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.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Of Sons and Promises

Sometimes the smallest things in the Bible can pack a lot of punch.

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

The first verse of Matthew is easy to rush by. It seems like it’s a title or just introducing the genealogy that follows (that we also rush by).

But it’s actually packed with meaning. The author is telling us quite a bit about the subject of the genealogy and the rest of the book.

How do you unlock it? If your Bible has cross references, just follow them. If it doesn't, you can use something like the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge or a Bible dictionary. What does the author mean by "the son of David" and "the son of Abraham?" Quite a bit.

The Son of Abraham
God said to Abraham, the father of the Jews, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you ... and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3) and “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (22:18).

Paul, writing years before Matthew, taught that the offspring God spoke of was not Abraham’s descendants in general but Christ Jesus (Gal 3:16).

The Son of David
God made similar promises to David, the great king of ancient Israel: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2Sam 7:16). The prophets expanded on that over time: “David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel” (Jer 33:18).

So David would always have a descendant on the throne. But it quickly becomes one descendant who would reign forever: “He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Is 9:7).

This King of David’s line would usher in a time of safety and rest for Israel:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteous Savior.” (Jer 23:5-6)

“In that day,” declares the LORD Almighty,
“I will break the yoke off their necks
and will tear off their bonds;
no longer will foreigners enslave them.
Instead, they will serve the LORD their God
and David their king,
whom I will raise up for them.” (Jer 30:8-9)
God promised that, under this King, Israel would follow the law and live in the Promised Land, and he would dwell among them forever. “I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever” (Ez 37:27-28).

This descendant will be a “light to the Gentiles,” just as God promised to Abraham, and would actually represent Israel: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Is 49:1-7).

Under this King, all the promises to Israel would be fulfilled: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zec 9:9-10, cf Ez 37:24-28).

Promises Kept
This Jesus that the gospel is introducing is not just some Israelite; he’s the Seed of Abraham. He’s not just one of David’s many descendants; he’s the Son of David.

The author begins by letting the reader know that all of God’s promises to Abraham, David, and Israel as a whole are going to be kept in and through this Jesus. It’s been a long road — almost 2000 years from the promises to Abraham, about 1000 from David — but God keeps his word.

And in the gospel that follows, more promises are made. From “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” to “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” So it is important for us to know that God keeps his promises.

You might also be interested in:
A Concordance as a Devotional
How to be a Self-Feeder

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Doxology Rule

When reading the Bible, you'll occasionally come across places where the author stops what he's doing to just worship for a minute. These moments range from very brief, almost off-hand (eg, Lam 3:23b) to kind of lengthy (eg, Rom 11:33-36). These doxologies are beautiful, much-loved passages in their own right, but they don't exist just to be admired. They are flashing lights letting us know something big just happened.

That's why I've established for myself what I call the Doxology Rule: I don't move beyond one of these passages until I've been grabbed by the truth that made the author's heart sing.

My procedure has been to back up and find the beginning of the section that the doxology is responding to. Then, I move through the passage slowly and repeatedly, meditating on what I'm seeing there, until I have grasped, and been grasped by, the truth that has driven the writer to worship.

What's that look like?

I was recently reading 1 Timothy. In the first chapter, I generally spend time reflecting on verse 15: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."

But when I got to verse 17, I saw "Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever."

Doxology. Stop. Examine. Verse 15 is clearly not what's triggering Paul's worship, so what is?

The subject headings that editors put in to the text were helpful here. The NIV calls it "The Lord's Grace to Paul," and that seemed like a good place to look, so I backed up to verse 12. In v13 Paul says, "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief."

I think we're getting somewhere.

"But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life" (1:16).

Yeah, he does that. God has used Moses the murderer, Augustine the hedonist, John Newton the slave trader to show that he specializes in forgiving — and using — the worst he can find.

And Paul? Jesus didn't have much nice to say about the Pharisees. He called them "whitewashed tombs," "blind guides" who left people "a child of hell" (Matt 23). This is what Paul was as a Pharisee. He was also "a persecutor and a violent man." He didn't just approve of Stephen's death; he set out to make more martyrs. He wanted to kill Christians and stamp out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So God, showing both his power and the depths of his mercy, made him a servant of that gospel to the praise of his glorious grace in Christ Jesus. Because that is what he does.

God saves the worst to show that he saves the worst. So we can go to the man in prison for doing heinous things and tell him that God specializes in saving men just like him. And we can tell every human being that, whether their sins are horrific or more mundane, the grace of God can and will cover them all through the blood of Christ Jesus.

"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen."

Related resources:
A useful article elsewhere on the web: 11 Questions to Ask of a Bible Passage
An article about a new book: The Simple Questions to Ask Every Time You Open the Bible

An oldie of mine: 5 Questions to Help Your Devotions

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What Does It Mean to Fear the LORD?

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov 9:10)
The Bible repeatedly tells us to fear the Lord, but it never clearly defines it. Is it a reverence or awe of God? I don’t think that really covers it. Is it living in abject terror of God? That doesn’t match up with what we see in the Bible, either. There is a passage of the Bible that I think neatly sums up what it means to fear the Lord, and that's what I want to examine.

Moses has asked God to show him his glory, and God has agreed to do so and to “proclaim his name.”

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:5-8)
The very first thing we need to see is that the text says “the LORD” not just “the Lord.” What’s the difference? Most Bible translations use “LORD” in place of the proper name of God — YHWH.

This name is related to the name God originally gave Moses. In Exodus 3 Moses asks what name he should give the Israelites when that ask who sent him. God replies, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

So God’s name YHWH means something like “I AM.” It means that God is the one who is self-existent. He, and only he, simply is. Everything else is dependent — specifically, it is dependent on him.

God made everything that exists. Therefore, everything that exists belongs to him, and he can do with it as he pleases. At this point in the Bible, God has given Israel the Ten Commandments, and he is going to give them many more rules. When they wonder, as people do today, why God has any right to make rules, the first answer is “I made you, and you are mine.”

Compassionate and gracious
Now this is what the Great I AM says about himself: “the compassionate and gracious God.” After telling Moses HE IS, he wants him to know that he is compassionate and gracious.

God is compassionate. Some translations render it merciful. Matthew Henry said it speaks of God’s father-like concern for the well-being of his creatures. This is the compassionate God Jesus taught about: The God who knows that we need food and drink and clothes and is happy to give them to us.

God is also “gracious.” Grace is described as undeserved favor. Closely related to his compassion, it’s God’s tendency to give us far better than we deserve. Grace is God seeing nothing of value in us and valuing us still.

It’s been said that God’s people are not choice, just chosen. God takes people who are utterly unlovable — rebellious and filthy — and chooses to love them anyway. That’s just who he is.

Slow to anger
The next thing God says about himself is that he is “slow to anger.” If there were only one thing the Bible showed clearly about God, this would be it.

It’s worth noting that this passage takes place after the golden calf incident: God had just brought these people out of Egypt, showing miracle after miracle and then speaking to them audibly. And as soon as Moses is gone for a few days they make a golden calf saying “this is the God that brought you out of Egypt.” That they were not barbecued on the spot is testimony to God’s great patience.

The Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3.9). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and is instead pleased when they repent and live (Ez 18:23, 32).

Abounding in love and faithfulness
Next God tells Moses he is “abounding in love.” This is the first of two contrasts that are highlighted in this passage. God is slow to anger but abounding in love. Another way to put it is God is stingy with punishment but lavish with love. In the OT, even brief periods of obedience brought rest from their enemies and great wealth. In the NT, God’s lavish love is even more apparent: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1John 3:1)!

God also says he is “abounding in ... faithfulness.” He keeps his promises, and not stingily but lavishly. God promises Judah that if they will just obey he will “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Mal 3:10, see also Lev 26:3-13).

New Testament believers don’t live under the covenant with Israel, so we’re not promised material blessings for obedience. We’re promised something better: Him. Just obey, Jesus says, and he’ll make himself known to you (John 14:21, 23, Luke 11:13). Much like he promised the Levites, he is our inheritance and that is better than any material wealth. He is a God who keeps his promises in spades.

Forgiving wickedness ...
Now I want to skip around a little, for a reason. The next thing I want us to see is that God describes himself as “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” It’s said that there are two kinds of “sin” in the Bible — one is falling short, unintentionally missing the mark, and the other is outright rebellion. This list clearly covers both of those. God isn’t just saying that he forgives mistakes. He forgives wickedness and rebellion, too.

He’s not just saying he forgives those little slips we make when we choose poorly in the heat of the moment. He’s saying he will forgive those who look God in the eye and say, “I’m going to do what I want to do.” And when he does punish, it is to bring us to repentance (Lev 26).

The guilty
And yet God’s patience has its limits. He says he “does not leave the guilty unpunished.” If we refuse to repent, the time for punishment will come. “The Lord is ... patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2Pet 3:9-10). When we’re not expecting it, when people have convinced themselves that God will never judge, he judges.

God eventually punished Israel for years of idolatry, removing them from the promised land. He removed Ananias and Sapphira from this world (Acts 5) and punished many Corinthian Christians for taking part of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner (1Cor 11:27-30) — some, apparently, even unto death.

The children and their children
Which leads us to the most difficult part of this passage. Sometimes when God is punishing the guilty, “he punishes the children and their children ... to the third and fourth generation.” That understandably gives people pause, but God is not saying that he will punish the children for their parents’ sins. Rather “the one who sins is the one who will die.” (Ez 18:1-4)

So what is the passage saying then? God does not punish the child in place of the parent, but he does sometimes punish the child with the parent.

The covenant between God and Israel was a corporate agreement. When the people at large disobeyed, the people at large were punished. When the Jews refused to obey God and invade Canaan, the whole nation, young and old, wandered in the desert for forty years. When Israel persisted in their idolatry, the whole nation, young and old, was taken into captivity.

Today we do not have that kind of collective agreement with God. But the people around us still suffer for our sins. The children of adulterers or abusers will suffer both immediately from their parent’s sin and later in damaged relationships. The children of convicted criminals suffer during their parent’s incarceration and probably before. Our sins are visited on our children and their children, but it is our fault, not God’s.

Maintaining love to thousands
And here we need to double back to earlier in the passage and look at the other contrast that is painted. God says he maintains “love to thousands.” Pretty much every translator and commentator agrees that there is an implied “generations.” So God maintains love “to a thousand generations” but punishment for sin falls “to the third and fourth generation.” The wandering in the wilderness lasted forty years. The exile from Judah lasted seventy. God says if they will obey, his blessing will flow for a thousand generations.

So the message is that God will eventually punish the unrepentant, but he will not be angry forever. His punishments are designed to lead to repentance, and when we repent he delights in forgiving and restoring his people.

The fear of the LORD
So what does this have to do with “fearing the Lord?” The fear of the Lord first of all obeys. It recognizes that God has a right to make demands of us and desires to meet them. We revere him as our Creator and King by obeying him.

Next, the fear of the Lord will rely on God to provide. He is compassionate and faithful, abounding in love. He knows what we need and wants to give it to us. And it responds to his love with love.

Then the fear of the Lord will trust God when we sin. We know he is patient and forgiving. We should honor and respond to God’s patience and love with prompt repentance.

Next the fear of the Lord really does fear. When we sin, or even are tempted to sin, we know that God’s patience is not infinite. We should not presume upon his patience because God may decide to punish.

Finally, the fear of the Lord has hope. It knows that God does not stay angry forever. It knows that he responds to repentance, casting our sins into a sea of forgetfulness. The one who fears the Lord knows that, like the prodigal, he can go home.


Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Is 55:7)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Quran

Islam is said to be the fastest growing religion today. Western Christians can expect to find Muslims in their daily lives — neighbors, coworkers, and even relatives. So we have questions. What do Muslims believe? Do they really worship the same God as Christians? Why do they react like they do to insults to the Qur'an (or Koran) or Mohammed?

James R. White has given the Church a great gift with his What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an. In it he answers many of our questions and more using extensive quotes from Muslim scriptures and other religious writings.

He explains why Muslims object to the doctrine of the Trinity — and how it's based on the Qur'an completely misunderstanding it. He shows why they think the Jewish and Christian scriptures are corrupted — even while the Qur'an claims otherwise, which calls into question their claims that the crucifixion is a lie. He shows that the alleged biblical prophecies of Mohammed cannot be talking about him. And more. And he does this all using their own writings.

He doesn't approach this as a way to beat Muslims over the head but in hopes of gently opening conversations with them about places where their scriptures go wrong. That's something we should all be able to do.

This book isn't perfect by any means (I think the organization should be re-thought, for starters), but it is well worth your time if you want to learn more about Islam and engaging with our Muslim neighbors.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Difference Does Easter Make?

Even if we believe Jesus was raised from the dead, so what? What difference does the resurrection make? Why does Easter matter?

Fortunately, we don't have to guess; Jesus told us.

During his ministry, people kept asking Jesus for a sign to validate his authority to teach what he was teaching. He always pointed them to his resurrection (eg, Matt 12:38-40, John 2:18-19). The resurrection was Christ's vindication.

What did he teach that concerns us today?

First, he taught that there will be a day when we will all be judged by God. And we will be judged according to three things:

We will be judged according to our works — the deeds we have done (eg, Matt 5:17-20). We will be judged according to our heart — why we did what we did (eg, Matt 5:21-30). And we will be judged according to how we responded to Christ (eg, Matt 7:21-23). The good news is that responding to Jesus — ie, choosing to trust in and follow him — will mean that you won't be judged according to your actions but his (eg, John 3:16).

Second, he taught that the end is coming. A time will come when people will no longer have a chance to decide what they want to do with Jesus. The choice will have been made. Everyone will, based on how they are judged, experience either everlasting life or everlasting punishment (eg, Matt 13:36-43).

If Christ was really raised from the dead, then how we live our lives matters, and we will be held accountable.

But trusting Jesus means that we are safe from the judgment — Christ has already been held accountable for my sin. Now I will be given credit for his righteousness.

And for those who have trusted in Christ, the resurrection means something else. It means death has been defeated. Death doesn't have to be permanent any more. One day Jesus' people will again live in physical bodies, bodies that will no longer be plagued by the limits of our bodies like age, sickness, or disability. The resurrection means he won, and because he won, we will too.

Sin, where are your shackles?
Death, where is your sting?
Hell has been defeated
The grave could not hold the King! 1

1 from Arise My Love by Eddie Carswell, cf 1Cor 15:54-55.

You may also be interested in:
What is Easter?
Why Do I Believe in the Resurrection of Christ?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Is Your Bible "Translated and Re-Translated?"

"The Bible's been translated and re-translated so many times, no one knows what it means."

I was in college the first time I heard those words. The accusations went on: "Modern Bibles just change the King James into modern English, and it was translated from Latin. No one knows what the Bible said when it was written."

It's hard to believe someone can fit so many inaccuracies into such a small space.

While I'd grown up in church, I had only recently started reading the Bible for myself. Being the nerd that I am, I had read a very under-read section of the Bible: the preface.

The first sentence reads, "The New International Version is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts." Every modern (protestant*) version has similar verbiage.

Once upon a time Bibles were translated from the Latin because that was what they had available. Since then, thousands of copies of the New Testament in Greek have been discovered. We also are better able to translate those Greek texts. (Finding people who still speak ancient Hebrew is comparatively easy.)

But in truth the Bible has been translated and re-translated many, many times. And that's a good thing. We don't just have Greek texts and research showing what those Greek words mean. We have translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and many other languages made by people who spoke Koine Greek like a native. When they translated the Greek into Latin, they told us what they thought that Greek word meant. The rich tradition of translating the Bible into local tongues is a priceless gift to Bible translators.

Don't let people snow you. Any mainstream Bible you can put your hands on is a good translation of (to a high degree of certainty) what the prophets and apostles wrote into our modern languages.

If you want to go into more detail on the subject, I recommend How We Got the Bible, which goes into the history of how we got the manuscripts used for modern translations, how we use them to reconstruct the original text, and how we translate them into modern tongues.

* Roman Catholic Bibles are apparently still translated from the Latin Vulgate (which was translated from the Greek texts).