emphasize that, despite having lived in Jerusalem for some time just as the church was first established and starting to grow, no one could reasonably argue that Paul was influenced on doctrinal matters by the apostles or other leaders in the Jerusalem church—at the time, he was actively seeking to put them to death! This is in service of a greater point about where he did get his gospel, and why the Galatian Christians should never have strayed away from what he taught them at first; but it also raises a side point, and one that is more obviously important to us, today.
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1.22-24)
What a turnaround! In another letter, Paul draws attention to the drastic change that was evident in his life as a result of meeting Jesus, saying, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Php 3.7). It’s a clear testament to Jesus’ power, and it deserves a closer look.
We don’t know many details about Paul’s early life, only that he was born in Tarsus on the southern coast of Asia Minor (Ac 22.3), and that he was born a Roman citizen (v28). At some point he was sent off to Jerusalem for his education, under the direction of the most prestigious teacher alive at the time, Gamaliel (v3). Reasoning from these points, we can surmise that Paul’s family was reasonably well-off, or at least well-connected, which generally amounts to the same thing. Between his circumstances, his obvious talent, and his hard work, he was the rising star among the Pharisees, with a bright future—from their perspective!
Another point requires some effort to see, but once found, is illuminating! In the early chapters of Acts, we’re given the details of several private conversations within the Jewish council (Ac 4.15-17, 5.21-26, 5.35-39, and 6.11-15). After that point, we no longer read of the council’s internal deliberations—in fact, we rarely read of the council at all! It’s not as if they gave up on persecuting the church and decided to pursue peace and harmony instead! So why doesn’t Luke tell us about their ongoing schemes? Why is it, that he can tell us everything that went on behind closed doors among the council in Jerusalem, right up until Paul became a Christian? Ah. That sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? To be clear, there are examples in the Bible of private conversations reported, in detail, by people who had no earthly means of learning their contents—on one occasion, it’s the primary driver of the story, when an astute Syrian tells his king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom” (2Ki 6.12). But in this case, the sudden change is suspect, and it suggests that Luke got the information about these conversations, not directly from the Holy Spirit, but from Paul, who witnessed them himself! Either he was a member of the council already, or was trusted enough to be allowed in, as a helper to someone else, likely Gamaliel.
Paul had everything he wanted in this life: the approval of religious authorities, a position of increasing power and prestige, and an excellent forecast for his advancement among his people. And what did he have to do, in order to get it all? He had to ignore part of God’s word—the part about Jesus being God’s Son, the Christ. He wasn’t ignoring all of God’s word; on the contrary, the Scriptures were his focus! And where the Scriptures were concerned, he ruthlessly imposed his viewpoint on the people around him, raining terror and death on Israelites who disagreed. Because he refused to accept God’s Son, he became an enemy of God, while professing to be his servant.
But he turned! Did he need just a little tweak, a slight adjustment in his worldview? No, he changed his answer on the most important, fundamental question that faces each one of us: who is Jesus of Nazareth? Although he got many things right beforehand, none of that counted for anything, until he acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and turned completely around.
We tend to refer to chapter 9 of Acts as Paul’s “conversion story,” and although the word, conversion, does not appear in most of the modern Bible translations, it’s an excellent description of what Paul underwent. He didn’t just switch sides in a conflict—plenty of people have done that, with good or evil motives. He didn’t switch to a better-paying job—money never entered the equation at all. He didn’t seize an opportunity for more power and prestige—he already had those, and gave them up! He didn’t abandon a difficult path in favor of an easier one—he was relentlessly persecuted, mistreated, and eventually killed as a direct result of this conversion! But converted he was! He was completely transformed. His heart changed; his mind changed; his behavior changed. While his body stayed the same, in spirit the old Paul was dead and gone, crucified with Christ. Instead, Christ now lived in him (Ga 2.20). Does he live in you? Have you been converted?
Life, or Death?Sunday, May 14, 2023
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30.11-15)
Moses spoke these words to the ancient Israelites, shortly before they crossed the Jordan river to claim the inheritance God had promised them. They took a long road to get to this point, and their repeated disobedience along the way led to a forty-year delay, a punishment for their cowardly refusal to take the promised land when God told them to do so. At long last, they stood at the gate, poised to enter. Although Moses himself was denied entry due to his own act of rebellion against God, he did his best to prepare his people to go on without him, learn from their past mistakes, and make the most of this fresh start, as God fought their battles and gave them his promised inheritance.
In the passage above, Moses stressed that God was not requiring anything unreasonable of them. It’s not as if he expected them to keep rules, without telling them what the rules were! This comes at the tail end of a long rehearsal of the Law, which had been delivered in pieces over the preceding few decades, in three different books. The populace was mostly illiterate at the time, of course; but God commanded that his law be read aloud for the assembly (e.g. De 31.11). He also tasked the Levites with teaching it to the people (e.g. 33.10); he commanded parents to teach their children (e.g. 11.19); and he told all of them to discuss his rules regularly, “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (De 6.7). The commandment was certainly accessible!
How much more so, today? There are, of course, plenty of complex situations in which figuring out God’s will on the matter is tricky. One has only to listen to a few no-so-hypothetical questions about a convoluted circumstance involving divorce and remarriage, to realize that people can be extremely skilled at making messes, as well as looking for loopholes in God’s instructions that technically would allow whatever disordered desire they wish to indulge. Of course, no one will outsmart God and lawyer his way into heaven, but that doesn’t stop people from trying!
Nevertheless, today even more than when Moses gave his final speech to the Israelites, the commandment is very near, and can be in our minds and hearts, if we are willing to accept it. Rather than a list of 613 separate obligations and prohibitions, Jesus summarized it all in two commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22.37-40)
Even when we struggle to figure out the right course of action, the struggle is in applying these two instructions; but they should be the unchanging bedrock of all our decisions. When we break any of God’s rules, it comes back to breaking one or both of these.
It often seems to us that the world is drastically different today from how it was during the time of Moses, but that’s not really the case. It’s dressed up differently, of course, but ultimately we face the same decision as the ancient Israelites—whether to love and worship God alone, or choose from an assortment of idols; and whether to act in love for our neighbor, or treat him as if his value is less than our own. It’s easy to convince ourselves that a few white lies, some minor financial cheating, and a little marital infidelity are no big deal—you can keep it a secret, and it’s not hurting anyone. But in reality, you’ve just harmed everyone involved and contributed to the societal decay that always leads to a miserable collapse into chaos and anarchy. You have chosen to love yourself—not God, and not your neighbor. If only someone could have foreseen the consequences, and perhaps warned us, “you shall not bear false witness” (De 5.20), “you shall not steal” (De 5.19), “you shall not covet” (De 5.21), and “you shall not commit adultery” (De 5.18)!
Far from being outdated and irrelevant, God’s instructions all those thousands of years ago cover the same moral evils we face today. Spiritually, it’s the same warfare, against the principalities and powers, “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ep 6.12). The same basic choice has been presented to us, between light and darkness, between good and evil. As Moses told ancient Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life” (De 30.19). God has given us more resources even than he gave the Israelites—in the same book of Deuteronomy Moses promised Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (De 18.15). He has since fulfilled his promise, sending his Son to shine light into the whole world, to atone for our sins through his death, to call “all people everywhere to repent” (Ac 17.30), and “be born again” (Jn 3.7) into Christ’s kingdom. The alternative is sin, darkness, and death. The choice is yours.
DisciplineSunday, May 07, 2023
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5.9-11)
The withdrawal of fellowship is a touchy subject. One reason is that conflict between brothers is ugly and unbecoming. Another is that obeying this instruction is difficult—we just don’t like doing it. Never mind what God says about it, there are people we love, for whom we’re tempted to disobey God’s clear instructions. That’s not often acknowledged, of course. Instead, Christians propose all kinds of exceptions and workarounds, much like the Pharisees had done. Jesus said,
“For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’” (Matthew 15.4-6)
It was dressed up to look like devotion to God, and it seemed plausible enough, because there really are times when the letter of one commandment gets in the way of the letter of another. Usually this happens when something has already gone wrong, and those left picking up the pieces are torn between obeying a prohibition, and fulfilling a responsibility. In such cases, we’re supposed to do our best to adhere to the spirit behind both, and Jesus gives us multiple examples to guide us in this pursuit (e.g. Mt 12.1-14). Instead, this tension is often used as a license to do what we want, picking and choosing from God’s word to justify our selfishness. Continuing the passage above, Jesus told the Pharisees guilty of doing this,
“you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15.6-8)
There are, in fact, difficult situations in which a brother is rightly disciplined by the church, through the removal of fellowship and refusal to associate with him—but certain members have competing obligations to the erring brother, which were also handed down by God. Does such a withdrawal permit the wayward man’s believing wife to leave him and file for divorce? What about his faithful children, who are also members of the congregation that has reached the decision to “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2Th 3.14)? Does the aforementioned commandment to honor their father no longer apply? Of course it doesn’t work that way. Instead, it means those closest to the erring brother will face a tougher job than everyone else—figuring out how to adhere to the spirit of all God has said on the matter, rather than elevating the letter of one commandment above another, and gutting God’s word in the process.
Most of the time, the supposed carveouts don’t relate to fulfilling another God-given responsibility. Instead, they stem from simply not wanting to obey. The objection goes like this: “but brother so-and-so is one of my closest friends! The rest of you can withdraw fellowship, and I’ll understand—let’s face it, he’s been leading a sinful life lately—but I have such a close relationship with him, I can’t do that to him. Besides, I think I’ll be more effective by continuing to hang out with him. Do you expect him to turn his life around, without any positive influences?” It all seems plausible, but is it grounded in God’s instructions? Not at all!
That approach is a misrepresentation of God’s pattern for discipline in the church, as if he meant that the people who sit in the same church auditorium once or twice a week, but otherwise have no relationship with the erring brother, should break off their imagined association; but those Christians with closer relationships to the sinner can maintain their association, because it would be unreasonable and unhelpful to expect them to participate in this discipline! How ridiculous! Setting aside the considerable problem of finding no support in the Bible, this reasoning implies that our relationships through Christ are less significant than our relationships to family and friends, and so these win out over the comparatively minor disagreements on religious matters. Can you claim to believe that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, and yet disobey the instructions he left for his church?
What is the goal of discipline? There are three essential components. The first is justice—evil conduct deserves punishment. The second is to protect the innocent from harm, and from evil influence, since “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Ga 5.9). The third is to rehabilitate, that is, to correct the disordered behavior and restore the repentant sinner back into the group. All three are at play in the church’s discipline, and especially the third one! Concerning the openly incestuous brother at Corinth, Paul instructed, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1Co 5.5). What good is it, if the people with the most influence over the sinner, refuse to use it for his good? Which is more important to you: your ability to enjoy a relationship with your loved one for a few years on earth, or for eternity in heaven? Which matters more: hurt feelings, or eternal damnation? Which is more loving: to snatch an erring brother out of the fire (Jd 23), or to remain by his side while he burns?
A Law with Faults?Sunday, April 30, 2023
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (Hebrews 8.6-7)
How could God’s workmanship have faults? That picture doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we read in the rest of the Bible, and it strains our core assumption about God’s perfection. We take for granted that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and so the idea of him failing in anything is immediately suspect. But we haven’t read far enough!
For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…” (Hebrews 8.8)
It’s not a case of man finding fault with God; rather, God finds fault with his people, who are the other party to the covenant in question. As a result, the covenant itself is flawed, but not because of any failure on God’s part!
At this point, perhaps some would be keen to condemn Israel—and certainly, Israel deserves it! But that’s not the whole story. When Paul discussed the different paths Jews and Gentiles took to Christ, he wrote,
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2.12)
It’s not just the Israelites who failed here. Sin is everyone’s problem, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). The flaw in the first covenant wasn’t in God’s work—that was perfect! The trouble was that we all sin. No matter the covenant, humanity will transgress. Of course, the Law of Moses built that into the system, with a means of dealing with sin through an elaborate scheme of sacrifices, especially animals killed and offered as something of a substitute for the life of the offerer, as God himself said:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17.11)
But while God accepted this as a means to continually push back the deserved judgment, we all know that it isn’t good enough. It was never really intended to be.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10.1-4)
Every year, it was the same old thing, the same old sacrifices, the same reminder of sins; which was just as well, because they kept committing them. But God planned all along to enact a better covenant:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8.10-12)
The author of Hebrews is quoting from Jeremiah 31, who foretold this more than 600 years before it came to pass. It’s not that God instituted the Jewish system, then discovered to his surprise that, despite his best efforts, none of them were fully adhering to the agreement. God knew that from the start. It was part of the plan! Centuries before the covenant with Israel was inaugurated at Mount Sinai, God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12.3). It was always about more than just the nation of Israel.
But that leaves us wondering, why impose the Law of Moses at all, then? And God provides an answer:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made… (Galatians 3.19)
The Law of Moses did many things, but chief among them was to convict those living under it, and teach them, from above, what righteousness was. Israel stood in as a representative of all humanity, and so it convicts all of us, too. That’s the bad news; but it helps us to make sense of the good news, as a result. The same people who constantly transgressed their covenant with God and were punished for it with increasing severity, were then used as a vessel to bring God’s Son into the world for our redemption!
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. …She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations… (Revelation 12.1-5)
The Law of Moses was a failure—if you think the goal was to make humans fit to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. But instead, its purpose was to demonstrate our brokenness, and bring the one and only Savior into the world. For that task it was, indeed, perfect.