Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Two-Sided Coin

By God's definition, blessing and curse are two sides of a single coin. The Lord's stringent policies toward his people in ancient times provided for prosperity and security on condition of obedience; however, God specified horrible curses to befall those who would or could not to honor His terms. The blessing is the side of the coin we might prefer to see. God promises:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains . . . [and] increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit . . . And you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely. I will give peace . . . and none shall make you afraid . . . I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. - from Leviticus 26:3-12 (see the whole passage)

That sounds great, but look what was waiting when God's people fell short:

But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments . . . then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, . . . disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache . . . I will set my face against you . . . Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. - from Leviticus 26:14-17 (whole passage)

Persistent disobedience and disregard for God's standards had a specific and predictable result:

If . . . you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me,
then I will walk contrary to you in fury. - Leviticus 26:27-28

God's law of blessing and curse, or cause and effect, was so deeply ingrained in the Hebrew mind that the teachings and works of Jesus were a complete shock to the Jewish system. The scribes and Pharisees (the religious teachers and authority figures of Jesus' time) were unprepared for the the good news Jesus presented regarding forgiveness and fresh starts. When Jesus forgave a wayward heart, it was an offense to their ideas about God:

. . . [Jesus] was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and . . . they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” - Mark 2:2-5

The authorities were offended that one human being would dare to forgive the wrongs committed by another. Surely judgment was God's job, and justice must be meted out in the form of suffering. Yet that was not the case. To prove His point and further illustrate His authority, Jesus followed up forgiveness with physical healing, and then turned to explain his actions to to His critics:

Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” - Mark 2:9-11

This was good news for people who were conditioned to think in terms of cause and effect, action and reaction, blessing and curse, obedience versus discipline -- and the good news was for everyone. Although Jesus was monitored closely by the Jewish authorities, He had wide contact with the general population, spending time in the company of people who had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. When the Jewish teachers asked Jesus why He associated with folks who did not even pretend to keep the rules, He responded this way:

Those who are well have no need of a physician,
but those who are sick. I came not
to call the righteous, but sinners.
- Mark 2:17

Throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus broke all kinds of rules - the religious do's and don'ts were redefined (see Mark 2:23-27). Jesus offered everyone - not just the "good" people - a new way of interacting with God, which superseded the old standard of blessings for complete compliance and curse for disobedience. We are called into this new way of thinking; we are offered unmerited grace and love:

. . . he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, - Titus 3:5
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. - Ephesians 2:8-9

What a blessing to live under Jesus Christ's new system, which allows us to take joy in living by God's standards, not in fear of punishment, but because we know we are loved and forgiven. May the joy of the Lord inspire you today. May the mind of Christ be in you to provide the desire and the ability do things His way.

To see the Old and New Testament passages which inspired this blog see Through the Bible in a Year's February 18th reading.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Several seekers (I among them) have been commenting back and forth on Facebook for the better part of two weeks on matters of philosophy and theology. While it is interesting to discuss the meaning of scripture in our world today, there is something else at stake, equally as valuable as deciding who is right and who is wrong. Who wins the debate is only half the picture.

It matters who is right -- don't get me wrong. Jesus cared about that, and we're to follow His example in all things; still, we are NOT to pick and choose in what areas we'll emulate Christ. Yesterday's Old Testament and New Testament readings speak a single message to my heart: we're not to merely to pass judgment between right and wrong, but we must also intercede. Judgment and mercy are two sides to a single coin, as illustrated by the example of Moses.

Moses is the most renowned foreshadowing of the Messiah in history, who spent so much time in the presence of God that his appearance was changed. His face glowed so brightly that he had to put a bag over his head! Moses was also the judge of his people, leading them with a firm hand. His tradition of leadership was passed down through the generations, yet Jesus himself placed no credence in the authority of those who carried on the work of Moses in His day.

In fact, Jesus condemned the expert debaters of his time, the scribes and Pharisees. Those who carried Mosaic authority in the time of Christ wanted only to sit in the seat of judgment, not in mercy. They were unwilling to carry the burden of intercession. Moses was an authority figure and judge over the people of Israel, but he was also a powerful mediator, willing to lay down his life for his people. It was Moses' persistent and urgent petition which saved Israel from the judgment they so richly deserved.

Jesus said, "The scribes and Pharisees sit [in judgment] on Moses' seat . . . They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to carry them . . . " (see Matthew 23:2-12 for context). The distinguishing mark of the modern believer is a consistent walk of love, humility, and service, without which judging what is "right" won't make a dime's worth of difference to those around us.

We who would honor Christ are to follow the full example of Moses as judge and intercessor; we can't allow empty arguments to turn us into cold-hearted hypocrites. The Lord Jesus puts us all in our place when he says:

. . . you are all brothers [and sisters]. . .
you have one instructor, the Christ.
The greatest among you shall be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
- from Matthew 23:8-12

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

God is Up to My Misgivings

I wholeheartedly believe the Bible, and trust God completely. With my heart I believe, but my mind doubts. The most shameful misgivings raise their ugly heads just when I'm trying to say pretty prayers. I'd like to ignore them, but the Bible says I’m to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in me. I can’t give an answer to others if I don’t have answers myself, so I have to trust God to answer the questions I hate to ask.

Today's Old Testament reading, (Exodus 31-33)about the giving of the first set of commandments, and the golden calf, brought some of those old, nagging questions to the mind. Moses did a lot of things right, so much so that he is typecast in scripture as a foreshadowing of Jesus, or a “type” of Christ. He interceded for his people in spite of his bitter disappointment after they completely disregarded God in the short forty days Moses was out of their sight, meeting with God.

Indeed, God intended to destroy the stiff-necked, stubborn people of Israel, who were quick to turn from His ways. God planned to spare only Moses, making of him a new nation, but Moses eloquently pleaded with God to spare the people, and God heeded Moses' prayer. It is because of his willingness to stand between his people and their certain destruction that Moses is known in history as a forshadowing of Christ, himself.

Moses did a lot right, yet all his good deeds did not guarantee him admittance to the promised land he had journeyed a lifetime to reach. After a forty-year pilgrimage through the desert, Moses himself was denied access because of a seemingly minor infraction, an act of careless disobedience: Moses struck a rock when instructed to speak to it. As a result, he died on the far side of the river, within sight of Canaan, never setting foot on the good land God had promised.

Why couldn’t God have forgiven Moses the small offense, knowing that Moses was only human? Why can’t God forgive all of us our offenses, since He loves us in spite of our wrongdoings? Why do we need Jesus , and what about Him? If Jesus had made one little mistake, would it have been all over for our Savior? If that had happened, could omnipotent God not have produced another Messiah to take over?

As to why Moses suffered dire repercussions for a “minor” infraction – well, what is minor? That depends on what the definition of is is, doesn’t it? Where is the line we cross that changes a minor, forgivable offense to major trouble? God does not deal in degrees; if God pardoned the most minor offense, then the next-least harmful offenses would move into the position of “minor” to be pardoned, until there was no longer any difference between right and wrong, and no point in trying to define it. The result would be chaos, raging injustice, and unending misery for all of us.

Regarding the question of why there could be only one shot at making the Messiah, it is because Jesus was an authentic human being, not a superman. Being a person is a first-hand, first-time experience, hence facing the unknown without prior experience is intrinsic to the human condition. If God were to inseminate another virgin and make Himself human a second time, it would no longer be His first experience, and His authenticity would be lost.

Christ’s authenticity is fundamental because a big part of my hope and trust in Jesus is in knowing that He was human in every way (including his inexperience, i.e. starting out as an infant, going through childhood, facing awkward teenage phase, right on down the line), and yet He did not make a misstep during His entire lifetime. He has the power to help me make right choices because He did it himself. Jesus faced the same struggles and temptations I do, and has offered His own mind to help me face the hard choices.

Here’s another question that has plagued me: what about the short, thirty-three year lifespan or our Lord? Could Jesus have lived a sinless life until the age of ninety, or even seventy-five? Maybe that one is a moot point. Consider the account of Christ’s agony the night before the crucifixion. The gospels record that Jesus sweated blood as He mentally prepared himself to shoulder the cross. This phenomenon has been recorded in medicine as a sign of unspeakable suffering – the kind that takes years off of a person’s life. The Lord not likely have lived to a “ripe, old age.”

My questions don’t seem so scary now that they are on paper and out in the open. Do you have questions you can hardly stand to ask? Are there thoughts in your head that prevent you from trusting Jesus with your life? Maybe it is time to ask God about your own distracting doubts. To trust Him is to talk to Him and pour out your doubts before Him, even if you are ashamed or embarrassed of your thoughts.

The Lord is up to the task of dealing with everything that concerns us, especially our doubts. and will respond with love and mercy even if your questions aren't as easy to answer as mine. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to unravel the things that don't make sense; sometimes a question may be so enormous that the answer won't come until we see God face to face. It is worth asking the One who knows the answers, in any case. May your prayers be honest today, even if they're not pretty!

. . . now we see indistinctly,
as in a mirror, but then face to face.
Now I know in part, but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.
- 1 Corinthians 13: 12