Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Abraham

Abraham is one of my favorite characters out of the Old Testament.  The accounts of Abraham's life in Genesis are pretty amazing, although he also had some classic failures.  But to me the most amazing aspect of Abraham's life is what is happening when we are first introduced to him.

The Biblical account of Abraham's life starts in the eleventh chapter of Genesis where we see Terah, his son Abram (later renamed to Abraham), Abram's wife Sarai (later renamed to Sarah), and his grandson Lot leave Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan.  It seems like Nahor, another son of Terah, also moved with them, at least part way.  But along the way they stop and settle down in Haran for at least a while.  While in Haran, Terah dies and God calls Abram to leave his family behind and continue the journey.  So Abram, Sarai and Lot leave Haran and head for Canaan.

The rest of the account of Abraham in Genesis includes God's promises to Abraham concerning land and descendants, a journey to Egypt, the affair with Hagar and Ishmael, the rescue of Lot, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac, the near sacrifice of Isaac and finding a wife for Isaac.  Abraham is recorded as living in Canaan for 100 years.  And in spite of several notable failures, he is commended as one who exhibited faith in God and becomes a primary example for faith by the author of Hebrews and by Paul in the letter to the Romans.

But why Abraham?  Why did God choose to call him, out of all the other people who lived during that period of time?  I find it doubtful that God just randomly chose him from among all the people who lived at that time.  I find it much more likely that God chose Abraham because he knew how Abraham would respond to him.

Abraham is said to be from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia, a center of worship for the moon god Nannna.  Was Abraham following Nanna when he received God's call?  Or had he rejected Nanna to search for the God he saw revealed in the creation?  In Romans 1:18-20, Paul claims that God's eternal nature and divine power are clearly seen in his creation and then goes on from there to claim that we have rejected that revelation and turned instead to gods of our own making, resulting in God turning us loose to our own devices.  Because of that, I think it likely that Abraham was the rare exception who went the other way, rejecting man made gods and turning to seek the God revealed in creation.  And God rewarded that seeking by making himself known to Abraham.

Ur was a major urban center, and while it is not possible to know with any certainty just what place Nahor's family had there, it is likely that they were free citizens and probably well off since they were free to uproot and move.  Leaving Ur, and later Haran, behind to set off into the unknown would be a major challenge for me, and it is hard to imagine that it was easy for Abram when God called him to do so.  But in some way Abram heard God's call, recognized it for what it was, and followed him from the comforts of city life into a life of wandering in the wilderness.  Quite a chance, and yet no indication that Abraham ever had any serious doubts about following where God led.

Later on it is said of Abraham that he believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness.  Abraham's belief in God went beyond an intellectual acknowledgement of God existence.  If it had we would never have heard of Abraham.  Instead his belief amounted to obedience.  When God told him something, he acted on it.  And because of that, Abraham was consider to be righteous before God.  Is it any different for us today?


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Law: Required, Fulfilled, Overturned, Upheld?

While Israel is encamped at Mt Sinai, following their exodus from Egypt, God gives to Moses a set of laws for the new nation.  These laws cover the spectrum of life for Israel, from moral, to health, to civil, to religious.  Obedience to these laws was not optional, but was required if Israel was to remain in covenant relationship with God.
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.  Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2 NIV
From reading through the Old Testament one gets the impression that Israel actually did a rather poor job of living in obedience to the Law, and suffered as a consequence.  Only during those times when Israel made an effort to live in conformity with the Law did they prosper.  And that raises a question for believers today; what relationship does the Law have to our walk with God?  Is it still something that we are expected to follow?  Or is it no longer a requirement?

Required

I know many believers who insist that Christians today are expected to keep the Law.  Yet I know none of them who actually do so; at least in its entirety.  A significant portion of the Law deals with the sacrificial system, and I have yet to meet anyone who follows any portion of that.  Another big chunk of the Law deals with health and dietary issues, and again few, if any, make any attempt to follow those regulations.  A third portion of the Law deals with civil issues, like what to do if an ox gores someone, and these are likewise generally ignored.

It is only the portion of the Law that deals with personal morality that anyone attempts to follow today, and even then they are somewhat selective in the portions they choose to follow; generally agreeing, for instance, with the prohibitions against homosexuality but not in how to deal with victims of rape.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Matthew 5:17-18 NIV
This passage is used by many as proof that the believer has not been exempted from following the Law (or at least that portion of the Law they want upheld).  Indeed Jesus says that his intent was not to abolish the Law, although he did seem to eliminate portions (see Mark 7:19) and changed others (see Matthew 5:38-42)

Fulfilled

It seems to me though that focusing on the 'not abolishing' portion of that passage is probably not the correct point of emphasis.  It would seem like the 'fulfill' portion is actually the central point.  It is what Jesus came to do; fulfill the Law.  What does Jesus mean by this expression?

At least 13 times in the gospel of Matthew the expression "this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet", or something similar, is used.  The author of Matthew was very concerned with demonstrating that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies made about him.

And the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to argue that the sacrifices mandated by the Law were only shadows of the sacrifice that Jesus would offer.  They simply pointed forward to Jesus fulfillment of them in his death on the cross.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

   “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
         but a body you prepared for me;
   6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
         you were not pleased.
  7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
         I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:1-7 NIV
I believe that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:17-18 is not that I have to follow the Law, but rather than it was pointing to him, and he has fulfilled it, echoed in his cry from the cross, "It is finished."

Overturned

In contrast to those who would advocate that we are still obligated to uphold the Law are those who will argue that the Old Testament Law is not applicable to Christians today; and I must confess to being more sympathetic to this view.  The Law belonged to the old covenant established by God at Mt Sinai, a covenant that was replaced at Calvary.  The new covenant is one of grace rather than law.  By no means does this mean that I am free to do anything I want.  But it does mean that my relationship with God is not based on obedience to the Old Testament Law.

One of the earliest conflicts in the church dealt with Gentile believers and the Law, particularly circumcision.  It appears like the Jewish believers continued seeking to follow the Law in their daily practice.  But what about the Gentiles.  There were those who advocated that Gentiles should be required to follow the Law, while others felt like it was an unnecessary burden.  The 15th chapter of Acts describes the Jerusalem council where representatives from both sides of this issue met to decide this issue.  One the one hand were the backers of the Law:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
Acts 15:5 NIV
And on the other side was Peter, along with Paul and Barnabas, who said:
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Acts 15:10-11 NIV
Ultimately James, speaking for the church, ruled that the Gentiles should not be expected to follow the Law, although the Gentile believers were asked to be considerate of the Jewish folk among them by avoiding some things that would cause them offense.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Acts 15:19-21 NIV
Paul refers to this council meeting when he writes the letter to the Galatians, in which he argues strenuously against making observance of the Law something that is required to gain or to maintain God's favor.  For sure, Paul is not opposed to the Law, but he sees it as being something that is applicable to those who have not yet come to faith.  But once we have come to faith in Christ, we are no longer under the rule of the Law.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.  So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Galatians 3:23-25 NIV

Upheld

So, under the new covenant, what is the role of the Law?  In the first few chapters of Romans, Paul works to wrap all humanity up under sin, separated from God.  And in that discussion he says that it is through the Law that we become conscious of sin, it is the Law that makes clear to us that we have fallen short of the perfection that God requires.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Romans 3:20 NIV
No one has ever been, or ever will be declared righteous based on observance of the Law.  Instead the Law proves our need for a savior.  Once we have experienced the gift of righteousness that comes from God through faith, the Law has performed its function; it has been fulfilled.
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Romans 3:31 NIV
The Law is a good thing, so long as one uses it properly.  Obedience to the Law is not a replacement for, or enhancement to, faith.  But it continues to be stand as the standard that the unbeliever can measure against to help them realize their inability to please God based on their own efforts.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Righteousness of God

After his introduction, Paul spends the bulk of the first three chapters of his letter to the Roman church in a discussion of sin.  While Paul leaves open the theoretical possibility of a person being good enough to pass judgement before God, his conclusion is that no one actually is good, that no one will be declared righteous before God based on their own efforts in adhering to the law, whether that be the Old Testament Law, or the law of conscience.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. - Romans 3:20 NIV
The condition of humanity that Paul paints in Romans 1:18-3:20 is a pretty bleak one.  We are sinful with no chance of escaping the wrath of God at the judgement.  Lost and without hope!

But once Paul has made clear the hopelessness of our situation he begins his discussion of the gospel, the good news.  And it is quite a contrast.  The passage below was identified by Luther as being the main point of Romans, and of the whole Bible, the most significant passage of all.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.
Romans 3:21-25a NIV
The good news is that God has now revealed, and made available to us, his own righteousness.  My own righteousness, at its best, was insufficient.  But God has chosen to make me a gift of his righteousness.  By his grace I am justified, declared to be righteous.

So what do I have to do to obtain this gift of God's righteousness?  Nothing!  Paul has gone to great lengths to argue that I am actually incapable of doing anything that will make God happy with me.  Instead, God has made his righteousness available to me, as well as the rest of the world, as a freely given gift.

That gift is available to all who believe, who have faith in Jesus.  This faith and belief is more than just an intellectual or one time response to God.  Rather it is an on-going surrender of one's life to the Lordship of Jesus.  It is a ceasing of the attempt to make myself good enough by my own efforts, and a surrender to the one who can make me into what he created me to be.

What I cannot do for myself, God has offered to do.  How wonderful it is to be delivered from my hopeless condition and into eternal life in relationship with my creator.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lord, Help My Unbelief

A father with a demon possessed, or epileptic, son brings the boy to Jesus to have him healed; if Jesus is able to.  Jesus responds that everything is possible for the one who believes.  And the quote below is the father's response to Jesus.
I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! - Mark 9:24b NIV
The father's words here really strike a chord with me and I find myself periodically echoing his cry.  I believe.  But oftentimes it seems that belief is pretty shallow and has little impact on my life.

There is no doubt in my mind that God exists and that he has a purpose for me.  I am convinced that the Bible is inspired by God and that faith in Jesus death and resurrection is necessary to enter into relationship with God.  I believe!  And yet I struggle with unbelief.

If I really and truly believed that this world and all that it contains is only temporary and that I was created for something much more than this, should it not have more of an impact on how I live here?  Would I not spend more time preparing for eternity than I do in enjoying the temporary?  Would not the work He has for me have a higher priority than other things I choose to do?

I believe; at least intellectually.  But unfortunately my belief does not always translate well into practical terms.  Lord, help me in my unbelief!


Friday, October 17, 2014

Honoring God

 Parts of the second and third chapters of Romans are easy for us Gentiles to take a little lightly because Paul is targeting the Jews.  And, since I'm not a Jew, then surely this section has little to say to me; right?  Try swapping out a couple of words in the passage below as shown and see if it might have more to say to you.
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew (Christian); if you rely on the law (Bible) and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law (Bible); if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law (Bible) the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You who boast in the law (Bible), do you dishonor God by breaking the law (Bible)?  As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles (unbelievers) because of you.”
Romans 2:17-24 NIV (parenthetical comments added)
I have to admit that deep down there is a part of me that is guilty of the first part of this passage.  I have the Bible, and have spent a lot of time with it.  I believe I have an understanding of God's will and his purpose for me, as well as the rest of creation.  I am confident I can hold my own in most any doctrinal or apologetic discussion.  What more could God want from me (cough, cough).

But there is a big difference between knowing and doing God's will.  Between knowing and obeying his instruction for me.  I wonder sometimes just how different my life might be if I did not know God and did not have the Bible.  Would it be significantly different?  It should!  Unfortunately there is a vast difference between what should be and what actually is.  This world has way too much appeal for me, drawing my eyes away from the eternal.

More importantly, how do the people of this world judge God based on the way I live?  Does the witness of my life turn people away from God, draw them to him, or does it have no impact?  I would like to think that it is attractive, but I fear that more often it is neutral; good, but not necessiarily anything that would make people say "I want some of that".  It really should be a priority for me to ensure that God is honored by my life.  How tragic it would be to stand before him at the end of this life and discover that I have failed to do so.  And how much worse to find that my life has turned someone away from God.  I pray that is not the case.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Parables?

One of Jesus most common teaching methods was the use of parables.  A parable is a simple true-to-life story that illustrates a spiritual truth.  They are generally simple and easy to understand, at least for those who belong to him.  But while they illustrate truth for believers, it appears they are also intended to obscure the truth for unbelievers.
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.  He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
        “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
        and ever hearing but never understanding;
        otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Mark 4:10-12 NIV
When Jesus disciples ask him about a parable he had just told, the Sower and the Seed, he responded with the quote above.  He tells his disciples that he is telling parables to prevent those on the outside from being able to comprehend his teaching and turn to him.  And that seems pretty strange to me.  Why would he say that?  Does he not want everyone in the world to turn to him and be saved?  Is he trying to prevent some from knowing who he is?

I have struggled with this passage every time I have read it because it seems so contrary to what I understand God is doing.  But is it really?  What does God want from me?  The scripture clearly says that my response to him needs to be based upon faith.  When he comes to me, like he did the twelve in the gospels, and says "follow me", will I follow him wherever he goes?  Or will I expect him first to offer me rational argument and convincing proofs.

Those to whom the parables were explained were the one who had responded to Jesus call.  The ones on the outside were those who had gathered around because Jesus was feeding them and healing them; not bad motives necessarily, but not what is expected.  They had seen the miracles and had heard him teach, but they were still on the outside; they had not committed to him.  And Jesus was unwilling to give them any more in depth teaching.  He was not going to 'argue' them into the kingdom.  If they are going to see and hear without a faith based response, then they are not what he wants.

The spiritual truths, or secrets of the Kingdom, belong to those who are citizens of God's kingdom, not to outsiders.  And Jesus shares them in a way that enables Kingdom citizens to understand while also preventing understanding by outsiders.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Wrath of God

The wrath of God is not an uncommon expression or topic in the Bible and is used several times by Paul in his letter to the Romans.  It would seem important to have a clear understanding of it in order to be able to understand what Paul is trying to tell the Roman church.  Yet it seems to be something that is a bit challenging to come to grips with and most people seem to have a hard time trying to describe it.

The dictionary defines wrath as "strong, stern, or fierce anger; deeply resentful indignation; ire." For me at least, the word 'wrath' conjures up an image of vengeful anger being directed at one who has offended the person exhibiting wrath.  When used for myself or other humans, that seems to be an adequate description.  And it does seem to be descriptive of God as he is pictured in the Old Testament, destroying the world with a flood, pouring out fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, zapping anyone who touches the Ark inappropriately and many other examples.  But I really see no support for that in the New Testament, and it is contrary to how I understand the nature and purpose of God.

I will be the first to admit that I have a tendency to view God through the lenses of my own nature; and I son't believe that I am not alone in doing that.  I know that is somewhat dangerous because it can produce an incorrect picture of God.  But I don't know that it is possible for me to separate how I see God from how I am.  I know that some of my more emotional friends can see God sitting on a mountain top hurling thunder bolts at those who offend him.  But I struggle with that; I have a hard time picturing God as being vindictive.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness - Romans 1:18 NIV
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Romans 2:5-11 NIV
Paul clearly teaches that the wrath of God is real and is directed at godlessness and wickedness.  But it seems just as clear that it is not something that is visited upon the offending party when their actions cross some threshold.  Rather, there is a day of judgement coming when we will receive either eternal life or experience God's wrath.

It seems better, at least to me, to think of God's wrath in terms of deserved punishment rather than anger directed at the offender; that removes the emotional component from the equation and leaves righteous judgement in its place.  Those who do good are rewarded, while those who do evil experience punishment.

What is that punishment?  While many will disagree, it seems clear to me from the scriptures that there is some period of torment for those being punished, but that period is followed by destruction.  In fact, that is the fate that Paul claims awaits those who experience God's wrath, rather than an eternal conscious torment.
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?
Romans 9:22 - NIV
As I understand it, the wrath of God is the final judgement against unbelievers and evil doers; their complete and total destruction.  It is not the action of an offended, angry or vengeful God.  It is a reasonable and rational outcome for those who have failed to live up to God's purpose for their lives.