Let Me See.

Christianity, Religion

“And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Mark 10: 47.

This verse comes at a crucial moment in Mark’s Gospel; in the previous chapter, Christ had revealed His glory in the Transfiguration, and He began giving the disciples some of the most important teachings that they would receive from Him; meanwhile, the disciples bickered amongst themselves over who was the greatest between them.  Christ knows His time on earth is approaching an end and He is preparing the disciples to continue the work He would leave for them, but they are preoccupied arguing with one another over which one of them is Jesus’ favorite.

Jesus was on His way up to Jerusalem to celebrate the coming Passover, and His journey up to the City of David took Him through Jericho. Sitting by the side of the road outside of Jericho was a poor blind beggar named Bartimaeus. In Jesus’ day, there were no charitable organizations who looked after those with physical disabilities; there were no safety nets for people who were not able to work and produce for themselves. Bartimaeus, like many people in our own time, had no other option but to sit by the roadside and rely on the kindness of passing strangers to provide him with money with which he could buy meager provisions. Bartimaeus’ entire existence was an exercise in having faith.

As Jesus was passing through Jericho, a large crowd began following after Him. As you can imagine, the noise of this crowd passing by caught the attention of blind Bartimaeus’ ears, and he started asking those around him who it was that was passing by and creating such a stir. It is easy to imagine him sitting there, quite helplessly, asking for anyone to tell him who is passing by; we can almost hear him pleading for information now. Bartimaeus wanted so desperately to know what was happening around him, just to be able to understand what was going on.

When finally someone tells Bartimaeus that it is Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, Bartimaeus does something incredible. Without missing a beat, he began crying out ” Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This plea is packed with significance; first, it identifies Jesus as the Messiah. The ” Son of David” was a messianic title that alluded to God’s promise to King David that he would have a descendent upon the throne of Israel forever.  Throughout the books of the Old Testament prophets, we see messianic references to David ruling over Israel and God’s restoration of the kingdom. The Son of David would be the perfect King of Israel, anointed by God, to rule over His people. This is the same greeting Christ would receive in Matthew’s account of the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the crowds cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Blind Bartimaeus saw something in Christ that everyone else had yet to see.

Bartimaeus wasn’t just hoping that Christ was the Son of David; he was boldly proclaiming Him to be so. He was sure of this fact. When those in the crowd tried to quiet him, Bartimaeus cried out even louder. He had heard the stories of Christ healing the blind and the lame. He had listened to the stories of the miracles that Christ had performed. Bartimaeus, a person who was used to living a life that relied wholly on faith in God, knew that such actions could only come from the Messiah. Repeatedly in the Old Testament prophets, most notably Isaiah, we find references of the era of the Messiah occurring when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” (Isaiah 35:5).  Bartimaeus trusted that, if Christ truly did all these things, He must be the Son of David—the Messiah.  So he cried out to Jesus, whose name means “God is Salvation,” and begged for mercy.

Christ stopped for Bartimaeus. He was not so busy on His way up to Jerusalem that He could not help this poor, righteous beggar who was being hushed by the crowd. Let’s not forget why Jesus was heading up to Jerusalem in the first place: He was going there to celebrate the Passover, but this year’s Passover would be one that would change the course of history. The very next chapter of Mark’s Gospel is his account of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the beginning of Holy Week. This time when Christ went to Jerusalem, He would not be leaving alive. Christ was on His way up to Jerusalem to die.  But Christ stopped for Bartimaeus. He did not brush Bartimeaus off, He did not ignore him, He did not say “Bartimaeus, I’m too busy getting ready to die for your sins, your vision is a trivial matter right now.” Christ stopped and asked, “What can I do for you?” and He restored Bartimaeus’ sight. He allowed Bartimaeus to see the Son of David in whom he had faith, and who would soon be dying to atone for his sins.

The text says that after this, Bartimaeus followed Christ on the journey up to Jerusalem.  We can only speculate and imagine at what he witnessed following this encounter, but we do know that everything about Bartimaeus’ life changed, all because the Son of David took the time to stop for him. The blind beggar by the side of the street, pleading for mercy from the Son of David, was important to Christ. Even on His way to the cross, Christ never stopped serving those to whom He came to minister. Likewise, we should never be so busy that we can’t take time to minister to those we encounter, to the Bartimaeus on our path. Have faith like Bartimaeus, and be willing to stop like Christ.

Kings and Queens.

Christianity, Religion

“So God created man in his own image,

    in the image of God he created him;

    male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”  Genesis 1: 27-28

In the first chapter of Genesis, we find the beginning—the genesis—of everything. We see God create the world and everything in it ex nihilo, out of nothing, and He did so in only six days. We also see—appropriately enough the very first time we are introduced to Him—one of the most majestic depictions of God; He speaks, and things happen. Just as earthly kings demonstrated their power by speaking commands that their subordinates would carry out to completion, God demonstrated His power by speaking His commands into fulfillment; He is able to speak order and form into the chaos and void. Right from the start, Genesis is presenting us with the power and majesty of our mighty Creator-King God.

There is an important structure to note in Genesis 1. We repeatedly see throughout the creation narrative God speaking, the command being fulfilled, God saying that the created thing is good, the evening and the day, and then the cycle begins again with the next installment of the creation. This cycle builds to a crescendo with the culminating—the crowning—event of the entire narrative: the creation of man on day six. The event is so significant that we see in verse 27 the first instance of poetry written in the Bible, and it is a recounting of God making humankind in His image. This brings us to an important question: what does it mean to be made in God’s image?

The first clue as to what this means is given with the first commands that God gives to humanity: to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Each of these words may carry with them different meanings in other contexts, so we must be careful to examine them in the context of this text. We already explored how God is portrayed as a mighty regal figure throughout Genesis 1, and we see Him now bestowing that same royalty upon the pinnacle of His creation. When God tells humanity to subdue the earth, He isn’t telling them to pillage it and exploit it to their benefit; rather, He is telling them to use their abilities and resources to assert their will on the earth, so that life there will flourish even more abundantly. Think of it this way: a patch of dirt left unattended will be overgrown with vegetation; but if a gardener comes along and asserts his will upon that patch of dirt, it can yield goods that can be beneficial to the gardener and to others. God is telling humanity to cultivate and take care of the earth so that it can flourish even more abundantly for them; He’s using gardening language. This is fitting since man was placed in the Garden of Eden.

The language of dominion is the most apparent iteration of God’s pre-fall intentions for humanity; mankind was to rule over all creation just as God rules over everything. Humankind was at the very top of the created order and was to rule justly over it. It must be noted that mankind was to rule over the things beneath them in the created order, there is no mention of man ruling over fellow man here. Such a straying from the original egalitarian intent is a product of the fall and a direct result of sin. But God’s own words show us that He created us to be kings and queens over creation, just as He is King of the Universe.

Intertwined with the commission to rule with God over creation, there is also contained in the notion of “image” a sense that something within us represents God’s holiness; not only do we represent God’s rule over the earth, we also act as icons of his holiness. This is evident in the fact that the Hebrew word translated into English as “image” is more often translated in the Old Testament as “idol.” In the same way that idols are innate visible representations of false gods, humanity is a living visible representation of the true God. With this in mind, it brings a new level of understanding to the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (Exodus 20:4). Mankind worshipping false gods depicted as creatures of the world is a total betrayal of the created order. It is a complete inversion and perversion of the order of creation for mankind—the pinnacle of creation, the rulers of creation, and the representations of God—to worship a god who did not make them and who is represented as a creature that is inferior to them. God did not desire mankind to form graven images for themselves to represent fictitious gods, for humanity itself is a graven image carved by God to represent Himself.

It is quite hard, nearly impossible at times, to see evidence of these truths from Genesis 1 evidenced in the world around us today. It is much easier to see the evidence of the fall and the rampant nature of sin that abounds all around us. But it is imperative that we, as God’s people, remember these truths—that mankind was made in God’s image to rule over and cultivate creation, and that humanity is a representation of God Himself—for if God’s people do not remember these things, then who will? We must remember that all of human life, whether it is in the womb or on the deathbed, bears the image of God. We must not forget that all humans were made to be kings and queens over creation. Though sin entered the world and deprived many people of their royal birthright, through Christ, we can once again receive this royal birthright. We now must help our fellow Image-bearers, our fellow kings and queens, who are lost to be restored in Christ to what is their God-given inheritance.

The New Temple(s).

Christianity, Religion

“When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’”  2 Chronicles 7:3

In all of Israelite culture there was no spot on earth more sacred than the temple in Jerusalem. It was in this place that God’s glory dwelt and where He resided among His people. The temple was represented a “crossroads” of sorts; it was the intersection of two domains: the created world and God’s realm. The temple was where these two places overlapped. In a way, the temple was a mini Eden on Earth where God’s presence was still among His people, though because of our sin, we were not able to enjoy that presence as freely as had been the case in the original Eden.

It was Solomon, son of King David, who built the temple in Jerusalem, and the 2 Chronicles text recounts the events of the temple’s dedication. Solomon delivers an eloquent prayer of dedication in which he questions how the temple can hold God’s greatness when even all the heavens are incapable of doing so, and numerous sacrifices of dedication are offered to God. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the offerings, and God’s glory descends upon the temple as smoke and fills it. In the 1 Kings account of these same events, it states that God’s presence fills the temple so entirely that the temple priests could not perform their duties.

The people of Israel present that day at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple,  also referred to as the First Temple, would have instantly recognized what the fire and smoke represented, as well we should too. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God’s presence depicted as fire/smoke again and again. Beginning with the Exodus, we see where God led the Israelites as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, to the Sinai narrative when God’s presence descends upon the mountain as smoke and engulfs it, through the tabernacle—the precursor to the temple—when God’s glory descended upon it as smoke and completely filled it. We see fire coming from heaven once again during the time of Elijah when he challenged the prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven. The false prophets were not able to, but the prophet of God was able to do so. The people of Israel in Solomon’s day, and again in Elijah’s day, knew fire from heaven meant only one thing: God is here.

Sadly, the dedication of the temple was merely a high point in Israel’s spiritual history. Israel would be offering sacrifices—sometimes including their children—to false gods and idols before Solomon was even dead. Even sadder still is that Solomon himself was complicit and active in this pagan worship. Israel would only spiral further and further into sin and idolatry after Solomon died, and roughly four hundred years after Solomon’s death, Israel would be punished for their spiritual promiscuity. The Babylonians would come and destroy Jerusalem in 586 BC, and they would destroy the temple. The building that represented the Edenic relationship between God and his creation, that was the crossroads between this domain and the realm of God, was razed.

The prophet Ezekiel has a vision related to this coming destruction of the temple. Ezekiel was a Hebrew living in exile in Babylon as the result of deportation before the Babylonian Exile that transpired after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. In one of the saddest passages in all of scripture, Ezekiel has a vision of the temple, and the glory—presence—of the Lord leaving departing from it: “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house… And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord,” (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Due to the overwhelming sinful nature of the people, God’s presence could no longer dwell in the temple. The people had defiled it and their hearts, and judgment was now coming.

When the Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland at the end of the Babylonian Captivity, many desired to rebuild the temple, and so they did. The Second Temple stood until 70 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans, and would have been the temple that Jesus visited. It was a colossal structure, renovated and expanded by Herod the Great, but nowhere in scripture is there an account like we find in 1 Kings or 2 Chronicles where God’s glory descended upon it and filled it. Aside from an eschatological vision that Ezekiel has late in his prophetic work, God’s glory never returned to the temple after it left.

Or did it?

Throughout the New Testament, Christ makes numerous references to His body being the temple, usually to the scorn of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Christ indeed was the temple; He was God Incarnate. In Christ, we see God dwelling literally and physically among His people. He was the intersection between the two domains in a way in which a building could never be.

But eventually, Christ returned to heaven, and He has yet to return. The temple in Jerusalem was never rebuilt after the Roman destruction in 70 AD, so what now? Where is the temple? Where does God dwell now? Where does His realm now intersect with ours?

We need to look no further than Acts 2. This well-known text describes the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but look at how that arrival is depicted:

“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them,” (Acts 2:2-3).

The coming of the Holy Spirit is portrayed with temple language; it mirrors the arrival of God’s glory into the temple on the day that Solomon dedicated it. Here at Pentecost, the Spirit isn’t entering a building; it’s entering each of the 120 believers who were assembled there that day—they each became a temple. Throughout Acts, the sign of someone coming to faith in Christ was their receiving of the Spirit, and the same is true today. Receiving the Spirit means you become the dwelling place of God; you become a temple. We see this affirmed throughout the New Testament; Peter and Paul both wrote on this topic. Peter said that we “are like living stones being built up into a spiritual house,” (1 Peter 2:5), and Paul wrote “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you,” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Paul goes on to implore the Corinthian believers to avoid defiling their bodies because doing so would be the same as desecrating the temple building itself. Receiving the Spirit requires one to live differently.

We must remember that we are, as believers, the dwelling places of God. In each of us resides His glory and His spirit. Each of us represents that incredible intersection between His realm and ours. We must live accordingly; we cannot repeat the mistakes of Israel and pollute and desecrate our temple. Instead, we must live worthy of the God who resides within us.

Artwork: “The Second Temple Jerusalem” by Aryeh Weiss

Trust Issues.

Christianity, Religion

“Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height’…” Numbers 13:31-32

“When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  1 Samuel 17: 11

Though these two texts seem as if they could be taken from the same account, they are not. In fact, the events they recount are, by most estimates, separated by at least four hundred years. Both of these texts come from crucial moments in Israel’s history, and each demonstrates a tragic failure on Israel’s part to trust in God entirely. The fact that these events transpired, though separated by a considerable amount of time, reinforces the fact that people do not change.

In the Numbers passage, we find Israel on the verge of one of the greatest moments in its then brief history. It had been roughly over a year since Israel had been led out of Egypt by God and His servant Moses. Since then, God has provided for Israel in the wilderness, and led them to Mount Sinai, where He gave Moses the Law, which Moses would then relay to the people. In that same time, Israel would be grumbling almost continuously against Moses and God, continually desiring to be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt rather than living free with God in the wilderness. But now, Israel is on the border of the Promised Land, the land which God swore to their fathers to give them; in a sense, they are on the doorsteps of being home. There is only one catch: the land is inhabited, and Israel will have to fight to possess it. God, however, has already promised it to them and has vowed to go before them and aid Israel in their quest to capture this land.

Moses sent twelves spies into the land to scope it out and see what lay before them. They came back forty days later with a report of land abundant in resources and fertility–flowing with milk and honey as they said. The abundance and richness of the land wasn’t enough to encourage the spies, though; many fixated on the strength of the walled cities and the size of the people who inhabited the land. Of the twelve spies, only two–Joshua and Caleb–thought Israel could take the land; only two of the twelve trusted in God to deliver on His promise. The other ten couldn’t get past the giants and the obstacles, and in turn, they turned the people against going into the land. They spread dissension and bad reports throughout the camp, and they set the people of Israel against going into the very land that God had promised to them. These ten spies convinced Israel that these giants were too great for them to defeat, and in turn, that God was not big enough to aid Israel.  Nevermind the fact that God had just previously intervened in a way unseen before in all of human history to save Israel from slavery; He sent plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseases on the Egyptian livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of all the Egyptian firstborns. He parted the Red Sea so that Israel could escape when Pharaoh’s armies were closing in upon them, and he caused that same sea to engulf those same armies after His people passed through safely.

Israel had seen God’s presence descend upon Sinai and upon the Tabernacle; they witnessed God provided manna and quail and water from rocks. Here Israel was standing at the doorway of the land that God had promised to Abraham that his descendants would inherit, and those descendants are saying to God “we don’t want it.” Their ingratitude is staggering, but their lack of faith in God to give the land to them is even more so. It is for this that Israel would be punished to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The Israelites had to wander until everyone from the ungrateful generation of the Exodus died; only Joshua and Caleb–the two faithful spies–would live to inhabit the Promised Land.

Fast forward about four hundred years; Israel has possessed the land and has established a kingdom for themselves. They live in a continuous cycle of following God and then straying away from Him, and this passage from I Samuel represents a moment in which their faith is waning. Israel’s first king, Saul, though a decent warrior, is a weak and vacillating leader; seldom does he seek after God. In fact, just before the events of this passage transpired, God withdrew His blessing from Saul and informed him that a new king would soon be taking the throne.

In this passage from I Samuel, the Israelites are being confronted by their nemesis of this era, the Philistines. At this particular encounter, the Philistines bring out their secret weapon, a 9’9″ giant named Goliath. The giant came out every day for forty days and issued a challenge to the Israelite army, a one-on-one fight between him and Israel’s best fighter, with the loser’s army becoming the victor’s slaves. All of Israel, Saul included, are disheartened and dismayed. No one thinks of God; no one seeks Him. All Saul and the armies of Israel can focus on is the giant before them and the fact that they have no answer for him. It is quite nearly the same scenario as was previously seen with the ten spies convincing the rest of the camp that they could not take the Promised Land from the giant Canaanites. Saul and his armies exhibit no faith in God. However, the Lord was with a shepherd from Bethlehem named David, and he, like Caleb and Joshua, knew who had already won the battle. It was this same David who had just previously been anointed to be Israel’s next king, and it is he who would who God would use to deliver Israel from the Philistines and their giant.

Israel in Saul’s day commits the same sin as their forefathers did in Moses’ day: just as the Exodus generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giants to help them possess the land, Saul’s generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giant Philistine to help them remain in the land. Saul and his armies were no better than the ten faithless spies; they never learned.

Are we any better than the Israelites of Moses’ or Saul’s day? Are we like the masses who see the obstacles before us and count the reasons why we–why God–can’t do something? Or are we like Caleb and Joshua and David, counting the reasons why God can and will do something? Do we trust in God when it isn’t easy to do so? What is our faith like in the moments when the “rubber meets the road?”

Sadly, far too often these texts presented to us as a prosperity gospel of sorts in which we are told that “if we trust in God, He will deliver us from the giants in our lives.”  Yes, God has the power to deliver us and, yes, He can deliver us–if that be His will. Our faith, however, is not a bargaining chip to be played with God; we cannot go before the Creator of the universe and say “I will believe in you if you do this for me.”  These texts are about trusting in God, regardless of what the situation is. Sometimes the giants aren’t to be slain, and even then we must still trust in God. We must have faith like Job demonstrated when, in all his anguish, he cried out “though He slay me, still will I hope in Him,” (Job 13:15). Do we do live that type of faith, or do we lose our faith at the first sign of opposition? Do we view God as being bigger than our circumstance, or is our situation bigger than God? Do we have big faith in a big God or a little faith in a small God? Is our God one who cannot be contained by the heavens, or is our God one who fits in the box in which we try to put Him?

God promised Israel that he would give them the land, and He promised to keep them in the land, as long as they had faith and served Him obediently. They forgot this promise. Christ promised that He would be with us always, even until the end of the age. Do we live with the security and peace that promise affords us in every situation, regardless of the outcome, or have we, too, forgotten His promise?

Flee.

Christianity, Religion

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah 1:1-3

The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament. It is short in length, filled with over-the-top language and descriptions, contains a fair amount of satire, and all the while beautifully demonstrates God’s providence and mercy in spite of our actions.

The book opens up in a very significant way: with Jonah receiving the “word of the Lord.” This is important in that it identifies Jonah as a prophet. This same opening occurs in nearly all of the prophetic books in the Bible; a prophet would receive the “word of the Lord” in some form or fashion, and in turn, that prophet would relay their God-given message to the people. Often these would be messages of rebuke from God, in which He would chastise His people for their disobedience and straying away from Him. Occasionally there would be oracles of judgment against other peoples and kingdoms for their wickedness; this was to demonstrate that God’s sovereignty was not limited to Israel, but extended over all the earth.  Whomever God chose to carry out His prophetic work, He prepared, and He gave His word to speak.

Jonah’s reaction to receiving the word of the Lord is different from any other prophet we encounter in Scripture. When ordered by God to go to Nineveh, which is east of Israel and Judah (located in modern-day Iraq,) Jonah instead boards a boat bound for Tarshish, which is west of Israel, across the Mediterranean Sea (located in modern Spain.) Jonah heads in the opposite direction that he had been commanded to go. Not only that, but he goes as far as was humanly possible to go in the opposite direction. Tarshish would be the last port one would pass before going through what is now referred to as the Straits of Gibraltar, after which one would find oneself in the vast—and then uncharted—expanses of the Atlantic Ocean. At this time, there was no knowledge of any land beyond the Atlantic, so Tarshish was very much at the edge of the world. Jonah was trying, quite literally, to flee to the end of the earth to avoid doing what God had commanded him to do.

This is a point that must not be missed: Jonah was not a heathen fleeing from God; he was a prophet, chosen by God, who was attempting to flee from his duty.

People have often wondered why Jonah chose to run away from his God-given mission. Many have often speculated that it was out of fear. At this point in history, the Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was growing and was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. The Assyrians had quickly become the dominant power in the region and were using their strength to intimidate weaker kingdoms like Israel and Judah. Nineveh, as God mentioned to Jonah, was known for its wickedness and debauchery, as its citizens were enthusiastically enjoying the spoils of their military conquests and successes. The Assyrians were also known for being especially ruthless and bloodthirsty; they spared no mercies to those whom they conquered. They would rape, pillage, and then deport any surviving vanquished peoples to various cities throughout their empire. In only a few decades after the time of Jonah, it would be the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and the ten tribes who once comprised this kingdom would be lost to history.

But it wasn’t fear that made Jonah determined not to go to Nineveh; it was hatred. Due to power and might that Nineveh and Assyria represented, the Israelites hated them. Additionally, the faithful Israelites who still followed God viewed Assyria with contempt because of their paganism which they saw corrupting their own Israelite leaders. Hate, however, was only part of the motivation behind Jonah’s decision to flee.

After finally getting to Nineveh and preaching the message given to him, Jonah is furious when the Ninevites repent. “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.'” (Jonah 4: 2-3) Jonah said it himself that he knew exactly what would happen if he went to Nineveh; if the people of the city repented, God would spare them. He knew the character of God, and the thought of the people who he hated being saved from destruction by his just, gracious, and merciful God so upset Jonah that he tried to flee to the end of the earth to avoid playing his appointed role in it. Jonah, by his own account, would rather die than see Nineveh repent.

Though this story may seem far-fetched, when we honestly consider our own actions, we realize that we are very much like Jonah.  When given opportunities to take part in God’s work, we find every excuse to avoid doing it. We flee from opportunities to serve because of who we might have to work with, or because we might have to watch God do mighty things for people that we do not like. We allow petty and insignificant hang-ups and prejudices to make us miserable and force us to avoid service instead of being humbled and excited to be chosen to take part in the service of our God. In spite of this, God still uses us—just as He did Jonah—and still does mighty things. Imagine how much more he could accomplish through us if we weren’t fighting Him all along the way.

Jonah fled because he hated Nineveh more than he loved God. Why are you running from God?

Photo: “Hobo Boarding a Train,” Library of Congress

First Love.

Christianity, Religion

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4

No biblical book has been the subject of more scrutiny, questioning, or speculation than Revelation. Given its apocalyptic and eschatological nature, many try to unpack it with the intent of discovering some hidden “clue” about the end of time. Even the most learned of scholars will admit that the book’s imagery and language make it difficult to grasp, and this is only compounded by the prevalence of popular misconceptions surrounding Revelation. Of all the books in the Christian canon, Revelation stands at the top of the list of being the most enigmatic. Though this is true, it is God-breathed, inspired Scripture, and it is beneficial for teaching and training in righteousness.

Before John the Apostle received any of the visions dealing with the apocalypse or the end of time, he received messages from Jesus to deliver to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. These churches, located in various cities throughout the region, received specific letters from Christ regarding their faithfulness and obedience to His teachings. Christ speaks directly to each church, calling them out where they have fallen short, and encouraging them to correct whatever wrongs they have made. The specificity with which Christ spoke to each church made it evident that He had been watching them and knew what they were doing.

The first church to be mentioned by Christ is the Ephesian Church. Ephesus was a major city; it was the capital of the province of Asia. The church there had been founded by the Apostle Paul during his missionary journeys, and he stayed there for roughly three years teaching and preaching to the Ephesians. Along with this claim to fame, other leaders in the early church period would come from out of Ephesus. It was a church that certainly had the right credentials and would develop a respected pedigree of church leaders.

Christ’s message to the Ephesians begins with several commendations: He reminds the Ephesians that He knows “your works, your toils, and your patient endurance,” (Revelation 2:2).  He compliments their faithfulness to His word and the fact that they are so diligent in opposing evil and rooting out false teachers. The Church in Ephesus was committed to true and sound doctrine, and they would fight those who espoused false teachings. Christ goes on to commend the Ephesians for their patience and perseverance in carrying out their work. It seems as though the Ephesians are doing everything right, but Christ’s issue with this church is not with their doctrine nor is it with their attitude; it is a matter of their heart. Though the Ephesians were not doing anything that they were not supposed to be doing, everything they did was for the wrong reasons.

 The Ephesians had left the love—for Christ and for one another—that they had at the beginning. The exuberance and enthusiasm with which they first sought after Christ had given way to a sense of normalcy and routine.  Their zeal for their work replaced their love for the One who saved them. They committed themselves to stamp out false teachings while forgetting how to live out the right doctrines properly. The Ephesians were doing good work, but they were merely going through the motions. They were not driven by love for Christ but instead were inspired by a sense of duty and obligation and recognition. The Church in Ephesus was committed to working, but they had lost sight—or sadly, forgotten—why they were doing that work in the first place. The church in Ephesus was doing everything that it was supposed to do, except loving Christ.  Even with their “credentials,” the Ephesians had gone off track, and Christ was calling them to come back; to return to their first love, to love Him as much as they once had.

We are no different or better than the Ephesians. Far too often, the “fire” and love we have after first encountering Christ dwindles over time. When once we found ourselves serving Him out of love, we find ourselves doing so for other—selfish and artificial—motivations. Like the Ephesians, we go about the work left for us to do, but we allow our love for the work to supersede our love for Christ. We are driven to complete our work because of the accolades we will receive from other men and women, instead of doing so out of love for Christ and bringing Him glory.  We make an idol of doing things the “right” way—our way—and fail to realize that we are serving the One who is the Way. Like the Ephesians, the work we are doing may be good, but if we are doing it for the wrong motivations, what good is it? Are you doing your work because your love for Christ compels you to do so, or because you love the recognition you get for doing it? 

Examine your heart and your motives for serving Christ. Identify where you might be abandoning your first love, and return to it. Love Christ as you did when He first changed your life.

Artwork: “Two People. The Lonely Ones,” Edvard Munch, 1899

Devour.

Christianity, Religion

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

One needs not to look far to see that the adversary is actively on the prowl in this world; the evidence is abundant and staggering. With every passing moment and each news update, we see where the devil has once again struck and left the sadly familiar characteristics that are his calling cards: anger, hatred, chaos, bloodshed, and death. The “prince of this world” is on a rampage, fighting an insurgency war against goodness and against God’s world, and attempting to destroy all that is in it.

Peter wants his readers to understand the gravity of the situation. He likens the devil to a roaring lion, stalking after its next victim. Those reading Peter’s letter in the Frist Century AD understood this illustration, just as we do today. Lions are the peak predator in their environment; lions show no mercy. A lion will rip to shreds that which it catches. If a person found themselves in the path of a lion, there is very little they could do to protect themselves. The lion is bigger and stronger than the person, and could quickly run the person down should they attempt to flee. What a real lion could and would do to a person physically, the devil can and will do to a person spiritually.

Satan can devour us in many ways today; he studies his prey as he hunts them and he knows their weaknesses. He can take anger and distrust of others and turn it into an all-consuming hatred and rage that drives one to kill. He can make a proclivity for using powerful substances and turn them into a seemingly unbreakable addiction. He can cripple us with our lusts, our fears, and our insecurities. He can take our shame and regrets and turn it into guilt that makes us feel unlovable and unredeemable. The devil is a crafty hunter, and his traps are tailor-made for each of us.

Peter’s advice is simple and straightforward: be sober-minded and watchful. We must always be on guard and on the lookout for this lurking predator. We must always be prepared; for he will pounce the very moment, we let our guard down. Additionally, Peter goes on to say that we must “resist him [the devil], firm in your faith,” (1 Peter 5:9). When we are confronted with the devil and his snares, we have our faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit at our disposal to combat him. We must remember the teachings that Christ gave us in our battles with the devil. When Satan wants us to hate, we must remember that Christ calls on us to love our neighbor—everyone we encounter– as ourselves. When Satan wants us to have anger in our hearts, we must remember that Christ told us to leave our sacrifices at the altar to go and first reconcile ourselves to our brother. When Satan wants to consume us with fear and anxiety, we must remember that Christ taught us that God takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and He will undoubtedly provide for us. When Satan lures us with lusts, we must remember that Christ taught us to be pure in heart. When Satan crushes us with guilt and seeks to make us feel unloved and worthless, we must remember that Christ loves us so much that He was beaten, mocked, despised, humiliated, crucified, and died to free us from bondage to sin and guilt and to restore our relationship with God. 

Christ has already won the war; though the adversary seeks to do as much damage while he still can. We must remember Peter’s call to be on guard and to be watchful, as we can be assured the devil is stealthily watching and waiting for us to slip.  We must stand firm in our faith, hold close to Christ, and prepare for the fight. We must remember the similar words that Paul wrote to the Romans, “do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:21).  Hold fast, stand firm, and be on guard.

Artwork: “Saturn Devouring His Son,” Francisco Goya,  1819-1823.

DNA.

Christianity, Religion

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” 2 Peter 1:3-4

The Second Epistle of Peter was written late in the Apostle’s life, most likely near the time of his death. Even as Peter is writing this letter, he seems to know that his time is short, and he is seeking to leave with his readers in the church a few final words of wisdom, advice, and exhortation, while also reinforcing sound doctrine. Though this epistle is brief, it is filled to the brim with true teachings.

Peter’s central focus in 2 Peter is addressing false doctrines. Even at this early point in the history of the church, there were already beliefs creeping in that need to be combatted and eradicated from the community of believers. Peter understood that false teachings represented a significant threat to the infant church, and the believers must be on the lookout for it, especially if he would soon be leaving them. Orthodoxy must be established, and Peter saw to it that he did his part in developing it.

Peter’s approach in helping the believers to identify false teachers is unique: he begins by reminding them just how much Christ has changed them. The follower of Christ—“those called to his glory”—now has a new heart and been filled with a new spirit. Due to this regeneration of heart and spirit, the believer is able to enjoy something previously impossible for them: to partake of the divine nature. As in creation, when God made man in His image, in the re-creation, Christ puts into man something which man lost in the fall; he injects us with a sort of “divine DNA.” He infuses us with His spirit so that we can finally live how He calls us to live. Christ goes beyond merely adopting us as His children; He gives the believer His own nature—he infuses us with his “genes”—so that we might be as His own children. Just as a child exhibits traits and characteristics of their parents, we now should exhibit the traits and characteristics of Christ.

Peter goes on to say that we should supplement—exercise, work out, develop further—this nature by developing spiritual disciplines that are consistent with being followers of Christ and partakers of His nature. Just as one would exercise their physical bodies to improve performance and strength, we should seek to strengthen our spiritual natures with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. What Peter is saying is that we should seek to develop further the divine nature that Christ gave to us by exemplifying the characteristics that Christ himself embodied.  In living this sort of life, one will bear fruit, and according to Peter, one’s fruit will separate the authentic follower from the false follower. Those without the infusion of the divine nature will not bear fruit consistent with being followers of Christ, and their teachings need to be avoided.

Peter wants his readers to remember that they are to be different from everyone else.  He wants those reading his letter to confirm their calling, to live it out, to make it real. Christ demands that we be different from all those around us, just as God commanded Israel to “be holy for I am holy,” (Leviticus 11:44). Israel was never able to live up to this expectation due to their disobedience, but we have no excuse. Christ died and rose again to be able to recreate our hearts and spirits and to infuse us with His own nature so that we might lead lives that are holy and righteous and under His will. He injected us with this divine DNA so that we might be His holy people, and through this, He empowers us to live the way He commands us to.

Live as Christ expects you to live; live a life that is worthy of Christ’s death. Exhibit the divine nature with which you’ve been infused.

Photo credit: limitedscience.com

Kill Sin.

Christianity, Religion

“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is quite possibly the most significant of the New Testament works outside of the Gospels. It is, undoubtedly, the most important of the epistles, and as such is the first epistle listed in the New Testament canon. The theological and doctrinal richness of this letter is such that one can study it time and time again, and after each reading come away with new insights.

In Romans, Paul spells out some great theological truths for the Roman Christians. He takes these concepts, many of which later church leaders would continue to wrestle with, and instructs the Romans on how to apply these truths to their lives. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Romans 8, a chapter in which Paul tackles such topics like our debt to God, how Christ paid our sin-debt, and God’s eternal love for us.

While discussing these weighty topics, Paul addresses one of equal importance: How are the new Roman Christians—any Christians, for that matter—to live? Paul wastes no time in getting straight to the point on this issue. The Christian has two options: 1-to live according to the flesh, or 2- to live according to the Spirit. These two choices are mutually exclusive—one cannot do both; choosing one means going against the other.

Living for the flesh means just what one might assume it to mean—seeking after one’s sinful desires and fulfilling them. A flesh-driven lifestyle requires no work, for it is our natural state. There is no standard to uphold, for anything goes, and everything is permissible. A flesh-minded person does not concern themselves with God nor with the things that would be pleasing to Him. Quite simply, the flesh-driven lifestyle actively seeks everything that is not God; it actively seeks sin.  Paul makes it clear for the Romans; those who live this way have only one final destination: death. This death is not merely of a physical nature, but also a spiritual death in which one suffers eternal separation from God and comes to the ultimate realization of the error of their ways. It is as Paul would say elsewhere in Romans, “the wages of sin are death,” (Romans 6:23).

Paul contrasts this flesh-driven lifestyle with that of the Spirit-filled lifestyle. In the latter, those who are filled with the Spirit –those are living according to Christ’s call—put to death the deeds of their body; they not only flee from sin and temptation, but they put their sin and sinful desires to death. This not accomplished by any deed of the individual person, Paul makes it clear that this is only possible through the power of the Spirit. Only through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His followers can this occur. When we seek Christ first and to live as He calls us to, we kill our sin. What Paul is saying is this: if we live according to our desires, we will fall into sin; but, when we live in the strength of the Spirit, it allows us to defeat those sins. In this sort of life, in which one wholly relies on Christ and is filled with the Spirit, there is life. David comes to a similar conclusion in the Psalms when he penned “A perverse heart shall be far away from me; I will know nothing of evil,” (Psalm 101:4) David knew, just as Paul was trying to teach the Romans, that the one living for God must live differently than everyone else.

This raises hard questions for us: do we hate our sin and do we try to kill it? Or do we try to push the envelope and get as close to sin as we can?  We will never be free from sin in this world, so do we live in the power of the Spirit and trust in it to sustain and deliver us in times of temptation, or do we indulge and then attempt to justify and rationalize our choices and behaviors? To use Paul’s words, do we live according to the flesh, or do we live by the Spirit? Does it break our hearts when we sin or have we become like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day who “no longer blush” at their sins? (Jeremiah 6:15). We must remember that living for the flesh leads to death, and sin will rob us of the joy of our salvation.

We must seek to kill our sin when it confronts us. Yes, Christ offers us forgiveness when we do sin, but He died so that we might live differently. Sin is like a fungus or cancer–small and unnoticed at first–but left unchecked, will devour an entire body from the inside out. That is what Paul was trying to get the Romans—and us—to understand. Sin is no laughing matter; it is life or death.

John Owen (1616-1683), an English Puritan minister, said it best: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Art credit: “Dance of Death,” Michael Wolgemut, 1493.

Cautionary Tale.

Christianity, Religion

“…his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.” I Kings 11:4, 6

The Books of I and II Kings are challenging to read for they recount the downfall of Israel into exile and captivity as a result of repeated disobedience to God. In these books we see the Kingdom divided into two separate kingdoms, Israel and Judah, and the books trace the spiritual state of each kingdom by examining the spiritual nature of their respective rulers. The northern kingdom of Israel endured many wicked kings, and as a result plunged headfirst into idolatry and pagan worship. The southern kingdom, Judah, had a few righteous kings who attempted to right the spiritual course of the kingdom, but the many wicked kings who ruled the southern kingdom undid the influence of these godly men. Ultimately, both kingdoms paid the price for turning away from God; Israel was conquered by Assyria around 721 BC, and the Babylonians conquered Judah in 586 BC. When Judah was defeated, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple and deported a large portion of the population to Babylon. This is one of the most crucial moments in Hebrew history.

The phrase “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” occurs again and again throughout I and II Kings when describing the various rulers of Israel and Judah. The authors of I and II Kings include this line so that the readers understand the rulers were wicked men who did not seek God, and in turn, caused the people to turn further away from God.  One of the first instances of this “did what was evil” theme occurred in I Kings 11 concerning King Solomon.

Solomon had been, to this point, one of the greatest of Israel’s kings; he was second only to his father, David. Solomon ruled over Israel before the kingdom was divided, and his reign was marked by peace and prosperity. At the beginning of his reign, Solomon was a man who earnestly sought after God, a righteous man. God appeared to Solomon not once, but twice, and blessed Solomon with wisdom, fortune, and fame—the likes of which had never been seen. Due to his great zeal for the Lord, Solomon was given the high duty and privilege of building the Temple in Jerusalem—the “dwelling” place where God’s glory would reside among His people. In everything he did, Solomon sought God, and he served God. He lived as his father David had lived, and he was a model for all future Israelite kings to follow. If only the story ended here, but it doesn’t. There is much more to learn from Solomon in his downfall.

As he became increasingly wealthy and famous, Solomon’s heart and mind began to wander. He began to stray from the God that he loved and whom he loved to serve. As the text says, “his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God.” Solomon began to put other things before God, and he began to seek his own pleasure and satisfaction above seeking God.  He became focused on the things of this world—fame, fortune, and the acquisition thereof.  But Solomon’s sins were not limited to his idolatrous pursuits of fame and fortune; he began to break God’s Law.  He married pagan women—ones that God prohibited the Israelites from marrying—and Solomon fell deeper into sin. These pagan wives brought with them their false religions and ceremonies and Solomon began to partake in them. He started to build altars to these false gods and to offer sacrifices to them. Solomon tolerated and encouraged the practice of false religions in Israel. The very man who once sought God and built the house in which God dwelt was now offering pagan sacrifices to false gods on altars that he also built.  Solomon’s father, David, may have committed physical adultery, but Solomon was now committing spiritual adultery.  This was the path that future kings of Israel and Judah would follow. The entire future of Israelite history was being embodied in Solomon and his actions.

The irony and the tragedy in this is that Solomon knew better; “God gave Solomon wisdom, exceedingly deep insight, and understanding beyond measure, like the sand on the seashore,”(1 Kings 4:29).  By all accounts, Solomon was the wisest man ever to live, and this wisdom came directly from God. Despite this, Solomon still took his focus off of God; he allowed his mind and heart to be led astray. He stopped serving God and started worshipping himself. His actions had severe consequences: it was Solomon’s unfaithfulness that sparked a chain of events that resulted in the division of the kingdom, which would lead ultimately to conquest and exile.

Solomon had everything, and he forsook it; this is the lesson we must learn. If he can fall so significantly, so too can we. We must learn from Solomon’s mistakes; we must not become so enamored with the pursuits of our own pleasures that we turn from God. We must make the pursuit of God our joy. We must seek Him in everything we do, and we must submit to Him daily.  We must seek to do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

Art Credit: Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, “Solomon Worshiping a Pagan God” c. 1695-1700 (https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/solomon-worshiping-pagan-god-63908)