The Sons of Saul and the Son of David.

Christianity, Religion

“There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” 1 Samuel 9:1-2

“And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him….And Saul eyed David from that day on. The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David evaded him twice.” 1 Samuel 18:8-11

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-2

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Philippians 3:4-7

There is no doubt that David is one of the most significant figures of the Old Testament. He was a shepherd boy from a small town in the middle of nowhere who became the greatest king in all of Israel’s history, and the model by which all future Israelite kings were measured. David sought after God, and God loved David; so much so that He promised David’s descendants would be on the throne in Israel forever and, one day, the Messiah would come from David’s line.  The Davidic Covenant is one of the most crucial components of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it further highlights the importance of the figure of David.

David was not without his enemies. One of the most intriguing aspects of the early narratives about David’s life is his struggle with Saul.  During the period of the Judges in Israelite history, the Israelites began demanding that they be given a king to rule over them so that they might be like the other nations. God allowed Israel to have a king, after warning them that this would eventually lead to the same sort of oppression they had experienced in Egypt, and the man selected to be the first King of Israel was Saul–a tall and handsome man from the tribe of Benjamin.

Though  Saul looked the part of a king, he possessed no leadership abilities. His reign was marked by constant fighting with Israel’s enemies. Saul often wavered as a leader, and this was ultimately his downfall. Saul’s failures a political leader were made worse by his shortcomings as a spiritual leader. Throughout his reign, Saul moved further and further away from God, at one point going so far as to summon a psychic to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Due to his constant rejection of God, God removed his favor from Saul, and God appointed David to be the next king.

David, being anointed as the new king would set the stage for the conflict between him and Saul. As David increased in popularity throughout Israel by his exploits on the battlefield, Saul descended further and further into jealousy, bitterness, and paranoia. Saul became determined to kill David, and for the remainder of his rule as king, Saul and his armies chased David and his men all across Israel. Saul viewed David as a usurper who must be dealt with. Despite Saul’s repeated attempts on his life, David never retaliated against Saul; he still respected Saul as the king and the appointed ruler of Israel. Eventually, Saul would die, and David would become king, and Israel would know a time of peace and prosperity that it would not know again.

In the Book of Acts, we are introduced to another man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul. This Saul was a zealous Pharisee who viewed with hatred the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These followers of “The Way” preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, the promised Son of David. In just the same way that King Saul became determined to kill the “usurper” David, Pharisee Saul and those with him became determined to root out and destroy the “heretical” followers of Jesus. Saul the Pharisee was present when the first follower of Christ was killed, and he “took much pleasure” (Acts 8:1) in the killing of Stephen. Saul the Pharisee– Saul the Persecutor–was resolved to destroy the followers of the Son of David, just as his forefather was bent on destroying David. He would stop at nothing to stamp out this movement, going as far as to chase Christ-followers all over Israel and beyond, just as David had been.

This Saul–Saul the Persecutor–would make a radical change; he would become a follower of Jesus, the Son of David. On his way to Damascus to round up Christ-followers, Saul encountered someone unexpected–Jesus. This meeting changed Saul–now Paul– and no longer would he hunt down followers of Christ; instead he would go on to be a preacher, missionary, and theologian. Paul traveled throughout the known world, starting churches and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, teaching all that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of David. Paul would evangelize the Gentiles and would suffer much for the name of Christ: he would survive numerous beatings, whippings, being stoned nearly to death, shipwreck, and being bitten by a venomous snake. He would speak before kings and rulers and philosophers. Paul is proof that God can and will use anyone–even those who fight against Him–to accomplish His will.

The sons of Saul–those who are opposed to Christ– are still hunting down those who follow the Son of David. The world will never be the friend of the follower of Christ. We see how David was treated, how Christ was treated, and how the early church was treated; we should expect no less. The world will always view the radical Gospel of Christ as a threat, and the world will stop at nothing to crush this movement. When we are met with this opposition, we must remember that David never took up arms against Saul. We must also remember that Christ commanded us to pray for and love those who persecute and do harm to us. We must fight back with our love and with our prayers. We must pray for the Sauls who have yet to become Pauls.

Artwork: “Saul Tries to Kill David With His Spear,” Giovan Francesco Barbieri, 1646.

Be Salty.

Christianity, Religion

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Luke 14:34-35

Salt seems relatively unimportant to us today; it is nothing more than something added to food to enhance its flavor. For the ancients, however, salt was much more than this; it was a precious commodity. In many cultures, this mineral was worth its weight in gold. In an era before refrigeration and medical advancements like antibacterial medications, salt was a wonder mineral that could do nearly everything.

One characteristic of salt that made it so valuable is that it has the unique ability to preserve meats and foods from spoiling. This is the result of the mineral drawing moisture out of the food to which it is being applied. Additionally, salt also has the ability to purify things to which it is applied, and this also aids in its preservation. The salt kills any bacteria which would cause the food to rot or spoil quickly. Salt removes impurities and preserves that which is worth saving. It removes the bad and preserves the good.

As valuable as salt was to the ancients, though, it was useless once it lost its “saltiness”—those characteristics which enabled it to do the numerous things it did. Once the salt became not “salty,” there was nothing which could make it salty again. It could not be thrown into the fields, because too much salt in the soil would ruin the soil and prohibit and future growth. In this regard, even manure was better than saltless salt, because manure had a use as fertilizer. In Matthew’s gospel, Christ says the only use for salt that has lost its saltiness is to be thrown out upon the roadways and trampled under the feet of people. In other words, it was useless and good for nothing–it had lost the qualities which made it such a precious commodity.

Christ compares those who follow Him—His disciples—to salt. The authentic follower of Christ–one who follows the hard teachings of daily taking up one’s cross, loving Christ more than their family or their lives, seeking to embody the qualities of humility and total reliance upon God depicted in the Beatitudes–acts as salt in this world; they purify and preserve. The true disciple preaches out against sin and seeks to teach others how to be rid of the their sins by submitting to Christ and being washed in His blood. Along with this, the disciple of Christ builds up fellow believers, seeking fellowship and further discipleship. In these ways, the disciple purifies and preserves, just as salt did.

We must recognize that there is nothing in us innately which empowers us to be “salty;” it is only through the indwelling of God’s spirit within us that we can be the salt of the world. Furthermore, we must remember that we must abide in Him to continue being “salty.” When we lose sight of either of these facts–when we begin seeking our glory instead of His, or when we think that it is our talent and strength that is changing people–we lose our saltiness. When we neglect our duty as disciples of Christ–to preach and teach and make new disciples–we lose our saltiness. When we sit back and not speak out against the sin that is so rampant in the world, and we do not build up our brothers and sisters in the faith–when we do not purify and preserve–we lose our saltiness. Remember what salt is good for once it has lost its saltiness–nothing.

Christ made it clear: you can’t be a neutral disciple. You can’t be a nominal follower of His. You are either salt, or you are not. You are either good for something, or you are good for nothing. You are either purifying and preserving, or you are being trampled underfoot by the world. The choice is yours. Be salty.

Awake, Not Woke.

Christianity, Religion

“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep…The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Romans 13:11-12

The Apostle Paul focuses his attention in Romans 13 to one subject: how to live as a Christian amid a non-Christian culture. For Paul, the solution was simple—the Christian must be better than everyone else. Not better in the sense of being superior to others; rather being better in that the Christian is going to hold his or herself to a higher standard. The Christian is going to strive to live a life of higher quality, and in doing so, is going to be the model citizen and neighbor.  Paul’s rationale makes sense; after all, Christians should live differently because they are reflecting the change Christ has made in them. 

Paul goes to great lengths to underline the importance of the fact that believers have been changed by Christ. No longer are they sinners lost in the darkness of the night of their sinful stupor; they have now been awakened by Christ. The awakened soul of the believer is cleansed and regenerated. The believer no longer lives in the night as they did when they were sinners, but now lives in the light of the day. Just as one sheds their night clothes before they start the day; the new believer sheds the clothes of their sinfulness and clothes themselves with the armor of Christ.

Paul makes it as clear as he possibly can. Previously we were sinners. We lived in the night. We were so lost in the night that we were lulled to sleep by our sins. Everything about us was darkness. But Christ came, bright as the morning sun, and brought light to us. He awakened us from our spiritual slumber. He forced the night to flee from us. He changed us. Now that we are awake, we must go into the world—clothed in His glittering armor—and help spread that light.  We live humbly and peacefully with those around us, and we boldly preach His Gospel. We tell others how to come into the light by believing in the Son of God, who died to set all men free from slavery to sin.  We preach no other gospel than Christ crucified and resurrected, for there is no other gospel which can save souls.

Today there is a lot of conversation about being “woke,” meaning being aware of social ills and injustices, and working to correct them. The problem, however, with being “woke” is this: for many involved in such movements, there is a denial of universal truth—there is no Truth that is undeniably constant across time or from group to group. Instead, truth is subjective and relative to one’s experiences and interpretation. Therefore, people who are “woke” and fighting on the same side on one battle might find themselves fighting against one another in another battle, because their truth is not set in stone. Since there is no absolute Truth, there can also be no definitive answers to the problems which plague society. When there is no Truth, everything is true. When everything is true, nothing is true.

As Christians, we must remember that we are awake and not “woke.” We have the universal Truth: that man is fundamentally flawed and fallen and sinful, and that the Son of God—Jesus Christ—came to Earth to save us from sin. As His followers, we must work to make the world a better place and to fight against any of the social injustices that we see—we do this because it is the consistent application and outpouring of our belief in Him; this is part of spreading the light. This is part of living the type of life Paul urges us to live.  But we cannot let the Gospel become subservient to any sort of social gospel; this is idolatry. Any message that diminishes or seeks to take precedence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a false doctrine.

Anyone can be “woke,” but only someone filled by Christ with the Holy Spirit can be awake. Only Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can change the hearts of men and women and cause real change to take place in this world.

We are called to preach and teach Christ crucified and resurrected, and to reflect Him in all we do. This is our duty–nothing more, but absolutely not anything less.

Artwork: “Wake. Up. Now.” Esperanza J. Creeger

No Shame.

Christianity, Religion

“They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” ‭‭Genesis ‭3:8‬

“‘Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed, And they did not know how to blush…’ Says the LORD.”‭ ‭Jeremiah ‭8:12‬ ‭

Sin is not a trivial matter; it  is of the utmost seriousness– this is one of the major themes of the Bible. There is no way to honestly and accurately read the Scriptures without understanding the magnitude and gravity of sin. It is what separates us from God; it is what enslaves our souls. Sin is what causes death. To ignore or make little of the seriousness of sin is to overlook one of the fundamental truths of Scripture.

Sin must be taken seriously and confronted, because when it is not—when it is allowed to fester—it grows on us. It consumes us. We become addicted to it, and like with any other addiction, it takes more and more of it to give us the same “fix” we once achieved. Quite soon, we spiral to a point to where we don’t even feel bad about the sins we commit. We feel no shame.

We see this same pattern played out in the Bible. In Genesis, after Adam and Eve sinned and disobeyed God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it says “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked,” (Genesis 3:7). They felt shame at being naked and exposed in front of one another; innocence had been lost with the introduction of sin to creation. What Adam and Eve did next was more telling of the shame they felt; when they heard God walking through the garden, they hid from Him. This first “hit” of sin had caused Adam and Eve great shame, so much so that they hid themselves from the very God with whom they had previously enjoyed perfect communion. Before sin, there was no shame, there was no reason to hide. Sin changed everything, and Adam and Eve knew that they had done something wrong. Their sin caused them to feel things—namely shame—which they’d never before felt.

Sin impacts humanity as a whole just as it does us individually; before long we feel no shame from the sins we commit. Several millennia after Adam and Eve, we meet the prophet Jeremiah, who was sent to prophesy in Israel and Judah against their numerous sins. Israel and Judah had wandered far from God, spiraling deep into sin and depravity. These kingdoms worshipped false gods and idols, offered their children as human sacrifices, and sought after every fleshly desire.  God compared both of these kingdoms to harlots because of their behavior, saying “And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. Yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception,” declares the LORD.” (‭‭Jeremiah ‭3:8-10‬)

Jeremiah warned the people of Israel and Judah that God would bring judgment against them because of their sins. He pleaded with the people to repent of their depraved behavior and to turn back to God, but they would not. One of the most tragic and haunting lines in all of the Bible is found in Jeremiah 8:12, when God says of the people “that they do not know how to blush” at their sins. Israel and Judah had become so addicted to their sin that their behavior no longer caused them any shame or heartache; their behavior didn’t even warrant blushing at anymore.  Once there was a time when sin caused Adam and Eve to hide themselves from God, and now Israel and Judah were sinning with their heads held high. Shame and innocence were long gone.

The world we live in today is no different from Israel and Judah of Jeremiah’s day. Sin goes unchecked in nearly every area of society and culture. No longer do we blush at the sins we commit against the Lord. No more do we feel the need to hide ourselves in shame from the Holy God.

Despite this, God—in His infinite mercy—has given us another chance. He sent His son, Jesus, to die to make atonement for our sin, so that we might be forgiven of them. Jesus rose again from the grave to defeat sin’s biggest ally—death. God gives to those who believe and follow Jesus a powerful tool for living, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enters the believer and allows them to understand the gravity and danger of sin. The Spirit accomplishes this, not through the use of shame, but through conviction. It is the Spirit that moves in us and allows us to feel remorse when we do sin; it is the Spirit which reminds us that we know better when we find ourselves ensnared by sin’s barbs. The Spirit empowers us to live differently and to flee from sin.

Sin is a matter of life and death and should be treated accordingly. Let the Spirit empower you to flee from sin. In the moments when you do sin, remember to blush and be moved by the Spirit’s conviction; repent and ask forgiveness, and seek to sin no more.

I’ll Do It Myself.

Christianity, Religion

 ‘For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep…And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.'”Ezekiel 34:11-12, 23-34

The Book of Ezekiel contains some of the harshest prophecies against Israel contained in the Old Testament. God–patient and longsuffering as He is–could no longer tolerate how far Israel had wandered away from Him. Israel had forgotten their covenantal vow and had turned to idols and false gods, so now judgment must come. As terrible as the judgment would be, though, God promises a restoration that would follow the chastisement that He was about to levy against Israel. This punishment would be severe, but there would be hope for the future.

In chapter 34 of Ezekiel, God directs His righteous anger at the “shepherds of Israel,” the leaders of the religious establishment. These men had been given the sacred task of leading the people of Israel in worshipping Yahweh and were supposed to be models of how to live godly lives. Instead, the religious leaders had become corrupt and selfish; they were seeking to take care of themselves and advance their careers while the people were left to fend for themselves. Leadership in the religious system had become nothing more than an office from which men could draw political power; there was nothing spiritual about it. These “priests” had even permitted idol worship in the temple, a complete and total dereliction of their duty. The men who were charged with keeping Israel from idolatry were actively allowing it and encouraging it. They were teaching the people that there was no need for spiritual monogamy; that spiritual experimentation and spiritual promiscuity were acceptable. The “shepherds of Israel” were complicit in leading the sheep of Israel astray, and they were responsible for those sheep who had wandered off, yet they cared not.

God cared though; He cared greatly.

God was so concerned with how incredibly lost His people were that He knew there was only one solution to this huge problem: He would have to come to look for these lost sheep Himself. So He proclaimed that He would do just that; He would search for these lost sheep. He would be the greatest shepherd, the one who puts the safety and well-being of the flock before His own. He would search every mountain and every valley for these sheep who had wandered away from Him, and He would bring them back to the safety of the flock. He would search high and low, day and night, until He found His sheep. He would return them to the flock, and He would lead them and care for them. He would restore the broken relationship between them.

Not only would God act as the Good Shepherd and search for His flock, but He would set up a shepherd over them who would–unlike the failed shepherds of Israel–never lead the flock astray. God would put His servant David over the flock, and he would be a ruler over the flock. David, who had begun his career as a shepherd tending the flocks of his father, was the greatest king Israel ever had. As a shepherd, David had fought off each and every threat to the flock, putting his life on the line to keep the flock safe. As a king, David sought after God and sought to make sure the people of Israel pursued God as well. He was the model that every future leader of Israel was to mimic.

The judgment came to Israel in the form of the Babylonian conquest. Jerusalem was leveled, the temple was destroyed. Exile ensued. Many years later, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, and the righteous remnant awaited God to come with His servant, David, to search for the lost sheep of Israel.

Many more years later, God arrived in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. He came preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, and He came to search for the lost sheep of Israel. He had compassion for the people, for they were “scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus taught the people how they were to love God properly, and how they were to live. Where the former shepherds of Israel became corrupt and selfish and failed the people, Jesus remained righteous and selfless and committed to searching for the lost sheep. He was so committed to saving His flock, that He died to redeem and restore them from sin. He laid down His life to save His flock and to restore the broken relationship between He and them.

Jesus was not only God in the flesh, searching for His sheep; He was the Son of David–the promised Messiah–who would rule over the flock, and He will be an even greater ruler than His ancestor, David.  He will shepherd and protect and rule over His people, His flock. He will be their God and their King, and He will never fail them.

 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11, 14-16).

Artwork: “The Lost Sheep,” Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2017 https://jorgecocco.com/2019/03/02/the-parables/

But I Say…

Christianity, Religion

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Luke 6:27-28, 32-33

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what it means to be a follower of His. He lists the characteristics that His followers are to embody, and He describes how His followers are to exhibit their commitment to Him in the way that they live. Christ presents a new paradigm, a new model, by which His followers are to base their lives. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is the guidebook for living a Christian life.

Many things make Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount unique, an example being the authority with which He spoke. Usually, when rabbis would teach, they would appeal to the teachings of earlier rabbis to support the claims that they were making. Many of the rabbinic commentaries would have long passages giving various interpretations of the text by different rabbis. These passages would often begin with “Rabbi so-and-so would say,” and then give that rabbi’s commentary. Christ makes no such appeal to the authority of others; He is God, and He wrote the law. As a demonstration of His authority on these matters, He began His teaching with “but I say.” Matthew makes this rejection of the rabbinic interpretations even more clear in his gospel; he quotes Christ as saying “You have heard it was said to the ancient ones…” (Matthew 5:21). He is not referring to what God commanded the ancient Israelites, but to the interpretations and teachings of the rabbis and teachers that had been handed down from generation to generation. In many instances, the interpretation that the teachers came up with was a far cry from how God desired His people to enact His law. Christ, however, gives the authoritative teaching on the law in the Sermon on the Mount.

Christ’s interpretation and application of the law also set him apart from the rabbis of old. Many of the past rabbis, and some of the Pharisees contemporary to Jesus taught that since they were only required to love their neighbor, they were justified in hating their enemies. Christ debunks this flawed teaching, and He calls upon those who wish to follow Him to do the unthinkable–to love their enemies.

This call to love one’s enemies was radical, and Christ did not stop there. He called on His followers to do good, bless, and pray for those who do harm to them and speak poorly of them. Each of these commands goes against everything in one’s human nature; we do not want to do good for those who wish us harm, we do not want to pray for those who abuse us. These commands require that the Christ-follower be filled with a special sort of love–agape–a love which loves unconditionally, regardless of reciprocation. This is a love that only comes from God, and without being filled with this love, we cannot treat our enemies the way that Christ has taught us.

The command to love our enemies is foundational; everything else which we are to do for our enemy is built upon our love for them. It is this ability to love those who do not love us in return that separates the Christian from the sinner; sinners love those who love them back because that doesn’t require anything of them. That doesn’t require submitting to God and being filled with agape. Loving one’s enemies, however, requires humility and meekness and being refilled daily with God’s love. Living this sort of life–one which models meekness and humility, submission to God, and a love for one’s enemies–is what identifies the true believer.  It is in living this sort of life that we demonstrate the change that God has made in our lives and reflect that we are His children.

“But I say, love your enemy. Do good for them, bless them, and pray for them.” This isn’t merely a suggestion; it is the command of God Himself.

Artwork: “Jesus Preaching on the Mount,” Gustave Dore, c. 1860-1870.

Remember–Our God is One.

Christianity, Religion

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” Jude 4-5

The foundational belief of Judaism is that of monotheism, the belief in only one God and it is this religious distinctive that separated the Israelites from many of the other peoples of the ancient world. This fundamental belief is reflected in one of the most sacred and essential prayers of the Hebrew faith, the Sh’ma Yisrael, which states “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Moses taught these words to the Israelites as they were in the wilderness, so that they might remember who it was who liberated from slavery in Egypt, who it was who was giving them a promised land to inhabit, who it was who gave them a law to live by, and who would correct them when they strayed away. It was all one God, the one and only God, who ruled over Heaven and Earth.

Fast forward a few millennia from Moses in the wilderness to first century Judea. Sometime around 65 A.D. a Jewish man by the name of Jude is writing a letter addressed to the believers of a faith which came directly from the Jewish religious tradition. Followers of this new faith taught that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus taught the scriptures, performed miracles, spoke up for the oppressed, and challenged the religious establishment, and lived a life that was the embodiment of righteousness. He was arrested, crucified, and–three days after dying–rose from the dead. Those who followed Jesus believed that He was not only the Messiah but that He was God Incarnate–God in the form of a man.

False teachers began to infiltrate the early church. They taught a variety of heretical beliefs that undermined the teachings and being of Christ. Jude was determined to confront these false teachers and to help the earnest believers fight to protect the true faith from being polluted.

Jude focused his attention on those who taught that Jesus was not God, that He was only a human, although an incredibly good human. This teaching, according to Jude, was a perversion and a denial of Christ. Any teaching that presents Jesus as anything less than God is false. So Jude appealed to three specific examples from Hebrew Scripture to remind the believers of what they already knew–that Jesus is God.

Jude writes to the believers that it was Jesus who delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It was Jesus who expelled the rebellious angels from Heaven. It was Jesus who rained destruction upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Each of the Old Testament references for these scriptures would have been understood for Jewish believers in Jesus.  They understood what Jude was saying; in these Old Testament accounts where God performed mighty acts, Jesus was there too. Jesus was present because He is God. He is not a different god or a lesser god; Jesus is God in human form. He has existed forever with God and will continue to exist beyond the end of time. He is the Liberator, the Law-giver, the Redeemer, the Sacrificial Lamb, and the Righteous Judge. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The refrain of the Sh’ma echoes in Jude’s exhortation: Remember, our God is one. Jesus and God are one and the same.

Christ is so much more than an excellent teacher and a good man. He is the just and holy God of the universe. He came to Earth, not merely to perform miracles, but to offer Himself as a sacrifice to make atonement for humanity’s sins. False teachers will demean and deride Him and find any way to deny He is God, and they do this at their own expense. The real teacher and believer finds every way to exalt and worship Jesus for who He is–God. This is the foundational belief of Christianity, and this truth must be defended.

Artwork: “Sh’ma Yisrael/ Hear Israel- Deuteronomy 6:4-5” by Gina Dittmer

Cut.

Christianity, Religion

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Acts 2:37.

 Jerusalem was crowded with Jewish pilgrims visiting the city for the celebration of Pentecost fifty days after Passover, and the time was right for a mighty movement of God.  The Holy Spirit had just descended upon the followers of Christ who were assembled there together.  Being led by the Spirit, Peter got up to preach to the masses.

Peter’s sermon was powerful. He began with the prophet Joel and described how the coming of the Spirit fulfilled prophecies made by Joel and signaled that the “last day” had now been reached. He continued on through the Psalms and showed how David pointed forward to Jesus in his writings; showing that Jesus is Adonai and Messiah. Peter proclaimed the good news–the gospel–that this Jesus who was crucified and died was now alive, and that all who called upon His name would be saved.

Peter had come a long way; fifty days earlier he was cutting off the ear of one of those who had come to arrest Christ in Gethsemane. After that, he had denied knowing Jesus–not once, not twice, but three times; he even cursed Jesus’ name with his third denial. Peter was bold and brash, he acted before he thought. Now, only fifty days later–and after being filled with the Holy Spirit–he was preaching the first sermon of the Christian era. He was a fisherman from Galilee, utterly untrained as a teacher, yet he was teaching the Scriptures better than any rabbi had. He had been transformed by the Spirit.

The Spirit moved mightily in those hearing Peter’s words. Acts 2:37 tells us that they were “cut,” literally pierced, to the hearts. They were filled with the conviction of their sins and allowed to see the truth before them that Jesus is the Messiah. This cutting to the heart echoes the Old Testament prophets and is connected to the most fundamental of all Israelite customs: circumcision. We see this merger between the two when Moses commanded the Israelites to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Jeremiah echoes this appeal in his prophecies when pleading with the people to repent of their sinful ways.  People needed to change their hearts–cut away the sin and excess– and follow God, yet they could not make this change through their own strength or actions.

The Spirit was the tool by which God would change the hearts of His people. The Spirit is transformative and regenerative. It provided the means of circumcising their hearts, and it presented them with a renewed spirit. Those whose hearts the Spirit cut and transformed would now be able to walk according to God’s statutes and commandments. They would now be able to be His people.

The Spirit is still at work and cutting hearts today. It can still transform lives. It has been poured out upon all mankind and is seeking to circumcise the hearts of those who feel the pierce of conviction. Submit to it, be baptized in the blood of Christ, be filled with the Spirit, and let it prune away the dead sinful skin of your heart. Allow it to transform you, just as it transformed Peter, and just as it transformed 3,000 people who heard him preach that day.

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.