Wednesday, May 25, 2011


On Sunday, May 22, a tornado half a mile wide left a six-mile swath of destruction in Joplin, Missouri -- not far from my mother's home town.  So far, 116 people are known dead and several hundred were injured in that storm. We join Christians around the country in praying for the people who were affected, not only in this storm but the many that will surely follow this year.  

There are storms in life produced by the weather, and there are "storms" of another kind, difficult circumstances of life that teach us lessons we usually can't get anywhere else (or perhaps they won't sink into our minds in any other way).  The Bible often calls these situations "trials" and there are several important passages on trials in its pages.  Let's look at just a few:

1 Peter 4:12-19 reminds us not to be shocked "as if something strange were happening to you.  Instead, be very glad..." The text tell us that trials are normal for the Christian life, and have two purposes:  first, they test us; second, they allow us to be "partners with Christ in his suffering."  Ouch, you mean we have to suffer as Jesus did?  Well, yes, that is part of Christian life -- it shows we identify with Jesus, just as he identified with us by becoming human.  "So be happy when you are insulted for being a Christian" says verse 14. 

James 1:2-4 says much the same thing, more briefly:  "For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow."  That's a little like lifting weights, using the resistance of the weight to build muscle and strength.  We grow in our faith and endurance by facing problems we can't work through on our own, and relying on the strength God gives us to endure.  That growth is why James says "when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy." 

Hebrews 11 is a long list of faith-driven accomplishments of the saints of old.  And after all those stories of faithful heroes, we are told "none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us."  We get to join the list of the faithful, as our faith is made plain to others while we endure our trials; and one day, we will all see that "something better" God has waiting for us.  I have no doubt -- that is, I have faith, despite the troubles of today -- that the trials will be worth it.  Do you?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pictures from the Old Testament: the Levitical System

Most nations around ancient Israel believed that they were ruled by unseen beings in the sky who controlled the weather, the fertility of people, animals and crops (and thus their lives, in an agricultural setting) and many other things.  The nations believed they had to appease those beings by any number of methods including sacrificing animals -- and sometimes humans, sometimes even their own children!  (See for instance 2 Kings 17:31.)  The problem was, one could never be certain of success; the weather might still be against you, your crops might still fail, etc.  You always had a little cloud of doubt hanging over your head.

The system God gave Israel was similar in many respects, at least to the casual observer. They had holy places, priests, altars, sacrifices of animals and grains, and even boxes that represented the presence of their god (that's why the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant in 1 Samuel 4).  But there were differences, and those differences assured the people of the forgiveness and faithfulness of Yahweh.  In addition, the whole Levitical system (the priests were all from the tribe of Levi) points directly to Jesus, our Savior. 

Here are just a few points, to illustrate:
  • The 'sin offerings' described in Leviticus 4 and 5 are described as being effective:  "they will be forgiven" is used in 4:20, 4:26, 4:31, 4:35, and 5:10, 5:13, 5:16, 5:18, and in other places. 
  • The offering had to be a 'male with no defects' (Lev. 1:3)
  • The priest wears, on his turban, a seal engraved with the words "Holy to the LORD" which is taken to mean that he "may take on himself any guilt of the people of Israel when they consecrate their sacred offerings. He must always wear it on his forehead so the Lord will accept the people." (Ex. 28:36-68).
  • The priest wears stones such as onyx and emerald, engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel: “In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place. This will be a continual reminder that he represents the people when he comes before the Lord." (Ex. 28:29
Jesus himself fulfilled all those things: 
  • He is our high priest (Heb 9:11) the one bringing the offering, and he was also the offering itself.
  • He had no sin of his own but carried our guilt (Heb. 9:14)
  • He represented all the people, as did the high priest in Israel; and through his sacrifice on the cross, all sin is taken away for all people, forever (Heb. 9:24-28). 
  • That offering is effective, not because of the blood of animals, but the blood of Jesus himself (Heb 10:4-10).
This is one more of those reasons why we say that we read the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, through the lens of Jesus Christ.  The sacrificial system of the Israelite nation did nothing to change peoples' hearts (Heb. 10:1-4) but only looked forward to the One who was to come.  Now, we live under the terms of the New Covenant, not the old one (Heb. 10:9) and are completely forgiven, even to the point of having a clean conscience.  That's what Jesus has given, not only to us, but every human who has ever lived! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Understanding God: Pictures from the Old Testament: Joshua

Last time we looked at a little of the life of Moses who led Israel out of Egypt.  Now we move on to Joshua, who was Moses' assistant for so many years.  Joshua's job was to lead the group out of their wanderings in the wilderness for so many years, into the Land of Promise.  He had already seen the land once, as one of the twelve spies (Numbers 13:16) sent to look the place over, and along with Caleb was one of the only ones to have faith that God would help them conquer the land.

Joshua was a man of faith, a strong leader and had a large part in setting up the nation of Israel in their now-historical home.  But in Joshua chapter 1, God felt it necessary to tell him that, just like Moses, God would be with Joshua all his life.  "No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you." (verse 5).  Three times (verses 6, 7 and 9) God says "Be strong and courageous" and finishes with "the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

There are a lot of famous exploits in this book of history, including crossing the Jordan river in its spring floods stage (chapter 3) the fall of Jericho (chapter 6) and the long day (chapter 10).  All that served to help establish Israel in the land, so that many years later, Messiah would be born in the land and complete the true salvation of all people.  Moses led Israel out of Egypt, but Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led them into peace.  The Son of God born as a human, whom we Westerners know as Jesus has the same name in Hebrew; it's just the change to English that makes his name sound different.  Joshua was born in captivity in Egypt, and walked into freedom in the Land of Promise, just as Jesus was born into human flesh and sinful nature, yet without sin, and leads us now into eternal life. 

The historical book of Joshua ends in chapter 24 with the scene where Joshua gathers the Israelite leaders, rehearses their history, and reminds them that they are now in a land of plenty with cities and orchards and vineyards they didn't create themselves (verse 13); a picture of salvation given us as a free gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ.  Then Joshua finishes with these ringing words in verse 15: "Serve the Lord alone. But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord."

Jesus, of course, is the only one to ever "serve the Lord" perfectly.  And by his perfect life, his death on the cross that was in our place, and his resurrection to eternal life, he has led us into the true "land of promise" with God, forever (see Colossians 1:13-14, Ephesians 1).  Let's live every day in that glorious truth!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Understanding God: Pictures from the Old Testament

We come back today to our intermittent series of people from the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, whose lives picture our salvation in Christ in some obvious or hidden way.  Sometimes it's a parallel, sometimes a contrast, sometimes both in one.

Today we discuss Moses, who is recognized as having founded the nation of Israel.  Modern Jews trace their heritage from the defining moment of the Exodus, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, just as Christians trace their beginnings from the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  What might be revealed in the story of Moses as pictures of Christ?  Here are a few examples:
  • Both were born into a life of oppression: Moses into slavery (Ex. 1:8-14, 2:1-10) the Son of God into human flesh (John 1:14, Phil. 2:1-11). 
  • Both had to be rescued from a king who murdered children (Ex. 2:1-10, Matthew 2:13-23)
  • Moses led his people out of Pharaoh's oppression, (Ex. 12:37-42) Jesus out from under Satan and sin (John 12:30-32)
  • At God's direction, Moses helped create a nation as the people of God, united under their 12 tribes and the covenant of law (Ex. 19:1-8, 20:1-20); Jesus created a new people united by grace, not race; not by law but by God's forgiveness (Gal. 2). 
There's a contrast, also, in John 1:17:  "For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ." The phrase "unfailing love and faithfulness," also translated "grace and truth," comes directly out of Ex. 34:6, in which God is describing himself to Moses:  "The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, 'Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.'"  Just as God reveals himself to Moses in these words, Jesus reveals God to us in his entire life: "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known."  (John 1:18). 

The whole Old Testament is filled with pictures of the salvation offered to every person on earth through Jesus Christ. Moses is just one more of those.  What else is in Moses' life that is revealed in Christ to be a picture of future grace?  Who else do you see in the Hebrew scriptures as they anticipate the Savior?  Let's find another one for next time.