It’s All Good, But Not Really

Have you ever read some account in Scripture of somebody, and then thought, “I wonder if there’s more to that story.” I certainly hope so. Gideon, Jephthah, Ehud, and especially Shamgar are just a few people around whom is certainly “more to the story”. Unfortunately, this side of heaven, we’re not going to get the “rest of the story”.

On the other hand, there are times when we sort of stumble on “the rest of the story” somewhere else in Scripture. For instance, have you ever wondered why the people of Judah seemed to weave in and out of faithfulness to God with each king? It sounds a lot like the US, with each president bringing an entirely different view point and, sometimes, set of values. The kings of Judah reigned longer than four or eight years, the stories read like their short.

But even so, how do you go from the faithlessness of Ahaz who models the temple worship after pagan Assyria, to Hezekiah, who thoroughly turns the worship back to Yahweh and resists the Assyrians who had just wiped out Israel? How do the general population not get whiplash going back and forth? How do they really know what to do, what will last, what is true? What do they do when nobody’s looking? Who do they worship in secret?

No king before or after repented before the LORD as he did, with his whole heart, soul, and being in accordance with the whole law of Moses. Yet the LORD’s great anger against Judah did not subside; he was still infuriated by all the things Manasseh had done. The LORD announced, “I will also spurn Judah, just as I spurned Israel. I will reject this city that I chose—both Jerusalem and the temple, about which I said, ‘I will live there.’
(2 Kings 23:25-27 NET)

If you read the preceding verses of chapter 23 (and 22 for context), you will see the extensive reforms, which had not been done previously. And yet, clearly it’s not enough for the LORD. Why? What are we not seeing? Something is clearly missing from this story, for we know that when Ahab repented, Yahweh relented. Why not now? What’s “the rest of the story”?

The following is a record of what Jeremiah son of Hilkiah prophesied. He was one of the priests who lived at Anathoth in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. The LORD’s message came to him in the thirteenth year that Josiah son of Amon ruled over Judah. It also came in the days of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, and continued until the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the people of Jerusalem were taken into exile in the fifth month of that year.
(Jeremiah 1:1-3 NET)

According to 2 Kings 22, Josiah started his reforms in his eighteenth year (2 Kings 22:3) by repairing the Temple. So, Jeremiah had been prophesying for 5 years by then. If you look at all the stuff taken from the temple during Josiah’s reform, Jeremiah is prophesying among pagan shrines, statues, altars and sacred poles inside the temple. It looked almost nothing like the building Solomon had built by then.

On the other hand, in 2 Chronicles 34, we’re told that Josiah actually started purifying the land before Jeremiah’s prophecies. In verse 3, it says the 8th year of his reign was when he started, 5 years prior to Jeremiah. Then, 5 years after Jeremiah begins, he cleans the temple. So, you might expect that Jeremiah has a lot to say to encourage this activity, right? You would think that he would speak of how great all these changes were, how fantastic the king was leading…

Or he could say this:

“So, once more I will state my case against you,” says the LORD.
“I will also state it against your children and grandchildren.
Go west across the sea to the coasts of Cyprus and see.
Send someone east to Kedar and have them look carefully.
See if such a thing as this has ever happened:
Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)?
But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God,
for a god that cannot help them at all!
Be amazed at this, O heavens.
Be shocked and utterly dumbfounded,”
says the LORD.
“Do so because my people have committed a double wrong:
They have rejected me,
the fountain of life-giving water,
and they have dug cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that cannot even hold water.
(Jeremiah 2:9-13 NET)

But wait, this was written during Josiah’s reign. How can that be? How can these reforms be happening, and Jeremiah hears this from Yahweh? Well, maybe this will help explain:

So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shullam son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, the supervisor of the wardrobe. (She lived in Jerusalem in the Mishneh district.) They stated their business, and she said to them: “This is what the LORD God of Israel has said: ‘Say this to the man who sent you to me: “This is what the LORD has said: ‘I am about to bring disaster on this place and its residents, all the things in the scroll that the king of Judah has read. This will happen because they have abandoned me and offered sacrifices to other gods, angering me with all the idols they have made. My anger will ignite against this place and will not be extinguished!’” Say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to seek an oracle from the LORD: “This is what the LORD God of Israel has said concerning the words you have heard: ‘You displayed a sensitive spirit and humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard how I intended to make this place and its residents into an appalling example of an accursed people. You tore your clothes and wept before me, and I have heard you,’ says the LORD. ‘Therefore I will allow you to die and be buried in peace. You will not have to witness all the disaster I will bring on this place.’”’” Then they reported back to the king.
2 Kings 22:14-20 NET

They don’t take the scroll to Jeremiah. But Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet. They do take it to one they know speaks for Yahweh, and she does. What she says is that all Josiah is doing will only save him from seeing the curses in this book, not save the nation. Why? Is it becoming obvious yet?

Even though they were led to worship faithfully, their hearts were not sold out to Yahweh. Josiah can do what he wants, destroy pagan altars, burn up pagan artifacts, smash them to dust and spread the dust on graves. The heart of the people aren’t in it. They simply watch, and go along with the “religion de jure”, knowing that once this king passes, all will return to “normal”. These people are so completely twisted away from Yahweh, listen to their perspective on all the disaster that Yahweh brings on them, destruction of Jerusalem, deportation of the people, all of it:

Then all the men who were aware that their wives were sacrificing to other gods, as well as all their wives, answered Jeremiah—there was a great crowd of them representing all the people who lived in northern and southern Egypt — “We will not listen to what you claim the LORD has spoken to us! Instead we will do everything we vowed we would do. We will sacrifice and pour out drink offerings to the goddess called the Queen of Heaven just as we and our ancestors, our kings, and our leaders previously did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, were well off, and had no troubles. But ever since we stopped sacrificing and pouring out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven, we have been in great need. Our people have died in wars or of starvation.” The women added, “We did indeed sacrifice and pour out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven. But it was with the full knowledge and approval of our husbands that we made cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her.”
(Jeremiah 44:15-19 NET, emphasis mine)

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, clearly, the reforms of Josiah did not reach the people’s heart, but only their actions. They went through the motions, but their heart was truly far from Yahweh. The appearance was great, but the substance was insufficient.

How about us? Are we more interested in appearance than substance? Are we more interested in how the band sounds, the singers, the lights? Are we singing our favorite songs? Is the preacher articulate? What’s the focus? Where is our attention?

Are we more focused on the gifts or the Giver of all good gifts? Are we focused on the work, or the One for Whom we work? Do we walk with our Savior? Do we even walk before our Savior? Or does our worship happen, and we hope He attends? Are we even aware we serve a KING, that we are subjects in a KINGDOM, or that we are not our own for we have been redeemed, purchased at an enormous price? 

These aren’t questions about what you do, but a heart check. Where’s the focus, what gets you upset, and how do you live out the worship from Sunday? Because if you don’t care, it won’t bother you. But if something bothers you, clearly, you care. I suppose, then, you can see what I care about…

What about you?



This is a post I wrote for a devotional blog at my company (not a “ministry” company). So, it sounds a little different:

The sheer volume of possible puns and clever titles dealing with the Sabbath is overwhelming. It seemed good to go with simple. When it gets right down to it, Sabbath is really about rest anyway. There is a very good chance that, even from Genesis 2, the Sabbath has been a metaphor.

By the time Jesus walked the very ground He created, the Sabbath had become anything but restful. In those days, due to the violent oppressive history of the Jewish people, they had gradually turned a day of rest into one of the most stressful practices of any religion.

The sheer volume of rules surrounding the practice of the Sabbath was so overwhelming, it is difficult to imagine how anyone kept track of all of them. For instance, there seems to be a prohibition to pick heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath:

Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples began to pick some heads of wheat as they made their way. So the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?”

Mark 2:23-24 NET

So, there’s this law, among the Ten Commandments, that says: “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy.” (Deuteronomy 20:8 NET). Notice the total absence of picking heads of grain and eating them. “Oh”, but you say, “There’s more!” Which is true. Here’s the “more”:

For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

Exodus 20:9-11 NET

So, do your occupation for six days (not five, by the way), and on the sixth, rest from it. I still don’t see anything about picking heads of grain to eat as you pass through a field. The Sabbath is for everyone, even servants, but the rationale given by our Creator is creation. He rested after making everything. So, He created the Sabbath too.

The religious leadership had tried to define the term “occupation” so tightly they might not unintentionally miss keeping the Sabbath. They over did it to protect from not doing it at all. But it started by asking, “what does it mean to ‘not do any work’?” When we start looking for “loopholes”, the answer isn’t a tighter net.

Jesus brings up another view to show the Pharisees the problem of their own. Notice that the Pharisees were right there with Jesus, close enough to see what His disciples did. They saw the activity of the disciples, but they were missing their own problem of perspective.

He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry— how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread, which is against the law for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:25-28 NET

The event being described here is probably from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, and it is not exactly how it is written there. Even so, the point remains, David ate what was devoted to God, and reserved for the priests to eat. Jesus’ take away from this event is that “…the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

What sort of “holy rules” have you, or those with whom you worship, instituted over time? Is there a ritual of music, of preaching, of lighting, or seating? One of the most amazing surprises of 2020 was how resilient even small churches were, adapting to “distance worship”, learning to do live webcasts with little or no warning.

The damage done to congregations has yet to be calculated, but the stories of impressive surprising adaptation are easy to find. The story of your congregation is probably your favorite (or should be). And what this taught us is that the “Sabbath” or “holy day of worship” need not be defined as we have always done it.

Our worship, practiced by congregations of called out ones gathered to declare the worthiness of our Savior corporately, is actually a rather flexible concept. Who knew? But it is also a gift from our Savior to us. We were not created for the Sabbath, but, rather, the Sabbath was created for us. And one day, disciples of Jesus will enter into an eternal Sabbath.

So, let’s work our butts off, and then, enjoy the rest of our Savior. Cue the massive pipe organ and the “four-creature” quartet! Holy Holy Holy is Yahweh Elohim El-Shaddai! All the earth is filled with His glory! I’m almost too excited to rest, but it sure beats working!  

Sacrificing Sheep

Participles are extremely flexible words. Using two words, one of them a participle, four sentences making up three verses can be summarized. Titles are places to condense, and paragraphs are places to expound.

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Hebrews 13:15-17 NASB

There are familiar elements to these verses, but I have rarely heard them all used together. We (Americans) don’t like ideas like “sacrifice” and “obey” much. These concepts get in the way of our self-focused lives. I’m generalizing, but it certainly applies to me. And, from commercials and what passes for entertainment around me, I think it applies to far more people than just me.

This isn’t a great spot to unpack all that Scripture says about sacrifice, so a slice will have to suffice. Sacrifice isn’t exactly what we typically think it is. Sacrifice, in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, satisfies a few practical theological requirements. Look at God’s response to Noah’s sacrifice after the flood:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
“While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
And cold and heat,
And summer and winter,
And day and night
Shall not cease.”

Genesis 8:20-22 NASB

Our Creator, the Destroyer of the world through flood, smelled the aroma of the sacrifice. And then, having smelled the aroma of the sacrifice, He promises never again to interrupt the cycles of this world. He promises this even though He can see that the people He created are twisted from birth. That is the effect of sacrifice, that is how our Creator responds to sacrifice. Well, some sacrifice, He doesn’t respond that way to all sacrifice.

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:3-7 NASB

Cain did not “do well” with his sacrifice. There has been a lot of speculation about why Cain didn’t do well enough that his sacrifice wasn’t accepted by God. All we can truly assert is that the description of Abel’s offering was qualitatively better than Cain’s. So, the difference is qualitative, rather than the actual substance of what was sacrificed. There is a qualitative requirement for our Savior’s acceptance of a sacrifice.

The prophets, starting with Samuel, write as follows:

Samuel said,
“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 NASB

“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the LORD.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.

Isaiah 1:11 NASB

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward.

Jeremiah 7:21-24 NASB

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6 NASB

And in case you are thinking that “praise and worship” is different…

“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:22-24 NASB

There are more, but you get the gist. There is more that our Savior requires than the practice of singing and praising. Look again at the second of the two components included in “sacrifice” in Hebrews 13:16, “And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Sure, we like the singing part. That’s fun. But doing good and sharing is what pleases our Savior. Even the content of the praise should be thankfulness, as in agreeing that God has given us all we have.

The second element, obeying our leaders, is included because I believe it’s part of the actualizing of our ‘sacrifice’. When we submit to those our Savior has placed over us, when we make the burden He has placed on them lighter, then our sacrifice to our Savior, is real, coming from a sincerely dedicated heart. To do good stuff, to sing loud songs, and to give stuff to others isn’t enough if we refuse to submit to our leaders. And keep in mind that the refusal to submit is evidence of a prideful heart. It’s not one more thing on a checklist.

In fact, none of these things are checklist items. Loving justice and doing good, sharing and praising are all things that are supposed to originate from a devotion to our Savior. Religious practice without a relationship with our Creator is pointless. In fact, a case can be made that the object of our worship at that point isn’t our Creator at all.

So, let’s be the “sheep” of our Good Shepherd, sacrificing to our Savior, those things acceptable to Him. Let us practice our praise, our doing good, our submission, all because our Creator is also our Savior. Love, give, submit, for we are disciples of Jesus.

What’s your view through the knothole this morning?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Priests of the Consuming Fire

Regardless of what you might feel or believe about the word “religion”, it has a place as a definition of the life of a disciple of Jesus. People may not like it, but it remains a reality. The Christian Scriptures refer to disciples of Jesus as priests. And priests practice religion. That is their primary function. Their entire role, perhaps life, is bound up in the practice of religion. And for disciples of Jesus, this is true as well.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:28-29 NASB

The word for “service” above is a Greek word typically referring to a “hired hand” or even, in some cases, “enslaved”. The translators of the Septuagint used it for service to God (or other god), almost exclusively. and in the Christian Scriptures, it’s never used otherwise. Here, the writer of Hebrews combines it with “reverence and awe”, making the meaning unmistakable.

One of the dangers of only seeing our life with our Savior as a “relationship” is that we run the risk of missing His superiority. He is our Savior, but He is also our Creator, and not just of people, but the this vast, unimaginable universe. The writer was serious, dead serious, about serving our Savior with reverence and awe.

We think of Jesus as “love”. That makes us feel good because we don’t really understand love. I know that’s true because we get a warm fuzzy comfortable feeling from God being love, but not from God being a “consuming fire”. Suddenly we’re overly hot, on fire, about to die.

We need to strike a balance in our relationship with our Creator. We, as disciples of Jesus, must take Him more seriously than we do. The choice of the word for “service”, brings with it a life dedicated to working for God. For the Greeks, it can have religious significance, but it typically referred to working for someone. We think of our work-life as separate from our religious-life. That’s not how our Creator inspired Scripture to be written.

One of the more familiar passages speaking to service to God is Romans 12:1,2:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 NASB (emphasis mine)

In this passage, “service” is a noun, but the noun version of verb used in Hebrews 12:28. In other words, it’s the same thing said differently. The point for Paul in this passage is that our lives are to be completely dedicated to this life of service to our Savior. Which is very close to the meaning for Nicodemus, our writer of Hebrews.

Nicodemus provides a terrifying reason, missing in Paul’s call to service. “Our God is a consuming fire.” Do you think of Him that way? Do you consider that your seriousness in service is due to Him being a consuming fire? Our Creator is also our Savior, and He is love. But He is also a consuming fire! Think about that for a moment. That, logically, means that love is a consuming fire.

There is so much we miss in our life with our Savior. We do not pay enough attention to Scripture, and miss so much of what our Creator reveals about Himself to us. We have to fight our tendency to focus only on what we like about our Savior, and miss what He shows us about Himself. We need a more complete view of our Savior. We need to receive all of Him revealed in His Scripture.

This means that we need to spend more time in study of Scripture, something we tend to spend the least amount of time during the day. We also need the varied perspectives of our fellow disciples. Our Creator doesn’t reveal Himself fully to each person, but contextualizes Himself to His creatures. Jesus never healed the same way twice. The Holy Spirit doesn’t “fall upon” His people the same way, and there are different effects each time. Paul doesn’t write the same thing to every church, because they don’t all have the same people nor the same problems.

Let’s remember the seriousness of our religious relationship with our Creator. Let us live reverently and in awe of our Savior. Let’s keep in mind that the One before whom we live is a consuming fire. This isn’t an opportunity for roasting marshmallows, this is the fiery furnace with an extra Person in it. Let’s sober up and get busy.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Step Through, Together

How many scenes in Hollywood films have portrayed a group of kids, holding hands, and stepping through a “portal” together? There’s a shimmering blue flat wall or membrane, and they need to be on the other side. It’s scary, so they hold hands, and step through the…what is it? Could it be a “veil” concealing another world?

Before Hollywood, the writer of Hebrews posited this same scene (sort of) to describe our approach to the Father. We approach through the “veil” to the Throne of God.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22 NASB

What’s on the other side of the “membrane” is the Throne Room of heaven. It’s like the High Priest passing through the temple or tabernacle “holy place”, the outer chamber, into the Holy of Holies. Only now it’s us and we stumble into Heaven itself, right before the throne of our Creator and Savior. It’s another world. This was the experience of Isaiah when he enters the temple only to stumble into the very presence of God (Isaiah 6), and it’s supposed to be ours. 

We think of prayer as communing with God, but do you think of it as entering through the temple courts, past the altar, through the golden walls of the Holy Place with the lamp and table, past the incense altar, through a heavy drape. But it’s not a “heavy drape”, it’s lighter, and light streams through from the other side.

Our Savior, Jesus, has made a way, a path for us to follow Him, into the presence of the Father. And there He intercedes for us, there we have the ear of the Creator of the universe, and He gives us His attention. It is a terrifying place with creatures who’s voices shake the earth as they praise their King, and yet we are invited, we are called, we are compelled to go! But not alone…

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:23-25 NASB

We go together! There is power in being together. We are bolder together, stronger, often smarter. We can encourage each other as we pass through the temple into the throne room, together. Is your worship like this? Shouldn’t it be? Why can’t our experience be the very presence of our Creator, the Son, our Savior, the four creatures and the unnumbered throng worshiping the One having saved us from death? Shouldn’t that be the very definition of worship? I suppose if it were, there would be fewer of those who were in the habit of not assembling together.

It may be more difficult now, assembling together, perhaps it’s online, Zoom, or Facebook. However your congregation meets, meet! Sing the songs, read along with the Scripture, take notes on the sermon, participate in every opportunity. Worship our King together, because even apart we are joined together through the One Spirit, and we enter into the same room before the same throne, and bow before the same King.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Living in Shadows

One of my pet peeves is when people want to do away with “religion”. It irritates me because it’s ignorant to want to do so. Getting rid of religion means the person doesn’t understand what religion is. Because, everyone, including an atheist, practices some sort of religion.

On the other hand, I get why people say they want to get rid of religion. They see that the practice has become more important than Who we worship. And when that happens, I agree that change is necessary. But I disagree that the solution is to pretend to get rid of religion.

Nicodemus, aka the writer of Hebrews, points out the ineffective practice of the law of Moses through the priestly ministry. In his argument that the ministry of intercession of Jesus before the Father is superior, he points out that even the structure of the tabernacle itself is merely a shadow of the real tabernacle in heaven.

The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.

Hebrews 9:8-10 NASB

The terminology adopted by the NASB is the “outer tabernacle” for the Holy Place, or the first part of the sanctuary (where the lamp stand and show bread are). The Holy-of-Holies is referred to as the “holy place”. The NASB is pretty consistent with the terminology, at least in chapter 9. So, what Nicodemus is saying is that as long as there is a two-part tabernacle/temple, the pathway to the inner Holy of Holies has not been revealed.

Yet, in a sense, he is also saying that this way has been revealed, through Jesus’ having traversed it. It’s not a path we follow, but the path Jesus has followed on our behalf. And a day is coming when we will follow it ourselves, and meet Jesus there, in the true Holy of Holies (see the end of chapter 9).

So, in the days when Nicodemus is writing, there is an existing temple/tabernacle. And in our day, there is a practice of worship as well. In his day, priests functioned according to the law given by God to Moses. In our day, we worship in may different ways, according to culture and personality. The point of congruity for both then and now is that these forms can become a distraction. The true path to the throne of God remains through Jesus.

When how we worship becomes more important that the One we worship. When His character is absent from us, absent from how we treat each other, then we have left the path to the throne of God. Our Creator desires us, a relationship with us, and that isn’t about the what song we sing as much as our heart as we sing.

Are we singing to Him or for the congregants around or in front of us? When we preach, is it for our Savior, or for the people listening? In a sense, it’s both. But in another sense, it needs to be more about Him than them. There are things our Savior wants His people to hear, are those things being preached? Or are we preaching what we think they want to hear, or worse, what we want them to hear?

The music, the building, the preaching, the food, the coffee, the clothes, and the hands either raised or in pockets, are not the point of worship. These things can help or hinder, but the focus must always remain on Jesus.

What’s your view through the knothole today?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Signs and Wonders

Where is the sense of witnessing something impossibly amazing if you can’t make sense of it? That question doesn’t make any sense. If it’s an impossibly amazing something, then it would, by definition, evade rational sense. Yet, we attempt to grapple with the incomprehensible, wrestling it into a comprehensible form. I’m guilty of that all the time. I have to force myself to reverse the process, seeing what appears to be comprehensible for the amazing incomprehensible thing it actually is.

In Scripture, there are things that God describes as “signs and wonders”. They are supposed to demonstrate some of His qualities to which His human creatures will respond with worship. One of the most surprising elements of these signs and wonders is how often they fail to inspire worship. Eleven times, Yahweh demonstrates His power to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and eleven times, he rails against Yahweh. And, after all he has lost, there is still no acknowledgement of Yahweh in Egypt.

Of course, the sons of Israel, they get it, right? They understand and respond to Yahweh in worship. You would think, wouldn’t you? And yet they are complaining, whining, rebellious, and twisted followers of Yahweh. They witness all Yahweh does on their behalf to bring them out of Egypt, and they still rebel in the wilderness, even at the foot of the dramatic storm-topped mountain of God. Lightning, thunder, dark clouds, and fire top the mountain, under which they get Aaron to build an idol… So, they didn’t get the point of the signs and wonders either.

Scholars argue over whether there are natural explanations for the plagues. Some wonder if there are direct correlations to the gods of Egypt. Some, but not enough to explain all the signs and wonders. Yahweh claims He is executing judgements against the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), and yet, the connections between these acts and the pantheon of the time make little sense.

To be fair, it’s not even clear what each sign/wonder actually is. For instance, the “lice” or “gnats” are a term only used in this plague, whether in Exodus or Psalm references. The swarm could be flies, but is really just a swarm. The darkness is really just that. What could they be? No one truly knows for sure. It’s frustrating to look back 3,000 years through such a blurry lens. Yet, it’s all we have, and we can be sure that Yahweh planned it that way. That should help us be okay with not knowing, but it doesn’t.

So, what do we do with plagues we can’t explain? What do we do with signs and wonders that are supposed to illuminate worshipful qualities of Yahweh if we can’t understand them? What’s the point again? The signs and wonders were supposed to do what, again? Illustrate the qualities of Yahweh to His human creatures. That includes us. So, what’s the problem? We know what they are for, and we know what our response is supposed to be. Read about the frogs, read about the gnats or lice, and read about the swarms of whatever. And, having read, worship the One causing such signs and wonders. Worship the One drawing people to Himself through such miracles.

If Yahweh judges the gods of Egypt, then we know He strikes blows in spiritual warfare against those elements of culture opposed to His sovereignty. That will happen to our elements opposed to Him. If Yahweh used natural catastrophes to demonstrate His power over His creation, we can expect Him do so again in our day. And, He probably has, a lot. Now, when we see these things, let us worship the One demonstrating His power among us, drawing us to acknowledge Him. It’s not rocket surgery.

Jesus was crucified, and the earth shook, the sun was darkened, and dead people rose from their graves and entered Jerusalem. It’s not just the stuff of the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s the same One in the Christian Scriptures, still reaching out to His human creatures. Let us respond in worship. The veil of the temple was torn, top to bottom. Let us worship Him.

He calls us, today, to come and worship. You see an amazing sunset, worship Him. And when the wind destroys a house, or wipes out entire neighborhoods, worship Him. When the storm waves rage and floods destroy, worship Him. Hail strikes, worship Him. Because He is calling to us, through the acts of power of His creation, to worship the One having created us. When the sun shines, and the land is green, worship Him. He calls us to worship our Creator, because our Creator is also our Savior.

X Marks the Spot

There is a structure in Hebrew poetry referred to as “chiastic parallelism“.  It was used to emphasize whatever was put in the center, the “crux” of the structure.  It might be that this structure was used in these verses.  Sort of, any way.  There’s a piece in the center that seems to be missing, the “parallel” part.

Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals, and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who  ere around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the LORD to anger.  So they forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. (Judges 2:11-13 NASB)

English translation, as a process, can obscure literary structures and devices.  It’s mostly unavoidable.  Puns and rhymes simply don’t translate very well.  Other things might translate somewhat more easily.  Some English translations of these verses do well, others, not so much.  The New American Standard has all the elements, and they’re even grouped by punctuation somewhat.  The ESV preserves the elements, but the NIV obscures them.  The NLT makes it difficult by not repeating the elements very closely, but the NKJV does a good job of preserving terms.

So, here are the elements:

The sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD:
A.   They served the Baals
B.   They abandoned (forsook) the LORD
C.   They followed other gods
X.   They bowed themselves down to them
C’.  They provoked the LORD to anger
B’.  They abandoned (forsook) the LORD
A’.  They served Baal and Ashtaroth

The X. element would be the focus of this structure.  On the other hand, the C. and C’. elements aren’t exactly “parallel”, and there’s no parallel present for the X. element in the structure.  So, it’s not a perfect “poetic” chiastic parallel structure.  But I believe it’s a good literary chiasm.

If you want a repetition of the X. element, then look at verses 17 and 19.  The author has repeated this indictment twice more.  Clearly though, the repeated theme of the chapter (and, indeed, this two-chapter prelude) is the failure to take the land from the Canaanites.  Yet, within this smaller element, verses 11 through 23, the repetition of the worship of other gods is unmistakable.

Notice that this section is, itself, bracketed by indictments about the people not taking the land, and that God will no longer drive out the people.  It is, in itself, somewhat chiastic in placement, if not in parallel structure.  It’s as if the author wants his audience to know that the point of the book is about taking the land, but the point of our lives is the worship of God.  That may be a lot to draw from a single passage, and maybe saying the “point of our lives” is overstating the intent of the author.  But, maybe not.  This important literary element is clearer here than elsewhere in this “prelude”, so, perhaps, it’s exactly what the author is saying.

The failure to drive out the Canaanites does set the stage for the rest of the conflict in Judges.  But the worship of their gods by the children of Israel is the constant problem that eventually results in the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity in Babylon.  Even after the conquest is complete under David and Solomon, the problem of worship of other gods persists.  It makes sense, then, that this prophet, penning the history of Yahweh and His people, would make worship of other gods a central issue for his audience.  It’s the common element between his audience, and the people in the time of the judges.

But it’s our common element as well.  The point for us remains the same as the point for the people who first read and heard these words.  What do we “bow ourselves down” to?  What’s most important to us?  Is obedience to our Savior?  Is He truly our “Lord”?  Or, are we content to be “saved”, living in His grace and mercy, forsaking the change of our minds and paradigm.  Yahweh told His people to be different than the peoples in the land, and to drive them off.  We have been called to be different as well.  Will we, instead, adopt the “gods” of the people of the land?  Or will we be obedient? Will we adopt the paradigm of our Savior, the whole paradigm, not just the parts culturally acceptable?

Challenge accepted?

What’s your view through your knothole this morning?

The Dangers of Kinglessness

One of the concerns among modern leaders of Jesus followers is the encroachment of the American culture on belief and practice.  Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture back in 1951.  It’s considered a classic among Christian Literature, and is probably even more of a necessary exploration today than it was then.  It’s possible he would have drawn different conclusions today, our condition has deteriorated so far.

What happens to believers, honest, sincere, followers of Jesus, who follow a very distorted “version” of the Only Beloved Son of God?  What do those who fill our churches believe about Jesus?  Do they know what He has revealed about Himself in Scripture, or only what they’ve been told?  If what we’ve been told by others sounds anything like the messages our culture tells us, there’s a danger that we begin to blend the messages.

Now there was a man of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah.  He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse in my hearing, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the LORD.”  He then returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, “I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the LORD for my son to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore, I will return them to you.”  So when he returned the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to the silversmith who made them into a graven image and a molten image, and they were in the house of Micah. (Judges 17:1-4 NASB)

Notice how Micah’s mother blesses Yahweh (LORD in NASB), then has her son make an idol to worship Yahweh?  How does that happen among the Children of Israel?  What does it take for someone living in close proximity to the Temple in Shiloh to setup a separate worship of Yahweh incorporating idols?  She and her son don’t know!  They think they’re doing something good!  Don’t believe that? Then, read on.

Micah said to him, “Where do you come from?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to stay wherever I may find a place.”  Micah then said to him, “Dwell with me and be a father and a priest to me, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, a suit of clothes, and your maintenance.” So the Levite went in. The Levite agreed to live with the man, and the young man became to him like one of his sons.  So Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in the house of Micah.  Then Micah said, “Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite as priest.” (Judges 17:9-13 NASB)

Now that Micah has a Levite as a priest, he knows he has the favor of Yahweh.  He’s confident, faithful in what he knows, sincere in his faith, and worshiping a completely different god than Yahweh.  He didn’t know the commandment about not making an idol (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8).  The Canaanite culture, and all the “-ites” around him, all worshiped using idols.  So, of course, that’s how someone would worship Yahweh.

How could he know it was good to have a Levite as a priest, and not know it was wrong to make an idol?  How did the Levite not know?  He’s young, but he’s a Levite, brought up in the Levitical family line.  How does he not know idols are wrong?  With all this pandemonium, you might wonder who’s in charge around here:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6 NASB)

In a sense, leadership has the responsibility to keep this from happening.  We don’t like “kings”, we buck against authority, we resist being told what to do.  We do what we think is right, in our own eyes.  The danger is real, and the need for leadership to change this feature of modern Jesus followers is also real.  And it doesn’t become easier if left unchallenged.  That’s what tomorrow’s post is about.

In the meantime, what do you see of our Master and His children through your knothole in the fence?

To Whom We Relate Religiously

Have you ever had a difficult friend, one no one else seemed to like?  Or were you more among the popular crowd, eschewing those rejected by the top tier of your “society”?  We choose fellows based on widely varied criteria, but, in every case, that criteria also excludes some sorts of people.  Would our criteria exclude God, if we believe what He says about Himself?

Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31 NASB)

When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. (Judges 11:34 NASB)

At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year. (Judges 11:39-40 NASB)

Jephthah’s vow has been debated for centuries, and there’s no new perspective to be found here.  But, perhaps there’s a side you’ve not considered, personally.  First off, as you read this, keep in mind that this same Yahweh, to whom Jephthah vows, requires a “tithe” based on “the tenth animal under the rod”, wherein the rule says that animal cannot be substituted (Leviticus 27:32-33).  In other words, God’s choice of the animal cannot be changed by people.

Secondly, keep in mind that this same Yahweh commands His people to destroy people, utterly, considering them “holy” to Him.  Jericho was considered holy, and every man, woman, child, animal, and all property were destroyed, and no plunder taken.  That sounds vaguely “sacrificial”, and humans are included.

Balance those two things with the first part of Leviticus 27, where when persons are the subject of a “difficult vow” (NASB), they can be redeemed for a set value.  But, the passage continues valuing animals, differentiating between clean and unclean animals, and so on.  So, consider, as you think through this, are the persons valued part of the “household” in the sense of “owned” or slaves/servants of that household?  Or would they truly be “family” or children?

On that note, the firstborn belongs to Yahweh, but can be (and is expected to be) redeemed for a price (Exodus 34:19-29).  But, look at Leviticus 27:26-29 (especially 28 and 29) for additional guidelines.  These verses specifically refer to the “Hereem” or ban where everything so dedicated is destroyed.  But the context supports this concept within the teaching of a vow.  Or does it?  I suppose that’s the critical question.

Bringing these considerations to this story of Jephthah also has to include the acceptance that he was considered among the faithful of Israel, traditionally.  In Hebrews 11, he’s listed among those the Hebrews would consider an example of great faith.  Why do that if the popular belief was that he broke the law, and profaned a holy practice?

Now, if you’ve considered that, then also consider that the “rod tithe” means that God chooses what is given as an offering.  Next consider that this is consistent with what Jephthah does, he lets Yahweh choose what is offered.  Some can already see where this goes.  Consider next that this same Yahweh inspired this passage, so, this is what He wants us to know about Himself.  He reveals something of His character to us in this passage.  Let it be said, Yahweh wants us to know He chose Jephthah’s daughter to be offered as a whole burnt offering by her father.  And there it is in print.  The challenge has been laid down; will we worship and walk before God as He is, not some image we create in our minds?

Okay, now you can go back and read Luke 14:26 and 27.  Revisit John 6:60 through 69.  The challenge is to honestly love God.  The alternative is a false intimacy with our Creator and Master, an intimacy with a mask we put on His face.

On that note, what’s your view through the knothole this morning?