Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

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.

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.

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

Perspective.

Christianity, Religion

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

    Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

    Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

    or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’” Job 38: 1, 4-7

“Then Job answered the Lord and said:

‘I know that you can do all things,

    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’” Job 42:1-3

The account of Job is one of the most unique narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures; even those who are unfamiliar with the Bible are sure to have heard reference to Job and his trials.  At its core is the issue of suffering and why those who are righteous suffer and experience hardship. Rabbis and theologians have wrestled with this book for centuries to try to answer this question because, at face value, Job appears to run contrary to many of the lessons put forth in the other books that comprise the Hebrew Wisdom Literature, especially that of Proverbs. The beauty of the account of Job is not found in understanding why things happen; instead, it is found in realizing–as Job did–the finite nature of our existence and God’s eternal sovereignty over everything that has happened and will happen.

Job’s narrative begins with a description of Job: he was blameless, upright, feared God, and turned away from evil. Additionally, he was wealthy and had a large family. Traditional wisdom would convey that these blessings of wealth were the result of his faith and commitment to God, and this type of thinking is brought to the forefront very quickly. Satan appeared one day before God and made the claim that Job’s faith in God was merely the result of God’s blessings upon Job. To test this theory, God allowed Satan to take away all the blessings which Job had received, and they would see if Job’s faith withered along with losing all of the blessings. In one fell swoop, Job lost all of his children, all of his wealth, and his health. The test was on.

The vast majority of the Book of Job is a series of dialogues between Job’s friends who repeatedly tell him that he had somehow offended God and lost His favor. Even Job’s wife grows frustrated with his commitment to righteousness in the face of this  suffering and plight and tells him to “curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). In spite of this continuous barrage from those who were supposed to be supporting him, Job patiently endured and retained his faith in God.

Job, however, is a man; in a moment of pain, anger, and frustration he cries out to God. This cry does not represent a loss of faith on Job’s part; instead, it demonstrates the futility of the human condition: we do not understand why things happen to us the way that they do. Job cries out to God and asks the age-old question, “Why is this happening to me?” He questions God’s methods; when all Job has ever shown to God was faithfulness and devotion, why would God do this in response? To Job, it just didn’t seem fair.

Shortly after Job’s cry out to the heavens, a whirlwind appears, and God speaks to Job from the whirlwind. God’s response to Job is conveyed in some of the most beautiful Hebrew poetry in all of the Bible. The answer that God gave to Job appears, at first glance, to be dismissive and a bit of tough love–almost as if God was telling Job to “man-up” and get over the situation. This, however, is not the message that God is communicating to Job.

God’s response to Job is comprised of several questions, each one designed to change the perspective of Job’s thinking, and also to remind Job that He had every little detail of the universe under control. God asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the Earth and set the boundaries of the sea; if the lightning asks Job where to strike; if Job has ever walked in the deepest depths of the sea; if Job has storehouses of snow and hail piled up; if Job can change the course of the stars; or if Job provides food for the ravens and for the lions? 

Job knows who can do all of these things, and he realizes the folly of his questioning God. Job realizes that his perspective on the universe is not the same as God’s, that he cannot see the “big picture.” Job cannot see how his suffering fits into the bigger scheme of things, into God’s master plan, but God–the one who has made this plan–knows how it all fits together. Job understood that he was talking about that which he did not understand, and that God has everything under control and taken care of; that no plan of His can be thwarted. Job also realized that God–the Master and Creator of the Universe–did not owe him an answer or response of any sort, yet out of His love and compassion, God gave Job one. If God cared enough to answer Job’s futile cry, then surely He would sustain Job through the ordeal he was in.

This is an easy lesson to learn in a vacuum, so to speak, when all we are doing is exegeting text and seeking an understanding of what it means; it is a much different lesson to apply in reality when we are dealing with the loss of a loved one, or a devastating financial setback, or some other severe trial. In those times, we also cry out to God and question His methods and His fairness. The account of Job shows us that He hears us when we do this; however, we must realize our position in the scheme of things. In those times, we must remember that this world does not revolve around us and that nowhere were we ever promised that hardship would never befall us. We must not forget that we are part of a bigger picture, a master plan that God–the Ancient of Days–worked out before the dawn of time and that our suffering fits somehow and someway into that plan. We must remember the example of Joseph and how he endured being sold into slavery and years of false imprisonment so that he could save his family and his people in the time of famine. It is not our duty to understand why things happen to us, it is our duty to honor God and worship Him in all that we do and through all that we endure–as Job said “Though he slay me, I will hope in him,” (Job 13:15).

We might not ever understand why we suffer, and we may never see the good which may come from it, but we can take comfort in knowing that the God of the Universe already knows how this trial ends. He has planned it out and prepared you for it. Your trials are not in vain, they are part of a greater plan which will bring honor and glory to Him–even in your suffering and affliction you can bring honor to Him. Most importantly, God will sustain you and be with you throughout the ordeal and suffering you find yourself in. Remain faithful to Him, as He will most surely remain faithful to you.

Disclaimer: I don’t often get personal in these posts, but this will be an exception. I wrote this piece on Friday (July 26) so that it would be ready to go to post on Tuesday (today) morning. In the span between Friday and Tuesday, I have had my own crash course on perspective, and given the opportunity to learn firsthand if I can “practice what I preach.” What I have learned is this:

  • God continues to be sovereign over all things 
  • He is in control of my situation and circumstances 
  • Because He is sovereign and in control, I will praise Him
  • I will continue to praise Him, regardless of what happens to me, or how things in this world turn out. 

Artwork: “Job Praying,” Marc Chagall, 1960

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.