High Places.

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Sacrifices.

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awake, Not Woke.

Christianity, Religion

“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep…The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Romans 13:11-12

The Apostle Paul focuses his attention in Romans 13 to one subject: how to live as a Christian amid a non-Christian culture. For Paul, the solution was simple—the Christian must be better than everyone else. Not better in the sense of being superior to others; rather being better in that the Christian is going to hold his or herself to a higher standard. The Christian is going to strive to live a life of higher quality, and in doing so, is going to be the model citizen and neighbor.  Paul’s rationale makes sense; after all, Christians should live differently because they are reflecting the change Christ has made in them. 

Paul goes to great lengths to underline the importance of the fact that believers have been changed by Christ. No longer are they sinners lost in the darkness of the night of their sinful stupor; they have now been awakened by Christ. The awakened soul of the believer is cleansed and regenerated. The believer no longer lives in the night as they did when they were sinners, but now lives in the light of the day. Just as one sheds their night clothes before they start the day; the new believer sheds the clothes of their sinfulness and clothes themselves with the armor of Christ.

Paul makes it as clear as he possibly can. Previously we were sinners. We lived in the night. We were so lost in the night that we were lulled to sleep by our sins. Everything about us was darkness. But Christ came, bright as the morning sun, and brought light to us. He awakened us from our spiritual slumber. He forced the night to flee from us. He changed us. Now that we are awake, we must go into the world—clothed in His glittering armor—and help spread that light.  We live humbly and peacefully with those around us, and we boldly preach His Gospel. We tell others how to come into the light by believing in the Son of God, who died to set all men free from slavery to sin.  We preach no other gospel than Christ crucified and resurrected, for there is no other gospel which can save souls.

Today there is a lot of conversation about being “woke,” meaning being aware of social ills and injustices, and working to correct them. The problem, however, with being “woke” is this: for many involved in such movements, there is a denial of universal truth—there is no Truth that is undeniably constant across time or from group to group. Instead, truth is subjective and relative to one’s experiences and interpretation. Therefore, people who are “woke” and fighting on the same side on one battle might find themselves fighting against one another in another battle, because their truth is not set in stone. Since there is no absolute Truth, there can also be no definitive answers to the problems which plague society. When there is no Truth, everything is true. When everything is true, nothing is true.

As Christians, we must remember that we are awake and not “woke.” We have the universal Truth: that man is fundamentally flawed and fallen and sinful, and that the Son of God—Jesus Christ—came to Earth to save us from sin. As His followers, we must work to make the world a better place and to fight against any of the social injustices that we see—we do this because it is the consistent application and outpouring of our belief in Him; this is part of spreading the light. This is part of living the type of life Paul urges us to live.  But we cannot let the Gospel become subservient to any sort of social gospel; this is idolatry. Any message that diminishes or seeks to take precedence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a false doctrine.

Anyone can be “woke,” but only someone filled by Christ with the Holy Spirit can be awake. Only Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can change the hearts of men and women and cause real change to take place in this world.

We are called to preach and teach Christ crucified and resurrected, and to reflect Him in all we do. This is our duty–nothing more, but absolutely not anything less.

Artwork: “Wake. Up. Now.” Esperanza J. Creeger

Kill Sin.

Christianity, Religion

“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 8:13

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is quite possibly the most significant of the New Testament works outside of the Gospels. It is, undoubtedly, the most important of the epistles, and as such is the first epistle listed in the New Testament canon. The theological and doctrinal richness of this letter is such that one can study it time and time again, and after each reading come away with new insights.

In Romans, Paul spells out some great theological truths for the Roman Christians. He takes these concepts, many of which later church leaders would continue to wrestle with, and instructs the Romans on how to apply these truths to their lives. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Romans 8, a chapter in which Paul tackles such topics like our debt to God, how Christ paid our sin-debt, and God’s eternal love for us.

While discussing these weighty topics, Paul addresses one of equal importance: How are the new Roman Christians—any Christians, for that matter—to live? Paul wastes no time in getting straight to the point on this issue. The Christian has two options: 1-to live according to the flesh, or 2- to live according to the Spirit. These two choices are mutually exclusive—one cannot do both; choosing one means going against the other.

Living for the flesh means just what one might assume it to mean—seeking after one’s sinful desires and fulfilling them. A flesh-driven lifestyle requires no work, for it is our natural state. There is no standard to uphold, for anything goes, and everything is permissible. A flesh-minded person does not concern themselves with God nor with the things that would be pleasing to Him. Quite simply, the flesh-driven lifestyle actively seeks everything that is not God; it actively seeks sin.  Paul makes it clear for the Romans; those who live this way have only one final destination: death. This death is not merely of a physical nature, but also a spiritual death in which one suffers eternal separation from God and comes to the ultimate realization of the error of their ways. It is as Paul would say elsewhere in Romans, “the wages of sin are death,” (Romans 6:23).

Paul contrasts this flesh-driven lifestyle with that of the Spirit-filled lifestyle. In the latter, those who are filled with the Spirit –those are living according to Christ’s call—put to death the deeds of their body; they not only flee from sin and temptation, but they put their sin and sinful desires to death. This not accomplished by any deed of the individual person, Paul makes it clear that this is only possible through the power of the Spirit. Only through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His followers can this occur. When we seek Christ first and to live as He calls us to, we kill our sin. What Paul is saying is this: if we live according to our desires, we will fall into sin; but, when we live in the strength of the Spirit, it allows us to defeat those sins. In this sort of life, in which one wholly relies on Christ and is filled with the Spirit, there is life. David comes to a similar conclusion in the Psalms when he penned “A perverse heart shall be far away from me; I will know nothing of evil,” (Psalm 101:4) David knew, just as Paul was trying to teach the Romans, that the one living for God must live differently than everyone else.

This raises hard questions for us: do we hate our sin and do we try to kill it? Or do we try to push the envelope and get as close to sin as we can?  We will never be free from sin in this world, so do we live in the power of the Spirit and trust in it to sustain and deliver us in times of temptation, or do we indulge and then attempt to justify and rationalize our choices and behaviors? To use Paul’s words, do we live according to the flesh, or do we live by the Spirit? Does it break our hearts when we sin or have we become like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day who “no longer blush” at their sins? (Jeremiah 6:15). We must remember that living for the flesh leads to death, and sin will rob us of the joy of our salvation.

We must seek to kill our sin when it confronts us. Yes, Christ offers us forgiveness when we do sin, but He died so that we might live differently. Sin is like a fungus or cancer–small and unnoticed at first–but left unchecked, will devour an entire body from the inside out. That is what Paul was trying to get the Romans—and us—to understand. Sin is no laughing matter; it is life or death.

John Owen (1616-1683), an English Puritan minister, said it best: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Art credit: “Dance of Death,” Michael Wolgemut, 1493.

One Man.

Christianity, Religion

“As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Romans 5:18

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul spells out some of the most crucial theological and doctrinal truths of Christianity. Romans is the longest of the letters found in the New Testament, and Paul fills this letter to the brim with solid teaching for the Roman congregation. Centuries later, the Roman Epistle would inspire a German monk named Martin Luther to speak out against the doctrinal malpractices of the Catholic Church and initiate what would become the Protestant Reformation. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an essential work theologically, doctrinally, and historically.

The church in Rome was composed of many Jews and Gentiles. We know this because Paul spends a great deal of time and attention in the Letter addressing various issues surrounding both camps of believers; for instance, Paul spends quite a bit of time discussing the role of the Law and how it is surpassed by faith. Paul’s main focus, however, are universal truths that apply to both the Jewish and Gentile believers: that all humans—Jews and Gentiles alike—are sinners. Humanity is fallen and in rebellion against God.  “For all have sinned,” writes Paul, “and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It makes no difference if one had the Law or didn’t, humans are sinners and need redemption.

In Chapter 5 of the Letter, Paul traces the origin of this sinful nature back to its starting point: man’s fall in the Garden of Eden. Through Adam’s willing disobedience to God, he brought forth sin in upon all of humanity and all of creation. “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all have sinned”(Romans 5:12). Adam’s original sin plagues all of humanity to this very day. This is evidenced in numerous things, but most significantly through the existence of death. The consequence of sin is death, and death serves as a constant reminder that we live in a fallen and broken world—all of this becauseof one man’s sin. If this seems harsh or unfair, consider this: you either have a low view of the severity of sin, or you have a low view of the holiness ofGod.

There is hope. Paul uses the model of sin coming into the world through one man to present something equally, if not even more, remarkable. Through Adam, we have death, but in Christ, we have life. Christ’s act of righteousness—his sacrificial death on the cross—paid the price for our sins. He atoned us; he justified us. Christ settled the debt between God and man. Christ undid what Adam had done. Where Adam failed in disobedience, Christ thrived in obedience. Just as the world was damned through the action of man, the action of another man—God Incarnate—brought hope and forgiveness. As if that weren’t enough, wrap your mind around this: Christ did this for you and for me while we were still actively rebelling against him. Paul wastes no amount of paper or ink communicating this point:

“Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6)

“God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10)

Paul wanted to Roman Christians to know that Christ did something amazing for them even while they were actively sinning and rebelling against him. That still holds true for us today. For every sin that you and I have committed or will commit, Christ went to Calvary. He endured every lash with the whip that tore and ripped his flesh; he endured being mocked and beaten and spit upon by the Roman soldiers; he endured Pilate’s questions and Herod’s chides; he endured the crowds crying out for Barabbas—whose name means ‘Father’s Son’—to be freed while he knew that he was the true Son of the Father; he endured the chants of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” from the religious leaders who claimed to know the scriptures, while he was the author and embodiment of those scriptures. For these sins, for your sins, and for mine he was marched through Jerusalem while being cursed, he was stripped naked and nailed to the cross. For all of our sins, he languished upon the cross while the cynics taunted and tested him and told him to prove that he was the Messiah by coming off the cross, while each of his friends and disciples deserted him. For you and for me he endured being condemned and forsaken by God.

Christ died so that we might live. He died for us while we were actively living in opposition to him. There is no greater love than that.

photo courtesy of blog.oup.com