By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

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.

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.

Exiles and Sojourners.

Christianity, Religion

“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” 1 Peter 2:11

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” Philippians 3:20.

One of the central themes of the Bible is homelessness. This thread runs throughout both Testaments and creates an apparent uniformity between the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the Scriptures, there are two common ways in which this motif of homelessness plays out: exile and sojourning, or traveling and wandering.

The theme of homelessness appears in the very first chapters of the Bible; in Genesis 3, mankind is forced out of Eden as a result of the Fall. Because of sin, humanity lost access to the home that God had created for them and thus became exiles in creation. From the beginning of Scripture, we learn that mankind is in spiritual exile, and the rest of Scripture is about God leading man back to Himself.

The process of returning from exile would be long and leads to the secondary homelessness motif of sojourning. God set in motion humanity’s return by calling Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow Him to a land that He would give to him. If Abraham did this, God would bless all the nations of the Earth through Him. Abraham followed God, and for the rest of his life, Abraham was a sojourner–a traveler, a wanderer, a pilgrim–following God to the Promised Land. This narrative repeats itself throughout the narratives of the Genesis patriarchs and culminates in the Exodus narrative with Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt back to Canaan–back to the land promised to Abraham. This return to the Promised Land–just like man’s return from spiritual exile–would not be easy. The Israelites would continue to test God while en route to Canaan, and this ultimately resulted in their being forced to wander and sojourn in the desert for forty years. The sins of the generation being freed from slavery in Egypt forced Israel to be exiled in the wilderness until that generation died, and then a new generation would inherit the Promised Land. The land would be inherited; however, after several generations, because of sin and spiritual infidelity to God, exile came again. The cycle had repeated itself: just as Adam and Eve were forced into exile due to sin, Israel would be forced into exile because of its sin. It would seem that man was no closer to being delivered from spiritual exile at the close of the Old Testament than he was at the first moment of his exile. God, however, was still at work.

Fast forward several hundred years: the Babylonian Captivity had long been over, and the Jews allowed to return to their homeland. Jesus of Nazareth was preaching throughout the Judean countryside. The message that He preached did not sync with the established teachings of works, self-righteousness, and slavish devotion to the Law that the other rabbis taught. Instead, Jesus preached a radical message that the Kingdom of God was here and that those who genuinely sought to please God were going to live a life of complete reliance upon God for everything–as wanderers would need to rely upon someone else to provide for them. Furthermore, Christ taught that the committed and sincere follower of God would understand that, since we are all exiles and sojourners, we must love and take care of one another. His teachings reinforced the narrative of homelessness and sojourning; a man once approached Jesus and told Him that he would follow Jesus anywhere. To be sure that this man understood this part of the cost of being His follower, Christ told him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” (Luke 9:58.) In His own life, Christ embodied the motif of the sojourner; He was the New Adam, the New Abraham, and the New Moses.

Many began to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was sent by God to restore Israel and to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations. Many thought that He would be a leader like Moses, who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and wandering and exile in the desert, or like David, who ruled Israel when they were faithful to God; before they were exiled again. Maybe Christ would overthrow Roman occupation of Judea and recreate the Kingdom of Israel, as it had been in David’s day, and things would be as they should; Israel would once again occupy and inhabit the Promised Land. Then the exile would indeed be over.

Christ did come to end the exile, but not a political exile; He came to end the much more severe spiritual exile. Christ came to end the exile that was begun when Adam and Even were forced out of Eden; He came to restore humanity’s relationship with God. He would do so, not by force or by revival, but by letting His enemies kill Him. His death and His blood would complete the long and arduous process that God had planned to bring mankind back to Himself. Fallen humanity was now redeemed, and those who were redeemed would one day enjoy the home that God had prepared for them.

With the spiritual exile over, the task now became a waiting game. Christ’s disciples and followers had to teach the successive generations that, as redeemed followers of Christ, we are still in exile–not spiritually, but physically. This world is not our home; we must not be conformed to it, nor must we be swayed by the goings-on of this life. Our home–our citizenship, as Paul said–is somewhere higher and better; it is in the realm of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are sojourners, just as Abraham was, following God where He leads us, waiting eagerly to be taken to the Land of Promise. We must live differently from the world while we are here, as Peter encouraged us. We must remember the high price Christ paid to end our spiritual exile and live accordingly.

Christ broke the cycle of homelessness and exile. He died to end our spiritual exile and to give us a home with God. The spiritual exile is over, but we are still physical exiles in this world. We are sojourners here. This world will pass away, our home with God is eternal; our citizenship does not belong to nations, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Remember that and travel on, pilgrim.

Artwork: “Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress,” artist unknown, 17th Century.

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. 

You Can’t Go It Alone.

Christianity, Religion

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians‬ ‭5:9-11‬

Nearly all of the believers in the early Church were certain that Christ would return soon, almost surely within their lifetimes. There was a fervor of expectation regarding Christ’s imminent return. Time, however, went on and the return was delayed, and this delay began to pose some significant theological questions for many believers—chiefly the question of what happens to believers who die before Christ returns? As His return appeared to be further away, many more believers would die before He came back for His Church, and there were many who worried—and even taught—that these dead believers would miss out on His return. Such was the case for those in the Church in Thessalonica.

Paul heard about the controversy in Thessalonica at the church he helped establish, and, as Paul did, he wrote them a letter to help them understand the truth. In this letter of gentle correction and reassurance, Paul gives some of the most detailed teaching on the end of time found in the New Testament outside of Revelation. Paul comforts and reassures the Thessalonian believers that their dead loved ones would be called up by Christ in the resurrection at the time and  that no believer—dead or alive—would miss it.

As Paul concluded his letter, he reinforced his point—that all believers will be present for the resurrection when Christ comes—by reminding the Thessalonians that God destined us for salvation so that “whether we are awake or asleep (dead) we might live with him (Jesus).” Paul went on to exhort the Thessalonians to encourage and build one another up, “just as you are doing.”

This last line, this bit of encouragement, might seem a bit out of place given everything that had been discussed up to this point; however, this is exactly the right place for this advice. Paul is here addressing the question “what do we do now?” and his answer is simple: keep worshipping God, and keep building up one another.

We often ignore this fact, but when a body of believers comes together in worship, that time is just as much about strengthening and growing that corporate body as it is worshipping God. It is in the practice of coming together and worshipping together that we learn to build one another up and learn to carry one another’s burdens. Communal corporate worship is for giving glory to God and edifying—strengthening—the body, and sadly, so many Christians today decide to forgo that Christian fellowship and community. Many today believe that they can worship more “freely” and more “truly” unencumbered by a church family. Others feel that until they find a church that does things the “right” way–their way–they will go it alone. Both these attitudes are sad and wrong, and at their most basic point, entirely contradictory to what Christ teaches us.

Christ does not want monks, ascetics, or hermits to go and live gloriously and nobly alone in His name. Nor does Christ desire that His Church be a random assortment of detached and separated individual body parts. He wants His Church to be one body, together in one baptism, confessing one faith in one Savior. He wants His people to be together, to worship together, and to fellowship together.

There are no perfect churches, just as there are no perfect Christians, and this is exactly why we need one another. We need communion and fellowship and accountability with fellow brothers and sisters. We need people to weep with us when we weep, to rejoice with us when we rejoice, and to call us out when we are not living worthy of the calling placed upon us. It is only by dealing with people that you learn how to develop and use patience and love and understanding. It is only when you worship together with your church family that you feel the edification it brings. To attempt a Christian life any other way is to a disservice to the calling of being a Christ follower.

You can’t go it alone. Find a body of believers to join, and plug in. Then do as Paul said, encourage and build one another up, until the Lord comes.

Artwork: “Automat,” Edward Hopper, 1927.