Christ’s Obedience, Our Salvation.

Bible, Christianity, Religion

“He then says, ‘See, I have come to do Your will.’ He takes away the first to establish the second. By this will of God, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.” Hebrews 10:9-10 

In Hebrews 10, we see the author of Hebrews continuing to discuss the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice to those of the old covenant. In this passage, the author tells us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take our sins away. The inferiority of the old sacrifices was demonstrated by the fact that they had to be renewed each year. Had these sacrifices been able to cure us of our sin, the author tells us that there would have been no need for them to be renewed again and again. Repeating the sacrifices each year served only to remind the people of their sins and their need for a savior.

To further support this point, the author quotes Psalm 40, in which the Messiah is speaking to God. In that passage, the Messiah says, “You did not want sacrifice and offering…You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings,” ( 5-6). This means that God takes no pleasure in the ritualism and methods of our worship; there is something more meaningful to God that He takes pleasure in. What is it, then, that God prefers more than our rituals? It is our obedience. This is demonstrated by Christ; He came into this world with one purpose: to do God’s will. Christ never strayed from doing God’s will, even when doing so required Christ to die on the cross. Christ was perfectly obedient, and His commitment to obedience allowed the new covenant to be enacted. Christ’s obedience saved us and freed us from the cycle of sin and shame that we were stuck in under the Law.

What does this mean for us? It means that our lives must be committed to obeying God. If we profess to be followers of Christ, then we must be like Christ, and we cannot begin to be like Christ if we are not obeying God in every area of our lives. As Christians, our sole motivation and purpose must be to obey God and live as He has called us to live. Obedience is the hallmark of an authentic follower. We must make sure that our actions, thoughts, views, and interactions reflect our obedience to Christ. Our actions reveal our hearts, and nothing will expose the inauthentic follower than a lack of obedience. God doesn’t desire our sacrifices, songs, or good works–He wants our hearts and obedience. Are we giving that to Him?

Artwork: “Christ’s Entry in Jerusalem,” Hippolyte Flandrin, c. 1842

Outwardly Clean, Spiritually Dead.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“But the high priest alone enters the second room, and he does that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.  The Holy Spirit was making it clear that the way into the most holy place had not yet been disclosed while the first tabernacle was still standing.  This is a symbol for the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the worshiper’s conscience. They are physical regulations and only deal with food, drink, and various washings imposed until the time of restoration.” Hebrews 9:7-10

In the outset of Hebrews 9, we find the author discussing the differences between the old and new covenants. To help us recognize and better understand these differences, the author goes into a detailed discussion of the tabernacle structure and the ancient Israelite worship regulations. This might seem to be an unusual approach, but the author does so to prove to us two crucial points. First, the author wants us to understand that, under the old covenant, we had no direct access to God. Secondly, the author wants us to realize that the old covenant’s regulations were never enough to give us salvation.
In verses 1-8, the author describes the tabernacle’s layout, the items inside the tabernacle, and the high priests’ duties on the Day of Atonement. The author explains these things to show us why we need a new covenant with God. Under the regulations of the old covenant, we had no direct access to God. There was always a barrier between Him and us, and this is illustrated by the veil within the tabernacle. The veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle. Though the tabernacle represented God’s presence with Israel, His space was isolated and cut-off from the people. No one could enter into the Holy of Holies on their own terms and approach God’s presence. Even the high priest was prohibited from going into God’s space other than on the Day of Atonement. There was no way for humanity to approach God other than the ways God prescribed.
Under the terms of the old covenant, we were separated from God. This is not because God was uncaring or aloof; instead, it was for our protection. Humanity needed this separation and needed these worship regulations so that we would not haphazardly approach God. We are sinful beings, and God cannot be in the presence of sin. His nature is so perfectly holy that His presence would kill us if we were to approach Him while still infected with sin. But because God loves us, and because He wants to draw us near to Him, He showed us how we could have a relationship with Him. He gave Israel the Law to show them how they could appropriately worship Him and live accordingly as His people. The Law provided a path to follow so that Israel could survive with God in their midst.
But there was a problem with the Law, and the author of Hebrews points this out to us. The Law only dealt with external things; it did nothing to change our hearts or change our sinful nature. The offerings and regulations of the Law could not give us clean hearts or clear consciences. Something better had to come; a better sacrifice and a better covenant had to be given so that our hearts would be changed. Something had to change so that we could have direct access to God. All of these things would be achieved in Christ.
Christ has done away with the divide between God and us. Christ has gone behind the veil and given us direct access to the Father. Christ has given us His righteousness so that we can freely and boldly approach the Father whenever we need to do so. Now, when we approach the Father, God no longer sees sinners deserving of condemnation and wrath. Because of Christ, the Father now sees us as His children, who have been redeemed and bought by Christ’s blood.
Christ gives us the direct access to God that we needed. Christ changes us so that we may approach the Father with reverence, but without fear. Most importantly, Christ enables us to live as the people of God. No Law could ever do that; none of our works could ever achieve this. Only Christ and His blood could do this for us. Because of this, we must stop trusting in things other than Christ, and we must put the entirety of our hope and faith in Christ alone.

Artwork: skeleton image by Adreas Veselius from his “Fabric of the Human Body,” 1543.

Blueprint of a Better Covenant.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” Hebrews‬ ‭8:1-2‬ ‭

In Hebrews 8, we see the author’s focus shift toward discussing the new covenant that Christ enacted for us. The author tells us that Christ is qualified to be the high priest of this new covenant because He serves in the true tabernacle in heaven, and not in the earthly tabernacle which is only a “sketch and a shadow” of its heavenly counterpart. The earthly tabernacle serves only to give us a glimpse of what we will see when we are in God’s presence in heaven.

In this same fashion, God’s old covenant with Israel is but a sketch, or a blueprint, of the covenant that He would make with us through Christ. To support this position, the author quotes Jeremiah 31, a passage in which God explains the new covenant’s coming. But before we can understand the new covenant, we must first understand the old covenant that preceded it.

After God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He led them to Mt. Sinai. At Sinai, God gave Israel the Law, and He told them that He had called them to be His people and that He would be their God. Israel would show their commitment to keeping the covenant by keeping God’s commandments. But this proved to be a problem, for Israel could never live up to these terms. They were never able to live according to God’s standard. As soon as they settled in the Promised Land, there arose a generation who did not know the Lord. From there, the situation only became worse. With each generation, Israel strayed further and further from the Lord. By the prophet Jeremiah’s time, God had decided it was time to make a new covenant.

In Jeremiah 31, the passage that the author of Hebrews quotes from, God tells Jeremiah that this new covenant would not be like the previous one, it would be better. God ensured that the new covenant would be better by vowing to fix the old covenant’s major flaw—us. Israel could never keep the law and keep the covenant because of their fallen nature. They were sinful beings, just the same as we are today. They couldn’t keep the law because their sinful nature made them incapable of doing so.

But God would do something different in the new covenant; He would change us. To ensure the success of the new covenant, God would change our human nature. He would give us new hearts upon which He has written His law. He would fill us with His spirit, and He would make us capable of living up to His standard and being His people. When God brings us to Himself through Christ, He makes us new creatures who seek only Him.

Living as the people of God requires us to be incredibly honest about what is in our hearts. We cannot be God’s people if we are still holding on to things from our old lives and from our old, sinful hearts. We must thoroughly examine our hearts, and if we see that we are holding on to sin, we must humbly go before God and ask for His forgiveness. We must pray that He remove that sin from us, and we must ask that He give us the strength we need to live as He calls us to live.

Crushed.

Christianity, Easter, Religion, Resurrection

“‘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.

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

“All the people were eager to hear the book of the law.” Nehemiah 8:3

“‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the law.” Nehemiah 8:9

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of what happens to the people of Judah when they return from the seventy years of captivity in Babylon. This focus puts them entirely out of place in the order of non-Hebrew Bibles, for Ezra and Nehemiah come before the books of the prophets that describe the coming of the exile to Babylon. When reading Ezra and Nehemiah, you see how the story of the exile ends, with the first meager waves of returning arriving back in their homeland. These books tell you the story of a people who had grown up in as exiles, captive in a foreign land, returning home to the ancestral land that they had never known.

The Book of Nehemiah focuses specifically on the story of the book’s namesake, Nehemiah, as he helps lead the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. When arriving back in Jerusalem, the returnees found the once-great city still lay in ruins. Nothing had been rebuilt since the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had razed the city. The walls–the symbols of the city’s security–were crumbling and useless, and the Temple–the symbol of God’s presence with His people–was but a heap of rubble. Jerusalem was still in disarray, both physically and spiritually. To make matters worse, many of the returning Hebrews were being exploited–by Persian officials and by Hebrews who were complicit with supporting their new Persian overlords. Nehemiah endeavored to bring legal order and justice back to Jerusalem, and he vowed to begin this–and a long list of other reforms–by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s quest to bring law and order back to Jerusalem was paralleled by his associate, Ezra the Scribe, who sought to bring religious and spiritual order back to the city.

Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the city’s walls has hindered and opposed by his adversaries. Still, he persisted, and he and his followers successfully rebuilt the walls. The completion of the walls coalesced with a sense of revival and renewal for the returned exiles. This highlighted by the celebration that took place when the walls were completed. In chapter 8, we find a celebration of dedication for the walls. At this celebration, the people of Jerusalem asked Ezra to come and read the Torah, the Book of the Law, to them. We are told that all the returnees are assembled there to hear it–men, women, and children who are old enough to understand. We are also told that all the people are eager to listen to the reading. Ezra is on a high platform, built just for this purpose so that all the people might hear him and see him. Throughout this service of worship and dedication, we find four essential characteristics that denote true, sincere worship:

We see the people are eager to worship

Everyone who was able to attend this service was there. It was of the utmost importance that the corporate body of believers was assembled for this moment. This was a family affair–both in the sense of the family of God being together and also in that entire families worshipped together.

The eagerness of the people is highlighted in verse 1, where it says the people requested Ezra read the Book of the Law at this ceremony. The people understood the significance of the moment. They had returned to their ancestral home–the home that their forefathers had forfeited by forsaking the Law. As such, the returnees wanted to recommit themselves to the Law so that they might not repeat the same sins as their fathers.

We see the people are reverent in worship.

When Ezra takes the platform to read, the congregation stands to hear him. They stand out of reverence for God and the importance of the words that Ezra will be reading to them. We are told that Ezra was reading the Book of the Law from dawn until noon, and the whole time, the people were there standing and listening. When Ezra completed reading the Book, the people cried out, “Amen! Amen!” and bowed their faces down to the ground and worshipped the Lord. Again, this sign of prostration is a sign of respect for God. The people realize the majesty of God and their unworthiness to approach Him, and so they bow their heads in somber reverence. 

Ezra also had the foresight to appoint several of the Levites–those who would be working in the Temple–to be out among the crowd, teaching the people as Ezra was reading the Law. Keep in mind that the returnees had grown up in exile in a society that was alien to their native culture. The returnees grew up in Babylon, speaking the language of that land, and their native tongue, Hebrew, was lost. Only those who grew up hearing Hebrew and were taught Hebrew could understand it. These Levites grew up being taught Hebrew, in the off chance that they would be able to go home and return to their positions in the Temple, and their study of the Law. So the Levites in the crowd translated the Law to the people so they could learn and gain insight about what they were hearing. The people were hearing words that they could understand so that they could learn and benefit from it.

We see the people were moved by their worship.

The significance of this ceremony, of this moment, was overwhelming to the people. They were once again in the Promised Land, in the holy city, hearing the words of God read to them in their ancestral language. They had returned home. The long and horrific ordeal of exile had ended, and they were the first ones to come home. It was a moment that moved the assembly to tears. They were weeping because their nightmare had ended, they were weeping because God had been faithful to them and returned them home, they were weeping because they were hearing the Law that their forefathers had forsaken thus bringing the horror of God’s judgment and exile.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites reminded the people numerous times not to weep, not to mourn, for this was a special day. This was a holy day–it was a day of rededication and renewal–and the people should rejoice and celebrate. The past was the past, mourning over it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, the people must rejoice in this day. The people must celebrate this day, rejoice in their return, and commit each and every subsequent day to follow the Lord. This day was not a day for mourning the sins of their fathers; it was a day for celebrating the faithfulness of God.

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

As the people learn more about the Law, they discover that they are already guilty of breaking the Law. We are told this assembly gathered on the first day of the seventh month, and in their reading of the Law, the people find that time is appointed for the celebration of the Festival of Booths. During this festival, the Hebrews were to live in tents for a week to commemorate the forty-years their ancestors wandered in the desert before coming into the Promised Land. So, the people went out and gathered the required items for the celebration, and they observed the Festival of Booths. 

The writer of Nehemiah tells us that this was the first time the festival had been observed since the days of Joshua–and this is a startling revelation. Over nine hundred years had spanned since the death of Joshua and the day in which the returning Hebrews observed the festival. The very generation who entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua–the very generation who vowed to keep all the laws and commandments of God–was guilty of not observing this festival. As soon as they entered the Promised Land, they began to become complacent and neglected to teach the next generation how to honor God and keep His commandments, and within a generation or two, the observance was lost. This might seem like a minor offense, but is a sin nonetheless. The Hebrew word for sin is khata (חָטָא), which simply means to miss the mark. God gives us the standard by which to live, and when we miss the mark–when we khata–it is sin. One miss–one sin–quickly leads to another, and pretty soon, the original target is lost altogether. Such was the case with the Israelites; they missed the mark by neglecting to observe one festival, and subsequent generations strayed farther and farther from the mark. The people of Nehemiah’s day realize this, and they vow not to repeat the same mistakes, not to miss the mark. They committed themselves that day to striving for the target God set and to live for God.

When we read Nehemiah 8, we must reflect very objectively on our own worship. Can we find the same four characteristics in our worship, week in and week out? Are we eager to worship? Do we look forward to going to the Lord’s house each and every Lord’s Day, or is our Sunday morning more routine and mechanical? Are we eager to worship, or are we dragging ourselves to our pew, and merely riding worship out? 

Are we reverent in our worship? Do we realize that we are in the presence of the almighty God, the King of the Universe? Is our view of God such that we understand our insignificance and our unworthiness to approach Him? Do we give Him respect and reverence, or do we come to worship thinking that God should be grateful to us for giving Him one hour of our time? Do we approach worship as the holy time that it is, or do we treat it as though it were yet another social function? Are we more concerned about being seen, shaking hands, and slapping backs than we are about being in the presence of the God who made us and who died for us?

Are we moved by our worship? Does our time in the presence of the Holy God move us to tears? Do we realize how illogical it is that He should want to commune with us? Do we comprehend how faithful He has been to us, despite all of our infidelities against Him? Does His love overwhelm us? Does it bring us joy to know that God has given us salvation, even at the cost of His Son? Or are we cold and rigid and unfeeling? Are we more concerned about getting out of church exactly at noon? Do we even care to feel the Spirit’s presence with us? Do we want to be moved by God, or are we satisfied just to slink into a pew and slink out when the service is over?

Does our worship confront our sin? Are we being told when we missed the mark? Are we forced to feel the Spirit’s conviction? Or is our worship just a pep rally to pump us up for the week ahead? Are we told of the target that God has set for us, are we forced to examine if we are on target or not? When we sin, are we told we must repent and ask forgiveness, or are we told that we are “good people” and given sappy stories to make us feel better about ourselves?

If our worship does not do for us what it did for the people in Nehemiah 8, then it is not worship. God does not want cold, dead, rigid, ritualism. God wants our sincere, genuine, heartfelt worship, both in spirit and in truth. We must examine how we might be missing the mark in our approach to worship. God sent His Son to die for us so that we might be forgiven for all of our many sins. He died so that we might once again be in communion with God. If that doesn’t motivate us to offer Him sincere worship in return, we are missing the mark. Christ died to end our nightmare of spiritual exile, to return us home to God, and we must approach worship with that in mind. How could we offer Him anything less than our most sincere worship? How could we not be moved by that? How could we not desire to be reminded when we miss the mark so that we can get back on target?

Approach worship with eagerness. Give God your most sincere worship, and let Him move in you.

Artwork: “Ezra Reads the Law,” Marc Chagall, 1960

I Will Trust You.

Christianity, Psalms

“My heart is in anguish within me;

    the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

    and horror overwhelms me.

And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

    I would fly away and be at rest;

yes, I would wander far away;

    I would lodge in the wilderness;

I would hurry to find a shelter

    from the raging wind and tempest.’

…But I will trust in you.”  Psalm 55:4-8, 23.

Psalm 55 represents one of David’s most heart-wrenching poems. Though there is no way to date when David penned this particular psalm, it was written in response to a terrible betrayal by someone close to him. The psalm reflects the emotions–grief, anger, pain– that David experienced as a result of this treacherous betrayal. There is no shortage of theories regarding the betrayal David is referring to in this psalm; some believe it was written during the time David was fleeing from Saul.  Others think it was written about the rebellion of David’s son, Absolam. There are even many who believe it was written about the horrific rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon. Whatever the situation was, David was deeply impacted and found no solace apart from God.

Throughout the text of Psalm 55, David bounces from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. He begins his prayer to God with an earnest petition for God to hear his pleas for help and deliverance. David goes on to ask for God to smite his enemies for their treachery and their sin. The fact that a friend committed this wrong–someone whom David trusted–is particularly difficult for him to reconcile, and it made the wounds of this betrayal all the more painful to bear.

The honesty with which David expresses himself makes this psalm all the more understandable and relatable. The pain that engulfed him, the anguish that overwhelmed him, caused him to experience one of the most human reactions to difficulty: the desire to run away. David longed to be able to remove himself from the sorrow and heartache of this betrayal. He wished that he could be a bird and fly far away to the isolation of the wilderness and forget all the grief he had experienced. He was amid a stormy trial longing for an escape, for a shelter where he could hide, for a safe place to which he could flee.

David, however, could not run away from this problem. Though he wanted to, and though it would have hurt less, he could not flee. He had to endure.

David comes to this realization at the end of Psalm 55. He remembers that God will not only repay the wicked for their injustice but that He will also sustain David through this trial. God is equally committed to preserving the righteous through their ordeals as He is to measuring out His judgment upon the wicked. The assurance of God’s control of the world–including the fates of both the wicked and the righteous–gave David hope. It also reminded him of a fundamental truth: that God’s sovereignty makes Him trustworthy. 

Regardless of the situation, God is still all-powerful and in control and, because of this, He can be trusted. He can be trusted to sustain us, He can be trusted to deliver us, He can be trusted never to abandon us. He alone is worthy of this trust. Friends, family, loved ones may hurt us, may break our trust, may–as in David’s case–betray us. But God never will. In those times, when we are overwhelmed to the point of wanting to run away, we must turn to Him. When we are looking for any way to flee our pain and heartache, we must remember that He can be trusted to sustain us and to see us through the trial. He will be there for us because He knows the pain of betrayal firsthand. God felt the wounds of betrayal in the Garden of Eden when humanity disobeyed Him and chose to pursue the knowledge of good and evil instead of pursuing a life with Him. God felt the pain of betrayal in the Promised Land when Israel scorned Him time and time again with their spiritual adultery with false gods. God felt the agony of betrayal again in another garden when Judas Iscariot approached Him with armed men and kissed Him on His incarnate cheek. Yes, God knows betrayal firsthand, and because of that, He can be trusted not to betray us.

There are situations in life that make us wish that we could run away. These situations are painful, often to the point of being more than we can bear. As in David’s case, these situations may be caused by people we trusted, which adds a deeper layer of hurt for us to wrestle with. There is One, however, that we can always trust; there is One who will never betray us, even though we are guilty of having betrayed Him. God is worthy of our trust, and while the world may turn its back on us, we can trust Him to sustain us and never forsake us.

Do not be overwhelmed by your circumstances. Do not grow weary and bitter because of your wounds. Trust in God, for He is in control. Trust in God, for He will see you through.

Artwork: “Colorful King David” Marc Chagall, 1956.

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

Salvation Is His Name.

Christianity, Religion

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Matthew and Luke both record in their respective gospels the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Each account gives a distinct perspective of how Christ’s birth came to be and took place, and each gospel writer gives unique details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, in Luke’s account, we are given the familiar story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Caesar Agustus’ census, the birth in the stable in Bethlehem, and the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds.

While Luke’s account is focused mainly upon Mary, Matthew gives us a version that deals with Joseph’s side of the story. This focus on Joseph is essential because one of Matthew’s intention is to show how Jesus is the promised messiah, or king, from the line of David. To accomplish this, Matthew lists Jesus’ family tree, from Abraham to King David, all the way to Joseph. We learn from this that Joseph is a direct descendant of David, and as such, Jesus would be adopted into the Davidic line.

After connecting Joseph and Jesus to David, Matthew’s attention shifts to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, specifically with the issue that Mary has become pregnant in the middle of her engagement to Joseph. Jewish engagements of this era were almost as binding as the marriage itself; to break the engagement, one party would have to receive a bill of divorce. Matthew tells us that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph still found himself in a precarious situation. For Mary to be pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s during the engagement could have raised accusations of adultery. With that charge, Mary could be put to death, as was the prescribed penalty under the Law of Moses.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he did not want to disgrace Mary publically. Joseph did not want to do anything that would endanger Mary; he was prudent. He has a man who followed the Law, but he also cared for Mary and did not want her to be hurt. She was going to have enough difficulty ahead being pregnant and unwed, there was no need to add to her burden. So Joseph decided to handle everything secretly and let everyone go their separate ways.

Though Joseph might have thought he was handling everything, this was not God’s plan. God was still going to use Joseph to be the earthly father of His Son, and Joseph was going to provide Mary’s child with the necessary Davidic lineage. He did not know it yet, but Joseph was going to play a vital role in God’s plan to redeem humanity.

So God sent a messenger to Joseph; an angel came to him in a dream. This angel spoke to Joseph and told this very important descendant of David not to be afraid to marry Mary. This was not just any ordinary child that she was carrying, this was a child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that God created everything in Genesis from nothing, He had created a baby in Mary from nothing. The angel continued to tell Joseph that Mary would have a son and that they must name this son Jesus. The angel then gives a critical detail about why this child must be called Jesus: it is because this child will save the people from their sins.

But what does this mean? What is the connection between the name Jesus and saving the people?

The English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yehoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ). In essence, Christ’s first name would be Josh. Both Yeshua and Yehoshua have the same meaning: YHWH is Salvation. So, our first step in understanding why Jesus must be named Yeshua is because that very name means “YHWH is salvation.”

There is a relationship between the name Yeshua and Hebrew words relating to salvation; they call come from the same root. For instance, the term “salvation” is yeshu’ah (יְשׁוּעָה) which sounds nearly identical to the name given to Christ. Likewise, the phrase “he will save” in Hebrew is yasha (יָשַׁע), which is an even more compact form of the name Yeshua. This all helps us to understand that salvation is at the very core of the name being given to Mary’s son. The baby must be named “Salvation,” because He is bringing salvation, and He Himself will do the saving.

This also sheds light on the identity of Jesus. His name, Yeshua, means “YHWH is Salvation,” but according to the angel’s explanation, Jesus is the one who will be doing all the saving; Jesus Himself has become the agent of salvation. Therefore, if Jesus’ name means “YHWH is Salvation,” and if Jesus is the one bringing salvation to the people-brining redemption from sin–then Jesus must be YHWH; He must be God. Proving that Jesus is God is why Matthew includes the quote from Isaiah 7:14– since Jesus is God, He is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy given by Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel (God with Us) because Jesus is God, and He has come to be with His people.

God spared no attention to detail in His plan to redeem humanity. He sent the world His Son, and that Son was named Salvation because He would save the people from their sins. That baby, who was both fully human and fully God, grew up to be a man who led a perfectly obedient life to God, and that man died so that salvation could be given to the world. Three days later,  Salvation–who is God with Us– rose from the dead, defeating sin and death once and for all.

Place your trust in the one who is both fully God and fully man. His name is Salvation, and there is no other name that you can call upon to be saved.

Artwork: “The Nativity,” from “Derriere le Miroir” Marc Chagall, 1950

The Lion King of Kings.

Christianity, Religion


“Then Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather around, and I will tell you what will happen to you in the days to come.

Come together and listen, sons of Jacob;

listen to your father Israel…’” Genesis 49:1-2.

“Judah is a young lion—

my son, you return from the kill.

He crouches; he lies down like a lion

or a lioness—who dares to rouse him?

The scepter will not depart from Judah

or the staff from between his feet

until He to whom they belong comes

and the obedience of the peoples belongs to Him.” Genesis 49:9-10.

We find a gripping scene presented in Genesis 49; it is one which is moving in both its emotion and in its scope and importance to the rest of Scripture. We find the last patriarch, Jacob–who had been renamed Israel by this point in his life–on his deathbed. He was living in Egypt, with his twelve sons, including his long-lost son, Joseph. Israel had come quite a long way, both in geography and also in his spiritual life. It had been many years since he tricked his brother Esau into giving him his birthright, and then stole Esau’s blessing as the firstborn. Many years had passed since Jacob wrestled all night with the Angel of the Lord and had his name changed to Israel. Now he was an old man, full of years, preparing to return to the land and be with his fathers.

The story of Jacob/Israel allows us to see God’s promise to Abraham take a significant step forward. Jacob was Abraham’s grandson; the once childless patriarch, Abraham, left his home and family and followed after God when He called him to do so. Abraham believed in the promise God made to him– that God would make him the father of many–and that from Abraham all the nations would be blessed. By the time we find Israel in Egypt on his deathbed, that family had already begun to blossom.

On one note, the scene found in Genesis is touching. We see here a dying father calling to his beside his sons so that he might give them his last bits of wisdom and advice; it was the time for Jacob/Israel to leave his last will and testament. Undoubtedly, this was a bittersweet moment, one filled with immense emotion. This family, members of which had long been separated from one another, had finally been reunited. Now, the family would once again be divided, this time by death and the grave. 

As Jacob/Israel speaks to his sons, we see something interesting in his words. He begins to offer up a blessing upon each of them, something that was customary for an ailing father to do before his death. But, in the pronouncement of the blessings, Jacob/Israel says that he will tell his sons about what will “happen to them in days to come.” The phrase “days to come,” is significant–the Hebrew word from which it is translated is “achariyth” (אַחֲרִית). This word can also be translated as “the end of days,” meaning at the end of time. It is also interesting to point out that “achariyth” is the corresponding opposite word to the phrase that is found at the very outset of Genesis; there we find the word “re’shiyth” (בְּרֵאשִׁית), which means “the beginning.” In the very first book of Scripture, we see the account of how the world began, we find at the close of that same book a prophecy about what will occur at the end of time.

The fact that Jacob/Israel is referring to things that will occur at the end of time is a clue that the events detailed in his blessing upon his sons will come into fruition long after all of them have died. From this, we can intuit that this is not merely a blessing that Jacob/Israel is giving to his sons; instead, it is a prophecy from God about events of the end of days.

Jacob’s prophetic blessing to his fourth son, Judah, is the most significant of the blessings. Judah would become the head of the family, a right that his older three brothers had forfeited through various actions. Judah, who is loyal and brave and valourous, like a lion, is told that his descendants would be revered, and they would be kings over their kinsmen. The line of Judah would rule over the children of Israel until the end of days, at which time, a special ruler from Judah would appear. This prophetic figure would be a king above other kings, for the scepter and staff that the kings of Judah hold rightly belong to this future promised Lion King of Kings. To this promised future king of kings belonged the obedience of all the nations. This promised coming Lion King of Kings would rule over not only Israel but all the peoples of the world.

The arrival of this promised king would be marked by agricultural abundance and bounty that had never before been seen. Grapevines would grow so thick that the Lion King of Kings would be able to use their branches as a hitching post for his donkey steed. There would be so many grapes and wine that he would use them to wash his garments. This agricultural bounty is supposed to call to mind images of Eden, where the land yielded its produce freely and without toil. 

This connection to Eden helps us to see that the arrival of the Lion King of Kings signals a breaking of the curse upon the land that was handed down as a result of the Fall in the Garden. If the Lion King of Kings is able to break the curse upon the land, then he must also be the one who crushes and defeats the Serpent. If the Lion King of Kings is the one who overcomes the Serpent, then he is also the one who brings blessing to all the world, as God promised Abraham.

In Jacob/Israel’s prophetic blessing upon Judah, we see the promises made to Eve and to Abraham narrowed just a bit more. God told Eve her promised avenger, the Snake Crusher, would be from her seed–that he would be human. Abraham was promised that his offspring would bless the world, and here Judah is told it is his line that would bring this blessing. God’s plan to save and redeem humanity took another step forward, and all would be waiting for the Lion King to come and free them from the curses.

Many years later, that very distant descendant of Judah would be born in a small town called Bethlehem. He would be from the line of a great king, and the heavens would burst open to proclaim his birth. He would grow up into a man who taught others how to live as God desires. But most importantly, that man–Jesus Christ–would willingly give His life to atone for the sins of the world, to redeem humanity, and to bring blessing to the nations. Jesus Christ is the Lion King of Kings. He rose again from the grave, and He is coming once more to bring those who trust in Him into His messianic kingdom.

Bend your knees before the Lion King of King. Submit to Him and be washed in His blood.

Artwork: “Lion of Judah,” Janet Latham–Fesmire Art Studios, 2015. (http://janetfes.blogspot.com/)

Blessing.

Christianity, Religion

“The Lord said to Abram:

‘Go out from your land,

your relatives,

and your father’s house

to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,

I will bless you,

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

I will curse those who treat you with contempt,

and all the peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3

The calling of Abram (later to be Abraham) is one of the most critical chapters in the Bible. In this scene, we read of God choosing Abraham to be the father of His chosen people, and Abram is told that these people will be a great nation. Abram is seventy-five at this point, and he and his wife, Sarai, are childless. Despite this crucial fact, Abram does not question God. Abram demonstrates faith.

God commanded Abram to leave his family and his land and everything that he knew and to go to the land that God would show him. Abram’s role in God’s plan, aside from being the father of a great nation, was to go into exile. This makes us recall Genesis 3, where God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden, both as a punishment for their sin, but also to protect them from the Tree of Life and God’s holy presence. Here in Genesis 12, we see Abram being commanded to go into exile to help bring about God’s redemptive plan to bring humanity back to Him. In leaving his land and people, Abram would walk with God as did Enoch and Noah, and he would suffer exile to help bring humanity back to God.

Perhaps the most crucial part of God’s promise to Abram was that all the people or nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Again, we think back to Genesis 3 to the Fall in the Garden, and how humanity was cursed toil with the land to eke out an existence, and also cursed with pain in bearing children. God’s promise of blessing to the nations isn’t a blessing of wealth or might, it is a promise of relief–that the curses of the Fall would be broken; that no longer would there be toil or grief or separation from God. The blessing that would come from Abram would be a reversal of the curses. For the curses to be broken, the important prophecy of Genesis 3:15 would have to be fulfilled–the Promised One from the seed of the Woman would have to crush the head of the Serpent. What God has promised to Abram is that one of his innumerable descendants would be that Promised One who defeats the Serpent and makes all things right again.

Abram would not see this fulfilled in his lifetime, but he still followed God.

So often, we get sidetracked and worried about details and things in our lives that are beyond the scope of our control. We worry, and we stress, and we don’t heed God’s call to follow Him because we can’t see how the pieces of His plan all fit together. We think–as the Serpent tricked Eve into thinking–that we can handle managing our lives ourselves, without God’s help. More often than not, when we try to take control of our lives, we only make the situation worse. It is only through submitting to God and His plan, and in doing what He calls upon us to do, that we can have any semblance of peace in this life.

We have to trust that if God has called us to do something that He has ordained to do, then there is nothing that can thwart or foil His plan; His will shall be accomplished. Likewise, we should have no fear of following His will. We know that the Promised One–Jesus Christ– has come, and the Serpent has been defeated. No longer are we banished from God’s presence; instead His Spirit lives within us. What then is there to fear in this world? Death and the grave are defeated, our slavery to sin broken, and our God is alive and lives within us. We have no reason not to have faith in Him and to follow wherever He calls us. Our blessing has come, but there is still work to be done and calls to be obeyed.

Artwork: “Abraham Leaves Haran,” Francisco Bassano the Younger, c.1560-1592.