March 31, 2015

Mercy, generosity, and dancing

Numbers 35:1–36:13; 1 Corinthians 16:1–24; Psalm 30:1–12
How many people know that many of the best parts of our legal system come from the Old Testament? One of those parts is that the law distinguishes between manslaughter and murder, killing someone without intending to do so, or killing with intent. The differences now from the way it was back in the days of Moses can be seen in this passage.

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there . . . . But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death . . . . If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” (Numbers 35:10-15; 16; 30-31)

Today, instead of fleeing to a city of refuge, those who commit manslaughter are put in prison, a similar ‘sentence’ but not quite the same as having to stay in a particular city for a certain length of time. However, this law applied to everyone, Jews and Gentiles, citizens and those passing through. It is unbiased.

Also, today the death sentence for murder is upheld in some places, but not all. That was changed because of the danger of punishing an innocent person. However, the Old Testament law had a safeguard against that; the need for more than one witness. Further, no one could ‘buy’ his life, whereas today many murderers are allowed to plea-bargain.
I’m not involved in the legal system, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me that God’s plan seems both fair and just, but also merciful. If the death was an accident, the guilty party was given a decent option.

The NT reading hasn’t anything to do with legalities, but it does have something to do with the traditions that the church falls into. As a Bible student, I’ve learned that we often get two things mixed up in interpretation. We need to see the difference between narratives that are “descriptive” and those that are “prescriptive.” That is, do the verses describe what was done back then, but are not commanded for us, or do they give a pattern that we are supposed to follow? Today’s reading is one of those passages . . .

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Corinthians 16:1–3)

Paul was coming to the church at Corinth to collect an offering for the needy church in Jerusalem. He told the Christians in Corinth to give a weekly offering on Sunday so when he came, there would be no need for a special offering. He would simply collect that which had been donated up until then.

Is that descriptive or prescriptive? It isn’t a big deal, really, but if adhered to as strictly prescriptive, then a church today might box themselves in. That is, no spontaneous offerings, no love offerings without planning ahead, and you could not make a donation on any other day of the week. In this case, these rules sound silly, but there are many churches where failing to make this distinction has had adverse results in the way they do things.

I’m also learning how to read the OT in light of the NT and understanding how the redemptive plan of God fits into the history covered by the Bible. I’m also seeing how Christ is hinted at and revealed throughout – from Genesis to Revelation. I can see connections I’d not noticed before, but also am learning to distinguish between connections from my imagination and those that actually were intended by the biblical authors.

Here is an example. In the NT, Jesus said in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Some take this out of context and apply it at funerals. While it is true that God comforts those who grieve, this passage is not about mourning the dead, but mourning sin.

As I read the following verse from the Psalms, I wonder if it is saying the same thing. David wrote, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11–12)

Is David at a funeral? The Psalm doesn’t say so. It seems his mourning is not about grief of loss or a death, but the sorrow over sin and failure to love God by disobeying His commands. But how can I know that for sure? I could do word studies and read commentaries and so on, but the best way to interpret the Bible is by paying attention to the context. Read it and see what the whole Psalm is about.

Devotional reading has a different focus than Bible study as well, yet getting the gist of the passage is important so that I think rightly about God and His will for me. For that, today’s readings show His mercy for my mistakes, His desire that I be generous, and that it is just fine with Him if I do a happy-dance because He has turned my sorrow for sin into joy at His forgiveness!

March 30, 2015

Vanity of idolatry

Numbers 33:50–34:29, 1 Corinthians 15:35–58, Psalm 29:1–11
John Calvin said that the human heart is an idol-making factory. An idol isn’t just a statue in a special niche. It is anything that takes the place of God, anything that I worship, or rely on, or think about all the time. I must agree with Calvin for I know that my heart has churned out many an idol.

Today’s reading from the OT brings out the problem the Israelites would have with that issue as they entered the land God promised them. He also warns them about the consequences of making idols.

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places . . . . But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” (Numbers 33: 50–52; 55–56)

When I became a Christian and entered the life God promises to all who believe in Christ, I needed to be rid of anything that would turn me aside from absolute surrender to Jesus. Now, nearly forty-five years later, those things that did not get demolished are barbs and thorns, some solidly entrenched. Some of the things I care about are God-given burdens and joys, but there are a few that keep my heart from 100% loyalty. They might not be visible to others, but I know what they are and I know the battles that I’ve had because of them.

We listened to a message on Sunday that asked the question: “What’s holding you back?” Back from what? From whole-heartedly living for Christ! If the idols of the nations around them could be barbs and thorns and trouble for the people of God back in the OT times, then certainly the idols Christians (including me) create in their own hearts will do the same to us, perhaps even worse. Everything I’ve ever relied on other than the Lord has been not only a disappointment because all idols let me down, but a hindrance to anything good I want to do. Serving the Lord and living for Him is challenge enough without a ball and chain tied to my heart.

The NT reading offers this encouragement: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Serving an idol is a vain thing. Pleasure or temporary reward could be attached, but eventually it comes to nothing. Serving the Lord is an eternal thing. It builds character, persistence, steadfastness. I cannot always see the results, but eternity will reveal what God has done because of steadfast and loyal obedience in the lives of those who worship Him alone.

The psalmist says this, “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (Psalm 29:11) And I say that strength is what I need to persevere, and peace is what I need so my idol-making factory stops doing that and perseveres in what it is supposed to do . . . love God totally.

March 29, 2015

Decently and in order

Numbers 33:1–49, 1 Corinthians 15:12–34, Psalm 28:1–9
Having moved twenty-nine times, I often feel as if I’ve spent a major portion of life sorting and filing. I’ve some attention-deficit symptoms and my workspaces can become very messy, but I don’t do well if they stay that way too long. Because my mind is so easily distracted, life is easier when my stuff in order and easy to find, and my schedule is tackled in an orderly manner rather than doing things the way my mind operates— haphazardly and chaotic.

Today I noticed that God kept an orderly record of His dealing with His people. I like that. When He delivered them from bondage in Egypt, He sent them along their way in an orderly manner and kept track of when and where they travelled. This is just a short part of that record:

These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the Lord executed judgments. So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness . . . . And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month.” (Numbers 33:1-6; 38)

If nothing else, these careful records show us that God takes note of such things, even as He governs these events. He cares that things are done in a certain way.

The NT reading is about the resurrection, and this again speaks of order: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:22–26)

God likely doesn’t keep a check list with each item in priority order (like I do) but everything comes out just the way He planned it. We sing that our God is an awesome God, yet it would be totally appropriate to add these lines to that song (perhaps with some tweaking by an actual songwriter) . . .

Our God is an organized God,
He reigns with plans from above
With wisdom logic and love
Our God is an organized God

I am the most organized-on-the-outside, disorganized-on-the-inside person that I know. For that reason, I rejoice that, “The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.” (Psalm 28:8) The more scrambled I am, the greater my need to trust Him to keep my life in order. I am fully convinced that He is willing and perfectly capable of making sense of the messes that I make.

March 28, 2015

Puzzles in the Bible

Numbers 32:1–42, 1 Corinthians 14:26–15:11, Psalm 27:1–14

In studying the Word of God, I’m beginning to see it in a very broad view. It (and all of history) has four parts: creation, fall, redemption, new creation. The first two are described in just three chapters. The last one is hinted at more than described but can be found in the last part of Revelation. The redemption part fills most of the Bible. I’m also seeing how each narrative, each piece of poetry, the writings of the prophets and of course the stories of Jesus and the new church all fit into this larger plan.

But there are puzzles. In Numbers 32, God’s people are about to enter the land of promise, and while they will encounter enemies and battles, they will eventually enjoy this new land. This is both a genuine historical event and an illustration that points toward the redemption of God’s people through faith in Christ and the entrance of Christians into a new way of life.

The puzzle is in the OT illustration. A couple of tribes decided they didn’t want to go into that land God promised them. Moses was upset. He reminded them of God’s anger when the entire group refused to go in forty years prior. He warned them, “For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”

However, they said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” They wouldn’t live there, but they would help the others go in and fight for what God had promised them.

So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the Lord for the war, and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the Lord, until he has driven out his enemies from before him and the land is subdued before the Lord; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the Lord and to Israel, and this land shall be your possession before the Lord.” (Numbers 32:15–22)

I’ve wondered what part of God’s redemptive plan is illustrated in this historical event. I’ve one answer, but this is pure speculation on my part. In the narrative, His people entered the land He promised them, just as Christians are to enter new life in the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit. Those who helped them go in, but did not live there are like some Christians who do not seem to desire that rich manner of Christian life. They are content to be God’s people, but ‘live on the east side of Jordan.” They care about those who move forward in their spiritual lives, even help them by prayer and support, but are not concerned to move on themselves. Again, my explanation is speculation. If there are better answers, I’d love to hear them.

The NT is mildly related, not to the OT story, but to my attempts to better understand it. Paul was writing to a church that was fighting over which was the best speaking gift. He said, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:37–40)

God didn’t want them quarreling or forbidding the gifts they didn’t prefer. Instead, they were to be orderly, obeying the commands of the Lord and desiring the gifts that explain His will. He didn’t tell them to push aside the gifts they looked down on, but to recognize the Word of God as the Word of God. This is not about being the ‘best” but being godly people. I can speculate about meaning, but God does not want me to look down my nose on those who do not agree.

The reading from the Psalms expresses the hearts of those who stayed on the east side of the promised land, and it expresses how I feel when I cannot understand why God allowed them to do that or what significance it has for His people now.

“I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13–14)

Sometimes saying “I don’t know for sure” comes out of my mouth with great reluctance. I like to know all the answers, and the bottom line for everything. This time, I am not sure. Maybe God allowed those tribes to stay out of the land of promise just to humble me – the person who thinks she can know everything – and show me that I must wait on the Lord for this one.

March 27, 2015

To the victor goes the spoils?

Numbers 31:1–54, 1 Corinthians 14:1–25, Psalm 26:1-12

In one OT battle, the Israel army killed all the men but not the women. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.” (Numbers 31:15–16)

It is hard for me to understand the OT battles unless I remember the plan of God to redeem and restore a people for Himself, and from those people produce a Savior who would redeem and restore all who put their faith in Him. In the big picture, those who opposed Israel (and God) had to be destroyed.

Not only that, the people of God were often forbidden to take plunder from those they conquered. Plunder like gold, or horses, or any finery could distract them from true worship and pull them into idolatry. However, in this OT battle, this army also took plunder when this was not allowed. Their actions and Moses’ rebuke got me thinking about plunder.

When Jesus forgave my sin and redeemed me, I came into the kingdom with all sorts of stuff. Most of it was sinful or my attitude toward it was sinful. For instance, my desire to be a great artist went against the will of God for me, not that artistic work is wrong, but my attitude was to glorify me, not God. After the spiritual war to win me from sin and Satan, this plunder had to be destroyed. Again, it was not the art or the skill but the attitude. If it stayed in my life, it would pull me away from true worship into idolatry.

Today’s NT reading is about the things we tend to want as plunder too, this time not before salvation but after becoming a Christian. The example is those gifts God gives. He allows us to have them, but He has rules for what we do with them.

In this case, His gifts are the ability to speak God’s words (prophesy) and the ability to speak in an unknown language. Paul tells Christians what they should desire between the two options . . .

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:1–4)

I read this several times before getting it. Paul says love comes first, then desire prophesy as the more important gift. It is more important because I would used speaking in tongues for myself and my relationship with God. It does not help anyone else (unless there is an interpreter). However, prophesy is for others, to build them up, to encourage and comfort the whole church. That means that even after becoming a child of God, my sinful heart can take the gifts He gives me and use them for myself, but if my life is governed by love, that will not happen.

The word ‘plunder’ comes to mind again. The dictionary associates it with taking things that do not belong to me, taking them to use for myself. This is not what God has in mind when He graciously gives gifts to Him people. I am not to harbor any of it for myself, whether it is something I brought into the kingdom, or something God gave me after He brought me here.

Paul had the right idea about his example of speaking. He said, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” (1 Corinthians 14:19–20) Maturity is measured by loving others and doing things for them, not for me only. God doesn’t want me to be selfish.

The psalmist didn’t want to be a selfish person either. He called out to God saying, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.” (Psalm 26:1–3)

Some of my spiritual battles result in victory, but then there is the plunder. What do I do with the selfish temptations that come after I win a battle against selfish temptations? The desire to be a person of integrity means resisting the desire to glory in what I did and instead glorifying God – who is the real source of victory. Apart from Jesus Christ, I can do nothing, nor can I keep any of it for myself.