Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Understanding God, Part 3

The last two weeks I've written about trying to understand God through his Son, whom we know as Jesus the Messiah (Christ).  We looked at some scriptures including Heb. 1:1-3 and John 5:39-40 to show that the written word of God points us to the Living Word of God (John 1:14) who shows us exactly what the Father is like (John 14:9).  So this time, let's look at a passage from the Old Testament that points us to what God was going to do in Jesus Christ.

Skipping over, for now, the first-ever indication of a savior in Genesis 3:15 (second half), and the desperation of the human race without God in the next few chapters, let's go to the call of Abram / Abraham in Genesis 12:1-4.  Here, God says Abram must leave his native land, go to another place, and that God will make him into a great nation, plus make him famous and a blessing to many; God will bless those who bless Abram and curse those who treat him with contempt.  This passage is pivotal for a lot of reasons:  it starts the story of the "father of the faithful" as an example of a life of growing faithfulness to the call of God; it tells about the roots of the nation of Israel; it foretells the birth of the Messiah as Abram's descendent ("All the families on earth will be blessed through you"); and it tells how we are to respond when God shows us his will ("So Abram departed as the Lord had told him"). 

But there's one more level of meaning we can find here:  look again at the command and the promises from God to Abram:  leave your home, go to a strange place; and you will be famous, be blessed and become a blessing to all nations.  That's a picture of what the Father asks the Son to do, and that the Son is willing to do, for our sake.  Paul writes in Phil. 2:5-11: "You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."  The calling of Abram is a rough picture, in a way, of what the Son of God would do later, going to a 'strange land' -- the physical earth -- and through his life, death and resurrection for us, become famous and a blessing to all nations. 

The Old Testament is full of word pictures that make sense in their original context, up to a point.  (Some of those stories don't seem to make any sense at all on their own, but that's a story for another day.)  The entire history of Israel sets up for us the larger story of the Messiah to come.  But only in Christ are these stories, histories and concepts given their full weight of meaning; revealing "the story behind the story" as it were; and only as we see them fulfilled in Christ can we understand how they apply to us today.  

Reading the New Testament scriptures and letting them highlight the Old Testament is kind of like seeing the Old Testament in 3-D:  everything jumps out at you in a much different way.  Next time we'll look at someone else's story and see what we can learn. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Understanding God, Part 2

Last time I wrote about trying to understand God.  You might want to review that post to get the background on this one.  Basically, we talked about trying to comprehend a God we can't see, and some of the ditches people fall into in trying to explain him.  Reading Hebrews 1:1-3, we discussed how Jesus, the living Son of God in human form, is the greatest revelation of God.

Now, some of my friends have questions and concerns about that.  Isn't the Bible the real word of God, and the full explanation of who God is?  (See for instance 1 Peter 1:23-25.) Yes and no.  Yes, in that we have the written word and can read it any time (and should read it often!).  But within that written word is revealed the Living Word, Jesus -- as in John 1:1 "In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God, and the Word was God."  And verse 14, "So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son."  Which is more important -- the text or the person?  My money is on the Son of God!

Jesus then gives some important clues about himself, in relation to the written word.  Let's look at John 5:39-40 which says "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life."  And in Luke 24:25-27, after his resurrection, Jesus is walking with two disciples and says " 'You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?' Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself."  And then in verse 44, he says to the whole group, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  

To properly understand the Hebrew scriptures, often called the Old Testament, we have to look back at them through the lens of Jesus himself -- how he fulfilled those writings and brought them to life.  "Moses and all the prophets" wrote about Jesus, in one way or another.  A full analysis would take many more pages than I can write today, but in the next few weeks I'll try to unpack a few of them here.  To preview that series, let's just say that the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the history of Israel as a nation; the Law of Moses; the sacrifices and festivals in Israel's worship liturgy; and the writings of the prophets, all lead to Christ.  Some have said that the entire nation of Israel existed to prepare a people and the perfect way to understand how the Son of God could enter the world to rescue us and bring us to the Father.  Biblical Israel's national history and religious practice gives us a rich picture of multiple dimensions and facets -- like a huge, perfectly-cut diamond -- sparkling and shedding light on what God wants us to know about himself. 

And the full picture is more breathtaking and wonderful than anything else we could imagine!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Understanding God, Part 1

If you want to know someone deeply, it takes time and effort.  The Lovely Joanne and I have known each other more than ten years and we're just getting started.  We hate being apart, as it's harder to share everything even by email and phone calls.  We need to be face to face! 

What about when we are trying to get to know God, whom we can't see?  Some people look at the world around us, with its troubles and pain and evil, and conclude that if there is a God, he's remote and doesn't care about us or powerless to stop tragedy.  Some read verses like 1 John 3:1 and think he's like a kindly old man who loves everyone so much he just kind of drools over us.  Others read verses like Psalm 2:4-5 and think he's a mean, angry judge who waits for us to step out of line and then zaps us with a lightning bolt (or cancer, a car wreck, or an earthquake).  How can we know? 

Well, the Bible is progressive - we only get a glimpse of God in Genesis, and have to go all the way through the Bible to get more of a picture.  The New Testament tells us much more detail, more directly, than the Hebrew scriptures.  But still, there seem to be differing ideas in individual verses, so how do you unify the whole thing?  Is there a single thread?  Yes, there is!

Let's begin with a summary passage, Hebrews 1:1-3 which says "Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven."  This tells us that the greatest revelation of God is not by the prophets and others who wrote to the Hebrew people, but from the very Son of God -- Jesus.  So then, to understand God, we have to look at Jesus. 

There's even more revealed in this passage.  The Greek says that the Son is "of the same essence" which means he is identical to the Father, not in any way inferior or separate, so that the Son is God just like the Father is God.  This is said so we understand we can completely trust whatever Jesus tells or shows us about who God is. 

So, since the Son (Jesus) shows us who God is, we should look to Jesus, to what he said, how he responded to people, and how his followers explained him to us -- which then helps us understand what was written in the Hebrew scriptures about God.  Another way to say that is, the Bible, the written word of God, is written to show us the Living Word of God -- the Son, Jesus; and by looking at Jesus, we learn who God is. 

What does that mean about how important Jesus is in the Bible?  We'll look at that next time.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Other Side of the Boat

It had been a long night and the seven men in the small boat were exhausted.  It was time to row back to shore and clean their empty nets.  They were already discouraged from the events of the last week.  They had all followed this new rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, for three years and then the whole thing had been a bust -- the Romans had crucified Jesus and the brave among them had watched him die.  The last three years were a waste, so it seemed, so they were back to fishing for their livelihood, and now it looked like that wasn't going to work either. Bummer!

A voice came to them from on shore, a hundred yards away.  "So you got skunked, huh?  Try throwing your nets off the other side of the boat."  They looked at each other as if to ask, "What difference would that make? It's only a few feet!" but then they gave it one more try (fishermen do that a lot). Suddenly the net was full and it was all they could do to stay afloat with the load hanging over the side.  Eyes wide, they all realized this was no accident.  "It's the Lord [Jesus]!" said John. 

Once again Jesus showed his power -- now, after his resurrection -- to these guys who were so slow to believe.  He had called them to follow him, and he wasn't giving up on them just because they were discouraged.  He told them to try again, a little differently, and suddenly they succeeded.  Fellow disciples, it's the same today.  We can work until we're exhausted, get discouraged and think nothing is ever going to give results.  Then the Master calls out, telling us to try again, to try something just a little different than our 'proven methods.'  Our first challenge is always hearing him when we're 'busy working'.  Then there's the challenge of being discouraged -- thinking that, surely, trying again isn't worth the effort.  But the Master calls us to follow, not argue.

The question is, for each of us, what is 'the other side of the boat?'  Perhaps it's a different approach to a relationship; taking the painful steps to learn budgeting and money management; forgiving someone (again!); walking the few steps and daring to open up to a co-worker or neighbor about your faith in Jesus; or something else equally difficult, that Jesus is asking us to do. 

The disciples received a boatload of fish.  What is Jesus wanting to bless you and me with, if we will follow?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Having it All

Our tortoise-shell cat, Susie, has a food problem.  Everything in her life is about food, or so it seems.  She runs into the kitchen every time we get a glass of water, and begs for food.  You can tell she's begging because she's yowling at us and trying to get up on the counter to see if there's something there for her.  The Lovely Joanne says we should send Susie as a contestant on that new food show, "America's Gut Talent". 

Jesus has better ideas for us as his brothers and sisters than to be ruled by our physical desires.  In Matthew 5, he starts to reveal to us the true heart of God. He tells us not just to avoid murder, divorce and adultery, and not to exact revenge -- even if it's legally available to us -- but to think as the Father thinks, sending out love, grace and forgiveness.  Those are not human motivations.  Our natural drive is self-protection, self-determination, and making sure we'll have enough, even if someone else doesn't.  But Jesus continues, in chapter 6, telling us not to pretend to be righteous in front of others as a way of getting ahead (in our giving, verses 1-4, prayer, verses 5-15, and fasting, verses 16-18).  And he wraps up his teaching of all these different ideas in verses 19-34 by reminding us that our true security comes from God:  "Store your treasures in heaven...You cannot serve both God and money...That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear...These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs."  The only way we can 'have it all' is by trusting in that security!

We can't follow that teaching by simply trying to or determining to; it comes from God within us, from Jesus living in us and we in him (John 15:4, 17:21-23) through the Person of the Holy Spirit in us (John 14:16-18).  Our new life in Christ, as we have been renewed by the Holy Spirit, brings us to understand and follow Jesus' mind in us, which is a mind of giving, not of self-protection, anger and revenge (as he taught in Matthew 5 and 6). 

So if we find ourselves filled with selfish motivations, anger at others, and thoughts of getting ahead or getting even, we can be sure we are off-track, not paying attention to the mind of Jesus in us.  When we awake and realize we've been running in that selfish human way again, we have to sacrifice our own self-will and surrender again to the Holy Spirit's work in us, letting the peace of God rule in our thoughts and emotions (Romans 15:13, Phil. 4:6-8).  Susie the Cat doesn't have any hope of changing her ideas -- but we can live new lives, 'having it all' in the security of our place in Christ and the love of the Father through the Spirit.