Rest.

Christianity, Religion

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus‬ ‭33:14‬

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘You will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-29‬ ‭

Rest is a precious commodity. As our daily routines run together into weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, and we find ourselves exhausted and worn out. Rest is one of the most necessary items we require in our lives, and yet it is the one thing that we so often fail to get or choose to go without. We run ourselves ragged, never taking time to rest and to enjoy all the many things in our lives that God has blessed us with, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and spiritually drained. We do not rest like God desires us to, or as He modeled for us to do through His own actions. 

God rested from His own creative work, so that He might enjoy it. The Sabbath itself was for man to worship God through resting from the mundane. Rest serves as a positive interruption from the grind of our daily lives. Rest is the small break from the toil that sin chains us to as a result of the Fall. 

The importance of rest is further reinforced by the promise thereof in the two passages we see today. In Exodus 32, the Israelites committed their sin of idolatry with the golden calf. As a result of this, at the outset of Exodus 33, God told Moses to carry on leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. God went on to tell Moses that He would  send an angel before them to clear the way for them, but that He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. God would not be going any further with them because of their obstinacy and continual desires to test Him and stray from Him. The people heard this news and mourned greatly, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people for Him to remain with them. God then promised Moses that He would go with them, and that He would grant them rest—He would lead them to the place He promised to them, and He would allow them to enjoy it. 

This promise of rest is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God reiterated it to Joshua when he began to lead Israel after the death of Moses. God promised to give Israel rest from their enemies as long as they remained faithful to Him. After the conquest of the Canaanites, it was said that even the land itself had rest. The message of rest was continued by the prophet Jeremiah; he told the Israelites that if they had remained in the ways of those of old who had followed God, then they would have received rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16).  Instead, they strayed and became even more enslaved to sin, and thus had to experience God’s judgment. Israel’s infidelity voided their promised rest. 

The reward for faithfully following God was not prosperity in this world, nor was it a promise of being spared from pain and suffering. God’s promise was to give His people rest, so that they might endure whatever they encountered. 

Jesus’ own preaching touched on this same promise of rest. In Matthew 11, after calming the fears of the imprisoned John the Baptist, and preaching in honor of John, Christ turned His attention to the cities in which most of His ministry took place. He denounced Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their hardheartedness—or obstinacy—-and said that if Gentile cities had witnessed such miracles, they would have  been immediately repentant. Those who thought they knew how God operated and thought they had God figured out were blind and missing what He was doing, while the infants—those who were untaught and uneducated in the Law or how God worked—were the ones who were witnessing and partaking in the miraculous works of the Messianic Age. 

Christ then called on all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and that He would give them rest. Christ is not a cruel and demanding task master, the yoke He offers is not one which will bear the wearer down; it is not a yoke of oppression like that of sin. Instead, the yoke offered by Christ is one which is easy and light, for He is meek and gentle. Those who come to Him and learn from Him and live like Him will find rest for their souls. Christ here  quoted directly from Jeremiah 6:16, saying that those who yoke themselves to Him and follow Him will walk in the paths that lead to rest. 

Christ will give to His followers the rest that God promised throughout the Old Testament. He will grant them  peace and an interruption from the constant and hectic pace of life. Christ promises to His followers the thing they need most in this life. It is not prosperity, nor is it a lack of trials. His promise is that of rest, so that we might worship Him and enjoy His blessings, and so we might be able to endure this world. 

Go to Christ. Allow Him to break your chains of slavery to sin and bondage to this world. Take the yoke that He offers you, and let Him lead you in the ways which lead to rest.  

Artwork: “Noon Rest From Work After Millet,” Vincent van Gogh, c. 1880. 

Vines and Roots.

Christianity, Religion

“Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.” Isaiah 5:1-2

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:1,4 

The Old Testament prophetic works give us a unique view of the society of ancient Israel. Those whom God called upon to be His prophets had a specific purpose: to deliver a message from God to the people. Often, God also called upon the prophets to write down the words that He had given to them, so that future generations would heed them and learn from them as well. From these writings, we learn about what the people of Israel were doing, and we also read of the work that the prophets did. Our view of Old Testament-era Israel is written from the perspective of those who remained faithful to God, and this allows us to see how far Israel had wandered away from God.

The prophet Isaiah is a perfect representation of all of this: he lived in the era before the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, and God called upon Isaiah to deliver a two-fold message to the people of Israel and Judah. The first part of the message was one of punishment; the people were told that their sinful behavior and disregard for God had gone on for too long, and that God would bring about corrective judgment. The second part of Isaiah’s message was one of hope–that after the judgment came, there would be a restoration.

Chapter 5 of Isaiah’s writing presents one of the most beautiful examples of his work. In it, the prophet relays a parable to the people of Israel from God. In this parable, God describes Himself as a vinedresser who plants a beautiful vineyard, a vineyard which the vinedresser loves and cherishes and nourishes. Within the vineyard, the vinedresser reserves the best spot for the best vine, and the vinedresser does everything within his power to ensure the success of the best vine and vineyard. The vinedresser goes as far as to build a tower in the midst of the vineyard so that he can stay in the vineyard with the vines, look out over the vines, protect them, and watch them grow and flourish.

The vinedresser loved the vines in his vineyard, and he did everything he could to ensure their success–to ensure that they bore good fruit.

The vines, however, did not produce good fruit. They instead produced worthless grapes; grapes which were good for nothing and were rotten and inedible. Despite the love and best efforts of the vinedresser, the vines had become infected and infested with something that had ruined them, and destroyed any potential they had of producing good fruit. The vinedresser laments “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Isaiah 5:4). The vinedresser had done everything he could for the vines, and yet they still failed to do what he had hoped they would.

Isaiah unpacks this parable for us–Israel is the vineyard, and Judah the choice vine. God planted Israel in the Promised Land, He nurtured Israel, He proved for them, He protected them, He did everything that He could do for them–even gave them the Law–so that they could be His holy people; so that they could be holy as He is holy. God loved Israel and built His house, the Temple, in their midst–just as the vinedresser built the tower in the vineyard–so that He could dwell among His people.

And yet, just as the vineyard in the parable failed to produce the fruit it was supposed to yield, so too did Israel fail at being God’s holy nation of priests. Israel could be no different than the fallen humanity around them; they were infested by sin and succumbed to pagan worship, idolatry, immorality, and infidelity to God. Israel’s spiritual fruit was just as worthless and rotten as the worthless grapes of Isaiah’s parable.

In the parable, the vinedresser realizes that the only way to remedy the infestation in the vineyard is to let the vineyard be destroyed; to allow the elements reclaim the vineyard and to begin anew. God would do this same thing with Israel; the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be destroyed by Assyria and Babylon. This destruction was to be the punishment for their continued sin; it was also to purge the faithlessness from the people so that they would not stray from God again.

Isaiah’s message, though bleak, does contain hope. In chapters six and eleven, he begins to talk of a root which would survive the destruction and judgment, and which would grow back. This root, the Root of Jesse, would lead to one who would be the true vine–who would be the vine that Israel was always intended to be. This root of Jesse, or the line of David, would lead to one who would undo the curse which has decreed after the Fall, and this one–this messiah–would lead all the peoples of the Earth in seeking after God. The One from the Root would enable people to live as God commanded them to live.

On the night that Christ was betrayed, He celebrated the Passover–the holiday in which Israel commemorated God resuing from slavery in Egypt so that He might plant them in the Promised Land–with His disciples. After eating the Passover meal, Christ gave the disciples a new observance, the Lord’s Supper. Following the Communion, Christ and the Eleven walk through the streets of Jerusalem to Gethsemane. In John’s account of this nighttime trek, Jesus spends these last moments giving the disciples His final teachings and instructions. He also reveals His messianic identity in a way that beautifully demonstrates the connectivity and cohesion of the Old and New Testaments.

In John 15:1, Christ tells the disciples plainly that He is that true vine–the one which grew from the Root of Jesse, and that His Father is the vinedresser. His words hearken directly back to the themes we read about in Isaiah; Christ here establishes Himself as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.

Christ gives the disciples–and all future believers–a crucial instruction: to abide in Him. The Christian must remain connected to and believing in Christ for two reasons: first because on our own, we can do nothing. Just as a branch cannot grow and produce fruit unless it remains attached to the vine, neither can we be fruitful and faithful unless we stay connected to the true vine–Christ. Secondly, and more importantly, it is only through abiding in Christ that we can keep from being infected and infested like the vineyard of Isaiah’s parable. Abiding in Christ is the only way in which we can avoid being ruined by sin.

We must understand this: just as the vinedresser allowed the vineyard to be destroyed to purge it, and just as God allowed Assyria and Babylon to lay waste to Israel and Judah to purge them of their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God was now going to let the true vine be destroyed in order to cleanse humanity from its infestation of sin. The destruction that Israel experienced was only a preview of the judgment and destruction that humanity deserved, but Christ took that judgment in our place. He had the full cup of God’s wrath–the wrath which we should have endured for eternity–poured upon Him and He allowed it to kill Him so that we would be pardoned.

Through the shedding of His blood and His death, Christ purged us of the sin which infected us, which keeps us from bearing good fruit. By cleansing us of our infestation of sin, He made us able to live as He commands us to live; He corrected the very problem Israel could never overcome. With that, just as the root of the previously destroyed vine grew back, death would not be able to contain Christ, and He–the true vine–would grow back again, only three days after his death. As Christ walked with his disciples on that first night of Passover–Christ knew everything that was about to happen, and He knew why it must happen. So Jesus commanded the disciples to abide in Him, to stay connected to him– to keep believing in Him, because that was the only way for them to be rid of the sin which would destroy them.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God planted a new vineyard, and Christ is the choice vine. Faith and belief in Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to become branches on His vine, and as long as we abide in Him–remain connected to him, believe in Him, seek to do his will–we will bear fruit. We will be pruned and cut back from time to time, this process will hurt and be painful, but it re-shapes us; this is the only way in which we can grow. Our sinful flesh still causes us to think that we can grow on our own; it still tempts us to turn away from God, but we must abide in Him. Without Him, we will be no better than the worthless vines of Isaiah’s day, and if we turn from Him, we deserve the same fate that they met.

In Isaiah 5:4, we saw God asking what more could He have done for his vineyard, for Israel. In Christ, we see God doing the only thing left to do– going to the root of the problem, and killing the sin which ruined Israel and all of humanity. In order to do this, Christ had to suffer. He had to endure the fullness of the wrath and judgment of God–the wrath and judgment which was rightfully ours–and He did so willingly. He did this so that we could be grafted in as branches of the true vine, His vine, and so that we could abide in Him and be empowered by His spirit to live as He commands us to live–as Israel was supposed to live– as His holy people–a people who live out righteousness and justice.

He died so that we could live differently and bear fruit.

So, we must exam our lives; we must look at ourselves and determine this: what kind of fruit are you? What kind of fruit are you producing? Are you abiding in Christ? Are you bearing fruit? If so, continue abiding in Him, and be ready to be pruned back from time to time so that you might grow and bear more fruit. When the pruning comes, continue to abide in Him, regardless of how painful that process might be.

God has done everything for us, even more than what He did for Israel–He sent His son to redeem us from sin. In three hours on the cross and three days in the grave, Christ fulfilled our eternity in Hell.

Abide in Him; stay connected to Him. Turn away from the sin that infest you, and allow Christ to cleanse you and enable you to live differently, and then bear fruit for Him.

Artwork: “The Green Vineyard,” Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

Obedience.

Christianity, Religion

“Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices

As in obeying the voice of the Lord?

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

And to heed than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is as the sin of divination,

And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.

Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,

He has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15:22-23

Chapter 15 of 1 Samuel is a hard text to wrestle with; it is one in which we see God’s vengeance on full display, and it is a text in which we are forced to realize the high value that God places on obedience. We read of Saul’s failure to obey God completely, and we learn from that failure that incomplete obedience is not good enough for God; we are forced to understand that incomplete obedience to God is no better than total disobedience. 

At the outset of chapter 15, God calls upon Saul to go and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites and all of their livestock; Saul and his men were to leave nothing left of the Amalekites. This is a prime example of one of the issues which make this text so difficult; it is hard for us to read and accept that God would give such orders to be carried out. Many critics of Scripture point to such instances in the Old Testament–such as this example of the destruction of the Amalekites, or the purging of the Canaanites in the conquest of the Promised Land–and make claims about God being blood-thirsty and unjust. Such claims ignore the fact that God is, indeed, just, and He is also holy. He is so holy that He cannot tolerate sin; anything which is infected with sin is destroyed by His very presence. God is so totally holy that He cannot even be in the presence of sin, and yet the mere fact that He does not issue more such decrees to destroy sinful man–that He continues to allow fallen humanity to exist– is a testament to His mercy and love. We must remember that God is holy and just and that He has justified reasons to issue the commands that He does. We must also not forget that such decrees for destruction are but mere reminders of what we all truly deserve.

The root cause of the destruction of the Amalekites is found in the pages of Exodus, in chapter 17. Immediately after liberation from Egypt, and just as Israel was starting their journey through the wilderness, they were attacked by the Amalekites. This attack was unprovoked and came at a time in which Israel was weak, vulnerable, and unprepared to fight. The Amalekites knew this, and as such, this attack was intended to destroy Israel. Moses and Joshua were able to find men to fight back against the attack. As Joshua led the defense, Moses went up on a mountain overlooking the battlefield. During the course of the battle, Moses stands upon the mountain with his arms and staff raised above his head; as long as he had his arms up the Israelites prevailed. As the battle rages on, Moses grows tired and is unable to keep his arms up, and the Amalekites began to prevail. Aaron and Hur come up the mountain and hold Moses’ arms up for him, and the Israelites defeat the Amalekites. Following the battle, God tells Moses that He will remember the transgression of Amalek, and because of this egregious attack, He will “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven” (Exodus 17:14). God told Moses that He would seek vengeance upon Amalek for trying to destroy His people.

Some 300 to 400 years later, God decides that the time has come to repay the Amalekites for their attack. He gives Saul the orders to follow, to completely destroy all the Amalekites and all their possessions, and Saul calls up the army and heads off to fight. Saul and the army destroy the Amalekites, but they do not follow through with everything that God had told them to do. They spare Agag, the Amalekite king, and they spare the best of the livestock–they only destroy the things that were of lesser quality and importance. Saul was given explicit orders by God, yet he only offered God partial obedience.

The results of Saul’s partial obedience are severe: God tells Samuel the Prophet that He regrets making Saul king over Israel. We see the same word used here to describe God’s emotion as was used in Genesis where before the flood that God was “sorry” He had created humanity after seeing how evil mankind had become. 

God’s regret regarding Saul stems from the fact that Saul was disobedient. Saul was supposed to be God’s representative on earth. He was ruling over the people with whom God had chosen to recreate the relationship that had been lost as a result of the fall in Eden, and Saul repeated the same sin–disobedience–which had led to the fall in the first place.

Samuel is sent to confront Saul about his disobedience, and Saul attempts to justify saving the best of the Amalekite livestock by saying they were going to be offered as sacrifices to God. Samuel, however, informs Saul that this is not the point; God doesn’t value sacrifices as much as He values obedience. Saul’s offerings were merely insincere flattery, a lip-service to God, in the light of his disobedience. The true intentions of Saul’s heart were revealed through his actions.

Due to his failure to obey, Saul would lose the kingdom, and a new king–David–would be anointed. David would be the king that ruled as God wanted a king to rule, and he would be a king who sought after God’s own heart. The obedience exhibited in David–though he did have his failures–would be further exemplified and perfected by one who would come from his line. From David’s line would come one who would demonstrate perfect obedience to God, following God all the way to the cross to die so that sinful humanity might be redeemed. That one would be Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God.

So often, we find ourselves following in Saul’s footsteps, offering God partial obedience and expecting Him to be satisfied with that. We have made ourselves believe that God will look past our lack of obedience because we show up on Sundays to offer Him praise and prayers and worship. We forget that our real intentions–the intentions of our hearts–are exhibited in our actions and that He sees our very hearts. We try to substitute prayer for obedience, but we fail to understand that our prayers and worship mean nothing if we have no intention of being obedient. We pray to God and give Him our list of demands to be satisfied, and tell Him that if He fulfills those demands that we will then reward Him with our obedience. We demand that the God of the Universe justify our obedience to Him as if we have authority over Him to make such a plea. If Christ’s death isn’t enough to justify our obedience, then there is nothing which will justify it.

We must stop acting like Saul. We must stop offering God partial obedience. Our incomplete obedience is the same as total disobedience. We cannot substitute prayer or worship for obedience; for our obedience is the thing which God values more than anything. Christ was obedient to God, even unto death, a death which saved us from damnation. You can offer Christ no less than your total obedience in return.

Artwork: “Saul Reproved by Samuel For Not Obeying the Commandments of the Lord,” John Singleton Copley, 1798.

Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

Houses.

Christianity, Religion

“In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’…Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house… He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” ‭‭2 Samuel‬ ‭7:7, 11, 13‬

“In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord…
…And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications. He was seven years in building it.”

‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭6:1, 38‬ ‭

“Solomon was building his own house thirteen years, and he finished his entire house.”

‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭7:1‬ 

In 2 Samuel 7 we encounter one of the most crucial passages of the Hebrew Bible: the establishment of the Davidic Covenant. This passage details one of the most significant advances in God’s salvific plan for humanity, as it is from the dynasty that God promises to David that the Messiah would come from. 

Repeatedly throughout 2 Samuel 7 the word “house” is mentioned, and there is significance to this. Before God reveals His plan to David, He reminds David that He has resided a tent since delivering Israel out of Egypt. Though God’s residence has been a tent—the Tabernacle—He has never once asked any of Israel’s leaders—David included—to build Him a permanent house, a “house made of cedar.” God’s priority was establishing Israel, not having a house built for Himself. 

God’s reminding David that He doesn’t have a house is juxtaposed with the revelation God gives to David; that God is going to build David into a “house,” or a dynasty.  Just as was the case with establishing Israel, God cared more about building up David’s house than He did His own. When we consider all the messianic implications of the House of David—going all the way back to the promises made to Eve in the Garden, and to Abraham in Genesis 12, and Judah in Genesis 49–we realize that in many ways, what the House of David represents is more important than a permanent structure for God to reside in. We see God’s selfless nature on display—it was more important to God to further progress His plan to redeem humanity than for Him to have His own house built. The salvation of mankind was more important than a temple. 

With the covenant with David enacted, David’s line does what God told David it would do. David’s son, Solomon, builds a house for God in Jerusalem, and the temple is completed in seven years. We are told that the temple is a marvelous structure, beautifully decorated with Edenic imagery, and represents God’s residence with His people. The building of the temple represents the peak of Solomon’s relationship with God. 

Immediately after we are told that Solomon’s construction of the temple took seven years, we are told that construction of his palace took thirteen years. Solomon took nearly double the amount of time to build his own palace that he took to build the dwelling place of God. Herein lies the tragedy of Solomon: he was a man who began his reign as king with immense zeal for God, but he allowed the power and trappings of power corrupt him. Solomon lost sight of what was important, and in his actions he elevated himself above God. Solomon’s actions with the temple and his palace represent the exact opposite of then selflessness that God exhibited when God built David into a house before His own. Solomon falls greatly; he entered into political alliances with Egypt and other nations, he married foreign women, and he worshipped false foreign gods. As if all of that were not bad enough, Solomon began using slave labor to complete building throughout the kingdom—slaves conscripted from among his own people. Solomon became so hungry for power that he began to enslave his fellow Israelites. It is no wonder that the biblical authors began to describe Solomon as they did the Pharaoh in Egypt who enslaved their ancestors. Where God demonstrated selflessness to be able to enact a plan to save humanity, Solomon became so corrupted that he enslaved his countrymen. 

The Davidic Covenant is important because it shows God’s selflessness and faithfulness. It shows that God was advancing His plan to save humanity, and that He was continuing to keep the promises made to Eve, Abraham, and Judah. The selflessness God demonstrated by establishing David’s house before having His house built is a small preview of the selflessness demonstrated by Christ; Christ also was more concerned about redeeming humanity and freeing them from sin, so much so that He died to make it possible.  

Praise God for His faithfulness and selflessness. Seek to live a life that reflects those same qualities. Learn from the failures of Solomon. 

Artwork: “Song of David,” Marc Chagall, c. 1956

High Places.

Christianity, Religion

“Abijah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David. And Asa his son reigned in his place. In his days the land had rest for ten years.  And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandments. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him.” II Chronicles 14:1-5.

The books of I and II Chronicles are often, sadly, overlooked by Christians. Following the lengthy narratives contained in the books of Samuel and Kings, the Chronicles appear to merely do just what their name implies—be an entire chronicle of the history of Israel back to the time of Adam. The Chronicles retell much of the same information initially mentioned in other texts, and significant passages Chronicles almost match passages in other books word-for-word. 

Chronicles, like the other Biblical books,  are inspired and in the canon for a purpose; however; that purpose may be a little obscured when looking at Chronicles outside of a Hebrew Bible. For the Chronicles, as in real estate, location is everything. In the order of the Hebrew Canon, the Chronicles are the final book of the scriptures. The repetition of information is for a purpose; it is to drive the information home and ingrain it in the mind of the believer. For example: throughout the Chronicles, the phrases “did what was good in the sight of the Lord,” or “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” are repeated again and again to describe the various kings of Israel and Judah. This repetition was intentional; God was hammering into His peoples’ minds the traits of the godly leaders for which to look, and the traits of the evil leader to avoid. This emphasis on being able to recognize a godly ruler was also for a purpose. The Chronicles conclude with Cyrus of Persia conquering Babylon and allowing the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple to their God. With the Babylonian Exile coming to an end, there was hope for restoration, and there was hope that a new king like David—a Messiah—would be sent to rebuild the temple and restore the kingdom. The final book of the Hebrew Bible concludes with a high degree of messianic expectation, and the Chronicler wanted to help the people of Israel remember the good rulers of the past so they would recognize the perfect ruler to come.

King Asa, who lived centuries before the Exile, was a prime example of the good, David-like king for whom Israel longed. He lived up to the high standard left by his great-great-grandfather, David. Asa was a man who feared God and sought after Him with his whole heart, and because of this, Asa was a good king. He is, tragically, one of only a few good kings described in the Chronicles.

During the reign of Solomon, Asa’s great-grandfather, pagan worship once lured Israel away from God, and this occurred at the encouragement of Solomon. Idols and altars to false gods appeared all over the land, and the people forsook their God. We often wonder how this continually happened in the Old Testament narratives, but when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we must remember it is a minority report of sorts. It is an account of Israel’s spiritual history written by the faithful, and the faithful were never the majority. Two points prove this fact: first, the Babylonian Exile–had the majority of Israel and Judah been loyal to God, such judgment would not have been necessary. Secondly, acceptance of pagan altars was so widespread that it took an act of the king to remove them. The broader society of Israel and Judah at this time was so accepting of the pagan practices that it took action by the highest official in the land, the king, to get the people to realize their faults.

But Asa did remove the pagan high places, and he worked to turn his kingdom of Judah back to God. He led by example. He did not tolerate pagan worship, even though the masses did. He took a stand for God and did what was right. Asa lived as God expected His people to live; he made no excuses, and he did not sweep sin under the rug. As a result, Asa and the Kingdom of Judah experienced a time of peace. Asa’s reign is one of the few high points of the period of the Divided Kingdom. His people would remember him as a king who sought after God, and who led his people to worship God. In this regard, Asa very much resembled his shepherd ancestor, David.

Things have not changed very much since Asa’s day. Society-at-large worships at the pagan altars and high places today still, just as they did so many centuries ago. Idolatry and sin go uncondemned and are encouraged. All of humanity’s darkest, basest, most carnal desires get flaunted for all to see and to accept. There are still today those who–as they did in Asa’s day and later in Christ’s day– put their faith in the cultural association they have with God. They have convinced themselves that since some righteous ancestor, perhaps a grandmother or great-great-grandfather was a firmly-believing and sincere follower of God, that their salvation is secure as well, and they continue to live as they so choose. Cultural Christianity is no more an appropriate approach to following Christ than were the nominal religious practices of those in Asa’s day who gave lip service to God and continued to worship false gods in the high places. Being a sincere follower of God is no more en vogue today than it was in Israelite society at any point during their history.  Thankfully, for the committed believer, God never changes and He remains just as firmly committed to those who seek Him as He has always been.

The high places are not limited to the broad culture; even believers continue to wrestle and struggle daily with sin. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:12-13‬). Yes, we have been bought and redeemed by the blood of Christ. But our flesh is still fallen, and we wrestle with that. As Paul said, we must put to death the deeds and sins of the body, for they will lead us to death. This process of confronting our sin is on-going and will never end in this life. We will wrestle daily with sin. But, we must also confess that sin to God and ask His forgiveness for it. For a believer to live with unconfronted and unconfessed sin in their life is just as much of an affront to God as were the pagan altars in ancient Israel. We can not be like Asa and tear down the high places in the culture if we are unwilling to first tear down the high places in our own hearts. We cannot change society if we are not radically different from that society.

Sin is a serious topic; it should be of our utmost concern. It seeks to burrow itself deep into our innermost being and to define us and control us. It is a ravenous beast, crouching at the door of our hearts, and its sole desire is to destroy us. Christ died to liberate us from sin, and to remove its grip from our lives; He died so that He might kill that beast which was seeking to kill us. He took our sins—all the ones we’ve committed and will ever commit—upon Himself, and He paid the price of those sins for us. He sent His Spirit to live within us so that we might be empowered to avoid sin and temptation, and to strengthen us as we wrestle daily with the sinful desires of our fallen flesh. Christ died to enable us to remove the high places and the sins in our hearts. The question before us is this: will we rise to the occasion, much like Asa of the Old Testament, and daily tear down the high places and altars of sin hidden in our hearts? Or will we choose to be like everyone else, and wallow in and celebrate our sin, and keep the high places in our hearts intact? Will we choose to be radically different, or will be like everyone else? Will we choose to follow God in such a manner that we become that minority at odds with the broader society, or will we seek to glorify ourselves and mock our crucified Savior, just as the rest of the world does? 

What are the high places in your heart? What is keeping your heart from fully submitting to God? Confess to Him your sins and tear down those secret altars of sin in your heart. Then live radically different. 

Artwork: “The Man and the Wooden Idol,” Marc Chagall, circa 1927.

Living Sacrifices.

Christianity, Religion

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

The offering of animal sacrifices was common practice in Paul’s day. The Jewish tradition he came out of was heavily steeped in that ritualistic observance, as were many of the Gentile cultures of this era. The religious practices of the Greeks and Romans and many near-eastern societies shared animal sacrifices as a common practice.

For these societies, sacrifices were offered to appease any number of a pantheon of gods and deities who could become displeased with humanity. The sacrifices were used to buy favor with the gods, and hopefully to avert vengeful behavior. In the case of the Hebrews, the sacrifices had a two-fold ritualistic purpose: to atone for sin and to worship God. In the religious system of the Hebrews, sin required the shedding of blood to make one blameless before God, and when sins were committed, a sacrifice must be made to amend the wrong. The Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement is a prime example of this. On this particular day, a goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the nation, thus atoning the people for their sins.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we see sacrifices used as a form of worship to God. Throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see people building altars to YHWH, and offering sacrifices to Him as forms of sincere and reverent worship. Abel does this, as do Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, to name a few.

Offering a sacrifice was one of the most sincere ways in which to worship God, so much so, that God only allowed this form of worship to be carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem once it was completed, and they could only be carried out by temple priests. Making a sacrifice to God was also a grave matter; it required something living to die, and it required the one making the sacrifice–especially before the institution of the priesthood– to get up close and personal with death. Offering a sacrifice was not a clean and sterilized form of worship; it was not one in which participants could opt-out. It was dirty and brutal, and there was blood. This form of worship was not for the faint of heart; it was for those who were serious about seeking after God and serious about offering genuine and sincere worship to an awesome God. Only those who took God seriously took the time to slaughter a beast to Him.

With the crucifixion of Jesus, the temple-sacrifice system had been fulfilled. Christ was the once-and-for-all atonement for all humanity, and there would be no need to continue making sacrifices in Jerusalem, nor should Gentile converts continue to make sacrifices to deities at their pagan temples. Instead, Paul–under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–made a bold statement about what Christians should now do regarding sacrifices: they should live their lives as continuous sacrifices to God. This is not a sacrifice of atonement; Christ already accomplished that for us. Instead, we should lay ourselves down upon the altar as sacrifices, just as the saints of old laid their animal sacrifices down upon altars to God in worship.

Our most sincere and genuine worship to God comes when we lay entirely upon the altar at His feet. It is when we wrestle with our fallen flesh–our sinful desires, selfishness, malice, greed, anger, everything–and we cast those things upon the altar to be sacrificed to Him. It is when we realize we must continually plunge deeply into and be covered by the blood of Christ to live correctly as His follower. The most genuine worship we can give God is by dying to ourselves, and offering ourselves as a sacrifice–a living sacrifice–to Him each and every day. It is when we fully and totally submit to living for Him and doing His will. This form of worship isn’t for the faint of heart; it is also only for those who are serious about seeking after God and worshipping the awesome God who died to save His people.

God does not want our worship with the blood of animals; He wants our hearts covered in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. People often cringe and complain about how bloody the Bible is. A word of warning: the Christian life, properly lived, is no less bloody. That blood is what ransomed your life.

Christ laid down His life as a sacrifice for you. Dedicate living yours as a sacrifice to Him. 

Artwork: “In the Slaughterhouse,” Lovis Corinth, 1893. 

Take Heart.

Christianity, Religion

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

After leaving the upper room with His disciples on the first night of Passover, Christ and the Eleven made their way through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas would later arrive with soldiers to betray Jesus. During the trek to the garden, Jesus gave the disciples His final teachings, and told them what they would endure in the future. The disciples were still not understanding everything that Jesus was telling them, their understanding would come with time and seeing the resurrected Christ, but for now, He was telling them that it was time for Him to return to the Father. Very soon, the series of events that would culminate in His crucifixion would begin to unfold; very soon the very moment that Christ was sent to Earth for would be upon Him.

The future that Jesus spoke of to the Eleven was on which promised hardship. The world had never been a friend of Christ, so the disciples should not expect the world to treat them any differently. There would be sorrow and pain, and there would be tribulation. These things were all experienced by Christ, and since the follower is not greater than the master, those who follow Christ were to expect these same things.

Despite this, Christ promised His disciples and followers joy and peace. The Christ-follower will experience the peace–the assurance of knowing–that God is in control and with them, despite the trials of the world all around them. Jesus is quick to point out to the disciples that following Him is not an immunity against tribulation; in fact, following Christ is the reason why believers are at odds with the world and why believers experience tribulation at the hands of the world. But the believer can find comfort and take courage from one fundamental fact: Christ had conquered the world.

Here, even before going to Calvary, Christ had already overcome this fallen and rebellious world. Jesus gave His word of personal assurance to the Eleven to further reinforces this fact. The battle had yet to be fought, and Christ was already victorious. He had lived a perfect and blameless life for thirty-three years. He had endured every snare and trap set before Him by the Adversary and withstood each and every single one without sin. He did what we could not do so that He could give us that which we could not attain–deliverance from our sins. With His crucifixion and death, this victory would be fixed, and there would be nothing that could change it.

The question for us today is this: do our lives reflect the level of confidence that Christ gives us? Do we take heart in His victory? Do we live with the peace that He promised us, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves? Or do we anxiously fret ourselves away, drawing more and more grief and sorrow from the current events of the world around us, and lament the hardships that we see the culture imposing on us because of our religious beliefs? Christ promised tribulation; if you want to avoid them, follow the world instead of Christ. You can’t believe that Jesus already overcame the world and still continue to worry about everything that the world throws at us. You either believe Jesus at His word, or you don’t. You either take heart in the victory He already claimed and delivered upon, or you put your confidence in something else to deliver you. The heart that claims Christ as its King cannot simultaneously give itself over to fear and worry about the things of this world. 

Living in this world is not easy; bad news and heartache are around every corner. But this broken world and its broken system have been defeated and overcome. Trust in Christ– the One who overcame it–and He will give you joy that no one or nothing can take away from you.

Artwork: “Christ in the Grapevine,” Natalya Rusetska. 

Freedom.

Christianity, Religion

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” ‭‭John‬ ‭8:31-36‬

Today is Independence Day in the United States; it is the day in which Americans celebrate self-rule and all the many freedoms that those who founded the country fought to obtain for it. This is a day filled with family gatherings, cookouts, and fireworks. For people in the US, it is the high holiday of the summer.

What good, though, is being politically free if one is still enslaved to sin? The freedoms afforded by one’s citizenship ends at death; being born in one country or another never saved anyone’s soul for eternity. One can live as freely as they choose, that will not grant them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Attaching eternal significance to one’s nationality is idolatrous—it is no different than the Pharisees in Christ’s day who said “we are children of Abraham and have never been enslaved.” Salvation does not come through national origin, or heritage.

Christ corrects this wrong thinking, and His words are no less true today than they were then. Unless one has been set free by the Son, they are still shackled to their sins. The freedom granted by Christ is the only one of eternal significance; this is the only freedom that matters, or that can grant one citizenship in the Kingdom.

The freedom given by Christ can only be found in submitting to Him and declaring Him the Lord and King of your life. It is only found in being washed in His blood that He freely shed to save humanity from being damned and eternally enslaved to sin and death. His freedom comes when we say that we are not free on our own; that we are lost and trapped in the chains that we have forged link by link in our fallen states. It is only when we realize that we must be dependent on Christ that we become truly independent.

Remember today the only Independence Day that matters—the day that Christ died to emancipate you from sin and death. The freedom He provides is eternal and sure. It can never be taken away from you. It is upheld not by force or arms, but by His love and His mighty hand. Be washed in His blood and enjoy your new citizenship, and the true freedom it brings.

Artwork: “Resurrection,” Natalya Rusetska

Hold Fast, Stand Firm.

Christianity, Religion

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Revelation 21:1-4

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20

When John the Apostle received the visions that he would record in the Revelation, he was living in exile in a penal colony on the island of Patmos. His crime: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The situation throughout the Roman Empire was no better for other Christians. Sporadic outbursts of violence and persecution against Christians had occurred throughout the first century–most famously under Nero, in which Christians were burned alive and fed to wild animals in the Colosseum– and by the time that John received the Revelation at the end of the first century, these persecutions had become state-sanctioned under the Emperor Domitian. Christians were routinely rounded up and imprisoned, exiled, stoned to death, or executed in a variety of other horrific ways. Being a Christian made one an enemy of the state, and no mercy was bestowed upon those professing allegiance to Christ over Caesar.

Due to this, the Church was forced underground. Christians would meet with one another in the dead of night, in the graveyards and catacombs where the superstitious Romans authorities would not venture. There, surrounded by the remains of their dead loved ones and fellow believers, the faithful would worship the Savior who had risen from the dead and defeated the grave.

Fresco of Jesus with Alpha and Omega found in the catacombs of Rome, c. 4th century

It was in this context that John received the Revelation. Though many focus today on this letter for its apocalyptic content, the theme of the letter is much more than just an account of the end times. It is a direct message from Jesus to His Church to hold on and endure; that though times are bleak and dark, there is hope. Christ is comforting His church and reassuring them that He is coming back for them and that they must keep their faith firmly rooted in Him.

At the end of Revelation, in the final two chapters, we are given the most optimistic of all the letter’s content. The tribulation is over, Satan and his armies defeated, Armageddon and the judgment of the world completed, and John sees the new creation–the new Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem–all of which were described as a recreation of Eden. It is in this new creation that God’s people will be in His direct presence. He and Christ will rule in this new kingdom, and there will be no sorrow, no pain, no death, no sin. There will be no night, for God and Christ’s collective presence will illuminate the cosmos. Christ will comfort His flock–He will wipe every tear from their eyes. In the embrace of Christ’s arms in the New Jerusalem, all the pain and suffering and sorrow and death endured in the sinful former world will be gone forever, never to be thought of again.

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is depicted as an enormous cube, hundreds of miles in length, width, and height. This cubic depiction is for a purpose, and it further highlights the fact that this is the place where God’s people will be in His presence. In Solomon’s Temple, the dimensions of the space in which God’s presence resided–the Holy of Holies–were a perfect cube. Now the New Jerusalem–the ultimate Holy of Holies–would be the place were God and His creation would live directly in one another’s presence, just as they had in Eden.

Following the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ again speaks directly to His followers. He tells them to keep doing what they are doing, to remain committed to following Him. He is encouraging them to stay strong, to hold fast to their faith, despite everything that is going on around them. He again tells them that He is coming back for them soon and that their faith and endurance will be rewarded.

Just think about the Christians of John’s era. Their faith had made them criminals. They were living in fear of imprisonment and death. They were forced to meet secretly in graveyards and underground burial chambers. Then they received a letter from John, the last living Apostle–the last human connection to Jesus. They come together in their secret graveyard churches, where reminders of all their suffering are all around them, to read this letter, and in it, Christ speaks directly to them. He tells them: I see what you’re enduring. Stay strong; hold fast to me. Things will not always be this way; there is a better day coming. I will come back for you–I am coming back for you, and you will be with me forever, and I will make everything better. You will not hurt anymore, you will not cry anymore, you will not die anymore. I will wipe away all of your tears. You will be with my Father and me forever, and nothing will take you away from me. I have shown all of this to John, it is all true. Just stay strong. I am coming.

Icon of “Christ With the Martyrs of Libya,” Nikola Saric, 2015.

This promise–this assurance–is still valid and true today. Around the world, Christians are still being persecuted–are still being killed–for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Christ’s words of comfort are for them, and for all believers. Despite what we see happening in the world around us, despite what we endure, we have hope for a better day. We have the assurance that this is not the end, that everything is not for naught; our faith is not in vain. One day, we will see Christ and the Father face-to-face. One day we will live in the direct presence of our God. One day, He will wipe every tear from our eyes. We know this to be true because He Himself told us these things would be so.

So stay strong. Hold fast.

Main Artwork: “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum,” Konstantin Flavitsky, 1862.