Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.

Walk the Line.

Christianity, Religion

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ …Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10

In 1956, the late country musician Johnny Cash recorded what would become his first number one hit. Cash wrote the song, “I Walk the Line,” to help alleviate the fears that his wife held about the lures of fame and life on the road might be taking on Johnny and their marriage. The song’s message of faithfulness and commitment were popular with the public; however, the tragic irony is that Cash did not live up to the high bar of fidelity that he presented in the song. The wiles of fortune got the best of Cash and took a toll on both his health and marriage. The song he wrote to help ease the fears of his wife proved to be an empty promise. The song was merely a collection of deceptive words that were uttered to help hide a lifestyle of inappropriate behavior. Cash would later become–during his second marriage–a devoted family man, but it would take the remainder of his life to work to reconcile the mistakes of his past.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we are presented with a similar situation, though one that is infinitely greater in its magnitude and importance.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go to Jerusalem to preach against the sins of the people of Judah, the majority of whom had turned away from God and given wholly into idolatry and pagan worship. Despite the occasional righteous king, Judah had–like the northern kingdom of Israel–become a spiritual wasteland. The majority of the population no longer sought after God; instead, they turned to Baal and other false gods and offered sacrifices, sometimes of their children, to these pagan deities. This wholesale turning away from God was marked by Judah’s failure to live as God commanded. Those who were supposed to be looked after, the widows and orphans and foreigners, were ignored and exploited. Innocent blood was shed, and justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. The Promised Land and the City of David–the very place where God’s presence dwelt amongst His people–had become overrun with corruption and spiritual pollution.

Despite this lack of regard for God and His commandments, the people of Judah did not think anything was wrong. Though Jeremiah and other prophets would appear and preach about the error of their spiritual philandering, the people of Judah–especially those in Jerusalem–took no heed of these calls to repentance. They would, instead, point to the temple and say, “we have the Temple of the Lord.” The temple served as evidence that judgment would not befall Jerusalem or Judah, because it made no sense for God to punish the very place that housed His temple. The presence of the temple was viewed as an assurance of peace and security. The people of Jerusalem and Judah were trusting in the presence of a physical structure, not in the God whose presence inhabited the building.

Jeremiah pointed out the error in this thinking. He preached against the duplicity of the people of Judah. Jeremiah explained that the people would go to the temple and offer some arbitrary prayer or sacrifice in an attempt to appease God, only to leave and continue sinning. They would say that the temple was Lord’s, but they did not live as though that were true. They failed to understand that having the temple was a call to holy living, not a symbol of security. They trusted in the vain and deceptive words that they muttered to themselves as they slid further and further into sin. “God won’t destroy Jerusalem,” they said, “we have the temple of the Lord,” and so they justified their sins. They thought that, since God had blessed the faith of their ancestors Abraham and David, they could live and do whatever they wanted. The people of Jeremiah’s era failed to realize that each generation must commit themselves to live the life of righteousness and justice that God demands.

God would only be mocked for so long. To show the people how wrong they were, and how misplaced their trust was, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians in 587 BC. When the Babylonians captured the city, the temple was utterly destroyed. The judgment for the people’s sins had come. The building that the people trusted in was leveled before their eyes.

Followers of Christ have the same call to holy living as the Israelites had. It is God’s desire for his people to live differently from the world; to be holy as He is holy. We must be sure that we are heeding this call and that we are radically different from the world around us. We must remember that the salvation Christ gave us–at the expense of His life–is the beginning of the sanctification process. As we grow deeper and stronger in Christ, we are to be increasingly less like the world. Our salvation is not “fire insurance;” nor is it a “get out of jail free” card. Our salvation is not an invitation to test the limits of God’s forgiveness while we continue to sin and live as we wish. This is no different than pointing to the presence of the temple as a sign of God’s favor and protection. To live such a life of contradiction–to profess Christ, while willfully continuing in sin–makes a mockery of the cross. 

Live a life that reflects your professed commitment to Christ. Live a life that bears fruit for Him. Do not mock Him. Do not point to baptism or a walk down the aisle to justify living as you wish. Live a life that strives for sanctification. Don’t merely tell Christ you will walk the line; do it.

Artwork: “Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar as was the prophecy of Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956

Go and Proclaim.

Christianity, Religion

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62

Luke 9 is, quite possibly, one of the most critical chapters of Luke’s gospel account. Within its sixty-two verses, we see some of the most important events of Christ’s ministry chronicled. The chapter begins with Christ commissioning the twelve disciples to go out before Him and prepare the towns through which He would be passing for His arrival and teaching. After this, we read of the account of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter’s confession of Jesus follows this scene as the Messiah, and when we read immediately after this Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John. In many ways, this chapter is a highlight reel of sorts in its depiction of Christ’s miracles and ministry.

This chapter is significant for another reason, beyond that of the scope of its content. Luke 9 is the turning point of Luke’s narrative account of Jesus’ life. Chapters 1-8 dealt with Christ’s birth and ministry in and around Galilee;  Luke 9 is the point of transition to Christ’s journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and His crucifixion. We see this made clear in Luke 9:51, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Christ knew the day–the literal day–of His ascension back into heaven was drawing near, and that it was time to head up to Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He had been sent to earth. He knew it was time to head up to Jerusalem to die for humanity’s redemption. Everything that happens following Luke 9:51 and before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19 occurs on His journey up to Jerusalem. In that ten chapter span, Christ continued teaching and preaching and performing miracles, knowing that the crowds that followed Him in amazement would soon be crying out for His crucifixion. He knew all of this, and He continued to journey toward Jerusalem to His death. 

As Christ and the twelve “were going along the road” (Luke 9:57), crowds would have been following them to see what Christ would do next. People were undoubtedly trying to get close to Jesus to speak to Him, and Luke details the interactions that Jesus had with three anonymous men.

The first man mentioned approached Christ and told Jesus that he would follow Christ wherever he went. Jesus’ response was not one welcoming the man aboard; instead, the answer was intended to make sure the man understood the nature of the commitment he was making. Christ told the man that, unlike the birds and foxes, He–the Son of Man–had nowhere to lay His head. Jesus had no place of His own, nor did he have material wealth. He lived the life of a vagabond, relying on the Father to provide for and meet His needs. If this was the case for Christ, then the follower of Christ wasn’t to expect anything better. The man needed to understand that committing to following Christ was committing to living a life of total reliance and dependence upon God; it was a commitment to living the type of life that Christ Himself modeled. Following Christ does not lead to earthly wealth and comfort. Following Christ causes the follower to live out their trust in God’s dependence; it forces the follower to put their faith and trust into practice. 

The second man Luke mentions did not approach Christ; instead, Christ called the man to “Follow Me.” We are not told anything about this man, about why Christ chose to issue this call to him over others who may have been there. We only know what Luke tells us; that the Incarnate God called on this man to follow Him, and that this man could not commit to this call. The man’s response to Christ’s call reflects a misunderstanding about the importance of the call the man just received. The called-man asks for permission first to go and bury his father. The man’s request shows that he thought that fulfilling this familial obligation was more important than following Christ; that checking off some ritual duty was a better use of his time than heeding Jesus’ call. In its essence, the man’s response was “I will follow you, but not now; not yet.” Christ corrected the man’s skewed thinking. He told the man to “let the dead bury the dead,” to allow the spiritually dead–those who hadn’t just been called by God Himself–to go and attend to this less important duty. As for the man, he must go and preach the kingdom of God. Christ saw the flaw in the man’s thinking and priorities, and He quickly corrected them. The man had no more important duty than that of following Christ–who was on the way to Jerusalem to die–and preaching the kingdom of God.

The third man mentioned repeated the same mistake as the second man. He wanted to follow Christ, but he wanted to do so on his terms–he wanted to begin following after he took care of the business of saying good-bye to his family. Like the second man, this man was attempting to put conditions on his commitment to following Jesus. Once again, Jesus corrected this inappropriate thinking. Christ told the man that he would be of no use to the kingdom of God if he kept looking back at the things of his life before following. Following God must be the sole priority of the follower; they cannot look back at the old things–family included–and follow God at the same time. One cannot say they want to follow God and wish they could do other things as well. God must be the most important thing in the follower’s life.

We are not told what happened to these men. We are not told that they followed Christ, nor are we told that they turned away from Him that day. We are only told what we need to know, and the accounts of these interactions serve to teach us a crucial message about the nature of following Christ: saying that we will follow Christ means nothing if we do not back up that profession with our actions. It is not enough to merely profess Christ with our lips, our hearts and actions and lifestyle must also reflect this commitment. To do otherwise is to repeat the same mistakes as ancient Israel. We would be acting no differently than those in the days of Isaiah, when God said “this people draws near with their words and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Saying we want to follow Christ requires us to do just that—no ifs or buts.

So often we make the same mistakes as the three men depicted in Luke’s gospel. We find ourselves attempting to put conditions on our commitment to following Him. We attempt only to submit parts of our lives to Him, while we try to keep control over other aspects. We allow other things to take priority over being a follower of Christ. We think that following Jesus will be comfortable and don’t understand the nature of submitting to Him. We say we want to follow Jesus, but we keep looking back to other things and long for those things. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we must submit entirely to Him. We must remember that our usefulness to the advancement of His kingdom is dependent upon our entire submission. Then, once we submit and follow, we can do nothing else but go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Artwork: “Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill,” Pieter Claesz, 1628.

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. 

Strange Fire.

Christianity, Religion

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.  And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,

By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy,

And before all the people I will be honored.

So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” –Leviticus 10:1-3

Leviticus is one of the most unique books in the canon of Scripture. This book contains God’s detailed instructions about the Law and how it is to be implemented and lived out. Leviticus is comprised mainly of long passages of quotes from God explaining to Moses how the Law is to be followed, how sacrifices are to be offered, and the penalties for disobedience and breaking the Law. Given the content of the book–God’s instruction regarding the Law– Leviticus contains more of God’s direct speech than any other book in the Bible. 

A second unique characteristic of Leviticus is that it represents a break in the narrative that had been unfolding in Genesis and Exodus. Before that narrative could continue, we must first learn about the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the Day of Atonement, and other observances that would make the Israelites unique from all the other nations–we have to understand what Israel had to do to be holy as  God commanded them to be. If we ignore the theology found in Leviticus, we cannot grasp the theology in the rest of the Bible–Christ’s atoning death and the importance of being cleansed from sin cannot be understood without Leviticus.

The only major break in the legal teachings of Leviticus can be found in chapters 8-10, where we find the description of Aaron and his sons being consecrated as the priests of Israel and descriptions of the first offerings they made. Aaron and his descendants would forever make up the priestly class in Israel. Additionally, Aaron and his offspring were from the tribe of Levi, thus giving the book of Leviticus its name, roughly meaning “for the Levites.”

Within this brief bit of narrative in Leviticus, there is a significant scene of God dispensing judgment for improper behavior upon two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Following their consecration as priests and Aaron offering the first sacrifices under the newly enacted sacrificial system, Nadab and Abihu take it upon themselves to offer a sacrifice of their own to God. Up to this point in the book, God had spent a great deal of time–seven chapters, if we use the chapter system as a measuring rod–explaining the proper way in which to offer sacrifices, both for sin and for worship. There were to be no deviations from these rules which God had made quite clear to His people. The fact that these sacrifices that Nadab and Abihu offered were not under the mandated system is plainly pointed out; Moses–the author of Leviticus–refers to them as “strange fire.” Nadab and Abihu–men who were just ordained and consecrated as priests and obligated to know and practice the Law better than anyone else–went out of their way to offer a sacrifice which was not commanded; they offered an illegal sacrifice. This offense resulted in their deaths; fire came from the presence of God and consumed them. If this penalty seems harsh, we must remember that God values–above all else–obedience, and those whom He had called to be the spiritual leaders of His chosen people were expected to be obedient. Straying from His rules, even out of religious zeal and enthusiasm, is unacceptable. In disregarding the Law and offering their own sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu showed disrespect to God and little regard for His commandments. In their actions, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God.

Christ’s atoning death fulfilled the demands of the Law and lifted its burden from our shoulders. However, we are still called to be God’s holy people. There is much in Leviticus which is foreign to us and, in the light of Christ’s actions on the cross, unnecessary for us to adhere to; for instance, we are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices–to do so would be unorthodox, heretical and inappropriate. Yet, throughout the New Testament, we see that we are called to live differently from the world, to imitate Christ, to offer our lives to Christ as living sacrifices; we are called to complete and total obedience to Christ and to God. 

We are the nation of priests that God called out from every nation to draw all peoples to Him. This requires us to be exceedingly mindful of how we conduct ourselves in every way. We must always remember that God is holy, and we must always show Him honor; to do anything short of this is to commit the same sin that Nadab and Abihu were guilty of. We offer God that same “strange fire” when our worship is insincere, when our lives are not in obedience to Him, or when we attempt to usurp the glory which is rightfully His for ourselves. We fool ourselves–just as Nadab and Abihu did–when we think that God will make exceptions for our actions–whatever they may be.

God is a holy God, and He will be honored and glorified. He will not be mocked or taken lightly. Do not offer Him “strange fire;” offer Him what He demands: your genuine and sincere and humble obedience.

Artwork: “Nadab and Abihu Cast into Flames,” etching from Icones Biblicae, c. 1630.

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.