Excess.

Christianity, Religion

”Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes often offers advice that seems baffling, and frankly, contradictory with what is found elsewhere in scripture. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, we are called to seek after righteousness, yet here the Teacher tells us not to be excessively righteous or overly wise. The appeal to avoid wickedness and foolishness makes sense, but how do we make sense of this call to avoid excessive righteousness?

Pursuing righteousness is a good thing. However, as with any noble pursuit, it is the nature of one’s motivations which can undermine their quest. This is what is at the core of the Teacher’s caution to avoid excessive righteousness; he is calling on us to examine the nature of our motivations for our pursuit.

In our pursuit of righteousness, there are two pitfalls to be avoided. First is that of self-righteousness. Are we pursuing righteousness and justice because these are the earnest desires of our heart, or are we pursuing them because we desire for others to see us in this pursuit? Are we seeking the praise of man, or are we seeking to please God?  True righteousness is not compatible with self-righteousness. True righteousness is humble and modest and labors out of love. Self-righteousness is loud and bombastic, it draws attention to itself; it desires for all to see just how “righteous” it is. Self-righteousness might have once been true righteousness, but it became misguided and addicted to itself; it chokes the life out of true righteousness. We see this self-righteousness refuted and rebuked numerous times in the New Testament. Time after time, Christ calls out the Pharisees for their hypocritical approach to righteousness. They would go to extreme lengths to appear righteous before others, but it was all because they wanted others to see how righteous they were. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matthew 23:27-28). Self-righteousness might make us appear to look right with God outwardly, but inside–where it matters–the self-righteous is just as lost as the most wayward sinner.

The second pitfall that must be avoided in pursuing righteousness is that of “bargaining,” or “hedging one’s bets.” This is the myth and lie that is sold by the “prosperity gospel.”  In scripture, the Old Testament especially, we see where those who are righteous are often blessed, while the wicked are often not, or even worse, are cursed. This is not, however, a standard rule of thumb. There are just as many, if not more, instances where the righteous suffer and the unjust prosper–just read Job or the rest of Ecclesiastes. In spite of this fact, many seek righteousness because they think that it will force God to bless them; that God will “owe” them something. How blasphemous this idea is! The Almighty God Most High, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, does not and will never owe us anything.  He does not even owe us the salvation which He offers to us; this is–as is every other blessing He bestows upon us–a gift given freely out of His own good will. “God does not show partiality,” (Acts 10:34);  “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45). Seeking righteousness out of a desire to be owed something by God is just as dangerous and sinful as self-righteousness, and the two traps are not necessarily unrelated; one can easily lead to the other. Those who teach others to pursue righteousness because God will bless them for it–the prosperity gospel–make a mockery of the cross. They spit in the face of the self-sacrificing Savior and demean His atonement into nothing more than a suggestion in a self-help book. God blesses those whom He chooses to bless, and He does so because He can. He owes us nothing. We deserve Hell, and He chose to save us.

After considering the significant pitfalls that so frequently trap those who are seeking righteousness, we can now see what the Teacher meant by telling us to avoid excessive righteousness. We cannot allow ourselves to become self-righteous; we must not seek righteousness because we think it will buy us favor with God. These behaviors are just as sinful as wicked and foolish living. These behaviors make us unteachable; they make us become like a fool. Instead, we must seek righteousness with humility and sincerity. We must bow continuously before Christ our King, and we must remember that He gives us gifts and blessings, not because He owes them to us, but because He wants to. We must also remember that we suffer so that we can learn to trust Him more. He blesses whom He blesses—the good and the bad—for His own reasons and in His own time.

Heed the Teacher’s advice: avoid excessive righteousness. Be humble, be meek, and seek righteousness with a sincere heart.

Artwork: “Christ and the Pharisees,” Anthony van Dyck, c. 17th C.

You’re Not Alone.

Christianity, Religion

“‘I have left in Israel seven thousand, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that hath not kissed him.’” 1 Kings 19:18

Elijah the Prophet was a wanted man. The king and queen of Israel–Ahab and Jezebel–were determined to kill him because Elijah had just killed 450 of their prophets of the false god Baal. Elijah was on the run, and he had nowhere to go. So, he fled into the wilderness and prayed to die. “I’ve had enough, Lord,” Elijah said, “take my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” (1 Kings 19:4). In his despair, Elijah believed he had reached the end of his rope, and he did not see a way out of this situation.

Then God spoke to Elijah. He asked Elijah what he was doing here, out in the wilderness, sulking by himself. Elijah told God it was because he was all alone and that people were hunting him to kill him, and that that they were hunting him because of his faithfulness and commitment to God.

Elijah was allowing his situation to warp his perception of the world. He was so focused on his problem that he allowed his problem to become bigger than the God that he served. Though Elijah had been devoted and faithful to God, he didn’t foresee a way in which God could get him out of this.

God reminded Elijah that he was in control of this situation, and he told Elijah that he wasn’t alone. There were still 7,000 others left in Israel who hadn’t submitted to worshipping Baal. Elijah had a great many to whom he could go to in his moment of need. Despite what Elijah was thinking and feeling, God was still very much in control, and He was even bigger and more powerful than Elijah’s situation. More importantly, God was still with Elijah, just as He had always been.

How often do we become overwhelmed and overburdened by the trials and ordeals we go through in our lives, and like Elijah, we allow these ordeals to become larger—in our minds—than God. We try to think of every possible solution to our problem except allowing God to resolve it for us in His time. Just like Elijah, we allow our situation to make us feel entirely alone, completely isolated, even though we have Christian brothers and sisters all around us who would surely help us if only they knew what we were going through. We feel alone, despite the fact that Christ promised: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time, and yet we still feel alone and want to give up when we have a trial? What does that say of our view of God? What does that say about our view of Christ? Shame on us.

God created the world in six days. He made barren women conceive so that He could fulfill promises He made. He parted the Red Sea to free His people from slavery. He fed his people in the wilderness every day for forty years. He helped a shepherd boy slay a giant and rule a nation. He returned His people from exile. He made a virgin conceive. He turned water into wine. He walked on water. He healed the lame, the blind, lepers, and the sick. He cast out demons. He fed crowds of 5,000 and 4,000. He raised the dead. He died and raised Himself from the dead to save His people from sin. He promised to be with you and to never forsake you, ever.

Don’t put God in a box. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your trial is too big for God to handle. The God that created the world and raises the dead can handle what you’re going through. You’re not alone.

artwork: “The Prophet Elijah,” Daniele da Volterra, c. 1550-1560.

Crushed.

Christianity, Religion

“‘He shall crush your head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.’” Genesis 3:15

After creating the world and everything in it in six days, God placed Adam and Eve in the midst of paradise—Eden—and gave them dominion to rule over all of creation.  Man and woman enjoyed direct communion with God in Eden and free reign over everything in paradise. Adam and Eve had but one rule to live by; not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for eating from that tree would lead to their deaths. Eating from the tree wouldn’t kill them, but being disobedient to God would. The serpent, as Genesis recounts, was the most cunning of all the creatures, and deceived Eve into eating from the prohibited tree, and Adam followed after her lead and ate of the tree of his own accord. 

They had disobeyed God and brought sin into the created world, and with sin came heartache, hard labor, grief, greed, anger, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, and ultimately, death. Creation had been tainted because of mankind’s sin against God. They could no longer live in Paradise in communion with God; Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden and sent away from God’s presence. This was for their own good; God is the epitome of holiness, and sinful creatures cannot be in His presence and live.

Before banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, God made Eve—the mother of all humanity—a promise. There would come from her one who would fix all of this; one who would make things right once again and restore humanity to its intended relationship with God. From her seed will come one who could erase the mistake she and Adam had made. This Promised One would also come for the serpent—the deceiver who helped usher in sin and death. The serpent would wound the Promised One, possibly even hurt him badly, but the Promised One would destroy the serpent. God was not caught off guard by man’s actions; He was already prepared with a plan in place to make things right again.

So humanity was exiled from Eden, forced to be separated from God’s presence. But God had given humanity a most powerful gift as He exiled them: the promise of the hope; hope that redemption would come.

Generations came and went, creation seemed to spiral ever further into sin and evil. Man continually sought after the dark and depraved desires of his own heart. God watched as mankind—His creation—forsook Him and scorned Him and made themselves to be their own gods. Everywhere upon the Earth, sin ran wild, and death and the grave consumed humanity.

God’s promise of hope persisted. Though each generation seemed to fall further away from Him, there were still those who sought God and His righteousness, and for their sake, His promise was sustained. Promises were made to specific people to help carry on this initial promise made in Eden, and covenants made to make these promises binding. God abided by His promises, and the faithful in each generation lived with hope: hope that the Promised One would soon come and make all things right again.

Still, generations came and went, and God would continue to unveil His plan a little at a time. This Promised One would be descended from Judah; He would be like a lion and would be a king (Genesis 49). He would be from the Line of David (II Samuel 7). He would be a suffering servant, led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53).  He would be Immanuel, God with Us (Isaiah 7).

The original promise—the promise of hope—echoed with every new prophecy and re-affirmation of the coming of the Promised One. He will crush your head, and you will bruise his heel.

Generations came and went, lived and died, and waited. The righteous waited for the Promised One though all around them turned to idols and sacrificed their children to false gods. The righteous waited through judgment and exile and silence from Heaven. The righteous waited while sin and death and the grave and the Serpent-Deceiver continued to claim usurped authority on the Earth. The righteous waited because they had the promise of hope and the assurance of God’s faithfulness to His promises. The Promised One would come, and He would make all things right.

This was the backstory to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He was sent to be the Promised One and crush the head of the serpent—to destroy the Deceiver—and restore humanity’s relationship with God. As Jesus taught and performed miracles, people began to wonder if He might be the Promised One, but many had lost sight of the promise that the Promised One was to fulfill.  They had developed ideas of what the Promised One would be and what He would do that satisfied their own views and beliefs. Jesus, however, knew what His mission was, and He knew what He must do to fulfill God’s promise of hope and redemption.

He would have to be wounded.

He would have to be wounded because, to defeat sin and death and the grave and the Deceiver, Jesus would have to die.  Without dying, Christ could not provide a sacrifice that would atone—forgive—our sins. Without dying, Christ could not invade the grave and conquer it. To defeat death, Christ must die.  Most importantly, to destroy the Deceiver—to crush the serpent’s head—Christ must die. He must die so that He could come back to life.

When Christ was taken off the cross on Good Friday, half the battle was won. During His moment of glorification and exaltation, He had offered the sacrifice of atonement and settled humanity’s account before God. Now, Christ the King was on the path of conquest, invading the territory of the enemy: death and the grave.  As He once said, “No one takes my life away from Me. I have the authority to lay it down and I have the authority to take it up again,” (John 10:18).

On the first day of the week, when the mourning followers of Christ came to His grave, they were expecting to anoint the body of a man they had hoped to be the Promised One. They had forgotten that the Promised One would have to be wounded by the serpent and led like a lamb to the slaughter. They surely did not expect the Promised One to die, and especially did not expect the Promised One to be crucified. So they came to mourn; mourn for Christ and their dashed hopes, and to begin the process of waiting and hoping again.

His grave, however, was empty. Christ had risen. He had invaded death and the grave and returned. He had conquered them. He had destroyed them.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It may have been the slain Lamb who was laid in the grave on Friday—reviled and forsaken by man—but, it was the roaring Lion of Judah who emerged that  Sunday morning and who was victorious over sin, death, and the grave; who crushed the head of the serpent. It was the Lion of Judah whose victory shook the very Earth down to the pit of defeated Hell, and it is the Lion of Judah who lives and reigns today and forevermore at the right hand of God.

The promise that was first made so very long ago had been kept. The Promised One had come and He made all things right. He restored our relationship with God by paying our debt with His blood. He was wounded, but He crushed the serpent’s head, and He is coming again to return us from our exile from God’s presence.

artwork: “Lion and Snake,” Samuel William Reynolds, 1799.

Coronation.

Christianity, Religion

“So Pilate asked Him, saying, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ And He answered him and said, ‘It is as you say.’” Luke 23:3

“The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed Him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him; and they began to acclaim Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’  They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him. After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him.” Mark 15:16-20

“Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’  So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” John 19:14-15.

 “And when they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink… And above His head they put up the charge against Him [q]which read, “‘THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” Matthew 27:33-34, 37.

Coronation: (noun) the act or ceremony of crowning a king, queen, or other sovereign.

The climax of Holy Week, and of the Christian calendar, is Good Friday—“good” in this sense meaning holy. This marks the day on which Christ was crucified and died, offering Himself as the sacrificial atonement to save humanity from sin. It is easy to recognize the holy nature of this day: God’s love is readily on display as He proved He would spare nothing—not even His Son—in His effort to redeem His fallen creation, but the price that had to be paid to achieve that redemption defies any potential grasp of the mind. We know this story, and we see this moment coming, but we are caught off guard—just as the disciples were—when we reach this point in the gospel narratives. Nothing prepares us for the excruciating torment of Good Friday. We see the pain and suffering experienced, the blood and ripped flesh, the jeering and the mocking all contrasted with the humility and obedience of Christ. It is easy to read of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of what He endured. This day is holy because it is when our Savior died for us, but it is also holy for another reason: this was the day when He came into His glory; the day He was crowned and took His throne. His crucifixion was not only a sacrificial death; it was a coronation ceremony.

The first clue that the crucifixion was Christ’s moment of glory is found in Mark 10. James and John approach Jesus and ask to be with Him, to be on His right and left sides, when He comes into His glory. Christ tells them that they are not ready for such a request, because they are not ready to endure what He will suffer in that moment—death. They do not understand that Christ’s crowning moment will be on a cross.  Christ goes on to tell them that the spots on His right and left are not His to give; they have already been reserved. At the moment when Christ is on the cross, the moment that James and John requested to be with Him, only John is there to witness the event.

The events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion are presented with imagery that reflects a king’s coronation, and this is intentional.  For Christ to receive capital punishment, the case against Him had to be presented to the Romans as treason and rebellion. Thus, a case was presented that Christ was claiming to be the King of the Jews. When questioned by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, Christ never denied the allegations. He was, in fact, the King of Israel, descended from David. Hearing these charges against Christ, the Roman soldiers guarding Him mocked Him by dressing Him in purple—the color of royalty—and giving Him a crown made of thorns, along with a large reed to be His scepter. In some of the gospel accounts, the soldiers kneeled before Christ and yelled out “Hail the King of the Jews!” before beating Him and spitting upon Him. The humble King, who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, took every blow. Though His accusers and captors attempted to discredit Him and humiliate Him, each step they took helped bring Christ one step closer to the moment of His crowning glory.

After being clothed in purple by the Romans, and crowned with thorns, Christ held court with representatives of two different governments. He spoke at length with Pilate, the Roman official, as well as King Herod, the tetrarch who ruled over Galilee. The issues surrounding Jesus ever repaired the state relations between Pilate and Herod.  Christ was paraded through streets packed with people who were mocking and cursing Him—yet they were there to see Him nonetheless.

The coronation ceremony reached its peak when Christ was placed upon His throne—the cross. This was the moment Christ was born for; this was the moment He was exalted—high and lifted up, so that He could draw all men to Himself.  At His right and left were two criminals, guilty of offenses worthy of death, being executed along with the innocent Son of God. These two unnamed criminals were with Christ, in places of prominence, in the moment of His exaltation. They were with Jesus when He was fulfilling what had been building up for millennia as God’s salvific plan unfolded.  Two criminals hung on either side of Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Israel, as He was saving humanity.

One of these criminals realized who Jesus was and asked to be remembered by Christ when He entered His kingdom. Christ promised the criminal something better, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43).  Only a king who has supremacy over his kingdom can speak in such bold assurances. Christ, King of Heaven and Earth, gave this poor man such an assurance. While Christ hung from the cross, the throne of his glorification, a sign was nailed above His head. It was inscribed with the charges against Him, but in the light of what was happening at that moment, it was a sign of proclamation. The sign read ” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Son of Man was now raised up for all to see, just as Moses raised the serpent up in the desert.  (John 3:14)

The words that Christ speaks from the cross reflect His kingship, even in his pain and agony. Of the seven last sayings of Christ, four are statements of proclamation ( “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” “I thirst,” “It is finished,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,”); and one is a command (“Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother,”). The remaining two are a request (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,”), and a quote from His poet-king forefather, David (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)(Psalm 22). Though simple, Christ offers a coronation speech fitting of the humble King.

Nature shows its reaction to Christ’s glorification and death as well. From noon until 3 P.M., usually the brightest part of the day, darkness covers the land. The earth quaked, and the graves of the saints are opened, and the righteous dead walked out and appeared to many people.  Creation was both praising her King and mourning for Him. It was as Christ told the Pharisees, that “if these are silent, the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40). All of creation was crying out for her creator. All of this proved that Christ was much more than just the King of the Jews, or even the King of Israel; He was the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, God Incarnate, the Son of God. One centurion realized this after witnessing these supernatural events and exclaimed “surely this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

The world—and many Christians—see Christ on Good Friday and think “how sad.”  We focus solely on the terrible suffering that He endured for our salvation. Yes, we must never forget what Christ suffered to bring redemption and atonement to humanity; the things He endured are incomprehensible.  We cannot, however, allow anything to diminish Christ’s exaltation and glorification. Hanging there from the cross, beaten and bloodied, despised and dejected, hated and reviled was the moment He came into His glory. This was the moment He was exalted and lifted up. This was the moment He bought salvation for all mankind. This was the moment He was crowned the King. This was the moment the Son of Man, the Son of David, was sent to Earth for. This was the moment Christ took His throne, and He rules forever more. Remember that this Good Friday, and kneel before the throne.

artwork: “Man of Sorrows,” James Tissot, c. 1896.

Bread of Affliction.

Christianity, Religion

“‘You shall not eat leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), so that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.’” Deuteronomy 16:3

The Passover is the most significant of all the Jewish holidays. During this sacred annual observance, the Jewish people remember the mighty acts that God performed to free their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. At the heart of the Passover celebration is the somber and solemn recognition of the great lengths which God would go to free His people.

One of the most iconic pieces of the Passover celebration is matzah or unleavened bread. As the Israelites were preparing to make their exit from Egypt, God gave them specific instructions for the Passover meal. He was going to pass through the land of Egypt striking dead all the firstborns of the land. But the houses which had followed His instructions, and taken the blood of a firstborn lamb and painted it upon the doorframe of the house, these houses would be spared; He would pass over them. This lamb which was slain for its blood to be used as a sign to God was to be eaten with unleavened bread. The Israelites were to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice; there was not even time to allow the bread to rise.  As a result of having no leaven, the bread they ate with the Passover meal was flat, and this flatbread became synonymous with the Passover. Due to its association with their bondage in Egypt, matzah is often referred to, even during Passover services, as “the bread of affliction.”  During Passover celebrations, the matzah is taken, blessed, and broken, and each participant takes a piece to eat as a reminder of the affliction suffered by their ancestors before being freed by God. Matzah is a tangible reminder of the suffering experienced in Egypt; the matzah reminds each new generation that, without God’s intervention, their affliction would be yours too.

On the Thursday after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples gathered to observe the Passover. Christ was obedient in His observation of the mandated holidays, and He and the disciples had—like the generations before did and after them would as well—matzah to remember the affliction of the forefathers in Egypt. During this Passover, Christ would institute a new observance: The Eucharist, or Communion—the Lord’s Supper. He took the matzah and blessed it and broke it and distributed it to the disciples; however, He did not tell them this was the “bread of affliction,” instead, he said, “This is my body, which is given for you,” (Luke 22:19). Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see where Christ refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life,” (John 6:35), and He said that “whoever feeds of my flesh and drinks of my blood has eternal life,” (John 6:54). Christ is changing the paradigm; something new is happening. He is using the observance of the Passover to teach the disciples—and all future generations—of the new Passover which is about to take place, one complete with a new Paschal lamb and new matzah.

The connections between the original Passover and Christ’s sacrifice must not be lost on us. Just as the first Passover proved to the Israelites just how far God would go to save them from Pharaoh’s oppression and bondage, Christ’s Passover shows how much farther God went to save His people from slavery and bondage to an even more powerful and vile oppressor: sin and death. God would offer up His Son—the firstborn of His flock and of all things—to be the Passover sacrifice, and being covered by His blood would free us from death just as the Passover lamb’s blood spared the households it covered from death. In His agony, Jesus—the Bread of Life—would become the ultimate matzah—the bread of affliction. He bore our sins and guilt so that we might be liberated from sin’s shackles. He suffered our affliction so that He might give us life. He provided our exodus from sin and this world.

Just as God instructed the Israelites to remember the Passover and to commemorate it, Christ taught the disciples—and all future generations—to observe the Communion, and to do so “in remembrance of Me,” (Luke 22:19). In taking Communion, we remember that Passover in Jerusalem when Christ became the ultimate Passover sacrifice. We remember how He took our affliction and shame and sin and guilt. We remember how the Bread of Life became the bread of affliction and was broken so that we might be freed from sin and death. Communion is our tangible reminder that, without Christ’s intervention, our sins and afflictions would still enslave us. Each time we partake of Communion, we are reminding ourselves of and celebrating the ultimate Passover. With a somber and solemn heart, we try to comprehend the great lengths to which God went to redeem us and save us, and we pray:

Christ, our Passover Lamb

Christ, our Matzah, our Bread of Affliction

Christ, our Liberator

Christ, our Redeemer

Christ, our Messiah

We do this in remembrance of You.

photo courtesy of http://www.oneforisrael.org https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/the-meaning-of-matzo-unleavened-bread-in-the-bible/

Triumphal Entry.

Christianity, Religion

“Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road. The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting,

Hosanna to the Son of David;
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord;
Hosanna in the highest!

 When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’  And the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.'” Matthew 21:8-11

Today is Palm Sunday, marking the day in which Christ made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Christ rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to acclaim and the cheers of the crowds who were arriving for the approaching Passover celebration. It had been foretold in the prophets that the Messiah—the anointed one of God—would ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The people of Jerusalem knew that their king, the Son of David, the true King of Israel, would approach them in gentleness and humility. Riding in on a donkey is not what a hero does; it is not what a king does. But it is what the Messiah would do, and it is what the Son of God did.

When Christ arrived, a scene erupted. Those who knew the prophets knew what they were seeing; they understood what was happening. The stories of all Christ’s miracles had spread throughout Israel.  The accounts of His standing up to the Pharisees and Sadducees had given hope to those who were oppressed by the religious establishment. Sinners who had been changed forever by Him spoke of His grace and forgiveness. All who heard Him teach would tell of the authority with which He taught. Now this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, who taught and spoke with authority not of this world—greater than that of any of the scribes and Pharisees—He was riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Could He be the King for whom Zion had so long been waiting?

The people surely thought so. At least, they thought He would be the one to restore the Kingdom to Israel. Surely Christ would come in and free His people from the yoke of Roman oppression. Surely this Son of David would come and restore His the throne of His father, David. He must be the one, they thought. Surely He must be. And so they cheered Hosanna! to Him and spread palm branches and their coats out on the road before Him.

He has come to free us, they thought and prayed.

Christ had come to free them, though not from Roman occupation. When He entered the gates of Jerusalem that week, the clock began ticking on the final hours of His life. Christ would be crowned a king, but not to cheers and adulation. He would be forsaken and scorned. The same people who today were cheering Hosanna and praising Him as the Son of David and the fulfillment of Scripture would be crying out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” in only a few short days. This, too, would be for the fulfillment of Scriptures.

Rome was not the enemy Christ rode in that day to confront; it was sin. His entry into Jerusalem was to free the people there that day—and you and me—from our sin and separation from God. Since the fall of man in Eden, God had been enacting a plan to restore man to a relationship with Him. Sin had long since plagued mankind and prohibited mankind from being able to fellowship with God as we once had. A price would have to be paid; innocent blood would have to be shed to pay the debts that our sins incurred, and so Christ rode into Jerusalem, in humility and gentleness. He rode in to settle our accounts before God; to lay down His life as a ransom for many.

artwork: “Palm Sunday Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem,” James Tissot

Who Is This Man?

Christianity, Religion

“The men were amazed, and said, ‘What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?’” Matthew 8:27

Ask anyone familiar with the Bible to name some of the miracles of Christ, and the calming of the storm is sure to be mentioned. This is one of the most well known of Christ’s miracles. Ask people what it means–what the miracle itself represents–and you are sure to get a wealth of responses in return. Though people know about this miracle, they certainly do not understand it. Christ’s calming the storm is the most misunderstood and misapplied of His miracles.

Matthew’s account of the miracle begins with Christ and the disciples in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. Christ had previously been teaching and performing many healing miracles, including those of the leper, the centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law. These healings attracted many people to come and watch Christ, and as was so often the case, Christ decided it was time to leave the crowds and cross the lake.

As the boat sailed across the lake, a great storm came up. The Sea of Galilee is famous for its storms; however, this was no ordinary squall. We know this from two pieces of evidence. First, the disciples were terrified and convinced that they were about to die. Keep in mind that several of the disciples, at least four of the twelve, were fishermen and made their livings on that same lake before following Christ. They surely would have seen bad storms before, and would not be so quickly moved to believe that their deaths were coming.

Secondly, Matthew’s choice of words reflects the unique nature of this storm. When writing his gospel, Matthew used the word ‘seismos’ to describe this storm. This is the same word that we get the word ‘seismic’ from, the same word that describes earthquakes. What Matthew wants the reader to understand is that this was not merely a squall or a tempest, this was a seismic event in which the earth was shaking, and creating huge waves that were swamping the boat. Taking this into consideration, it is easy to see why the disciples, even the experienced fishermen, were terrified.

Christ, however, was not terrified. He was asleep in the boat. Even amid this terrible seismic event, with the waves coming down and crashing over the boat, Christ could sleep soundly because He knew that God was in control of the situation. Christ’s faith was firmly placed in the Father; He knew that the “One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps,” (Psalm 121:4). This is the faith that Christ wants the disciples to have as well, and why He rebukes them for trusting too little in God. The disciples would have to learn to trust in Christ and God as fully as Christ trusts in the Father. Without that level of trust, the disciples would not be able to carry out the work that is before them, work which will carry all but one of them to their deaths.

It is the next portion of the story that is the source of the most misunderstanding. Christ rebukes the storm and it ceases. The winds die down and the sea settles and the earth stops shaking. The disciples are amazed and ask, “who is this man that even the winds and sea obey him?”

This miracle is a proof Christ’s deity. He exercised control over nature. He spoke a command, and nature obeyed it. He brought peace and order through His mere utterance. We see here parallels to Genesis 1 where God does the very same thing: speaking order out of chaos. Through His control of nature, Christ demonstrates Himself to be the God of Creation. He is the one who controls the winds and the rains and the seas. He is the one who hurled the storm which caught a fleeing Jonah. He is the one who withheld rain from Israel when they chose to worship Baal. He is the one who parted the Red Sea when the Israelites were going to be recaptured by Pharaoh. He is the one who breaks the laws of nature by walking on water, and ultimately by dying and living again. Christ is the God of Creation, and as such, has power and control over it. That is what the miracle proves; that is what the story is about.

The story is not about Christ calming “storms” in our lives. We turn Christ into a glorified good luck charm–a genie in a bottle–when we turn this into being about Him calming the metaphorical storms we experience. We endure trials for a purpose: to be tested and strengthened; to be refined. Those trials must be experienced, or we can not grow. Christ will be with us, and He will sustain us, but the experience is ours to endure and grow from.

This story is not about us, nor is any other story in the Bible. This story is about Christ and Him demonstrating His great power– a power so great that even the winds and the sea and all of nature obey Him. Who is this man? He is God.

Artwork: “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695

Restore.

Christianity, Religion

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” Psalm 51:10-12

The 51st Psalm is one of the most famous of David’s writings. It was penned during the darkest period of his life, a period which was explicitly brought about by his actions and sins. David’s sin wreaked havoc on his spiritual life, and in this psalm, we see his heartfelt plea to be restored with God.

The story of David’s sin is a familiar one: he saw Bathsheba, a woman married to one of his most loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, and David took her for himself. She conceived a child, and David began attempting to cover up his sin of adultery. David went to great lengths, even recalling Uriah from the front lines to visit Bathsheba, to cover up his sin, but to no avail. Uriah—out of loyalty—would not go be with his wife while his comrades were camped out in the fields. Uriah’s commitment to David and his fellow soldiers thwarted David’s plans, and at the risk of having his sins exposed, David devised a devious plan to have Uriah placed in the fiercest fighting and abandoned. Uriah died as a result, and David took the grieving Bathsheba to be his new wife. David killed Uriah—one of his most loyal servants—to cover up the sin of his affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. David destroyed a family to cover up his sins. Afterward, David went about his life as if nothing happened. He ignored the catastrophe he left in his wake.

Sin knows no limits at which it will stop once we are consumed by it.

God, however, knew all and saw all that David had done. His anointed king for Israel, the one whom God Himself said was a man after His own heart, had so callously turned aside from His statutes and commands. David was living like kings in other lands, not as the King of Israel was to live. David was living with blood on his hands and sin in his heart, but acting as if nothing were wrong; he was attempting to live as Israel’s spiritual leader, while not correctly emulating the way in which to live. So God sent Nathan the Prophet to remind David of that which David was supposed to remember: that God is holy and all-knowing and that David is not living appropriately as His servant.

Nathan confronts David; he calls out the sin that David had been hiding from everyone—even attempting to hide from God.  Roughly a year had passed between David’s first sin and the confrontation with Nathan. For that entire time, David had been attempting to conceal his actions and act as though he did not have an innocent man’s blood on his hands. But now, when faced by Nathan with the gravity and weight of his actions, David cannot keep the charade up any longer; the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he realized exactly what he had done. He had sinned greatly against the Lord.

It is against this backdrop that David pens Psalm 51; throughout this psalm we see the gravity of David’s sin becoming evident before him, and the sincere and heartfelt desire he had to be cleansed from his heinous sins. David understood that this sin had separated him from the fullness of his relationship with God, and he desired that relationship to be repaired and renewed.

One of the most critical aspects of this psalm—or of any psalm—is found at the very beginning of the psalm. Superscripts attached to the psalms have critical information about the particular psalm, such as the author and the event about which the psalm was composed. For example, in the case of Psalm 51, the superscript reads “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” From this, we know what was going on in David’s life when he wrote this psalm and can begin to use that in our understanding of what the psalm means. But there’s an even more important piece of information revealed in this superscript.

The designation “For the Choir Director,” is attached to several psalms throughout the psalter, and the ones in which it appears are truly unique. The Hebrew term translated “choir director” are more commonly translated in other places in the Old Testament as “the victorious one,” or “the eternal one.” In fact, it is only translated “choir director” in one instance in Chronicles.  From this, there is some debate that this superscription “For the Choir Director” might be more appropriately translated “For the Victorious One,” or “To the Eternal One,” meaning that these psalms are being explicitly dedicated to God. However, this explicit dedication to God is still evident even if translated as “choir director,” for He is the one who is directing the cosmos, and all that exists in it.

What is unique about the Choir Director Psalms is their subject matter. These psalms handle big-picture theology. They wrestle with the ideas of what God is like and how He rules the universe. These psalms praise God for being the Eternal One and the Cosmic Choir Director, and they also attempt to put His greatness and majesty into words.  We see David do just this very thing in Psalm 51.

Throughout Psalm 51, David wrestles with his sin and how it weighed on his soul and hindered his relationship with God. David knows that his sins are what keeps him from enjoying the fullness of a relationship with God and that we need cleansing from these sins. David then pleads for God’s forgiveness and God’s cleansing power, for he knows that He is the only one who can grant such things. Only the Eternal One, God Almighty, can blot out our sins. No one but God can renew our blemished spirits and bring regeneration to our souls. Only God can restore the joy of salvation that has been foiled by sin.  Though God is holy and just and would be completely warranted in any retribution He took against us because of our sins, He freely offers forgiveness and cleansing to those who seek after Him and confess to Him their sins.

The application of this psalm post-Calvary is clear: Christ’s blood purges us more deeply than the strongest hyssop and makes us whiter than snow. Christ is the Eternal One, the Victorious One who is able to bring about the regeneration we so desperately need to enjoy a restored relationship with God. Christ blots out our transgressions through His atoning sacrifice. He endured being cast out of the Father’s presence so that we would not. He delivers us, restores us, and makes us anew. In return, we are to tell all of His ways and His righteousness. When sin trips us up, as it so frequently does, Christ is there to receive our confession and to offer forgiveness when it is sought with a broken spirit and contrite heart. But we must learn from David’s mistakes: we must recognize the seriousness of sin and the impact it has on us. We cannot conceal our sin from God; we must confess it, then will the Eternal One offer us the restoration we require.

artwork: “David Repents,” artist unknown.

Near.

Christianity, Religion

“Whom have I in heaven but You?

And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever…

As for me, the nearness of God is my good;

I have made the Lord God my refuge.”

Psalm 73:25-26, 28

Psalm 73 begins the third book of psalms and is the middlemost portion of the Psalter. This particular psalm, as are many others in this collection, are authored by Asaph, a figure of whom very little is known.  What is known comes from I and II Chronicles: that he was a descendent of Levi, and a such was trained to serve in the Tabernacle, he was one of three men—all Levites—commissioned by David to be in charge of singing in the house of the Lord, and he performed at the dedication ceremony of Solomon’s temple. In addition to these things, Asaph wrote twelve psalms which bear his name. Asaph might not be as famous a musician as David, but the psalms Asaph composed rival any of David’s works.

At the heart of this psalm is a question with which Asaph was wrestling; it is the same question that has perplexed many throughout the ages: if God is good, why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? Asaph doesn’t doubt God’s goodness, but he doesn’t understand how this goodness translates into the world. All around him, Asaph saw the wicked showing off their wealth and power while the righteous languished and seemed to barely survive. Nothing appeared to make sense to Asaph, nor did any of it seem to be fair.

Nothing made sense until Asaph came into the sanctuary to worship.

Being in the presence of God forced Asaph to change his perspective; being close to God woke Asaph up. Instead of focusing on everything which appeared to be going wrong in the world, Asaph remembered who met his needs and who provided for him. It is not by his own strength that he survived, but by the divine providence and mercy of God. In worshipping, Asaph remembered it is this same God who met his needs who has already destined the wicked for their day of judgment.  Despite how things appear to us in the moment, God already has everything worked out.

Being close to God also reminded Asaph that there is no other being, in heaven or earth, who is capable of doing the things that God is. There is no one else who can protect him—be his refuge—in times of distress and trouble. There is no one else who can provide for him or sustain him. There is no one else whose presence can change him. Asaph goes as far as to say that drawing near to God is the only good he will experience. God is all he wants, and all he needs.

The pivotal moment for Asaph was entering into worship and being in the presence of God. It was an experience that opened his eyes and realigned his perspective. Our worship can and should do the same thing. We find ourselves entering into worship in much the same way as Asaph did, full of questions, doubts, and worries. However, we should not leave the presence of God in the same way in which we entered it; if we do not leave our worship experience changed, we must reevaluate how we worship. Being in the presence of God should be an utterly moving experience. Being near God is the only good we have, and Christ came to die that we might be able to come nearer, that we might be able to enjoy that Edenic closeness.

There is no one else in heaven or earth that can do for us the things that God can do or has done. He is our refuge, He is our strength, besides Him we have nothing. Why then do we go through the motions with our worship? Why do we only give Him a pittance of what He deserves? Why are we content to leave His presence unchanged?

God, give us hearts like Asaph, that wish to worship you fully and to be totally lost in your presence. Remind us that coming into Your presence is the most incredible thing we can ever experience. Move us in our worship, and allow us to worship you as we should. Allow us to remember that You are all we have and are all we need. Our hearts and strength will fail, whom do we have but you? Continue to be our strength and refuge.  Teach us that being near You is the only good we have. Amen.

artwork: from “The Creation of Adam,” Michelangelo, c.1508-1552.

Duty.

Christianity, Religion

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13

In the heart of the Old Testament wisdom literature is the book of Ecclesiastes. Traditionally attributed to Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ tone reflects that of an author who has witnessed many things in life and grown disillusioned, even bitter, with how the world is. The speaker in Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher,” reflects back on the folly of everything in this life, and how everything in life is meaningless when one attempts determining its meaning for oneself. With all its focus on the futility and meaninglessness of life, it is quite easy to view Ecclesiastes as a very bleak and cynical book, but this is only half of the author’s message. Sprinkled throughout the book are reminders to remember God and to seek after Him, and this encapsulates the other half of the author’s message: that the life lived for God is the only life with meaning.

This call to follow after God is most explicit in the closing verses of Ecclesiastes, in an epilogue of sorts following all of the book’s more extended passages detailing the Preacher’s experiences in life.  It is as though he has sifted through all of his knowledge and experiences, collected throughout a lifetime, and reduced that down to its purest form. It is a simple scene to imagine: when asked how to live a successful life, the Preacher—Solomon—tells the questioner “Fear God, and keep his commandments, this is the whole duty of man.” The real key to success, as Solomon discovered, was honoring God in everything one did.

This one simple statement contains a lifetime supply of wisdom. Living according to Solomon’s recommendation allows us to have our priorities in the proper order: first and foremost, we fear God. This is not a terror or a phobia, rather a reverence and respect. We recognize that God is superior to us in every conceivable way, and we humbly submit to Him. We honor Him; we give Him precedence over everything in our lives.  We stand in awe of Him. We give God His rightful position of superiority over everything in our lives, and we do not allow anything else to usurp that. It is when these usurpations of God’s sovereignty over our lives take place that we encounter the futility and meaninglessness described in Ecclesiastes.

When we fear God appropriately, we will seek to keep His commandments as we should. This is done from the same respect and reverence with which we fear God, not from a place of attempting to earn His favor or promote our own self-righteousness. Keeping His commandments is our duty, and since we respect God and submit to Him, we honor Him by doing what He has commanded us to do.

Which commandments, then?  Only two, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:37-40).

As Christ explained, these two commandments summarize all of the Law and other commandments. These two commandments are at the heart of all the commandments given by God; they are the foundations upon which all the Law was built. If we love God with all of our beings, then we will seek to honor Him in all we do, we will fear Him, and we will seek to keep His commandments. We love God because we honor Him, and we honor Him because we love Him. Likewise, we will keep His commandments in treating our fellow man: we will love our neighbor because it brings God honor to do so, but also because that neighbor is made in the very image—just as we are—of the God we are seeking to honor.

Solomon’s advice is simple, yet it is profoundly true. Living a life in which one fears God and keeps His commandments is the only way to find meaning and purpose in the world. Though it may not lead to wealth and prosperity, or success in the world’s economy, it will lead to a life of peace and assurance, with eternal rewards to come.

artwork: “The Bible,” Marc Chagall, 1956.