Monday, March 5, 2018

Easter: No Fooling

This year Easter will fall on April 1. I can't wait to hear the skeptics cluck about how appropriate it is for Easter to be April Fools' Day. Those ancient rubes thought miracles were everywhere, so of course it was easy to convince them a guy rose from the dead, but we're smarter, more discerning. There's no reason for us to believe some silly story made up to fake a religion.

Unless all of that is wrong.

Dead People Don't Do That
Ancient people did believe in miracles. They did believe the gods could act upon the world. Except for this: They didn't believe in resurrection (ie, someone being permanently returned from the dead).

As NT Wright has ably shown, ancient pagans universally believed that resurrection did not happen. Not only that, they thought it was a heinous idea. They didn't want to be resurrected. Matter (and therefore the body) was evil, and people were lucky that death could free them from that.

Some ancient Jews did believe in a bodily resurrection but with one caveat: There would be one mass resurrection at the end of time. The idea of one person being resurrected was a nonsense.

The Christian idea of a special resurrection for Christ was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," if I may borrow a phrase.

It was even nonsense to the first Christians. Jesus first appeared to a group of his female followers who reported to the Twelve. "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11).

Even after the other Apostles had seen the Lord, Thomas wouldn't believe until he saw it with his own eyes, nay, touched it with his own hands (John 20:24-28).

After the Twelve and even a great mass of disciples had seen the risen Christ, some still doubted (Matt 28:17). Even though they'd seen it with their own eyes, it was hard to believe something so contrary to everything they'd been taught, everything they knew.

Eye Witnesses
When they spread this story around the world, they did so with a very clear, "I was there, I saw it."

"For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1).

If people didn't believe, they were told "he appeared to more than five hundred ... most of whom are still living" (1 Cor 15:6), feel free to check it out.

Not Simple Rubes
They were certainly less educated people than we are today, but they were not idiots. They knew the resurrection was too fantastic. But then they saw it with their own eyes, touched it with their own hands. And they told their stories to people who judged them trustworthy and left their stories to us.

It is an incredible story. But it is a story no one would make up.

Because this incredible story is true, we can have hope. Hope for forgiveness, for peace, for life everlasting in the house of a God who loves us as his own children.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The God Who Loves You Anyway

This morning I found myself thinking about this passage from Deuteronomy 7:
"The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery ..." (v 7-8).
Today we seem to have two opposing self-esteem problems — both in our society at large and in the church. On the one hand we have people who think they are the lowest of the low, the stuff dirt looks down on. Maybe it's due to things in their past, or maybe it's just how they see themselves. These people cannot imagine they have any value and can't believe God could want them.

On the other hand we have people who think they are so fabulous that the stars themselves need to wear shades to look upon them. Their egos tend to be a little fragile, but they want to think they are reason the sun rises in the morning. And they seem to think God is lucky to have them.

God's message to his chosen people, to the nation he was giving "a land flowing with milk and honey," was that they were nothing special. "I didn't rescue you because you were so wonderful. I just loved you."

God's message to his redeemed people, to the nation he gave his Son for, is that we are nothing special, but he loves us: "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1Cor 1:26-27).

God takes things that aren't special and makes them special. He takes ashes and makes crowns, slaves and makes sons. God doesn't want anyone who thinks they're special. But he collects the worthless and counts himself richer because of them.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The God Who Sees The Poor

It was Hagar who first called him "the God who sees me" (Gen 16:13), and Deuteronomy 10 tells us that God still sees those of low estate:

"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing" (Deut 10:18).

Because of his concern for the poor — be they orphan, widow, immigrant, or simply poor — God tells Israel to make sure they are kind, generous, and fair to them.

They were told to be kind to foreigners (10:19), to give the entire tithe to "the Levites ... the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows" every third year (14:29, 26:12), and to cancel debts every seven years (15:1). In general, "If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need" (15:7-11).

Also, they weren't to charge Israelites interest (23:19) or take any necessities in pledge for loans (24:6, 10-13). Instead they were supposed to be be careful to pay their workers promptly (24:14-15), to make sure the weak were protected in court (24:17-18), and to leave food for the poor to collect in the fields (24:19-22).

What God told the Jews in Deuteronomy is clearly meant to inform New Testament believers as well (eg, Matt 25:31-45, James 1:27).

If we remember that everything we have is from God, we cannot be selfish as if we somehow deserve what we have and the poor deserve their poverty. We have been blessed and therefore are expected to be a blessing.

Now most people don't hate the poor. Who wants to see starving children and widows? But it's easy to become so caught up in our own lives that we forget them, leaving them to their own devices. The lesson of Deuteronomy is that God expects us to be active in caring for the poor and that he will judge us based on how we respond.

Helping the Poor Biblically
Loving Neighbors 7000 Miles Away

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Bible Study Tools

We all want to spend more time in the Bible, to get more out of the Bible — or at least we say we do. But it's hard and often confusing, and there are so many other demands on our time. And, frankly, we're not entirely sure how to do it.

So here are a few tools to help you make the most of your time in the scriptures.

If you haven't already, read Living by the Book. It will help you get going on Bible study, and it will introduce you to the usual Bible tools — commentaries, dictionaries, and the like. But we don't want to go to those usual Bible tools too quickly. We want to see what's in the passage for ourselves before we see what other people say about it.

To that end, here are some less usual Bible study tools.

Most of us today use the more modern translations, and I totally support that. Words change in meaning over time, and reading the King James Version can be confusing. But it can also be useful — specifically, those annoying "thee"s and "thou"s.

In King James English, thee and thou are singular; ye and you are plural. Without learning any Hebrew or Greek, we can see whether the "you" in the text in singular or plural. Why does that matter? Consider the LORD's command to Joshua: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Josh 1:8 NIV).

Now read it in the KJV: "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."

This promise of prosperity and success was not made to Israel. It was made to Joshua. Does that matter? That's exactly the kind of thing you should wrestle with when you study a passage, but you can't unless you know it's there.

Everyone should read more than one translation when they study a passage. Make the KJV one of the ones you consult.

Maybe you've heard this before: "The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible." What that means is the idea you're trying to understand in one passage is probably fleshed out in more detail somewhere else. Or maybe there is a concept or theme that appears through the scriptures, like the Son of David. Cross-references are places where someone has done the work of finding some of those places for you.

Many Bibles have a few cross-references. Some have a lot of cross-references. The more the better*, but sometimes you have to make do. *However the Bibles with the most are often those with study notes. That's not necessarily bad, but it's better to do as much as you can on your own before looking at commentaries or study Bible notes.

I recommend the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge — a book of nothing but cross-references. But if you don't want that, get a Bible with as many as you can. Maybe get a KJV and have it do double duty.

Language cheats
Cheats? Once upon a time I told myself I was going to learn Greek. Turns out I just don't have the time and/or energy to put into that project. And knowing a little Greek is probably more dangerous than knowing none.

But there are language tools that are helpful, even to the layman. Enter Greek for the Rest of Us and Hebrew for the Rest of Us. These books are designed to help you "cheat" — get the most out of those tools without actually having to learn the language. The Greek version even has a free online class you can take. Also, both the book and the class will introduce you to a study technique called "phrasing" that is quite helpful.

Bible backgrounds
The Bible is a product of the Holy Spirit working through men who lived in particular times, places, and cultures. Those times, places, and cultures are part of those writings, and learning about them can help us understand the scriptures better. Most people know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, and it informs our reading of the Good Samaritan story. Knowing how they felt about tax collectors, the ocean, and the Messiah will inform your reading of countless other passages. Yes, a good commentary will inform you about some of this, but the goal is to be able to see these things on your own, before you go to the commentaries.

I recommend New Testament Times and Old Testament Times, but there are many good resources out there. Another interesting work is Sketches of Jewish Social Life, but I wouldn't make that your only source for NT background.

There are resources that will ask you questions about the Bible. They're secondary tools in that someone else is guiding you, but they're guiding you to think about the text, not just telling you what it means.

One series I've found useful is the LifeChange series from NavPress. You might not find all the questions useful, but some will be. Other group Bible study resources may offer a good set of questions, too. The Explore by the Book series from The Good Book Company might be useful is this regard, though their selection is limited at this time. Look around and see what you can find to help you think deeply about the text.

After you've gone through your cross-references and language tools, check with your concordance and maybe an atlas to see what else you can learn. Then consult a Bible dictionary for any words that are still bothering you. Only after that should you consult a commentary or three.

And you should consult commentaries. We can learn a lot from the professionals, and they can keep us from going too far afield in our studies. But it's good for us to put the work in for ourselves before we listen to them. And you'll soon learn that the Bible is not as hard to understand as you once thought.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The God Who Disciplines

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are given a lot of rules and a lot of warnings about what will happen when they break those rules. In chapter 8, Moses wants them to know why God is going to be so tough on them: "Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you" (Deut 8:5).

This is a theme the scriptures return to time and again:

"My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" (Prov 3:11-12).


"Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb 12:7-11).

For Jesus says, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me" (Rev 3:19-20).

It's all the rage today to say, "God's not mad at you!" No, he really might be. But that's OK. When I am angry with my children over their behavior, I don't love them any less; I just want to correct their behavior. When God is angry with us over our behavior, he does not love us any less. He wants us to "repent and live" (Ez 18:32).

It is a glorious act of grace that God should choose to adopt us as his own children. He has said that we will be co-heirs with Christ. But that also means he will treat us as any good father will treat his erring children. His correction is part of his grace. He wants the best from us because that is the best for us. So we should respond to the grace of his discipline by quickly repenting and learning from our mistakes, to embrace growing up into the image of Christ.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The God Who Separates

This is one of those passages where what it doesn't say is as important as what it does.

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons ..." (Deut 7:1-3).

First, what it doesn't say.

There is an unfortunate history of people trying to bend, fold, and mutilate the Bible to support racism and, in this case, laws against "miscegenation" (i.e., mixed "race" marriages). Of course, to do that you must first invent the notion of race — the idea that there is some kind of important genetic difference between different people groups. The Jews were descended from Noah's son Shem. The Canaanites, etc. were descended from Noah's son Ham. So these groups are basically cousins — as are all humans since we are all descended not only from Adam but also from Noah through one of his three sons. People in different areas developed different physical characteristics, be we all have the same blood coursing through our veins.

These were not the only distant relatives they were not allowed to intermarry with. They could not intermarry with the Moabites, descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew (Dt 23:3).

It wasn't "other people groups" that they weren't allowed to marry. They could marry other peoples, just not these. To the point, Moses married a Cushite woman — that is, a woman from far southern ancient Egypt (an area now called "Sudan"), more descendants of Ham (Num 12:1) and quite likely black-skinned. God was apparently cool with that. Honestly, the Jews at this point probably weren't even a homogeneous people; the group that left Egypt included more than just the literal children of Israel (Ex 12:38). The prohibition wasn't against marrying other peoples but specific peoples.

So if this isn't about race, what is it about? Religion.

"Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you."

Don't intermarry with these pagans, God says, or they will corrupt you and then I will have to destroy you. Which is of course what happened. Israel did intermarry with them, and they did worship their idols. Even Solomon in his wisdom was not immune to the charms and deleterious effects of pagan women. This continued to be a problem even after the exile for idolatry into Ezra and Nehemiah's day (Neh 13:23-28).

God wants his people to separate from the evil people around them. To borrow from Jesus, a little yeast works its way through the whole loaf. When righteous people and unrighteous people get too cozy, the righteous are usually the ones who are changed. This includes marriage (2Cor 6:14), but I think it is wise to take it farther than just marital relationships.

That's not to say we should have no contact with the lost people around us, but we do need to beware how close we let people get. Getting too close to non-Christians can make us doubt the faith. Getting too close to unrepentant sinners can lead us into their sin. Love these people, but build your closest relationships with people who will be good for your soul.

The church is literally those who have been "called out." So we must come out from among the lost and stand out, be different from them. Then they can see the difference and ask where it comes from. And then we can give them the reason for the hope that is within us.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The God Who Expects Real Love

How do you know whether you really love God? This is the issue addressed in Deuteronomy 6.

Moses gives the familiar "Great Commandment": "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deut 6:5).

In short, love God with all you are. But what does it mean to love God with all that you are?

Moses elaborates:

"These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children."

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers ... be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

"Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name."

"Be sure to keep the commands of the LORD your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you."
These things aren't just more commandments. They're explanatory. They show what it looks like to "love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

Today it's common to try and dissect the Great Commandment, to explain what it means to love YHWH with all your heart versus all your strength. That's OK, but in many ways it's missing the forest for the trees. The point is that you are to love your God with all that you are. And this is what that looks like: Obeying God's law, meditating on it, passing it on to the next generation, and living in light of what God has done for you.

To God, love = obedience.

Or as one person put it, God's love language is obedience.

This shouldn't be new to us. Jesus said, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching" (John 14:23). James said true religion is "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (1:27). It's not how you feel; it's what you do.

Actions speak louder than words, right? A man who says he loves his wife yet can't be bothered to "forsake all others" doesn't really love his wife. A man who says he loves God but has no interest in obeying his commandments doesn't really love God.

Do you really love God?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The God Who Terrifies

God is scary.

Volcanic lightning

Deuteronomy 5 continues the history lesson. Moses reminds the people of the 10 Commandments and that they heard God himself speak to them at Horeb. And he reminded them of their response:

"The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. ... This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey" (v 24-27).
God. Is. Scary.

If it seems like I'm returning to this idea a lot lately, it's because I am. And I'm doing it for two reasons: 1) the Bible emphasizes it a lot, but 2) people today want to forget it. We don't want to think of God as scary. God is our big daddy-in-the-sky who just wants us to be happy. Like a lot of lies, there is an element of truth in that, but a partial truth taken as the whole truth is always a problem.

In the Bible, meeting God is never less than shattering. He's accompanied by "a thick and dreadful darkness" (Gen 15:12, Psalm 97:2). People who encounter him fear for their lives (eg, Is 6:5, Jdg 6:22). Even our "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" was scary when his power was revealed (Mark 4:41, Luke 5:8).

People get scared when they get a real taste of who God is. And God's response:

"I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!" (Dt 5:28-29).
What does God say? "Good. If only they would stay scared, it would keep them out of trouble."

We serve a holy holy holy God of immeasurable power and finite patience. God made everything out of nothing; he could just as easily make nothing out of everything. We should be a little scared. Not a constant terrified quaking in our boots that he's going to squash us, but a realization that we really do deserve to get squashed and it's only his enormous patience that preserves us. It should drive us to repentance and to strive to do better, to be better.

Because our God isn't safe. But he's good. And he's the King.

Fearing God
What Does It Mean to Fear the LORD?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The God Who Consumes and Forgives

The fourth chapter of Deuteronomy continues the history lesson we saw in the first three chapters with a particular focus on what they saw of God.

"You saw with your own eyes what the LORD did at Baal Peor. The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor..." (4:3). Remember how God treated your brothers who worshiped other gods. Remember that God will not accept that behavior.

"Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them" (4:9). Don't forget. Don't let your children forget.

"Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb ... You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire" (4:10, 15). Remember that God never showed you an image. So do not make one. You cannot represent him as a man or an animal or any other creature. If you make any representation, it is not of God; it will be idolatry. Remember Baal Peor.

"Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden" (4:23) Why?

"For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (4:24).

A consuming fire. I like the NRSV: "a devouring fire."

Fire is one of mankind's greatest tools. We take it for granted today, but it once kept us alive. It allowed us to create heat and light. It let us cook food and construct containers. It purifies water. It kindles the imagination.

And it destroys everything in its path. Its appetite is insatiable. When fire rages out of control, it is one of man's deadliest enemies.

When God's people worship other gods, HE is man's deadliest enemy.
"I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another

or my praise to idols" (Is 42:8).
God doesn't share. He had redeemed his people. He had bestowed on them amazing blessings. He had made a place for himself among them. He demanded that be respected. He demanded to be treated as holy. Like any husband, he expected that his bride would forsake all others.

God doesn't change. He is just as jealous for his name today as he was then. He is just as determined that his people will treat him with the proper faithfulness and respect today as he was then. He expects his bride to be faithful.

The Church must never forget that this God is our Lord Jesus Christ. He is still a consuming fire. He still demands to be regarded as holy. He still demands that we be faithful. And he still punishes sin.

But with God there is mercy.

"After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God and arousing his anger ... The LORD will scatter you among the peoples ... But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul" (4:25-29).

The Lord will punish. But he will also forgive.

"For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath" (4:31).

God is a merciful God. And he keeps his promises.

God's grace is always greater than our sin. It's not an excuse to sin. It's not something we should presume upon. It's not something we should take for granted.

But it is something we can depend upon. It is something we should take as assured. God is never surprised by our sin, and he's always ready to receive the penitent sinner.

The church today needs to remember that our God expects our complete faithfulness, that his patience will eventually come to an end. And that he forgives the repentant sinner.

See also: Justly Jealous

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The God Who Gives and Demands

I love the Old Testament because it paints such a clear picture of who God is. The Law (the first five books) is fundamental both in how it establishes God's character and in how so much of the rest of the OT (and, ultimately, the NT) are built upon what it teaches. Familiarity with the Law makes the rest of the OT much clearer.

So let's spend some time in Deuteronomy. As with Leviticus, I'm not going to do anything deeply systematic. I'll alight upon whatever catches my attention.

The first three chapters of Deuteronomy are history. The story begins while Israel is at Horeb. God told them it was time to go take the Promised Land. And Israel said, "Are you crazy? Have you seen those guys? They're huge!"

To make a short story shorter, it didn't go well for them. So they were sent to wander in the desert for 40 years. But even then, when God was angry at them, he provided for them, protected them, and gave them victory over enemies. The text retells of kings who were defeated and lands that were taken — the first lands to be given the new nation of Israel, beginning the fulfillment of the promise that Abraham's children would possess Canaan and become a great nation. Then it says ...

"Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you" (Deut 4:1).

This God's pattern. He gives, then he demands. He requires obedience only after blessing.

He gave Adam and Eve all of the garden. Oh, but there's this one rule ... (Gen 2:16-17).

He brought Noah and his kin through the flood. He promised to never bring another like it. Then he established some rules (Gen 9:1-6).

The Ten Commandments begin with "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2).

This is God's pattern. It is a pattern that continues in the New Testament. Paul spends 11 chapters of Romans expounding on God's mercy and salvation before finally getting to "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God ..." (Rom 12:1).

God requires. Oh my does he have requirements. But he only lays them on us after blessing us more than we ever could have imagined. In Christ we have been given every "every spiritual blessing" so "I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received" (Eph 1:3, 4:1).

God lays a burden on his people. No one denies that. Even if his "burden is light," it's still a burden. But it is only laid on those whom God has lavished with love. Sometimes we're going to chafe against the rules. We operate under restrictions that the rest of the world aren't bound by. It can seem unfair.

But God is no miser. He is not Scrooge, demanding a long day's work for a pittance and a single lump of coal. He is the God who gives and gives and asks only that we respond to his generosity with loving obedience.