The God of the Bible

We’re New Testament Christians – why should we read the Old Testament? What good does it do me to study old laws and rituals? Why should I learn about people so far removed from my own life? Because we don’t study the Bible to learn about laws and rituals and long-dead people – we study the Bible to learn about and draw hope from God. I am in a group that is writing through the Bible, we’ve been mired in Job for months. Lots of misery and grumbling and arguing. But by slowing down the pace and paying attention to the text, we’ve come to understand Job – and God – from a whole new perspective.

Paul said, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He’s talking about the Old Testament. When I am discouraged, I go to the stories of God’s deliverance in Exodus. When my life has fallen apart I turn to Nehemiah where God enabled His people to rebuild the broken-down walls. When I face a frightening situation Esther is my go-to book as I remember how God rescued His people. And when the world looms dark and evil, I turn to Daniel and witness God’s sovereign control over human events.

The Old Testament is filled with evidence of God’s power, purpose, love, and faithfulness. The same power, purpose, love, and faithfulness is found in the New Testament and in my life two-thousand plus years later. In the Old Testament, I find the God who delivered Israel, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued the Jews. In the New Testament, I see the same God who delivered mankind, broke the bonds of sin and death, and changed the world. He is the same God I call to in this present season of struggle. I know He is able to do for me today all that He did then. I put my name in those verses of rescue and promise and the God of the Hebrew people, of Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel becomes the God of Dorcas Elizabeth. He hasn’t forgotten how to rescue and restore. His power hasn’t diminished one bit. This God is your God too if you have trusted in Jesus. Beloved, get to know the God of the whole Bible. Get to know the God of your life.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

Spiritual Math

My favorite way to study the Bible is to slowly chew on small bites of Scripture to get every bit of flavor from it I can. But there is also great value in looking at the bigger picture. I was reminded of that when a memory popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. It said: Light + Truth = Life 1 John 1.

John made several proclamations in this first chapter. He proclaimed Jesus as “the Word of life” (1 John 1:1), much the same way He called Him “the Word” in his gospel (John 1:1). He was the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14). The walking, talking Scripture who came to deliver the message of the Father in person.  What is that message? “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (v. 5). Wherever God is, light exists; not just a lamp, but a floodlight. That’s why John said we can’t claim to be a Christian and walk around in the darkness. It’s impossible. That’s also why, when a light-filled believer enters a place where there is spiritual darkness, one of two things happens. Either the light changes everything it touches, or the darkness and the ones living in darkness flee. Light illuminates, it reveals, and it forces us to confront the things that were hidden or take them and slink farther into the dark recesses.

Because light shows us things – including ourselves – as they really are. That’s the “truth” part of our equation. Light says, “If you run from me it’s because you don’t want to know the truth.” I’ll admit, sometimes the truth is hard to take, but who wants to live by lies? I know I don’t. The truth is, I was born a sinner and lived like it. Then the Light came and I saw what I was. I saw the lies that said I was “good enough” and my wrongs were too petty to keep me out of heaven. I saw how the enemy and the culture said that my sins were just “lifestyle choices,” “addictions,” “illness,” “personality quirks,” and “errors in judgment.”  And I saw the corollary to the 1 John equation. If Light+Truth=Life, then Darkenss+Lies=Death.

Beloved, I pray you will choose Life. I pray you will choose light and truth. I pray you will not run away from the sin you see in the light, but will put it all in Jesus’ hands. The darkness is no place for you.

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Heaven Wept

“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross. They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet. They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender. They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit. They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body. They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross. They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection. But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters. To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story. He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women? Were they numb with grief? Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones? This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief. How could this be? Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!” As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty. We know this is only the day between death and life. But they didn’t. In their world, death was final. It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?

Optical Illusions

“Things are not always what they seem,” the magician said. He launched into several tricks that amazed the children at the park. They were all simple – done by sleight of hand and most of the adults – myself included – could see through them. But the kids were mesmerized. My son talked about them for several weeks afterward. But the illusionist’s words stuck with me: “Things are not always what they seem.”

The Bible is filled with stories when things seemed bad, difficult, even impossible. The Israelites seemed to be stuck in a death trap – between an impassible body of water and an angry Egyptian army. But things are not always what they seem. The sea parted and they crossed over on the dry ground (Ex. 14). Three Hebrew youths were thrown in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow before the king’s statue of gold. Daniel defied a royal order not to pray to his God and was thrown into a pit with hungry lions. But things are not always what they seem. A fourth Man kept the flames away from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – the only thing that burned was the ropes they were bound with. God’s angels shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel emerged from the pit without a scratch on him (Daniel 3, 6). A young girl lies dead and her family grieves. Jesus knows that things are not always what they seem. He tells the mourners: “She is not dead, only sleeping” then takes her by the hands and raises her back to life (Mark 5:21-43). Their lord and teacher was dead and his body was missing – ah, but things are not always what they seem. You know the rest of this story.

Beloved, things may seem bleak right now. Hard times are upon you. Life is difficult and it doesn’t seem like it will ever get better. You’re facing an impossible situation, a mountain you can’t climb, a pit you can’t get out of, a roadblock you can’t get around. But things are not always what they seem – especially when God is with you. Trust Him to get you over that mountain, out of that pit, and past that roadblock. He is light in the darkness. He is hope when life seems hopeless. He is the God of the impossible-made-possible. When God is in the picture, things are not always what they seem.

Hebrews: Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

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I’d seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they didn’t prepare me for the breathtaking sight when we visited the real thing. Every perspective we got as we moved around the rim was beyond description. The pictures were beautiful but they couldn’t do the real thing justice. The writer of Hebrews had set up  two tabernacles in his message – one on earth – a man-made structure with beautiful tapestries and rich gold and silver, and one in heaven: “the greater and more perfect tabernacle . . . not a part of this creation.” He did not attempt to describe it, but I am sure that he could have never adequately portrayed the heavenly dwelling place of God in mere human words.

Likewise, the work of the high priest ministering in the earthly tabernacle was a pale substitute for the work of our Great High Priest ministering in the heavenly tabernacle. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with animal blood because blood was necessary to purge the sin and make the people clean – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). But why? “The life of a creature [human or animal] is in the blood (Lev 17:11). Blood is synonymous with life – any physician will tell you that when the body runs out of blood the life is drained with it. This is the price of our sin.

Let’s spell this out. In God’s holy covenant only “blood makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:14). God in His mercy allowed for animals’ blood to stand in for our blood, but its effect was short-lived and only partially cleansing. But God had planned a better way; a way that would atone for sin “once for all” (Heb. 9:12), but it required perfect blood that was only available through a divine and holy being – but there’s a problem.  God can’t die. So His one and only Son became a man – a man with divine blood – that He might atone for humanity’s sin. He hung on a cross and dripped that perfect blood from His broken human body. Then He collected it in a bowl and took it into the heavenly tabernacle into God’s very presence. No other sacrifice would be needed. Jesus had done it all.

The blood of Jesus still stands as the only way to be clean before a holy God. But it is enough. Come, Beloved, and be washed in the perfect blood of Christ.

Hebrews: Turn Around

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“Turn around. Don’t drown.” “Turn back. Bridge out.” Road signs tell the driver one thing: you need to reverse course. You need to change your direction. You are on a dangerous path. They are signs we would do well to heed. The Bible also puts up signs that call us to make a change in the way we are going. Scripture calls it “repentance” and we would also do well to heed these warnings.

The writer of Hebrews focuses on one aspect of repentance in his discussion of elementary teachings: “Repentance from acts that lead to death” (6:1) Remember that he has been talking to “lazy” believers who are unwilling to grow in the matters of the faith. They are content with surface knowledge – just enough to make sure they escape hell. You know, fire insurance.  Our author says that this is a foundational truth. I wonder if 21st-century Christians understand it at all.

What is repentance? Paul described it like this: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret . . .” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God. It is recognizing the dangerous road we are on, how we got on it, and turning back to God. Repentance must have both sorrow and turning. We are often sorry for our behavior (well, let’s be honest, we’re sorry we got caught), but that doesn’t mean we turn back to God.  The Prodigal Son is the perfect expression of repentance.

So what does “acts that lead to death” mean? Other translations may say, “dead works.” This is referring to anything man does in an attempt to save himself. Remember that the readers were largely Jewish, and Judaism had 613 commandments – expounded from the original ten commandments that God had given Moses. These – including circumcision – were the Jew’s “gateway” to salvation. Do all the right things in all the right ways and you will be right before God. The problem was, no one could be right before God even if they followed every jot and tittle of those 613 rules. In the same way, non-Jews cannot be right with God by being “good enough.” Because we never will be.  

Salvation has never been about what we do or don’t do. It is always and only about the work that Jesus has done on the cross. Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus. Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Beloved, it’s not too late to turn around. God will always welcome repentant sinners home.