Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ps 119.118

You reject all those who stray from your statutes, for their deceit is falsehood. Ps 119.118 

Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, Paul tells us of depraved mankind, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

Yeah. That’s what Paul had to say about those who stray from God’s statutes. (Ro 1.28-32)

We don’t like to think that God can or will make things worse for people, but Scripture’s pretty clear that he does.

Whereas the devil blinds the minds of unbelievers so they can’t see the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ, when people repeatedly turn away from what they know to be true of God, God himself steps in.
They deceive themselves to a point, and then God begins to harden them as well.

We see this most clearly in the case of Pharaoh, who refused to let God’s people go. Five times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart in response to God’s demand. Then we read over Moses’s next five visits to the palace that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It didn’t end well for him, what with one thing and another.

God did the same thing to the nation of Israel. After so many years wooing them to himself from the time he brought them out of Egypt and gave them their own land and all during the divided monarchy, God put a stop to their rebellion by bringing Assyria against the northern kingdom.
At the same time he sent a message through Isaiah saying that he would close their eyes and deafen their ears and harden their understanding so that they could not grasp what he was doing among them.
Seven hundred years later, they were blind to Jesus Emmanuel, stone deaf to his message of life in him, and as hard-hearted as Pharaoh ever was.

Discouraging, to put it mildly. Downright alarming, if you lean toward refusing God.
Does it really mean that when we oppose God, even if we once walked in his favor, there’s no coming back?

Whether or not we can lose our salvation is a topic for another day, but Scripture is clear that those who repent can always come back to welcome arms.
Think of the prodigal son in the pigsty.
Think of Saul persecuting Christians in Damascus.
Think of Jonah in the belly of the whale.
Think of Israel in exile.
Think of Manasseh, king of Judah, cowering in a foreign jail.

Manasseh was the son of the great king Hezekiah who had stood in faith against the Assyrians. The Angel of the Lord put to death 185,000 of them in one night, leaving Hezekiah to reign in peace all his days.
He turned to reforming Judah and died leaving the nation free from idolatry, for the most part. His son Manasseh took the throne at the age of 12, but brought back all the idolatrous practices. His wickedness was the worst of all kings yet, and the Lord promised to use Assyria to cleanse Jerusalem the way one “wipes a dish and turns it upside down.”

God did it. Manasseh went off to Babylon with a ring in his nose. There he found God, so to speak, in “his affliction, and implored the Lord, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him. God received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God” and it changed everything for him.
He made reforms on the scale of his father Hezekiah, reigning for a total of 55 years.

There is no depth of wickedness from which someone cannot sincerely repent. That being so, why doesn’t everyone find peace with God?

Two men who knew Jesus illustrate what goes wrong.
Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus by informing the religious council where he was to be found. Jesus knew what he was up to, and Judas knew he knew it, for Jesus sent him from the Passover meal saying, “What you do, do quickly.” Recognizing the evil in what he had done when the guards arrested Jesus, Judas tried to clear his conscience by returning the fee. When they refused to take the money back, he went out and hanged himself. That, as they say, was the end of that.

Peter likewise betrayed Jesus, in his case by denying three times that he even knew him. A rooster crowed, and across the courtyard Jesus met his eyes. Peter wept bitterly, but did nothing while Jesus was tried, executed and buried. When he heard the tomb was empty, he raced to see for himself. No Jesus, so he hung his head and went home.

The disciples returned to Galilee, and the brothers went back to fishing. That’s where Jesus found Peter one morning after a poor night’s catch, calling from the breakfast campfire on shore, “Try the other side of the boat.” The magnificent haul of fish was more than enough evidence who had spoken.
Peter did not wait for the boats to come in but swam to shore. Still too ashamed and broken to speak to Jesus, he waited for the Savior to initiate reconciliation.

This is instructive for us when we want to come back to Jesus after we fail him. We must come near with our whole heart as Peter did. Despair and self-harm do not cleanse our conscience, as Judas shows, and can even put us beyond the reach of mercy.
But we mustn’t presume to enter God’s holy presence as if there had not been a breach in our relationship with him.
Jesus is more interested in reconciling us than we could possibly be, but forgiveness is an act of grace on his part and we add insult to injury when we despise its cost by whitewashing or denying our guilt.

We can always come to him, no matter how wicked we have been, no matter how wrongfully we “did not see fit to acknowledge God.”
The depth of our sin will NEVER exceed his boundless mercy toward a heart that sorrows with godly remorse.
The cleansing waters of grace await any soul that will repent and return to the Lord who waits to restore us.

As Isaiah said, the Lord waits to be gracious to us, and exalts himself to show mercy to us. For the Lord is a God of justice, being both just and the one who justifies. Blessed are all those who wait for him.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ps 119.117

Strengthen me, and I shall be safe, and I shall observe your statutes continually. Ps 119.117 

One thing’s sure as we make our way through this world, we can’t do it alone. When we try, we find ourselves face to face with our own shortcomings.
We stand even less of a chance of making it through eternity on our own merits. We don’t even know what it takes to prepare for eternity. The earliest and most primitive cultures demonstrate a belief in the afterlife, contingent on how we live here and now. Is that right? Who even knows?

What strikes a strange note, though, is David’s goal. If God would strengthen and uphold him he would be safe to focus on living for God. If not, he seems to imply, his energy and attention must be spent on his own survival and safety. If we’ve discovered one thing about this all-too-human king, he truly loved God’s Word. To do it continually would have been a genuine delight for him.

This seems to be the same heart that inhabited Christ. Unlike David, whose sins are recorded in Scripture, Jesus never once missed God’s mark. The law was external to David, and while he intended to do what it said, and delighted in doing so, it was internal to Jesus, part of the very makeup of his being.

While Jesus chose to live in complete submission to the limitations of the human condition, and was as human as we are in body, soul, and spirit, that’s not all he was. He alone was another Adam, a new kind of being created with a nature that contained within himself the seed of all believers, just as Adam contained the seed of all human beings.
In his humanity Jesus was the son of David.
In his deity he was the son of God.
In history, he was the son of man.

Where do we get the idea that God’s law is hard to keep or in anyway undesirable?
Surely this is a lie from the pit.
I say this because even when there was only one command, and it was accompanied by generous permission to enjoy everything else, along came the serpent, and sat down beside her. He started in creating questions and doubts about what the command really meant, and why God had given it—as if God wanted to deny them something good. But that wasn’t God’s intent for the law, and only someone with his own agenda would spin it that way.

In fact, through the law, God gave detailed instructions for how to get the most out of this life. To keep it is simple prudence. But Satan wanted to be God. His desire to rule would never sit well under a higher authority. I’m sure it galled him that these little creatures just accepted divine authority without challenging it. Whether he wanted to see what humans were made of or if he wanted to corrupt them doesn’t matter.

So while Christ may have shared David’s heart regarding the law, rarely do we hear anyone—including most Christians—professing the desire to continually observe God’s commands. More often we find people, ourselves included, finding loopholes so that we don’t have to do them. 
It’s Old Testament, Christ set us free from the law, it doesn’t apply anymore, we live in a different culture, it’s old fashioned and no longer relevant.

Think about tithing, a very practical area where we see people resist God’s law. Objections vary.
God doesn’t need our money.
In the New Testament we’re told to give only what makes us cheerful to give.
Ten percent is legalistic.
Not to mention practical reasons based on needing all the income we have to pay for living expenses.

Another example is the Sabbath, keeping the Lord’s day holy.
Objections are often couched in practical terms.
That’s the only day we have to do chores.
We have to work.
Kids sports hold games that day and team membership requires us to attend.
God doesn’t care which day of the week it is.
And even if we want to take a day off, we don’t want to spend it doing church things.

But this kind of objecting to God’s good instructions for holy living pervades so much of our Christianity. It’s almost as though we simply don’t want to be told what’s best for us.
We especially make excuses for why we aren’t as devoted to God as we know we should be.
When’s the last time you met someone who claimed to spend too much time in the Bible or in prayer or fellowship or worship or evangelism or service or giving?
More likely, the person (even the one in the mirror) is busy rationalizing why we don’t do it enough.

I can’t imagine David talking like that. He was a man who knew the value of God’s instructions and wanted more of them. Knowing he could not hope to care from himself in this world or prepare adequately for the next without observing God’s statutes, he pleaded for divine help, not tone better at keeping to God’s way, but for God himself to keep him strong and safe. Then he would be able to do his part of obedience.

But what if we chose to do it anyway?
I wonder what it would do to our hearts—and our lifestyles—if we were to choose God’s way even if no one else does it. I suspect that the more we yield to the divine way, the more precious it becomes to us and the more we regret missing it. That seems to be true of David, and of Jesus.

Why not try it for yourself and see?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ps 119.116

Sustain me according to your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope. Ps 119.116 

As I write this, I received news that someone I love let slip the mortal ties of life, his body wasted by pancreatic cancer. From diagnosis to passing took less than two months. Numbing news, until the pain of loss set in.
It gives “sustained according to God’s Word” a whole new relevance.

The Word became flesh. Jesus of Nazareth. The radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. He upholds all things by the word of his power. With one word he can snuff out anything. A human life. A city. A job. A nation. A star. A universe.

Jesus Christ, it seems to me, ought to be feared.

He holds all authority in heaven and on earth. He called the universe into being with one word. So too he will cause it to be no more.
Why don’t we fear the One whose name is above every name, who sits at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven, whose kingdom will never end, whose judgments none shall escape?

We do not fear him, to our detriment as well as to our shame, because we are far more interested in making much of ourselves. This is foolish beyond imagining. Do we think that his grace and mercy are stronger than his righteousness and wrath?

Mercy and grace are at the heart of God, no question. We know the story of the cross and the sacrifice of God’s perfect Lamb. Nevertheless we arrogantly put ourselves in the center of the story, spotlighting our value to God and neglecting how much more precious was the divine son. That one life incarnate, Scripture tells us, is worth more than all human lives combined.

When Jesus pleaded for his executioners on the basis of their ignorance, he anticipated how the Righteous Judge of All the Earth—Abraham’s term—would deal with such evil. Didn’t Jesus warn them it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for the generation that rejected him? His Father hates injustice, how much more so when carried out against his Holy Son?
Jesus sensed even then, hours before he passed from the mortal and into immortality, the mounting wrath against sin. It was aimed at Christ as our substitute but it would have taken everyone in the vicinity with it.

This is sometimes why we don’t fear Jesus. We see him as a mediator, a conciliator between us and the wrathful Father. But we need to look more closely at what Scripture actually says about this role. He by no means persuaded the Father not to be angry against the offenses of all mankind. Rather, he placed himself between the Father and us, and asked to be counted one of us. The Father released his wrath against humanity, and Jesus absorbed it all. He was able to do so only because he was himself God.

Think of it. The God-man is powerful and  strong enough to resist the wrath of God Almighty. Truly he is greatly to be feared. This is the one who, having become obedient to death, has been exalted to the highest place. Every knee will bow before him, not just because he’ll be wearing lovely royal robes. Rather, the sword of judgment will be in his hand, fire in his eyes, blood dripping  from his garments. This is our Lord, and he’s coming again to judge the living and the dead. Be afraid, or be found in Christ.

The fierceness of God’s being is well established in the Old Testament.
Job and his friends spoke many things about God, most of them false ideas that fell far short of the truth. God showed up to set the record straight—in a whirlwind storm. Job couldn’t respond except to put his hand over his mouth.
Elijah, too, experienced God this way. He ran for his life to the mountain of God where Moses had received the law. Once again the Lord was on the mountain—storm and wind and lightning and earthquake and crashing boulders. Knowing the Lord had hidden Moses in the cleft of a rock, Elijah waited until the noise died down before he stepped out of the cave.
Both the tabernacle and temple were designed to convey the image of God as holy and unapproachable. None but the consecrated high priest could enter the Most Holy Place where God dwelt above the mercy seat, and then only once each year. God did not allow sinners in his presence.

What makes us think, just because we live on this side of the cross, that God’s nature changed when Christ died? God continues as opposed to sin as ever. His anger burns as hot and his opposition to sinful men continues to mount. Those who are in Christ are protected from his fiery holiness by the righteousness of Christ, but it rages just the same.

That’s why Paul said that since we know what it is to fear God, we seek to persuade men. God will repay everyone for the deeds done in the body. We know that wrath is coming, as Jude tells us, to execute judgment on all the ungodly sinners who have spoken and acted against Him.

But being in Christ ought to make us more sensitive to the awesome power of God. When we draw near in humility, we can count on that might working for our good. We can never presume on his grace and mercy. Trusting his goodness makes us more reverent, because the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom.
Those who hope in his unfailing love, without discounting the wrath that would be ours, will never be ashamed.

Ps 119.115

Depart from me, you evildoers, for I will keep the commandments of my God! Ps 119.115 

The bottom line seems to be, that if we want to live righteously, we sort of need to keep our distance from people who do evil. It’s a lifestyle choice to surround ourselves with people who aim to live according to the Spirit. We have to keep reminding ourselves of our priorities, which looks like being in the world without being of it. This anomalous living—not conforming to the pattern of this world—has characterized the people of God since he first created them.

God brought his people out of Egypt and into the promised land that he had long determined to take away from its inhabitants to give to his people. Unfortunately, it took a long time to learn the lesson of keeping themselves separate, of living holy lives in a corrupt world.

Centuries before, God had called Abraham to this land and promised to make a nation out of him. Childlessness aside, Abraham wanted to know for certain about the land. God made a covenant and confirmed it. He further let on that while Abraham would die of old age, his descendants would go into slavery for 400 years but the Lord would definitely bring them back to Canaan as he promised.

When the time came, the Lord sent Moses to deliver them out of Egypt and to bring the law down from the top of Mount Sinai. When they’d built the tabernacle to house the Ark of his Presence, the people set out for Canaan.  The Lord assured them he’d drive out the inhabitants of the land ahead of them, because their practices were evil in his eyes.
He warned Israel specifically to destroy all those who dwelled in Canaan, and not to follow their detestable example, lest it lead them to disobey his laws.

In time Joshua brought the people across the Jordan and into the land, and soon destroyed the kings of all the peoples living there. He divided the territory among the tribes of Israel and sent them home, with specific instructions to finish driving out the inhabitants of the land. He died before they finished, and the book of Judges lists their failure to comply.

It wasn’t long before Israel, sure enough, adopted the practices of the people they didn’t drive out. They fell under oppression. It took them years to figure out they needed the Lord’s help. God raised up a deliverer who freed them. Before long, thanks to the fact that they still hadn’t rid the land of these enemies, they found themselves under someone else’s oppression, and the cycle began again.

This continued until the days of Samson and Eli and Samuel, the last of the judges before Saul was anointed king. The reason the people wanted a king in the first place was to go out for them against their oppressors. The latest in the long line of enemies within the land, the Philistines were already there in Abraham’s day and had remained ever since.

So by the time David came to the throne, he saw from their history that the nation’s failure to obey God’s instruction to rid the land of its residents was precisely the source of their distress.

Paul made the same point when he quoted the Greek poet, “Bad company corrupts good character.”

And we don’t need Scripture to teach us what we see in our own experience. The people we hang around with end up shaping us. The only question is whether we make wise choices about the quality of our associates.

How seriously do you want to keep the commandments of your God? Does it matter to you to do what’s right in his eyes? He has made it clear what it takes to live in relationship with him. Under the Old Covenant, obedience to the Law was the only acceptable way to come before God, and when someone failed to do so, animal blood atoned for their sin. Under the New Covenant, God began not with obedience to a code of law but with the atoning work of Christ. Anyone who believes in him has only to obey his command, to love.

Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments—to love God and to love our neighbors—contain all the law. But whether they are two or six hundred plus, keeping the God’s commandments of God is going to require us to keep our distance from evildoers.

This won’t happen on its own, either. I’m not talking about the fact that we all fall short of the  glory of God. Jesus, who is our role model in this walk with the Lord, never shied away from people whom the world called sinners, and neither should we. This turning away from evildoers is something else.

In the same way that Jesus could dwell among sinners and remain sinless, so can we. His secret was absolute obedience to the will of God, not just the letter of the commandments but the spirit of the law as well. Our only hope of success is to let his Spirit, the Spirit of God, dwell in us.

We cannot love the way God does unless he loves through us with his own love. That’s who the Spirit is, and we have every reason to hope in his wisdom and goodness and faithfulness and kindness for our success. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ps 119.114

You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. Ps 119.114 

At least twenty times in the Old Testament God is described as a shield. Perhaps not the most frequent description, but often enough to draw our attention. It conforms to the biblical theme of God’s people at war, under the Lord’s protection.

The first time this imagery comes up, it’s in the mouth of God.
He began his relationship with his people through Abraham, saying of himself, “I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” Think what he was promising.
The end goal, the ultimate goodness that God could ever extend, was His own self. He would protect Abraham and his descendants along the road of divine purpose until they arrived at its completion. And he would be there waiting at journey’s end. Judaism still thrives in the world today, and will until the end of time, because of this faithful word to the Man of Faith.

He extended the promise to his chosen people when he brought them out of slavery and gave them their own land, naming himself, “the shield of your help and the sword of your majesty.”
No longer would they merely need protection, but as they advanced along that divine-purpose road, they would take the offensive, begin to play an active role in bringing about God’s purpose in the world. To further call himself the sword of their majesty invokes the image of the Messianic king who is the living Word of God, both the Word made flesh and the Sword of the Spirit.

No wonder David loved this imagery. He had known the Lord’s protection many a time.
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.
The Lord is my shield and the horn of my salvation.
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
The Lord is our help and our shield.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield.
He is our help and our shield.
My shield and the one in whom I take refuge.
The shield of our salvation whose gentleness made us great.
With favor you surround [the righteous] as with a shield.
His truth shall be our shield and buckler.
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly and put their trust in him.

David was a warrior. Clearly he understood the value of a shield.
Ironically, from the first time he set foot on the battlefield, David trusted not in the royal armor (he was too small to wear it!) but in the divine presence as his shield. He came out against Goliath “in the Name of the Lord of Hosts.” I don’t think he ever went out under any other banner for the rest of his days. The one time he tried to, the Philistines didn’t trust him to accompany them because he had so consistently demonstrated his passion to protect Israel, even though he had been hiding among the Philistines for years.

But David didn’t know God only as a shield, nor even primarily so.
He came onto the stage as a baby warrior with remarkable faith, which he never lost. He served so mightily under Saul that he stirred up evil hatred against God’s anointed in the spiritual realm. God used that antipathy to teach David a greater truth about himself. David ran for his life, and kept on running for decades, as he learned to trust in God as his hiding place.

We know this for ourselves, if we’ve walked by faith to any extent. God does not want us primarily to be his weapons in the war that advances the kingdom of his Son. We are created for himself, as he told Abraham, created to inherit God as our reward. We learn that relationship when we hide in him, take refuge in him, trust in him. He becomes our glory and the lifter of our head, our strength, our sun, our salvation.

When we embark on our life with God, start out needing protection but soon find we need a shield as we do battle against the kingdom of darkness.
Just as David hid under the name of the Lord as his shield against Goliath, we must also take a first step of faith and trust God as we advance against any enemy that taunts the armies of the living God, the church and every member.

It’s no coincidence that Paul calls faith the shield of God’s armor.
He specifically tells us that it protects us from fiery darts of the enemy.
To call the enemy’s lies “fiery darts” connects them to divine truth. This is important, for it’s as old as Eden.
You remember that Satan turned God’s command into a fiery dart that killed them.
The weapon he threw it with has two prongs. One suggests there’s wiggle room in what the command means. (Isn’t that what centuries of rabbinical expertise did to the commands God gave to Moses?)  The other prong causes doubt about God’s intent in giving the command. 

Satan’s tactics haven’t changed, Paul says, and we need faith to protect us still.
We don’t have to itemize or disambiguate the command. Neither do we have to doubt God’s intent in giving us the command. To love and be loved is the same as receiving God as our reward, because God is love. Jesus said exactly this to the guy who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. He told him to love his neighbor.
Define neighbor, suggests the enemy.
Be the neighbor, says Jesus.
Hide in God and under God. Live in love.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ps 119.113

I hate (my) divided-mind, but I love your law. Ps 119.113

In our country it isn’t politically correct nowadays to insist on absolutes. Unfortunately, this has created a mindset that has no confidence in the reliability of anything. I call it the No-Truth World View, a philosophy of the age that promotes individuality and personal belief as the standard of reality. Like cyanide in sugar, it is death to the soul couched in humanistic values and practices.

I’m not just talking about religion. Not all religions are right or true or good. Religious freedom is mistakenly interpreted as validating all religions, when it merely guarantees the right to practice one’s beliefs without persecution. The fact that our country allows people to worship Satan or hate whole cultures does not mean we should. Human sacrifices, bodily mutilation, child molesting—they’re just plain wrong and everybody knows it, whether a religious code allows it or not.

Sadly, government “of the people, by the people, for the people” has proven to be a recipe for national disaster. We’re so far in debt to feed the lusts of special interest groups and government committees that we’ll never be solvent again. It’s not just the money, either. Our values are so compromised and divided, we don’t even know what patriotism is anymore. We’ve gotten to the point where we dare not stand up for anything lest we be pilloried as a hater and un-American.

Science, which we’d like to claim is objective and incontrovertible, turns out to be one of the worst offenders. Theories change at the breakneck speed of new research findings. The effect is a niggling doubt that we can’t trust what we knew to be true yesterday, let alone last century. This isn’t a new consequence of scientific investigation—the world isn’t flat, the earth isn’t the center of the solar system, species do change in response to environmental pressures. But because we rely on “facts” to make decisions about everything from child-rearing to healthy eating to weather-based leisure to safety and medical care, we end up second guessing our choices, always afraid we made the wrong one. No wonder our society is plagued by disorders like anxiety, depression, and self-harm.

The daily news doesn’t help. It’s actually a conveyor of all that’s unstable. It’s great that we can see so much of world affairs as they happen, but there’s a price to pay, not in knowing bad news but in the variety of perspectives afforded by so many sources. Most of us don’t have enough understanding to analyze the information we’re presented, so we rely on commentators to tell us its significance. But when they conflict with or contradict each other, where can we turn? We end up confused or frightened, but subliminally aware that we ignore the news at our peril.

Let me add one more contributor to this No-Truth World View. High-speed communication technology has made the world much, much smaller, bringing everyone and everything right up to our back door. Whether its pesticides or terrorists, world hunger or disease or climate change, we feel menaced on every side when even distance and time are distorted in this vague but destabilizing way. Worse than all that, maybe, is the constant access between people. We are never alone, and while we need relationships, our souls also need solitude and silence. Without these, our sense of self suffers, costing us identity and value, and our ability to relate in the presence of real people is compromised.

This is by no means everything that destroys our trust in the goodness of absolutes. But it does make me wonder what in the world did David had to hate about the uncertainty of his day.
Still, his hatred of the division within his own thoughts goes to the point that every uncertainty fades in the light of the unchanging rock-solid foundation of God’s Word.
It never changes.

Wait a minute, though. That statement is biblical, but the No-Truth World View has penetrated even here.
We’re confused about all sorts of issues related to the trustworthiness of the Bible, from which books belong  to proper phrasing of beloved texts. Don’t even mention whether any of it is historical or provable or relevant.
You know what I’m talking about.
The arguments against Scripture as the inerrant word of God range from a purported lack of evidence for some of its stories, to arguments against the reliability of the texts, to questioning the motives of the canon councils and translators.

“Which version of the Bible is that?” we’ll ask when Scripture doesn’t sound the same as we’ve read.
But even that’s misleading. ESV and KJV and HCSB and NASB, they aren’t really versions but translations.
And while we may prefer one rendering over another, it’s really important that we understand there is no right one.
God does not speak English, King James or New Century or otherwise. He doesn’t speak Hebrew or Greek either.
Or any other modern or ancient language, living or dead.

God speaks Truth, and this language transcends all others.
The Scriptures are God-breathed into human language, and we understand it with our spirits, not with our minds.

To say that there is no absolute truth is to say that God never spoke, when what people who say such things really mean is, they’ve never heard his voice.

The Word of the Lord endures forever, we’re told.
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
In an uncertain-feeling world, of this you can be absolutely sure.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ps 119.112

I have inclined my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the very end. Ps 119.112 

I read a verse like this and I think, how naïve!
There’s no way anyone can hope to keep God’s statutes forever, to the very end.
To the very end of what? Certainly not eternity, or even my life. I can’t make it through five minutes of solid trying without a wayward thought crossing my mind or an errant word passing my lips.
Worse, the harder I try, the more likely I am to fail. Not a little disheartening.

How thankful I am that the obedience Christ cares about is not to the letter of the law!
He said some harsh things in his day that discourage me from thinking I can keep the law.
If you criticize, it’s the same as murder.
If you lust, it’s the same as adultery.
Divorce? More of the same.
Love your enemies not just your friends and neighbors.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you’re not getting into heaven.
Hardest of all—no one comes to the Father except through him.

For Jesus, the obedience that counts is to the command of love, and that is start to finish a matter of the heart.

I love that David isn’t really saying that he plans to perform God’s statutes perfectly all the time.
Rather, he’s only claiming to have turned his heart in that direction.
The word used here for “inclined” literally means to “stretch out toward.” It’s a reaching word. A beautiful picture of what Christ requires of us. We reach toward the two greatest commandments that hold the entire law, knowing they’re beyond us.

But this is exactly where the sweetness of Christ comes in. He didn’t leave us as orphans.
He never really meant us to do this love thing on our own. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to.
In the kindness that flows from his Father’s heart, he sent a Comforter to be with us, his own dear Spirit of life and truth. The Spirit won’t just live with us, as Jesus did with the disciples. He will be in us.
He’ll be the spark that leaps between the tip of our reaching fingertips to the tablets that contain the stone-hard uncompromising statutes of God.

Whatever is lacking in our faith, the Spirit supplies not just once but over end over as often as we’ll yield. His intent is to transform us into torchbearers of God’s love, which he does by increasing our knowledge of the Son of God. As we become mature, we attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ, the emblem and archetype of divine love.

But we don’t start out there, of course. We begin simply by inclining our hearts toward him. Apart from a work of God, we can’t even do that, according to Jesus. He said straight up that no one can come to him unless the Father draws them.

What does inclining our hearts look like? A thirst for righteousness.
Inner righteousness—wanting to have a clean conscience.
External righteousness—wanting to do what is good.

Jesus promised that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. He doesn’t say we have to fill ourselves but that we will be filled. This is a promise of the Holy Spirit indwelling us with all the cleanliness and goodness we have room for.

Can you imagine being as pure in your heart and mind as God himself? Does that appeal to you?
To think and say and do only what is right and pleasing and good?
Oh how precious that sounds.

There’s an age-old battle for my mind and heart. It leaves me feeling my failure constantly, falling on the grace of God to forgive my selfish, sin-filled responses.
But what if I could look at a situation and see what’s really going on? Or know for a fact what a person is truly about?
I would be kind and good and patient toward them. I would be faithful when they betray me. I would love when they hurt me. I would be glad and gentle and oh so …
Yes, I would be filled with the fruit of the Spirit, wouldn’t I?

The promise of Jesus is that I will have the best that the Father gives—his own Holy Spirit.

And as surely as “love never fails,” we can count on Him being with us to the end.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ps 119.111

Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart. Ps 119.111 

David had his eye on the Lord’s testimonies as his inheritance. He rejoiced in the promise God made him—his heir would reign forever in righteousness and peace. He would not see it in his day, no, but God’s Word was sure.
I can imagine in his dark moments he might have doubted how it could be, what with sons killing each other, and rebellions and treacheries and assassinations on every side. Yet time and again he talked his soul back into hope. Yahweh had been faithful to Israel and to him. He would be faithful to the end.

David wasn’t old enough to go to war when he was first anointed. His first trip to the battleground, however, and he was taking on the enemy champion. Little warrior king too tiny for royal armor.
Saul promptly put him to work in the army and David soon gathered admirers for his prowess as a man of war. They were eager to follow a man who didn’t hesitate to slay enemies. Although their approval turned King Saul against David, which in turn cost him the next decades on the run, even then David served the people of Israel in the remote areas where he hid from Saul.

When news came to him that Saul was dead, he truly mourned his passing. But he did not hesitate when the men of  Judah came to make him king. He accepted their coronation and sought God’s ok to come out of hiding. It took a while for the rest of the nation to acknowledge him as God’s anointed king, yet in those seven plus years, David never took it upon himself to force them to accept him.

Once they did, however, he did not hesitate to take Jerusalem and make it his capital. David had grown up in Bethlehem and had undoubtedly seen the stronghold when he pastured sheep in its environs. As a boy he may have dreamed of being a mighty warrior who would rid the countryside of those Gentile Jebusites. He may even have practiced slinging rocks at its ramparts. It would have been the closest fortress to his hometown. These boyhood daydreams would have taken on new significance once he was anointed king, changing from fantastic to possible.

I say this because, little known fact, when David killed Goliath, he took the giant’s head and brought it all the way to Jerusalem, a good 30 miles from where he slew him! With this trophy, he declared to Jebusites one and all that what he had done to Goliath, the champion of one enemy, they could expect he would to these who had inhabited the impregnable city since Joshua defeated its kings hundreds of years before. He would be back.

And so he was. Once he conquered the city and defeated Israel’s enemies, he turned his attention to bringing the Ark of the Covenant home to him. Jerusalem was called the city of David, but he knew that it was the place where God had chosen for his Name to dwell. David set his heart to build a temple as its residence.

In a very poignant scene, David tells Nathan his plan. Nathan responds with enthusiasm because God is with David. But then God himself chimes in and pauses David with a declaration that it’s the other way around—God will build David a house! And it will last forever!

At one level, this refers to the royal dynasty. At another, it points to the Messiah. In the grand scheme of Israel’s history, God had given glimpses that he would send one who would rule the world. He said this to Abraham when he called him, promising to bless all nations through him. He confirmed it to Isaac when he told him to remain in the land. He promised to raise up a prophet like Moses. And now he was telling David that this Messiah would come from his progeny, an eternal heir who would live and love the Father as David did.

I’m sure this is the hope on which David built the rest of his career. Surely this was a testimony that rejoiced his heart. He immediately began to stockpile resources so this son of his who was yet to be born would have what he needed to build the temple.
Many trials came to David, through his own sin and weakness, and the ripples that went out from it. But even though the trouble in his family broke his heart, from rape and murder to insurrection and betrayal, David never lost sight of his intention to keep Israel faithful to Yahweh by providing a center for worship.
That’s why he made changes to how worship happened.
Although the people still convened for festivals and regular sacrifices at the tent and tabernacle, David modified the traditional slaughterhouse motif to one of music and celebration.
He contributed much of his own treasury—and armory—to the Lord’s.
He ordered wood and metals.
He received inspired designs for dimensions and layouts of rooms and areas within the three sections.

David spent a lot of personal time alone with God. I mean he must have, right, if he could write all that poetry and see so clearly into the character of God. But in his passion for the temple his son would build, I see another  secret to David’s being called a man after God’s own heart.
The Lord has neither the need or desire for us to sit and do nothing in the name of adoring him. God is Spirit, and the Spirit is by definition dynamic. He is always in motion, and if we are in God, we are in motion too.

David modeled this well. He was a warrior king, yes, but there came a time when the Lord gave him rest from his enemies.
What did he do with his free time? Retire? Go on vacation? Take up golf or knitting or woodworking?
No. He dreamed of the home he would have built for God and he got busy doing everything but build it.

We too must be focused on the “not yet” of our spiritual journey. What dreams do you have of the legacy you will leave behind for the kingdom when your time on earth is done? What single purpose drives your entire life?
It can’t be as small as making money—there’s never enough of it no matter how much we get.
It can’t be as vain as being famous—somebody new or better will always come along and be more popular.
It can’t be as fleeting as family—who leave the nest all too soon.
We need  something that will outlast us. In David’s case, he gave meaning to the days of his peace-filled kingship by getting everything ready for his successor to build as the Lord had said.

Maybe we can’t prepare a temple, but surely we can dedicate our time and resources to improving life for others. There are so many opportunities in our local communities and around the world. Spend your time on something that not only brings the Gospel to a lost and dying generation, but carries our faith far into the future long after we’ve inherited our portion in Christ.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ps 119.110

The wicked have laid a snare for me, yet I have not strayed from your precepts. Ps 119.110 

It always troubles me when I hear someone badmouth Bible characters. The arrogance that points out another’s sin is bad enough, but when the criticism doesn’t cohere with what’s stated in the text, the critic walks on dangerous ground before the Lord. John, who wrote five New Testament books, sounds a serious warning to any who would twist Scripture to make a point.

I hear Abram and Sarai faulted for their lack of faith in using Hagar to gain a child. Not only did the Lord never rebuke them, he allowed the conception of Ishmael. Furthermore, the Bible praises Abraham as a man of faith.
I hear Job’s wife faulted as unsympathetic, if not wicked, in suggesting he curse God and die. God not only spared her as Job’s one light in the darkness of absolute misery, he didn’t confront her with anger as he did Job’s friends for “not speaking of me what is right.”
I hear Samson faulted for his interest in Philistine women when Scripture clearly states, “this was from the Lord.”
The list goes on.

One of the Biblical characters most misrepresented in this way is Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He’s usually criticized for pride when in fact he steadily progressed toward a truer knowledge of Yahweh, and used his authority as the Head-of-Gold premier of the dominion of man to command all peoples everywhere to worship the One True God.

Which brings us to the point. The book of Daniel contains at least two accounts of wicked people laying traps for godly men who don’t stray from the precepts of God.
The first time we see this, Daniel’s friends are reported to the king for not bowing to the statue he’d set up. While many teach that this was a statue of himself, Scripture doesn’t specified so, nor does that hypothesis fit with the rest of the story. The gold-plated statue described was roughly 90 feet tall but only 9 feet wide. When set in the midst of the plain, with the morning (or evening) sun glinting off it, it would resemble nothing so much as an enormous pillar of fire.

I think this is right. Remember Nebuchadnezzar had just acknowledged after the dream and its interpretation that Daniel’s God was truly the God of gods and Lord of kings. He would have searched out Israelite history for any information about him but the closest thing Israel ever had to his presence was the pillar that accompanied them in the wilderness. Nebuchadnezzar’s policy was to bring all sacred artifacts from conquered nations into Babylon, but the Jews had no images of Yahweh. So he made a “pillar,” and commanded his realm to bow before it as the highest God.

That being so, imagine his chagrin when told that these three Jews would not bow. Unthinkable. In fact, that’s precisely what he asked them. “Is it true you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold image I set up?” Why didn’t they bow to the image of their own god? And if he had truly favored Nebuchadnezzar, weren’t they doubly obligated to obey his command?

What Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know is that God forbade his people to make or worship any image. They would rather go into the furnace than disobey the Law, and we all know Yahweh was more than able to deliver them from the hand of the king.
From all this, the king’s understanding of Daniel’s God increased, so that he further decreed that no word should be spoken against the Most High God.
The point here is that these Jewish men kept the Law of God even in a foreign land, even when a compromise would have been prudent—and rational.

In the second case, other wicked men sought to detract from Daniel’s favor with King Darius by tricking the king into an edict about prayer. Forbidding all petition to any god but the king, they laid a trap by which he would be forced to execute Daniel. Like his colleagues in the earlier story, however, Daniel kept the Law of God and continued his regular religious practice and got himself thrown to the lions for his trouble. Yet again, though, God prevailed on behalf of his faithful and upright servant.

When David acknowledged that wicked people laid traps for him, he had enough examples in his own life of betrayal and undeserved wrongs. Yet he never considered turning his back on God or compromising the Law.
Such stories as these help us hold on to our faith and our spiritual discipline when fear or false prudence tempts us to disobey what we know is right.

We aren’t likely in our day to be asked to bow to a statue or pray to a demon.
But aren’t we daily put in situations where the world says something is okay that God has made it clear is not?
All kinds of ungodly laws in the USA legalize wrong-doing. Slaying unborn children, divorce, adultery, marriages that offend God, cheating the government out of taxes, bilking insurance companies. Not to mention some of the pending laws regarding euthanasia, assisted suicide, and so forth. Anything can be rationalized, but that doesn’t makes it right. 

No wrong choice is irredeemable, but think how glorious it is to do the right thing at great risk, and find God himself there with you—the Lion of Judah in the den, the Consuming Fire in the furnace, the Risen Christ no matter where death stalks the faithful.  
Don’t let the traps of the wicked cause you to stray from the precepts of God. You have more power than you know to avoid, or even escape, them.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ps 119.109

My life is continually in my hand, yet I do not forget your law. Ps 119.109 

From the time royal attendants recruited the son of Jesse to play the harp to soothe Saul’s demonized soul, David found himself in danger from the king’s fits of crazed jealousy. It didn’t get any better when Saul realized the affections of the people were turning to David as the mightier war hero. Clearly God favored David, but dark regret in Saul’s soul from having lost the kingdom drove Saul to try to kill David.

David’s life was in jeopardy as long as Saul was alive.
He sought refuge among the Philistines, longstanding enemies of Israel.
He risked his life in raids and wars.
Still, he never forgot God’s Word. He invested in his relationship with the Lord, judging by the many psalms he wrote at various times during his fugitive period. He was already devoted to God, but these hard times and life threats only made it stronger. He lived by faith in the certainty that if God intended him to be king, God would protect his life until it happened. He had nothing to fear from the hatred and opposition of men.

Likewise Jesus’s life was threatened repeatedly. People—well, certain people—were always picking up rocks to throw at him, or trying to pitch him off a cliff, or plotting to kill him. He more or less took his life in his hand every time he confronted the religious authorities, knowing that in the end they and he couldn’t both be right. Either religionists such as the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law correctly interpreted what it meant to be God’s people, or Jesus did.
Neither their jealousy of his ever-increasing popularity nor their fear of Roman reprisal was sufficient to incite such virulent opposition against so benign a ministry.
Yet Jesus never missed a step on the road that ended his life at Calvary. He knew and did not forget the Law of God, that a perfect Lamb must die to atone for the people’s sin. No one could take his life from him. He had authority to take it up or lay it down. He had no reason to fear what mere man might do to him.

I do not know many who, like Paul, “are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” Paul may have been his own worst enemy at times. He insisted on going first to the Jews wherever the Gospel took him. He’d spend his first weeks in the local synagogue trying to persuade his fellow Israelites that their Messiah had come.
They’d listen with enthusiasm because that was good news indeed to Jewish ears.
The thing always went sideways when he mentioned the Messiah being crucified. It made no sense in light of prophecy about an Eternal Kingdom. It was talk of the resurrection, though, that sent them over the edge into violent, even murderous, hostility.

From the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul accepted that his life was forfeit. He had persecuted and killed the servants of the Most High God, and the fact that he was not yet dead was due entirely to the grace of Jesus. From the time he was spared, blinded and then healed, he lived solely to preach Jesus where he had not yet been named. Whatever any dissident Jews did to him, it was never as much as he knew his sin deserved. Ironically this made him fearless in the advance of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Because God had saved him to serve as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles, his life was secure until God released him. Nothing in all creation could stop him.

What about us? How clearly do we understand the call of God on us individually? You and I have been anointed, destined, or called to invade the darkness with the light of Christ. Each of us must determine through the Spirit what that’s supposed to look like. This isn’t difficult to discover, as we can see from the life of any Bible character who served the Lord. God is always clear when he sends us out.

I doubt we will literally have to put our lives on the line to serve God. We are no less dependent on God to preserve us from day to day. Jesus warned that families will divide over this, and that we aren’t worthy of him if we let that stop us. He called us to forsake everything in this life. And just as the religious-spirited hated him, they will hate us.
Are we prepared to die the death of unpopularity and loneliness and disfavor?
Will we, like David, trust in God despite personal attacks?
Will we, like Paul, count our lives forfeit but for the grace of God that gives us one more day to serve Him?
Will we, like Jesus, give ourselves entirely to the good of others even when it costs us everything that we hold dear in this world?

I’m not sure any of these men would have been able to hold the line of their faith without the certain promises of God found in his Word. God has a plan. Each person chosen by God has a place in that plan. God will accomplish his plan. This is the indisputable purport of Scripture, founded on the lives of people like David, Jesus and Paul who faced death all day every day, and never forgot God’s law.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ps 119.108

Accept, I pray, the freewill offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me your judgments. Ps 119.108 

If we learn anything about David from the Psalms, it’s that he knew the value of praise.
I grew up with the twisted idea that God sat on his throne and demanded that everyone tell him how wonderful he was. Why he did this, I didn’t know, but if we didn’t praise him, we’d be in big trouble. Consequently, this childish notion cost me a lot of years experiencing praise as nothing more than a duty. It never occurred to me that God might not accept my praise.

In fact, praise is our duty. God does command it. Out of the mouths of babes, Jesus quoted the Psalm, God has ordained praise. My trouble was that I did not understand the precept behind the command.

Many years later, my faith was revolutionized when I read two books together:  John Piper’s Desiring God and AW Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy.
Tozer opened my mind to the nature of God, describing what Scripture means when it calls God holy, sovereign, faithful, wise, good, eternal.
Piper opened my heart to see that not only is God infinitely desirable for being all that, but he is completely satisfied in himself and needs nothing from us. This truth has several implications.

First, everything God says or does arises from the overflow of his own boundless joy. God is infinitely happy in being God. He is most glorified (praised) in us when we are most satisfied in him. That’s how Piper puts it, and that has nothing to do with praising God out of duty or in obedience to commands.

Second, within the Trinity, the Father and Son gaze eternally and infinitely at their own worth, beauty, and excellence reflected in each other. They neither need nor desire imperfect praise from any creature when they find absolute adoration in each other. We can do nothing to add to or subtract from their joy. Sin and evil don’t change who they are.

Third, because it is the delight of love to show forth the beloved, all of creation was designed and carried out to manifest God’s own glory and goodness, not because he craved our pathetic worship but because he wanted to share his joy. We were to be the recipients.

This is a stunning truth if we can wrap our minds around it. The mutual affection within the Trinity is what Scripture calls the Holy Spirit of God. He is the divine love that perpetually moves between the Father and Son. Any “movement” of God is the Spirit in action. Creation, redemption, eternal life—it’s all the Triune God’s way of expressing himself to personal beings capable of accepting and reciprocating this dynamic love.

Think about this. The Father desires to showcase the Son he adores. So he creates a world in which the Son will appear and demonstrate his moral and personal beauty. He fashions creatures in his own image with the ability to love like he loves, to value what is infinitely worthy. Because this necessarily includes the potential to reject him, he anticipates the need for reconciliation. Which is genius on his part, because that plan is precisely how the Son manifests his perfections and the excellencies of his devotion to the Father.

From the Son’s point of view, he would be horrified at the sheer folly, not to mention arrogance, of the disobedience of the first humans. It is unthinkable for the Son to will other than the Father’s will, which he knows to be perfect in wisdom and rooted in truth.
The crafty serpent used the gaps in human knowledge of God—which the Son had no such limitations—to provoke distrust in their Creator and promote reliance on their own understanding.
And so they lost their fellowship with the Divine for the sake of one small bite of forbidden fruit.
What they gained—the ability to tell the difference between good and evil—it turns out, was necessary, but no less a slap in their Maker’s face.

The dishonor done to his Father inspired the Son to empty himself of deity and become a man. So much did he love the Father and want to restore his honor that he consented to be born of a woman, under the law. Although eternal, he set out to live life as a man without once disobeying in letter or spirit a single command of his Father.
And when it was all over, for surely those rebels would not tolerate such holiness in human form, he would surrender his God-man spirit to the Father.

Now when the Father gazes at the Son, he sees not only his own perfections reflected back to him, but a perfect human life deified. You can see how this impacted the Spirit of love between them, not altering his essence but adding the knowledge of what it’s like to be a human being, a creature, finite, mortal, other.
Hear the words of Christ on the cross in a new way. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.
They don’t know that I AM WHO I AM. They don’t know why I’m really here. Forgive them. Take my life and give it to them.”

I’m not  sure there is a truer picture of the triune heart of God. We could never have known the depths of mercy and grace pooling there if the Father and Son had not acted in this way.

For this I will never cease to freely offer praise, not as a duty but with as much love and devotion as I can muster in this feeble, sin-stained heart. May his sweet Spirit teach me ever more truth of God’s indescribable gift of salvation.
To be invited into the love within the Godhead, allowed to behold and participate in the mutual adoration of Father to Son and Son to Father, this is an act of grace I can barely fathom.
To think that I am destined for an eternity of looking and loving, with a capacity for joy that will never be sated—truly no one has seen or imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.

I just hope I do have endless days to sing his praise.

Ps 119.107

I am afflicted very much; revive me, O Lord, according to your word. Ps 119.107

I don’t know what it is about human nature, but it doesn’t matter how old we are or how smart, sometimes the only thing that gets our attention is hardship. God is full of grace for us in our weakness, and he never tires of mercy when we need and ask for it. But one thing he cannot work with is our stubborn refusal to obey the directives he gave for our good. So while he waits patiently for us to learn a lesson, or return to him from backsliding, or yield to his purpose, he may eventually have to step in and move things along.

This is when hardships often hit. God orchestrates trials to help us realize how far we’ve strayed or turned our back on him. This is not something he delights to do, Scripture tells us, but like any responsible and loving father, he discipline us for our good.

This pattern happens frequently in Scripture.
Job’s life went from amazingly good to awful in one day. He lost everything, including all his children. It didn’t stop there, for he soon lost his health as well. On top of all that, he knew his affliction was not a just punishment for sin but had no other explanation for it in the face of his friends’ insistence. It turns out God intended to reveal so much more of himself to Job than Job could imagine. Indeed, God’s own words revived and restored Job.   

The Israelites finally took possession of the land after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. After Joshua defeated the reigning tribal kings, God instructed his people to rid the land of its remaining inhabitants lest they become a snare to them. This wouldn’t be too hard to do, as God promised to drive the enemies out before them. They didn’t do it, and for hundreds of years, they suffered the consequences of this disobedience. They repeatedly lived through a cycle of imitating the local tribes (especially their religion), falling under their oppression, and being so miserable that they eventually cried out to God, who raised up a deliverer to save them.

Later on, long after the nation had become a monarchy and divided into two kingdoms, God’s people still struggled to keep the Law. The northern kings introduced idolatry and seduced the people away from Yahweh. The Lord sent prophets, including greats like Elijah and Elisha, who rebuked them and did miracles among them. But their stiff necks refused to bow before the Holy One. When their rebellion had made them irredeemable—that’s the unforeseen consequence of prolonged willful alienation from God—he brought the Assyrians against them. The ten tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel were assimilated into the empire and were never heard from again.

The southern kingdom of Judah escaped this judgment because its king listened to the prophets and taught the nation to remain true to Yahweh. Hezekiah was one of the most righteous kings in the history of Judah, sandwiched between two of the worst, his father Ahaz and his son Manasseh. God sent other prophets, including the well known Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Nevertheless they continued to revert to pagan practices in the vain hope to prosper in the clashes between empires going on around them. Eventually even Judah went into captivity because they would not keep God’s law. The consequences were even more devastating, if possible, as the city where God had caused his name to dwell, and the temple they had built to honor him there, were razed to the ground. This took place just as the Lord had promised it would. Ironically, despite their unfaithfulness, God was faithful to the promise he had made to afflict them for their good.

In captivity they soon realized what they had lost. Through the bitter years of Babylonian exile, the Lord preserved a remnant for himself. After 70 years they returned to rebuild and restore the nation. They fought and prevailed, but the land of Israel has been embroiled ever since. They resisted the Greek empire’s attempts to eradicate Judaism but by the time of the Messiah’s coming, Rome had maneuvered them into a position of religious self-righteousness that wouldn’t acknowledge God even if he stood in front of them. This latter fault was more grievous than their former ignorance, Jesus said, because if they had not said they could see they wouldn’t have been guilty.

The depth of the remnant’s sense of affliction and dependance on God for mercy and forgiveness can be seen in the prayers of Ezra and Nehemiah. While they’re the ones who brought the Levites and people back to the land, both of them made sure that the nation returned to its religious system by teaching and reading the sacred Scriptures.

Surely we can say that the Word of the Lord revived them.
Well could David trust that though the afflictions of the righteous be many, the Lord will deliver him out of them all.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ps 119.106

I have sworn and confirmed that I will keep your righteous judgments. Ps 119.106 

With God, every word he speaks is sure. If he has said it, he will do it. No word of his will fall to the ground, and every word he has spoken will be fulfilled. 
His promises are guaranteed as words spoken by him, but they do not extend to everyone. They are contingent on conditions that must be fulfilled in order to be received, and then only by those whom God choses.
Before the cross, this was restricted to Israel. To them, says Paul, belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
After the cross, all who come by faith in Christ are heirs of the promises. Again, to quote Paul, no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.
God does not make vows, but he does declare oaths. The difference is that an oath invokes a higher authority to attest to the truth, whereas a vow is a pledge to behave in a specified manner with reference to an outside authority. Obviously, then vows can’t apply to God but when God takes an oath, Hebrews tells us, he swears by himself.

David knew about the time when King Saul placed all his soldiers under a rash oath and it nearly cost him the life of Jonathan, his son. Jonathan, out defeating Philistines under God’s direction at the time, didn’t know about the oath until he unintentionally broke it. When God did not reply to the king’s inquiry, Saul cast lots to discover who had broken the oath. He would have executed Jonathan had not the men come to his rescue.

This story illustrates some important aspects of vows and oaths. First, God takes them seriously. He expects us to honor them. It also warns us to be careful what we vow.
The vow in this story was foolish. In a fit of self-will, Saul charged his men that none should eat until he had gotten vengeance on his enemies. Consequently the Israelites fought all day on an empty stomach, beating back the Philistines for more than 20 miles.
When Jonathan learned of the vow, he claimed this faulty strategy had limited their victory. The men chose to listen to Jonathan rather than obey keep the oath. This led them to actual sin—they slaughtered their plundered animals and ate the meat without properly draining the blood. This was forbidden in the Law, and as soon as Saul heard of it, he corrected them and built an altar for sacrifice to God.
Nevertheless, God did not reply to his inquiry.

David himself made a vow just before he fled Saul’s household. Jonathan knew his father’s fallibility and recognized in David God’s anointed heir to the throne. This shows remarkable humility, since in all likelihood Jonathan would have inherited the throne. Because he was an upright man who truly worshiped God, he befriended the young warrior and fitted him for battle with clothing and armor, perhaps even training him.
When Saul’s antipathy became dangerous to David, Jonathan helped him escape but not before extracting a vow to remember him—and his descendants—with kindness when he ascended the throne.
Many long years later, David kept that vow. He sought out an heir of Jonathan’s house to whom he might show favor. He found disabled Mephibosheth and seated him perpetually at the royal table. He did this to secure a daily reminder of what his friend had done to save him for the throne.

God swore to the people of Israel when they first came out of Egypt that he would blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Once the monarchy was established, the Lord commanded Saul to utterly destroy this long-standing enemy. Saul compromised by not killing their king and it cost him his own kingship.
David, on the other hand, fulfilled the Lord’s oath because of who he was, hanging out in the Negev during his exile and slaughtering Israel’s enemies.

All of this and more formed the backdrop in which David swore and confirmed that he would keep God’s righteous judgments.
God determines innocence or guilt based on whether or not we meet his standard of righteousness. From Eden, his decree that sin deserves death has always governed his relationship with all people. Under the Old Covenant, the opportunity to be reconciled existed through annual atonement but in fact, animal blood did not expiate guilt, only covered it. Under the New Covenant, the same decree stands but now the blood of Christ does cleanse the guilt of sin and opens the only way out of that judgment.

In David’s day, he was obligated as king to carry out the Lord’s judgments, executing offenders as proscribed by law. In our day, the age of the Church, we can be grateful that God nailed the written code that stood against us to the cross.
If we are in Christ, the only judgment that matters is salvation by grace alone.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ps 119.105

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Ps 119.105 

I love the double statement here because it shows that God’s word will light not just the next step we are to take, but where the path we are on will lead.
If we want to follow where God is leading, he will show us both.
He did this to Abraham, who followed by faith and inherited the world for the Messiah.
He did it to Paul, who became the apostle to the nations.
Hebrews tells us the course is clearly marked out for us.
There’s really only one obstacle to successfully completing it. Obedience.
Let’s talk about that.

I was a kid once, and I pretty much felt that obedience was overrated. If I enjoyed a task or saw some benefit in it, then I didn’t mind doing what I was told or following the rules. If I saw no merit, however, I was sure obedience should not be mandatory. This attitude got me in trouble more than once. I can think of times even now when I still think I was right. And maybe I was, but that’s not what obedience is about.

Since then I’ve had the responsibility to raise children of my own, and let me tell you, obedience wears a whole different set of clothes now. We expected our children to do as they were told. There was never any question that they keep the rules we made for them. I gave a lot of grace while they were learning and held them to reasonable standards for their age and ability. But one thing I could never tolerate was defiance.
The end goal was always that when they were grown, they would obey what’s right because it is right, not out of fear of consequences or with a rebellious heart.

God has similar expectations of us. He has made known to us what he requires. He expects us to do it with the right attitude. What attitude is right? Scripture tells us in more than one place
We should do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.
We should rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.
We should fear the Lord our God, walk in all his ways, love him, serve him with all our heart and soul, and keep the commandments and statutes he commanded for our good.
We should keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.
We should cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
We should, by the help of our God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for our God.
The Bible is replete with such statements. God has been very, very clear.
And whatever we do, we must do it with all our heart, and for the glory of God.

Jesus summed up all this into two commandments.
We must love God with all of our being, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves.
The love God requires is more than affection. It’s a commitment to do everything possible for the good of the beloved.
Jesus taught that love involves self sacrifice—he laid down his life for his friends.
Paul taught that God demonstrated his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
John taught love in this, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his son as an atonement.

God’s command to love must be obeyed for us to be accepted—it is the right thing that he told Cain to do. But without faith it is impossible to please God. So what is the connection between faith and obedience?
Twice in Romans Paul refers to obedience of faith. By this he means that faith is more than notional knowledge or intellectual assent, but is made evident in the way we keep the commands of God.

I have found it helpful to take apart the first and greatest command and match it to a variant of faith. For example,
we trust with our heart—we have confidence that God is trustworthy because we have seen his heart toward us.
We believe with our mind—we accept as true the revealed Word of God in Scripture and in Christ.
We exercise faith with our soul—we live and make choices that reflect a God-centered world view.
And we obey with our bodies—we do what he commands because it is the right thing to do.
Isn’t that what it means to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength?

To this end, God provided his Word as a lamp and a light.
The Bible is the lamp that holds the record of how God dealt in history, at least that part of history that reveals the purpose which he accomplished in Christ. Knowing what God has done through time, however, is not enough, especially since that makes it seem like he hasn’t done anything worth including in Scripture for the past two millennia.

Scripture is also the light by which we see into the spiritual realm. Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh, described himself as  the light of the world. He went on to say that whoever followed him—there’s that feet on the path thing again—wouldn’t walk in darkness, but would have the light of life.

In God’s infinite wisdom, he gave us both the written Word and the living Word.
If we want to see the path of obedience to Christ, and follow it one step at a time, then we have a responsibility to engage with that Word.
We must hide it within us by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit writing it on our hearts and putting it in our minds as we read it, study it, meditate on it, and memorize it. There is no other way.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Ps 119.104

Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Ps 119.104

The premise behind anything we teach is to give understanding, and nothing is more rewarding to a teacher than seeing the light bulb go on for a student. That “Aha!” moment is worth all the hard work and patience.
Better still is seeing your students apply what they’ve learned, making wise choices that reflect their comprehension. We all know that facts learned don’t always translate to good decisions—witness smokers who know why they should quit.  Knowledge, while invaluable, is rarely enough.

So what’s the missing ingredient that turns good students into wise people?
It has to do with the right perspective on why we learn in the first place.
As an anthropologist, I can tell you that culture is the way the human animal adapts to its environment. Every other animal species adapts biologically to environmental pressures. We rely almost exclusively on cultural adaptations. You don’t have to look further than your pets to see this. Your dog grows thicker fur in winter. You put on a winter coat.
Even what looks like individualized adaptive behavior among animal species usually turns out to be genetically coded in their DNA. For example, spider webs seem unique to us, but each species has its own design. No kidding, that’s how it works. Birds of a species build the same style nest. And so on.

Other animals, especially primates, model some behaviors which their offspring imitate, but this is nowhere near the scale required to raise a human infant to adulthood. Humans have the ability to teach their young what they need to know to survive not just in the physical world but in society as well. This is called enculturation. It includes formal education as well as the informal transfer of knowledge that takes place in the home, on the playground, in the street, wherever people learn what it means to be a member of the group.

The goal of that knowledge transfer is to equip the person to function within, and contribute to the overall well being of, the group. Because our psyche requires relationships to thrive, we must learn to live in community.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. And as an anthropologist, that is as far as it goes.
But as a Christian, let me tell you that we are made for more than human community.
We are made for a dynamic relationship with deity. We are equipped for this both relationally—that’s why we sicken and die in isolation—and spiritually. A large part of our being is not purely biological or even psychological. We have spiritual instincts and abilities that can—and must—be trained and employed.

While we may think of teaching and learning in purely sociological terms, and therefore teach character and morality to our youths, we must also teach our children how to relate to God. It’s completely unsatisfactory to say that God does not exist. Fifteen billion people with a spiritual component to their makeup testify to the reality of a spiritual realm inhabited by spiritual beings.
Humans happen to also have biological form, which allows us to live in both realms at once.
Wisdom becomes a matter of doing so.

Scripture tells us where to start. The fear of the  Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
That means that to be wise one must first start with a right knowledge of the existence and character of God. To fear anything is to understand what it’s capable of in relation to oneself. It connotes the Lord’s greatness and power compared to ours. A healthy fear of the Lord is not terror of a wrathful and unpredictable despot, but a reverence for the majesty and authority that attend even a benevolent omnipotence.

It should not surprise us that this is simply the beginning of wisdom. Accepting that God is real and has certain fearsome attributes means nothing. Wisdom consists in equipping ourselves for that dynamic relationship for which we have been created. The same verses that tell us where to start also tell us how to go forward. They include things like departing from evil, keeping God’s commandments, loving instruction, gaining knowledge of the Holy One, putting humility before honor (Job 28:28; Psa 111:10;  Pro 1:7; Pro 9:10; Pro 15:33; Isa 11:2;  Isa 33:6).

An  ancient proverb tells us that there is a way that seems right to a person but in the end it leads to death.  Because we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we need to pay attention to this. We will give an account of how we acted on the information we have. What did we do with the aroma of Christ? Did we respond to God’s call when it came? And it comes to  everyone, make no mistake.

The first thing we have to do, something every person is equipped to do, according to God’s own design, is respond to his revelation in the natural world. Paul tells us that everyone—E-V-E-R-Y-0-N-E—is without excuse, because what can be known about God—his divine nature and eternal power— is clear from what he has made. That is enough to prime the pump of our spiritual life.

Not everyone can get as far as the cross and devoting one’s life to Christ, since Christ has not yet been named in every time and place. But nature has revealed the existence and character of its Creator, and everyone must acknowledge, or refuse to acknowledge, that he exists and can be known. I  know this is true because even animistic religions of the most primitive people groups has a fundamental awareness that the spirit realm exists and relates to the natural.

So yes, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is one of God’s original precepts.
Apprehending more of them will equip us to discern truth from falsehood because we will understand better how this world works and our place in it, as well as what he has granted us in Christ.

By the hand of his merciful instruction, may we learn to hate every false path that leads us away from him, no matter how worldly wise it may seem.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ps 119.103

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Ps 119.103 

Sweet is good. It reminds me of Mary Poppins, the spoonful of sugar, and medicine that goes down. On the other hand, that’s not always a good thing.
When I was just three, I climbed up on the kitchen counter and found the bottle of Johnson’s baby aspirin. Nobody knows how many I swallowed. We don’t even give aspirin to children anymore, but back then it tasted like orange candy. Rascally toddler-me liked the taste and ended up in the hospital getting my stomach pumped. I remember my mom trying to make me vomit. She had to call my aunt to come help. Obviously I survived, but the lesson here seems to be that just because something tastes good doesn’t mean it is.

I’m not talking about the Word of God though. I’m talking about what we can call, to keep the metaphor going, artificial sweeteners. In the physical realm, these are manufactured chemicals that taste sweet without being sugars. Apparently our mouths can be tricked. But that’s not the worst part. Artificial sweeteners may not add calories to our diet but they still provoke the insulin response, which contributes to fat storage, the exact opposite effect we want.

This principle applies in the spiritual realm as well, where it is far more dangerous. We want the benefits of God’s Word but find it difficult to understand or accept. So we choose other sources of spiritual food, more palatable, easier to digest, less trouble to prepare. The most familiar include podcasts, sermons, books, videos, devotional guides. While these have merit, they’re not on the level of Scripture. They don’t nourish our spirits as God’s own words will.

This has nothing to do with a preferred translations of the Bible—so long as it is a translation and not a paraphrase. God’s Word is truth in any language and in any phrasing. We trust that God communicates his truth regardless of whether we use KJV or NIV, ESV or NLT. What we cannot trust is that so-and-so from this denomination or that mega-church is automatically speaking truth. Unless we learn how to discern a lie, we will end up deceived.

The language in today’s verse is not strictly referring to sweetness. It is more accurately translated pleasant, but because the context mentions mouth and honey, they used the word sweet. It’s more about how easily something flows in our mouth, the opposite effect of our mouths puckering when we eat lemons. That’s why David compares  God’s Word to honey.

Does the Word of God appeal to you? Do you have favorite passages that make your spirit sigh with pleasure when you read them? Do you savor their insights as you meditate on them? Do you come back again and again for another portion?

It’s a good idea to think of Scripture this way, as food that will nourish our soul. As God’s truth becomes part of the way we see the world, we get stronger and more vigorous in dealing with troubles and overcoming sin. God has provided everything we need for life and godliness, Peter tells us, through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

That’s stunning truth. In God’s Word we have everything we need to grow into the person God created us to be. But as long as we keep going to someone else to tell us what’s in the Word, or what it means, we deny ourselves what God has so generously provided. Why would you settle for food that has already been chewed by someone else?More than just the written promises of Scripture, we have the indwelling Spirit to interpret them to us and teach us what they mean.

Are there things in the Bible you don’t understand? Why not ask God to explain them to you? I have found that Scripture interprets Scripture. This means that a word or phrase used in one place can be understood from how it’s used in another. Let me give you an example.

If you recall the garden of Eden story, God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there and forbade Adam to eat its fruit. As a parent, I can say that if God didn’t want the people to eat it, then he would have been wiser not to put it there in the first place. So when I first read this story, I had to ask myself why he planted it there, and that left me feeling confused about God and his intentions regarding the tree. 

But look what I read in Leviticus 19.  “When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit.”

This passage helps me understand Genesis 2. Perhaps God had placed the tree there not to tempt them to disobey but because in time, when he deemed them ready, he would invite them to eat of it. For a season, just as in Leviticus, the fruit was forbidden, but not for always. This explanation makes the Genesis story less confusing.

But note this. If I never read Leviticus for myself, I would not have known that God included an explanation in his Word. I’ve heard a lot of doubt from people about this question of why he put it there. No one else suggested the explanation from Leviticus.

People who learn to expect God’s words to nourish them spiritually develop an appetite for its rich fare. Ps 36 describes feasting on the abundance of God’s house and drinking from his river of delights. Likewise Isaiah compared the word of God to good food available to all who would come and eat it. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, he asked, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.

Moses and Jesus both taught that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Jesus went on to say that he is the bread that came down from heaven. Unless we nourish our spirits with the Living Word, we will be as weak as starving people who have no food for their bellies.

I urge you to train your spiritual palate to desire the Word of God in its purest form. Don’t rely exclusively on someone else doing the work of opening the Scriptures to you. Take the time and make the effort to be fed by the Lord himself. When it gets hard, bring to mind the picture of Mary at the feet of Jesus. Hear him telling Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.

You too can know the smooth pleasantness of the Word of God. May you find it more delicious than all other food for your soul.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ps 119.102

I have not departed from your judgments, for you yourself have taught me. Ps 119.102 

There’s something about being taught directly by God that keeps his saints faithful. Many a good sermon makes no impact unless the Spirit imparts truth to the hearer. The role of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying believers through the application of Christ’s words is nowhere better addressed than by Jesus himself in his parting words to the apostles.

In the church calendar this is Passion Week, those days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The Gospel accounts show Jesus’s last visit to Jerusalem, in which he was welcomed as king, taught in the temple, dodged theological traps and celebrated the Passover—before he was arrested, tried and executed. Somehow these events make the outrage of Good Friday more poignant and the wonder of Easter more radiant.

One of the scenes Scripture labors to convey is Jesus and the disciples at his final meal, especially as told by John (Jn 13-17). In fact, today is Maundy Thursday, the day we celebrate the Last Supper. When I was a child our family commemorated this day every year by eating lamb roasted with mint jelly—the only time I ever remember eating it. We also had a family friend who made an adorable cake shaped like a lamb. It had a raisin eye and shredded coconut as “fur” on white frosting. I think it was spice cake. I didn’t fully understand what the lamb had to do with anything but it was definitely a memorable meal.

The more I learn about Christ and his earthly ministry, the more precious the scene of his last meal has become. Jesus had spent three years selecting and training this small group of followers. They were a rough lot, most of them, sinners in more or less obvious ways, who struggled to understand the nature of his Messiahship. Even now, the night before his death, they still didn’t get it.

John opens the scene by telling us that Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end. He describes Jesus getting on his knees to wash the disciples’ feet.  All of them, including Judas into whose heart the devil had already put it to betray Jesus. I doubt Jesus was concerned about dirty feet. He set them an example, he said, that they also should stoop down to cleanse sinners, including their own betrayers.

I suspect he took advantage of this one last opportunity to touch their flesh. Don’t dismiss this too quickly. Jesus was God in the flesh. He had lived a few decades on the planet, three years in profound intimacy with these faithful friends. He was about to die, and things afterward would be forever changed between them. When Paul told the Corinthians not to look at others in terms of their natural being, he slips in the comment that although they used to regard Christ in this way, they did so no longer.  (I know Paul wasn’t at the Last Supper!) But Jesus was, in a real sense, saying good bye. He chose to do so through touch, holding each foot as he bathed it and dried it.

We see his heart again as he talked them through the things that were coming. He announced that one would betray him, and sent Judas to go do it. He deflated Peter’s vanity with his certain three-fold denial before daybreak. He insisted that he was going away and that they couldn’t come with him. Knowing how this upset them troubled him, too, so he offered them every kind of reassurance that it wouldn’t be the end. In fact, it would begin a better life than they had known with him, even if they couldn’t imagine how that was possible.

Here began his most famous teaching about the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t miss the fact that he gave it not on a sunny hillside in front of thousands, not in the temple in front of religious hypocrites, not even in a borrowed home of faithful followers.
You can almost see him leaning toward them as he urges in near whispers about the Comforter to come.
This One who will be with them forever.
Who will remind them of him.
Who will bring Jesus’s peace and take away their fear.
Who will take Jesus’s words and make sense of them.
Who will teach them all truth.
Who will go before them into the hearts of all people, bearing witness to Jesus and convicting of truth.
Who will glorify Jesus in their hearts, in the world, in history.

The intimacy of this teaching sets it apart from most of what Jesus did. Given that these were his last moments alone with them, we must believe that he chose to speak of what was most important. He even told them why he had not mentioned it before. While he was with them, they had no need to know but now that his time in flesh was at an end, he was promising to be with them in Spirit. He would not leave them as orphans.

Fast forward to the day of his ascension when he leaves earth only to return at the end of the age. They still don’t quite get the Messiah/kingdom thing, but he tells them to wait for the gift of the Spirit promised by the Father. Ten days later he finally arrived. Once and forever, the Holy Spirit took up residence in his preferred dwelling place—the souls of the saints. The same Spirit poured out at Pentecost was the Third Person of the Trinity and distinct within the Godhead, was the spirit of Jesus glorified. With echoes from Eden, the Helper, the Comforter, had come.

As we enter this sacred season, spend some time in John 14-16. Meditate on how the Spirit carries us through life with God in the world. May this holy Teacher to keep you from turning aside from the judgments of God—that have called you righteous in Christ, that have redeemed you from sin, that have made you one with our Lord in purpose and character.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ps 119.101

I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word. Ps 119.101 

It’s hard to keep God’s word. We know this from as far back as Eden. With only one command and only two people, they still couldn’t do it.
We judge and condemn others who fail to obey God. Not so easy to admit we ourselves struggle to do the good we ought to do, let alone avoid the evil we know is wrong.

It reminds me of Cain and Abel. Here they were, first offspring of the first parents. They both showed up at church, let’s say. Abel had an awesome encounter with God, Cain not so much. He came expecting some kind of recognition at least. Not getting it, he was upset and let it show on his face.

Note that while God had no regard for Cain’s gift, that doesn’t mean he didn’t notice Cain. He even spoke with him. It’s no small thing to be the first one in your family to hear from God, especially in this case. God had spoken to none of them since he banished the parents from Eden. His words weren’t cruel but they weren’t conciliatory either. He simply warned Cain of the devouring beast outside the door. Cain could and should master it.

Do you feel like Cain some days? You try your best with God, and it’s just not good enough. It’s hard not to be disappointed, especially when you see others winning the approval you so desperately want. Then it turns out that there’s sin that needs dealing with, but if you could manage that, you’d hardly need God in the first place. Still, that’s no excuse to turn around and murder your brother.

Then again, that might be exactly what we do spiritually, if God cares as much about the thoughts and attitudes of our heart as he does about our actions. Scripture doesn’t tell us why Cain persuaded Abel to go out to the field. At a minimum, he got him on his own turf, to bring Abel down to his level. Cain was a tiller of the ground, remember, a dutiful firstborn following in his father’s footsteps as decreed by God after he cursed the ground. (No wonder Cain thought God would approve of his offering!)

This is where we need to be careful—hence the Lord’s warning—because while disappointment is legitimate, it’s a small step into the quagmire of envy, which quickly leads to self-pity. And self-pity, because it distorts our vision, leaves us hating goodness and righteousness. God foresaw this soul-endangering spiral and told Cain that if he did what was right, he would be accepted. All these centuries and the entire biblical narrative later, we know that the right thing is to put our faith in Christ. If we put our faith in Christ, we will be accepted. 

But really, what does it look like to put faith in Christ? First of all, it means to trust in his atoning sacrifice to have satisfied God’s wrath on my behalf. (That looks a lot more like Abel’s offering than Cain’s, btw) It means admitting that I justly deserve eternal separation from the holy God, and that I have no right to expect anything from him. If in his mercy he chooses to spare me, it will only be because of the perfectly righteous life with which Jesus paid my debt.

Second, it means living confident before God that all he promised in Christ is actually true. All the grace and blessings of peace and joy and hope and love are available to me. Of course it’s up to me to receive them, but faith says they’re there for the asking.

Third, putting faith in Christ means an ongoing dynamic relationship with God through the indwelling Spirit and the abiding Word of God. Without intentional effort, I’ll lose that connection. But God is my partner in this relationship. He does not leave it to me alone. Rather, he prompts me with gentle—and sometimes not so gentle—reminders of his presence and his commitment to me.

One challenges as we learn to abide in Christ the vine is to shun evil. Evil knows many forms, and is not afraid to try them all. In every case we must “turn our feet from evil ways.” This won’t happen automatically. If anything, walking in evil ways seems to be our more “natural” inclination. But as we continually leave that path for the sake of righteousness and the peace it gives us in our relationship with God, the stronger our faith walk becomes.

By God’s grace we have his promise to write his law on our hearts and put it in our minds. We no longer need an external code because our instinct as a child of God knows exactly how to please our heavenly Father.

Consider this: Neither Cain nor Abel merited God’s regard—both were sinful. But one offering caught God’s attention. God did not prefer Abel because he made a smarter choice in what to offer. In fact, Scripture doesn’t tell us that he preferred Abel at all. Only that God looked at Abel’s offering.

Why? A living creature paid with its blood for Abel to come before God.  This second generation human already recognized that to enter God’s presence required a life in exchange for his own.