The Greatest Gift

Read Mark 12:38-44

October 31 is Reformation Day. What does this mean? This is the day Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the front door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This is the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Reformation.

Every 500 years, or so, the Church goes through a process of “reforming” to bring itself back to the essential core truths of the Christian faith. When Luther nailed the Theses, he was giving 95 reasons why and where the Catholic Church had gone wrong in her teaching and way of life in the world.

Every so often God raises up a people to lead the way to bring His Church back to Jesus Christ. It is amazing how far, and how fast, God’s people can veer off His path. Many want to place sole blame on the clergy and leaders, but the reality is we all (lay people included) need to be reminded, and led, back to Jesus. IF we don’t we’ll impose our fallen humanity on the Church and the Church will be shaped more like the culture rather than the surrounding culture being shaped by the teaching of the Church.

At this point, we should all say, “OUCH!” Why? Because it is up to us to stay close to the teachings of Jesus through his life, the scriptures, the early church, early church fathers, the Holy Spirit today. The time of reformation is to remind God’s people the Church is not about them. The Church is about Him…it’s all about Jesus…It’s Jesus’ church.

This is also a time to remember we don’t “go to church,” WE ARE THE CHURCH.

So when we read a passage like what we have today, It’s important to make sure we are interpreting it correctly.

Jesus is being harsh with the religious people, the leadership, for how they are acting and imposing undo rules and standard among the people. This was actually creating a hardship on the people. In other words, the people were being bled dry.

Jesus noticed the leaders were not held to the same standards as everyone else. The leaders (we can also think of world leaders not just church leaders) liked to dress up and reserve the best seats and positions of honor for themselves.

Because of this, those people will have already have their reward (earthly riches) here on earth. Jesus even goes on to say they will receive severe, harsh punishment for how they treated others, especially the poor. “Those of you familiar with Dante’s The Inferno will recall the hellish punishment Dante imagined would come to hypocrites: for all eternity they would wear the most gorgeous of flowing robes, looking ever-so-lovely on the outside.  But those robes would be lined with lead, making the very act of standing up straight an abiding agony.  Such would indeed be a fit punishment for those who spent their lives harboring ugliness and selfishness on the inside even as they exuded nothing but superior piety on the outside.

This brings us to our first question we need to ask ourselves…

What standards have been placed on leadership? You? Have you placed on others? Can you live up to the standards?

It’s always important to be able to walk the talk. Leadership, really anyone, should never ask of anyone anything they are not willing to do themselves. Unfortunately, we still live in a dog eat dog world so we still live with the mentality it is okay to do whatever needs to be done. In other words, the ends justify the means.

But Jesus is constantly asking us to look at things differently. He is calling us to reform and reshape our minds and lives, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is asking his people to pay attention to what’s really going on. Don’t just take other people’s words for what’s being done. Actually take time to look beyond outward appearances and learn the motives.

When the reformation started, Martin Luther was simply trying to bring the Church back to her roots. He did not intend to begin a new denomination, the Lutheran Church. Luther took time to study and pay attention to the theology and the people and the leaders. After many days of prayer, of fasting, of study, the Spirit spoke to, and through, Luther to post the Theses (complaints) against the Church.

Much of this had to do with “payments” the people were required to make. (Notice the similarities to the widow in this passage. History is circular unless someone comes along and points our errors and makes changes.)

It was easy for the rich to make the payments. But what about the poor? What about those who cannot live on their own? Remember the words of James, in his letter, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:26-27 NIV)

We should always be asking what God is calling the church to do, that no one else can do, and continue to join God in the work he is doing in this world.

When the poor, the working poor, the destitute, the least/last/lost, come through our doors, let’s continue to make them feel welcome. No matter how much they can give or contribute.

This brings us to our next question…

What do you pay attention to when people give? 

In other words, is there any part of you that feels like someone should give more? Do we ever feel like people are giving too much?

Look at the passage again. Jesus pays attention to the crowd and hones in on this widow. Widows were supposed to be taken care of by the community. They needed help because they did not have a husband to care for and provide for them (that’s how their society was set up). 

So when Jesus saw her put in the coins, think about how Jesus would have sounded. How would he have felt? Jesus could have spoken in a soft, sad, voice because the widow gave all she had to live on. She would not have been able to buy even a piece of bread.

Jesus commends her, yet also knows the toll this contribution will have on the livelihood of the widow. There is a big hint Jesus doesn’t like what’s going on. Notice he doesn’t stop her. He observes. Jesus then makes an observation about giving that is still important to us today.

He commends the widow on her obedience to giving.

Our final question today is…

Do you live a life of obedience to God? Know God will provide your every need? Can you be cheerfully obedient?

It’s always easy to give when we have enough. But when we are struggling financially, what is the first thing to go? Giving. And not just giving to the Church, but giving in the community. We’ll take back our time even because we need more time to make ends meat, etc. 

But this is a time for a spiritual gut check. How obedient, and willing to give to God, when it creates a hardship on you? Now, I am not calling us to give and leave nothing for us. I am asking us to pay attention to what it is we really trust in.

Luther had no idea what would happen when he posted the 95 Theses. He knew his career, as a monk was over. But he still did what mattered because he knew God would provide for his every need. God does the same for us. 

Why does all this matter?

The life of Christ is all about living in such a way the world knows how much you and I love God (and people) by how much we give and give back. It’s not about “keeping up appearances” with others, it is all about living a life of joy trusting that God will do what he will do and will provide what’s needed.

This week. Praise God for how He is working and moving in the world and in and through you. Praise God for the way He is providing for your every need. Find ways to serve (give time). Ask God if we are giving sacrificial (financially) so we trust in His provision and presence in our lives.

Finally, praise God every day for the gift of His love and guidance to bring us back to the core truths of the Christian faith. Praise God for reminding us who Jesus is because we all need to see and know who we are being recreated and reformed into.

God is providing for you. You and I are blessed so we can be a blessing to others. Know this and live this always. Why? Because the greatest gift we can give the world is a life of pure obedience to God through Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God Responds

Click here to read 1 Samuel 8.

Samuel is an interesting character. He is a mild-mannered prophet who has no problem removing the head of enemy kings. He is someone you can go to in order to hear from God, and also someone who will make sure the job gets done. (Stay with me this series). 

Samuel is the last of the judges in Israel. Remember the judges were raised up by God to order and administer justice in Israel and to help protect the people from their enemies. (Samson, Deborah, Gideon, are examples of the judges I’m sure you know their stories) Some of my favorite stories come from the book of Judges.

When we read the Bible, we have to understand there are different kinds of literature within this book. In fact, the Bible we have is actually a library of books. The Old Testament is broken up this way:

Torah (law)

History

Poetry

Wisdom

Major Prophets

Minor Prophets

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel are part of the historical writings. What this means is we get to see how the history of Israel pans out, even watching the beginnings of their monarchy unfold. Now, the period of the judges lasted around 200 years. 

It may seem as if the people of Israel did not have a set leader during this time, but the reality is, Israel was set up as a theocracy (meaning ruled by God), which was different than the rest of the nations. In fact, the entire way of life for Israel was set up to be different from the rest of the nations. They were to point the rest of the world to God because God had set them apart and made them holy (see Exodus 19).

This is the kind of life we, as followers of Jesus, are to live today.

But something begins to happen when we live a life different from everybody else. We can begin to think their way of life is better than ours because they can do things we can’t

(It’s always amazing to watch us think we’re missing out on doing things that are actually not good for us, isn’t it?) But this is what we do, and we’ll end up neglecting what we have just because we think something else is better.

So here’s the story.

Samuel was called by God, we talked about that last week. We also showed that God is always working even when we can’t see it. God always has a plan. Keep that in mind as we keep talking.

Samuel has been leading the people of Israel for several years, and gets to a point he knows his time is ending, so he makes his sons the new leaders after him. But his sons were not like Samuel and veered from the path of God. The people of Israel did not like that.

One day, some of the leaders (maybe not a representation of the entire nation of Israel), came to Samuel and said they do not like his sons and do not want to be led by them. Instead, the people of Israel wanted a king…so they could have what the other nations had.

Some things to consider: 1) Do we always know what it is really want or need? 2) Do we always know what it is we are really asking for?

It really does seem like what other people have is better than what we have. Why is this? Because we get insecure with the identity God has given us. This is why followers of Jesus Christ end up bending to the culture—so we don’t have to stand out from others and make statements of what is wrong. Insecurity does a huge disservice to us, to our life, to the life God has given us. Insecurity in our identity will lead us to become jealous and covet what we perceive others have.

We’ve all heard that phrase “the grass is greener on the other side.” What we don’t always know is the effort, work, sacrifice, certain lifestyle that was put into that work. After all, no matter what side of the fence the grass is on, it still needs to be watered and cut and cared for.

This is what Samuel is trying to tell the people of Israel when they asked for a king. He was telling them everything they will be getting into if they went that route and chose to live as everyone else

Remember Israel was set up as a theocracy, so their asking for a king, in reality, was not rejecting Samuel or his sons, it was a rejection of the sole reign and rule of God. This is why Samuel was upset and “sad” when the elders of Israel asked for a king to lead them.

As a parent, we know there are things that are not good for our kids, but they have to learn their lessons the hard way, sometimes. It is not easy to watch mistakes happen, but this is also part of the growing up process.

Yes, the people of Israel asked for this new way to be led, new way to live in this world. What does God do? He responds.

This is something to always know will happen. God will respond to the requests we make. You may be sitting here thinking “well yeah.” But when we think about how God responds, our society seems to think God will act out in some kind of vengeful way. But pay attention to how God responds.

God responds with grace.

He knows the people have chosen to live differently from their calling in this world. He knows they have a desire to be like everyone else. So in an act of grace, God gives them the request, but makes sure they know what it is they are asking for.

Before anyone here thinks I’m saying God will give us all of our requests, we have to understand that everything God does is an attempt to bring us back to himself. This is where it can get hard to hear. Sometimes God may allow things to happen to us for the purpose of leading us back into his fold and his way of living. The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, gives an example of this when he writes, “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

We come to God with many requests, each day. We plead with God to act and to reveal himself. We may or may not see, or experience, our requests, but we can be assured God has and will respond to what we’re asking him for. The answer may be yes, no, or not yet (meaning do what we’ve been told to do before we get the next answer).

This event did not take God by surprise. God responded even before the people thought about making the request for a king. Here’s what I mean by God has responded. 

The people of Israel asked for a king because they wanted to be like everyone else. What they may have forgotten is God has already given provision for Israel to have a king. In Moses’ final sermon (Deuteronomy), God laid out for how the king and monarchy was supposed to run:

  • God chooses the king (must be from among the people of Israel)
  • Will not accumulate more stuff than needed (especially for military)
  • Must stay in the land the Lord provides
  • Must not have too many wives or too much money (or will be led astray)
  • The king writes his own copy of the law and read it daily
  • The king will not consider himself better than anyone else

God made these provisions, but the people still wanted to be like everyone else, so they entered into a new way of life, serving a human rather than solely God. Even though this was not God’s plan for his people, God still provided a way for them to live, and to return to knowing, loving, obeying, and worshipping him and him alone.

I know each one of you is going through something today. I know life is not always easy. But I also know that God has heard every one of your prayers and requests and has even worked out a plan for you to know the answer. Always find a way to praise God no matter the answer. Why? Because everything God does is to lead you into his graces and love and forgiveness.

The people of Israel, because of many circumstances, will have to face evil kings, bad enemies, exile, but they are still God’s people.

How do we know God responds to his people with grace today? Just look at Jesus the Christ. Jesus is how God has provided for us to come back to him. Following the true King, Jesus, will lead us to a life of promise, of hope, of love, of joy, of peace. That is the life God is calling us to.

Our life may or will not always be easy, but we can always count on the response of God – “Come to me, all who are weary.” The response of God is always calling his children home, so they know what a holy life is like.

Transformed Thinking

I realize it has been some time since I last posted here. Recently I finished reading the book “Winning the War in Your Mind” by Craig Groeschel. I found this to be a great book, especially for this time in my life.

One of the things I have noticed, lately, is how we keep our focus on the negative, and our hope in things people do/create. We all know how challenging 2020 was, for many, and 2021 has shaped up to be 2020 2.0 for many as well. Through all of this, it has been heartbreaking to witness people, especially Christians, go down the trap of living into the negativity.

Yes, there is so much going on in the world. There is so much we do need to be concerned about, but what should we focus on?
Now I am not suggesting that we think positive about every situation to try and make it better. I am suggesting that we focus on the One who gives us the hope. The reality is, when we focus on God, we are more able to see what God is doing and how God is inviting us to participate and be part of the solution. This means we “discipline” our minds to focus on the reality of the ultimate hope and joy. The worst thing in life is never the last thing. So what does this kind of thinking do?

For one thing, we keep our focus and attention on the author of life rather than the life we see and experience with limited vision. Our limited vision and understanding of the world, gives us a skewed version of reality and we end up forming opinions and mindsets without trying to seek the bigger picture.

One of the challenges we face today is we are bombarded with all sorts of media, each one telling a slightly different version of the story. What this is doing is causing us to be numb to the amount of information readily available, and we become more and more cynical which leads us to a place of despair thinking things will not get any better.

But, when we focus our attention on Jesus Christ, we begin to see the incredible goodness and glory of God working all around us, through us, in us, even through those people we do not like. As we keep our minds open to the workings of God going on, we can see our hearts beginning to be reformed and becoming softer and more loving to those we are around. Our conversations with people become more and more loving. Our lives are lived out with more joy, all because the glory and working of God is shining in and through our lives because our focus is on God.

Back to the book I mentioned above. Craig speaks about how we can focus our attention and eyes on God each day. It does take discipline on our part, but with the help of God through Jesus Christ who empowers us with the Holy Spirit, our lives will be transformed and we will be able to live into and live out the mind of Christ.

All this really takes is a transformed paradigm that says, “the world is messed up, people are broken…but GOD is working and is doing incredible work.” Take time to think about how this would change our lives if we focused on Christ rather than what’s wrong.

Remember these words from the Apostle Paul from Philippians chapter 4:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”‭‭ (Philippians‬ ‭4:4-9‬ ‭NIV)‬‬

Vitality of the Christian Faith

On July 2, 1789, John Wesley wrote a sermon called, “Causes Of The Inefficacy Of Christianity”. Click here for the full sermon.

This is a powerful, convicting, sermon on how Christianity can be more transformative in our world. Here is a summary and application for this important sermon:

Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity

Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead: is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”

​“Why has Christianity done so little good in the world?” Why does John Wesley begin this way? He notices a “failing” of the people who call themselves Christians to bring about real and lasting change in the world. One of the biggest reasons for this is because of the deep corruption of human nature. Humanity is flawed and fallen, so this means there is a vast amount of work to do in the world.

Even with the reality of so much brokenness, all around us, Wesley says Christianity was supposed to be the remedy from our Creator. But he also laments because it is not known well and the Christian faith cannot do good where it is not known. He can say this because of the vast amount of Christians who do not seem to be doing their part to be part of the transformation of the world. The lack of “action”, to Wesley, is an indicator that few Christians know what Christianity means and are ignorant of how they are supposed to live out their faith.

But Wesley also notes there are some people who understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. They have laid their lives down to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus” This is the key, according to Wesley. Followers of Jesus Christ should pay attention to how their lives are lived so the glory of God will be demonstrated and revealed in the world.

All parts of our life, especially what we do with our money, should serve the kingdom of God. Wesley emphasizes how Christians should be gathered, in community, for worship. He also said how important it is to practice and deepen their faith through prayer and fasting. This, for Wesley, is what it means to be a Bible Christian.

Relevancy For Today

Now we get to the question, “Has Christianity done good in the world today? In some areas, yes. But there are still many issues all around us. According to Wesley, if all Christians lived out their faith, as it says in scripture, we would be able to see and live in a more peaceful place where there are no poor, or problems.

As in Wesley’s time, there seems to be a disconnect between faith and practice. Christianity is more than a status symbol, it is about life transformation. The transformation of one’s life happens when we deny ourselves, meaning we think of other’s interests above our own and we put the work of God ahead of everything else. Even in our day to day jobs, we still do everything for the glory of Christ by doing our best in all we do.

What’s interesting is that the same things Wesley says were the “failures” of Christians as well as how Christians should live, is the same principle that applies today. It seems as if we still have to guard against the notion of Christian being a status symbol to get a certain position. Instead, we should view our lives as humble, obedient servants willing to do everything necessary to be a sigh of relief to a hurting and broken world in separate need of God’s forgiving and healing touch. Christians would need to know this personal presence of God, on a deeper level so we can be his instruments in the world.

Yes, God is big enough (and smart enough) to find ways for his work to go on in the world; but there is so much that we Christians can miss out on by living solely for ourselves, or solely for what “rewards” we’ll receive “in the end.” There is great joy, hope, peace, and love we can experience here and now because of the presence of God working in us and through us. We can bring the healing and the presence of the kingdom of God wherever we go and in whatever we do. But it all begins with taking heed to the commands and guidance of Jesus.

So what should we do today? We should not neglect meeting together for worship. We should be involved in prayer and fasting. We should “earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can” so we do not allow money to become a god in our life. Above all, we should practice what we preach. Then we just might see a change in this world.

God’s Story, Your Story: The New Testament

If you could sum up the Bible in one word, what would it be?

This may be tricky for some. Some may be thinking we can’t sum up the Bible in one word.

I think we can sum up the Bible with the word, JESUS. After all, in Luke 24, Jesus tells the disciples on the way to Emmaus that all of scripture points to him. Paul, in Colossians, says that all things are held together in him. So as we read scripture, even the Old Testament, we should be able to see Jesus in everything.

As we take the time to talk through the New Testament, remember how the storyline of the Biblical narrative goes:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

Last week, we saw the 39 books of the Old Testament are divided up into categories:

Pentateuch (Torah), History, Writings/Poetry/Wisdom, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets

The New Testament is divided up into categories as well:

Gospels of Jesus, History (Acts), Paul’s letters (longest to shortest), General letters (longest to shortest), Apocalyptic

So the way to think about the layout of the New Testament is like this:

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension 

The spread of the message (Acts)

Living out the Christian life through the empowerment and presence of the Holy Spirit (the letters and Revelation)

Now, if the whole Bible could be summed up with JESUS, can we think of key passages that help explain the gospel and the way the Christian is supposed to live in the world?

Many know John 3:16 (For God so loved the world the he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.)

Unfortunately, this is where many people stop—at the point of gaining their own salvation. But the Christian life and faith is so much richer and deeper than simply personal salvation—it’s about being in community, sharing life together, and laying down our lives for the sake of others.

The second part of the gospel we need to hear, and live out, is 1 John 3:16 (This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.) This is why we follow the command, and example, of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him. We follow him even though we, as believers, will have challenges and suffering in this life. We follow him because he is the only source of hope and life.

So many people think the Christian life is just for them—it’s become what can Jesus do for me here and now? How can my life get better? But see how we miss out on the power of the gospel? The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives in community, when we seek to bring new people into the family of God (this is kingdom growth not just numerical growth). The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives for others instead of ourselves.

This is why there is so much emphasis on not judging, gossiping, slandering, anything that destroys or devalues another human life. The emphasis is on love—a word that has honestly lost it’s meaning because we over use it. (I love hamburgers, I love my spouse, I love (pick your favorite sports team).) Love in the Bible is not a feeling, or even how we feel in the moment. Love is the way of life. Love is at the core of who God designed us to be.

A little pastoral care moment: When we “speak truth in love” our goal is never to belittle the person but to build them up and encourage them. So often we attempt to speak, what we call, truth and end up having anger in our hearts towards the person. This is not the example of Jesus at all.

Christ followers are to emulate and imitate Jesus in their everyday lives. This is the point of the epistles (letters) from Paul, Peter, John, Jude, James, the author of Hebrews. What’s incredible is how the Spirit continues to speak through these words today—with the intention of building up the community and growing the kingdom of God (God’s rule and reign in the world).

Then we come to the book of Revelation. This is a book that has been misunderstood and misapplied for the last 200 or so years. We’ve said it before, the point of Revelation is to show how God’s people can and should stand firm in their faith even when everything is going to pot. 

The ancient readers would have understood this was a letter, written in code, so they could understand what’s happening in the world to them at that time. We do know that Christ will come again and set things right (true justice not revenge). That is why we can live in hope and joy—we know the end of the story.

This is the New Testament, in a brief nutshell. 

One more thing to consider. There really is nothing new in the New Testament that is not in the Old Testament. In fact, what we see is an expansion of the thoughts and teachings from the Old Testament. (Think Sermon on the Mount which we’ll begin next week.)

This is why it is so important to study and read through the Old Testament. There are many resources available to help us study to learn the history, traditions, and context of the Old Testament. When we better understand the OT, we will begin to see more of the beauty found in the New Testament.

Jesus is the point of the Bible. Jesus is the point of the Christian life. How we live, in this life, matters and it has eternal consequences. I challenge you to read through at least one Gospel, a few letters, and Revelation this week. Ask God to reveal himself to you. The best picture of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Then, ask God to mold you into the likeness and image of his Son and give you the grace to live out the Christian life in community and help you be a person to build people up and work with God to grow the kingdom of Heaven.

Who is YHWH?

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) begins with a land that is fertile and ready for humanity and ends with the people of Israel on the cusp of moving into the land of promise. Beginning in Genesis 12 through Deuteronomy 34, the promise of land is a key theme for the people of Israel. This is what they continue to move toward and keep their minds on—home. This may be a common destination throughout these five books, but what holds the Pentateuch together is the nature and character of YHWH, the One God with any significance. The Pentateuch is answering the question, as Pharaoh asked Moses, “Who is [YHWH] that I should obey His voice…?” (Exodus 5:2b NASB) Not only this, the Pentateuch is also answering the, implied, question of how God’s people should act and live in this world and this life.

YHWH is the only God that is above all of creation. This is made clear, in Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2 NASB) This transcendence means that YHWH can be involved, but not necessarily impacted, by the actions of the people. He is able to act and move in the best interest of what needs to be done. The Pentateuch is making the case that YHWH is not made by humans so he is not manipulated by any spells or incantations other cultures and peoples might do to get the god(s) to do their bidding. YHWH stands alone above all the other gods. Holiness, love, just, true (promise keeper and fulfiller) are some of the attributes that the Pentateuch teaches about the nature and character of YHWH. Because YHWH is transcendent, he is able to be all of this, and more, and expect his people Israel to be holy as well. The Pentateuch is held together by the character of YHWH that the people are supposed to demonstrate to the world and live as.

The phrase “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is one of the recurrences that helps to make the case God is the only God with any significance and is above all others. This recurrence is used throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, especially when YHWH is making a statement about what he has done. Most of the time, “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is combined with his action of delivering the people of Israel from Egypt (הוֹצאתין מארץ מצרימ) “brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This recurrence comes at key points within the Pentateuch and serves as a reminder of who did the delivering for Israel. This is one of the major characteristics of YHWH—redeemer and deliverer. YHWH does not desire his people to be held captive by anyone or anything, except for his covenant. His name implies he is able to be and provide anything the people need. YHWH’s provision is shown through the storehouses of grain in Genesis when the famine struck the land, deliverance from Egypt, water from rocks, manna, quail, new life in the wilderness journey, guiding with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, giving of the covenant, and even bringing the people to the border of the promised land. YHWH is able

How can the people of Israel live up to the holiness YHWH requires? The covenant is what makes the people of Israel unique. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people are constantly being called back to the covenant life taught in the Pentateuch. The people are called to be holy because YHWH is holy. The covenant is central to demonstrating the faithfulness of YHWH and how the people are supposed to live. This brings up a contrast in the way other people live versus the way YHWH expects his people to live. “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine: and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NASB) If the people of Israel followed the guidance and kept the covenant of YHWH they would be set apart and be different from the rest of the nations and people groups. Because YHWH is transcendent, above all other gods, he is able to say he own everything and can set the people of Israel apart from everyone else. “There is only one being in the universe who can rightly be called ‘holy.’ Thus it becomes possible for the first time to describe ‘holy’ behavior: it is the behavior of the Holy One.” (Alexander, 850) This makes the covenant vital to the way of life for Israel.

Covenants were not new to Israel at YHWH’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Covenants have been part of the people of God from the very beginning. When YHWH makes covenants he is showing his faithfulness and love to and for his people. Other deities would have expected something from the subjects, YHWH gave himself (Genesis 17) and said Israel needed to follow him and they would be his own people (Exodus 19). This was done so YHWH could show his love for the world through the people of Israel. Not only this, but YHWH is demonstrating his loyalty to the people of Israel, something different from other cultures who worshipping other deities.

At the core of the character of YHWH is his hesed (חסד), his holy love, his unfailing love. YHWH’s hesed is highlighted over fourteen times in the Pentateuch (Gen 19:19, 24:12, 24:24, 24:27, 32:10, Ex 15:13, 20:6, 34:6, 34:7, Numb 14:18, 14:19, Deut 5:10, 7:9, 7:12) which shows that YHWH is acting out of his love and mercy for Israel, for the purpose of the nations knowing who YHWH is. “…the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 14:4c NASB) The biggest revelation about the hesed of YHWH is found in his own self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness [hesed] and truth; who keeps lovingkindness [hesed] for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…” (NASB) This is a key verse that is found throughout the Old Testament and recurs in the Pentateuch (Ex 20:5,6, Numb 14:18, Deut 4:31, 5:10, 7:9) This is another example of contrast between YHWH and the other deities other people worship. However, this could also be a climax of the Pentateuch because this describes the nature of YHWH, by his own words, the people of Israel know how their God will be with them, treat them, even offer opportunities to forgive their sins against him and their fellow Israelites.

Because the hesed of YHWH is so prevalently known and shown (through the acts of deliverance, giving of the law/covenant, people of Israel growing and thriving, providing food in wilderness, not destroying the people when he had the chance) we can also get a glimpse of how just YHWH is. He is not a God who acts on a whim. YHWH acts for justice (setting things right) in the world. The plagues of Egypt were judgements on the gods of Egypt, the deaths of Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 10, Moses and Aaron not able to enter the land, and many more examples happened because YHWH cannot allow sin to remain and go unpunished. This can also be one of the most loving things YHWH could do. He is not punishing for the sake of his own amusement or “just because”. The punishment comes into motion because of the effects of sin. Through the law/covenant, YHWH has already stipulated how to live. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” (NASB) This is an act of hesed, and the justness of YHWH because he gives the people a chance to choose life, to choose the way of life he is telling them to live, in order for them to thrive and live a long time in the land. 

In Exodus 32, the people of Israel were waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain after he had already been up there 40 days and 40 nights. The people became anxious and pleaded with Aaron to make them a golden idol so they could worship it. So Aaron made a golden calf from the gold the people took from Egypt when they left. This is where the hesed of YHWH is shown as well as justice. “In simple justice, God was obligated to destroy them. But in fact he invited Moses to intercede for them by saying that he would destroy them if Moses would ‘let me alone’ (Ex 32:10).” (Alexander, 851) Justice was still played out because the sin damage had been done so the Levites killed many people by the sword for bowing down to an idol. Justice needed to happen because of who YHWH is. YHWH always acts in consistently “right behavior” because of his holy character. (Alexander, 851)

Because YHWH does the right thing, all the time, he can be counted on to keep his promises. This is shown throughout the Pentateuch in the covenants he makes with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. YHWH also demonstrates he is trustworthy to Abraham and Sarah who received the child of promise, Isaac. He also tells Abraham his descendants will be slaves to another nation for four hundred years. This also comes to reality when the Exodus story begins. His promise of land to Abraham and the Israelites is mentioned many times throughout the Pentateuch. Ironically, this is the only promise that was not fulfilled in the course of these books. But we can be assured the people will receive the promise because of this important inclusio.

What is consistent throughout the Pentateuch is this is the same God who creates, who delivers, who guide, who provides for the people. The inclusion deals with the Spirit (רוחּ) of God. In the beginning, Genesis 1:1, the Spirit (רוחּ) of God is over the waters of creation. In Deuteronomy 34:9, Joshua son of Nun is filled with the Spirit (רוחּ) of wisdom to become the leader the people need to carry them into the promised land. It is the Spirit (רוחּ) of God that holds the people together, this is the presence of God that is with the people.

Even though the Pentateuch is made up of five individual books that tell the narrative history and story of the people of Israel and how YHWH redeemed and delivered them. The consistency of YHWH’s character throughout demonstrates he is the one God with any significance and he is the same. When Pharaoh asked, “Who is [YHWH]…?” He got displays of power and saw how fiercely loyal he is to Israel. The God of Israel desires to make himself know to the world through the people of Israel. Because YHWH is holy and just and loving in his character, the people of Israel know how they should live and act in the world to be living, tangible examples of the God who is above all.

Bibliography

Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.

Arnold, Bill T., and Choi, J.H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.

Dozeman, Thomas B. “Deuteronomy,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995 (pp 271-538)

God’s Story, Your Story: The Old Testament

How well do you know the biblical story? If we’re honest, we all should say we don’t know it as well as we want.

One of the most beautiful things about scripture is that it continually speaks, even today, the words of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to ask you how to easily explain the biblical storyline, how would you do it? Think about it.

If we look at the biblical story, we can look at it in 2 acts, each with 3 parts:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

What we have to realize is how each of these “parts” is really a representation of our life here: we’re created (born), we know we sin, we believe God is real and calling us apart, we meet and encounter Jesus, we become part of the family and movement of God, Jesus makes us into new creations. So, when we read the Bible, we’re really looking at a mirror of our lives, in many ways.

Today, we’re looking at the Old Testament storyline. This is how God (YHWH) has moved in, through, and with his people, Israel. Throughout these 39 books we see how Israel comes to God, follows God, gets excited about obeying God, decides to do her own thing and ends up going against God leaving her alone and exiled. See how the Old Testament is our story also? When is the last time you did everything right, and followed God to the perfect “T” you wanted to? For me it was in the split second I woke up today, before I had a chance to think or do anything.

Yes, I know the Old Testament is long, has a bunch of traditions we don’t practice today, has some strange names, and I’d downright confusing. But what we have to understand is the point of the scriptures. The point is to know who the God is Israel was/is supposed to know, follow, and reflect in the world.

One of the challenges we have today is that we live in a time when we tend to focus more on devotional thoughts, meditations, and books/teachings about  the Bible and we have missed out on reading and absorbing the actual words of scripture themselves.

Over the last 2 years, I have developed a love for the Old Testament because I have now realized that unless we take the time to read and study the Old Testament, the New Testament doesn’t make as much sense.

One of the things we have to understand is that what we call the Old Testament is what Jesus referenced. Why? Because there was no New Testament yet. Also, the Apostle Paul says that all scripture is God-breathed, know he is talking about the Old Testament.

So let’s take this time and go over the Old Testament and see how this is our story as well.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the foundational statement to show who (not how) the earth was created. We live in this world because God set everything in motion and spoke everything into existence for his people.

Everything was all well and good, until…

Imagine how it would be to live in paradise. Can you imagine everything in a state of perfection? Unfortunately, we can’t because we will always expect something bad to happen. Why? Because of the presence of the serpent in Genesis 3. The serpent planted the seeds of doubt into Adam and Eve. Now doubt, in and of itself, is not bad. When doubt turns to unbelief, we begin to not believe in God: who he is, what he says he’ll do. This is when we begin to take matters into our own hands and sin corrupts us.

The fall is found in Genesis 3-11. It’s amazing how quickly the later generations embraced the life of sin. It goes to show that “what one generation tolerates, the next generation embraces.” Genesis 3-11 is important to read because it shows the state of the world we’re still in. If we get upset about younger generations acting a certain way, or embracing certain values/opinions, we do have to ask what it is we tolerated in our life.

Now the Old Testament is about who God is. God is the God of hope and second chances. We see this in the flood narrative, and especially in the calling out of Abraham. This is where the storyline of the Old Testament moves from the universal scope of all of creation and begins to tell the story of a particular people group.

The people of Israel have begun. To see the family tree from Abraham, take time to read through Genesis.

The people would not last long on their own. They became (over time) slaves to Egypt and remained in that state for over 400 years. There was still the hope from the promises of God to Abraham the people held tight to. God may have seemed absent, but Exodus gives us the picture of a God who pays attention and knows what’s going on. God acts in a mighty way, and delivers the people of Israel by having Moses lead them. The Exodus is the foundational story for Jewish people—how they were brought from a life of slavery to freedom. This is also, in a sense, our story too since we were slaves of sin until Christ broke the curse of sin over humanity.

Something we have to take time to realize is that when Israel was freed from the slavery of Egypt, they really moved into a different kind of slavery—into the service of God. The paradox is that unless we live our lives as servants of God, then we really don’t know or understand freedom. True freedom if found in the expression of love that if only found in God.

When you live for God, you see his character is that of holiness—he means what he says and he says what he means…he should be feared/revered. The holiness of God is laid out in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is where the people learn that there can be no sin in their presence, that sin will not be tolerated in the presence of God. There were some strict punishments for sin, but the people knew exactly what would happen. I do wonder if we took sin as seriously as the Bible does, how would the world look? How would the church look?

This is a very brief and basic look at the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Understanding these books is key to seeing where the rest of the story takes place.

Now we move into the history books (Joshua – Esther).

The first thing we see is God is a God who keeps his promises. His covenant with Abraham included land. Now the people of Israel were entering the land which was promised to them.

What we see, in these books, is what happens when the people live by their part of the covenant (which is following God and listening to him). We also see what happens when the people do not live up to their part of the covenant. Everything goes south.

The Israelites had incredible victories but soon became cocky and prideful and found themselves trying to be like other people, other nations. The kingdom of Israel was established with Saul and further expanded by David and Solomon. Now before we say Israel went against God and got their king after God said not to, that’s not true. God laid out specifications for how a king should be when the people asked for a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) But the reality is absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This teaches us how patient God is.

The history books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther all shows the ebb and flow of how the people yearned for God yet did their own thing. The cycle is what we still see today:

  • Revival happens and the people follow and decide to obey God
  • Life gets a little too comfortable and sin corrupts
  • The people do their own thing (and blame God for not providing)
  • Punishment – exiled
  • Repentance happens and the people return to their first love – God

See how this is our story today? What do you think we need to repent of as individuals? As a church? As a state? As a nation? As a people?

Moving from the historical books, we move into the Writing and Wisdom books. These are really the heart of the Biblical story (that’s why they’re in the middle 🙂 )

It is here we can see heartfelt prayers and wisdom that is needed to keep our hearts and minds open to the movement and presence of God.

Job reminds us God has not left us, even in the midst of tragedy.

The Psalms are beautiful cries and expressions to God.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells how a person should think and live.

Song of Solomon (Songs) is a beautiful expression of God’s love and affection for his people.

Then we move into the Prophetic books. There are 2 groups (major and minor prophets). The “major” ones are only called so because they are longer, not because thy have more value. The “minor” prophets just have shorter books.

What do the prophets do? They warn of impending judgement and doom, if the people do no return to their part of the covenant and follow/obey/listen to God. That brings us back to the Pentateuch. The prophets are calling the people back to the way of life and loyalty the Pentateuch says.

In a nutshell, this is the basic storyline of the 39 books of the Old Testament. There is so much more we could say right now, but studying the scriptures is really a lifetime of God revealing himself to us.

To understand the Bible, understanding the first five books is essential. When you read it, see what the Bible is teaching about God and about who he says the people are.

I pray we can continually see how our story today, is the same story as the Israelites, which is played out in the story and life of God. Next week, we’ll dive into the New Testament and see how the New Testament reteaches covenant loyalty, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Esther: “Wrong” Place, Right Time

We have been in this series where we have been looking into the lives of biblical characters to see how we can still see ourselves on the pages of scripture. As we said last week, our way of life, and society may have changed, but human nature really hasn’t changed. We still fall prey to the effects of the fall and original sin. No one is without fault.

But then, we also see a beautiful picture of a God of Holy Love who continually offers grace and works in and through his people for his work in the world. This has been a constant throughout history and is something that will never change. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

As we move through the Old Testament, we come, again, to, maybe, a familiar person—Esther.

The biggest verse, the most memorable verse, to many, in this book is chapter 4 verse 14b: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (NIV)

This is something we do have to really think about for our lives, in general—maybe you are where you are “for such a time as this!”

Now here’s a tough question for you today, “are you happy with your life and what’s going on around you?”

Some will say, “YES!” Others will not.

One of the challenges we face is to realize we have been placed here, at this time, in this location for the purposes of God. If there is any unrest within us, we do need to ask if we are truly doing what God has called us to do. Remember, God’s calling has no expiration date. His work, in this world, is for people of all ages, ethnic groups, socio-economic status, education level, etc. If we ever get to a point that we don’t have to do the work God has called us to, because, “someone else should step up,” maybe God is calling us to do something even more grand than we ever imagined. Maybe God is calling each one of us to mentor and be part of raising up a new generation of believers and Christian leaders, outside our family.

Here’s the reality, not everyone around us, not everyone we come in contact with, not everyone we think about, communicate with will know and fully live into the life Jesus Christ offers. But, everyone is seeking Christ whether or not they realize it. Why? Because life is meaningless without any purpose. Life does not make sense without the grace of God acting in and through our life. Life is empty and hollow without the known presence of Christ. This is what we get to help people realize.

Maybe, you are here “for such a time as this.”

So what is Esther about? Here is a brief recap of the story:

“Esther lived in ancient Persia about 100 years after the Babylonian captivity. When Esther’s parents died, the orphaned child was adopted and raised by her older cousin Mordecai.

One day the king of the Persian Empire, Xerxes I, threw a lavish party. On the final day of the festivities, he called for his queen, Vashti, eager to flaunt her beauty to his guests. But the queen refused to appear before Xerxes. Filled with anger, he deposed Queen Vashti, and forever removed her from his presence.

To find his new queen, Xerxes hosted a royal beauty pageant and Esther was chosen for the throne. Her cousin Mordecai became a minor official in the Persian government of Susa.

Soon Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate the king. He told Esther about the conspiracy, and she reported it to Xerxes, giving credit to Mordecai. The plot was thwarted and Mordecai’s act of kindness was preserved in the chronicles of the king.

At this time, the king’s highest official was a wicked man named Haman. He hated the Jews, especially Mordecai, who had refused to bow down to him.

Haman devised a scheme to have every Jew in Persia killed. The king agreed to his plan to annihilate the Jewish people on a specific day. Meanwhile, Mordecai learned of the plot and shared it with Esther, challenging her with these famous words:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14, NIV)

Esther urged all of the Jews to fast and pray for deliverance. Then, risking her own life, brave young Esther approached the king with a request.

She invited Xerxes and Haman to a banquet where eventually she revealed her Jewish heritage to the king, as well as Haman’s diabolical plot to have her and her people killed. In a rage, the king ordered Haman to be hung on the gallows–the very same gallows Haman had built for Mordecai.

Mordecai was promoted to Haman’s high position and Jews were granted protection throughout the land. The people celebrated God’s tremendous deliverance, and the joyous festival of Purim was instituted.”**

There is something, seemingly, missing from the book of Esther…the name of God. Does this mean that God is absent? It is easy to believe that God is absent when things don’t get better, or when we’re confronted with challenges that life will bring. But the truth is, God is always present. God is always working. He is always reconciling, restoring, redeeming. God is always bringing people to faith in Christ. God is transforming whole communities through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

A major challenge we face today is that many people don’t really believe God can do all of this, or that God desires to use you and me. But know this, because of God there are no coincidences. It is not coincidence you meet the people you do. It is no coincidence you go in the places you go to. It is no coincidence you have the friends you do. Did God make you do all of this? I don’t believe so. But I do believe that God has been working behind the scenes, and prompting your spirit by the Holy Spirit to step out and follow this path.

I used to tell people that I would know I was following God’s plan when I had complete peace within me. I don’t believe that anymore. Why? Because I get to be in situations that are uncomfortable and unpleasant, simply because of what God has called me to. Imagine the unrest Esther experienced, yet was determined to do what she needed to do. The peace comes because I know I can trust God in all things. And because I trust God in all things, I can live a life of peace even when the world around me seems chaotic. What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be?

I remember it, like yesterday. I was having a lunch Bible Study with one of my friends and his pastor and I remember when Jesus Christ became real to me. I was at a phase in life where I was searching for meaning and looking for who I was supposed to be. I loved these lunch Bible Studies with Bernie and my friend Micah. Micah will probably never know how much I appreciate him for this.

It wasn’t until several years later that I realized what I was supposed to do with my life. This came after 7-8 years of unrest within me. Things were going really well for me, for the most part, but I still was seeking meaning and purpose. My identity was wrapped up in what I did for a living. This is where it got challenging for me.

One day, because of Facebook, I was able to reconnect with one of my Kindergarten and elementary school best friends. I was excited. While on my way to visit some family, on the coast, I stopped to have lunch with her. When I left, I felt the need/desire to read the entire Bible. I had read much of it before that, but something inside me told me to read the whole thing. So what did I do?

I went to stay on the beach for a few days. About a week or so later, the feeling kept coming back, so I went and bought a brand new study bible…the King James Version. I found a plan to read the Bible over the course of a year. But I couldn’t get enough, so I began to read more each day. It still took about 3 months, but I read the Bible all the way through.

But, it was in the book of Genesis, the calling of Abraham that I began to sense God leading me to a life of ministry. I kept is quiet for a couple months, but something strange began to happen. Some of my close friends began to tell me they could tell I was in conflict about continuing martial arts as a job and said something to the effect that they could see me in ministry. A couple months later, I “retired” from martial arts and began this vocation of a life in full-time ministry with God.

Throughout this journey I have come across people I never dreamed up. I often felt, and still feel like sometimes, that I was in a different or “wrong” place than where I wanted to be. But I realized later that I got to connect with people that God needed me to. I got to marry Amanda and have an incredible family.

Because of this life, I have seen incredible things. I have also seen the face of evil. But most importantly, I can see the Kingdom of God and the presence of Jesus Christ all around us.

Church, this is a difficult time for ALL churches. It is easy to try to say we need someone to “fix” everything. The world is looking for people to “fix” whatever’s wrong. Often times we begin to work and fix things that are not the underlying issues.

But there is only one person that can fix the world, and he died on the cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven. He is the carpenter that brings his tools with him wherever he goes and does some hard work in his people. He will begin the work to fix what really needs to be fixed/recentered/refocused/redeemed, and it may not be what we thing or with whom we think.

Jesus is where our eyes stay focused. Why? Because he is focused on you and what he has called you to. Jesus is going to call you to do things and be in situations/positions you are not qualified to be in. He knows what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at.

Jesus continually sees value in you and because of this says, “this is the one I am using here and now.”

Church, look around the world. Look at the media. God is calling you and I to be instruments and vessels to expand his grace and Kingdom. Trust that you are exactly where God needs you to be. You and I are put here for God’s purposes, at this right time and place.

**Taken from: https://www.learnreligions.com/book-of-esther-701112

Whose Side is God On?

There is so much that divides us, as people—politics, race, social economics, and so much more. We often try to get people to be on “our side.” One of the challenges we face is we often question who is God fo? Who’s side is God on?

This video is some of my thoughts on the question at hand, whose side is God on? Be sure to take and tackle the question at the end!

Let me know your thoughts.