Discerning God’s Will

pexel one wayI was recently asked a question about discerning God’s will.  How do we know what God wants us to do?  I believe that Romans 12:1-2 is a great passage to help us answer that question.  In Romans 12:1-2 Paul writes: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul uses the word therefore in verse 1.  That is important because we need to pause and connect what he is about to say with what has been said.  Now the word therefore in this case actually marks a transition not just from chapter 11 to chapter 12, but from Paul’s overall direction up until this point to what he is going to talk about through the rest of this letter.  In the first 11 chapters of this book Paul has been focused on doctrine and now he is challenging them to put that into practice in the way that they live for Christ.

He also uses the word appeal.  That word can also be translated as urge or exhort.  He is challenging them with a bit of authority.  It is stronger than just asking.  So considering all of this great stuff about God that they have learned in the first 11 chapters, Paul now challenges them on how they are to live.

He begins by telling them to present their bodies as living sacrifices.  Let’s break that down a little bit.  A sacrifice is basically offering, giving up or dedicating something.  Like in the OT when the people would bring a lamb to be sacrificed on the altar.  But Paul here is talking about a living sacrifice.  That means that it is still something that is given or dedicated, but it is not killed like the OT sacrifices were.  The living sacrifice he is referring to here is our bodies.  So putting all of this together, Paul is talking about our lives being given or dedicated to God.

Notice also that Paul tells them to present their bodies as living sacrifices.  That might seem like they are to work really hard to be a good Christian, but that word present can also be seen as offer or yield.  I would suggest that yield is a great way for us to understand what Paul is talking about here.

The word yield means to give way or submit.  So yielding our lives to the Lord as living sacrifices would be like submitting ourselves to him and his plans for us rather than our plans for ourselves.

Paul then goes on to talk about not being conformed to this world.  The word there carries the idea of us being squeezed into a mold.  We are constantly being bombarded by messages from this world about what we are supposed to look like, want, desire, believe, feel or think about things.  And much of what the world suggests is contrary to God’s will.

But Paul is saying, don’t let that stuff corrupt our thinking.  Don’t let the world dictate what we believe or think.  God has something better for us.  God is calling us away from this world and toward him.  Rather than being conformed by this world, he is calling us to a transformation.

You know the word for transformed there is the word from which we get our word metamorphosis.  The way this is written suggests a continual renewing of the mind.  He will give us a new way of thinking that may not make sense to this world, but God’s knows what is best for us and he will show us a better way.  This continual renewing of our mind then will lead us into God’s will.  The more we yield to his plans for us, then the more we will be able to understand what God really wants for us.

So let’s get back to the original question.  I know this is the big picture answer.  It is kind of a long term approach to answering this question, but this is how we know God’s will.  It is through choosing moment by moment and day by day to yield our lives to God that we get to know his will.

The problem is typically when we ask this question, it is that we want to know God’s will right now about a particular situation.  Paul is describing much more of a long term process.  He is pointing out to us that we need to grow in this area and it will take time of gradually, more and more being able to discern his will.  If we are not yielding to God moment, by moment and day by day, then it is going to be hard to know his will for a one time event.  So the first thing that I want to impress upon us is to start with these basics.  Let’s begin yielding our lives to God as living sacrifices, choosing his way instead of our own and over time we will be growing in our discernment of God’s will.

But I am not totally sure that that answers the intent of this question and I think there is also something here for the times when we want to know the will of God as we make decisions in our lives.  Notice this idea of not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Too often when we are faced with a decision, the main things we consider are the things of this world.  Most of the time we make decisions based on the same way the world makes decisions.  We tend to weigh the pros and cons like finances, happiness, future possibilities and things like that.

We need to stop letting worldly priorities dictate our choices and instead earnestly seek Gods will.  You know there are plenty of things that we know to be God’s will that we choose to ignore when we are trying to make a decision. Sometimes I am faced with a choice that makes all the sense in the world, but it kind of steps on some of the things that I already know to be true about God’s will. Many times we choose to ignore those things or compromise them just a little bit, so that we can grab hold of a bigger paycheck or some measure of enjoyment that we so desperately want for ourselves.  When we do that, we are letting ourselves be conformed by this world, rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

I believe that if we lessen the voice of this world and stop listening so much to what this world says is best, and if we focus on the stuff we already know to be true about God’s will,  then while that may not give us a definite answer it is going to narrow things down quite a bit and help us be able to see things more clearly as we try to discern God’s will.

 

 

Rahab’s Example

pexel window2Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho when the people of Israel showed up with the command from God to go in and take the promised land.  The Israelites sent in spies to check things out and they wound up at the home of Rahab in Jericho and she went out of her way to hide and protect them when they were in danger.  Even though she was not an Israelite she believed in the stories she had heard of their God and chose to align herself with him rather than with her own people.  And she and her family were spared when God destroyed the city.  You can read more about the story of Rahab in Joshua 2.

Later on Rahab is mentioned in Matthew 1:5 as part of the genealogy of Jesus.  She was David’s great, great grandmother.  She is also mentioned in Hebrews 11 as part of the faith hall of fame.  And she is given as an example of faith showing itself in works in James 2.

In that passage James poses a very interesting question in verse 14: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

This is a strong challenge.  He is questioning people’s salvation.  But notice that James is not comparing those who have faith to those who have works.  That is not really the point.  He is comparing those who say they have faith, but it doesn’t show in the way they live their life, compared to those who are visibly demonstrating their faith by how they live.

He gives an example in verses 15 and 16: 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

In this specific example James is not talking about a stranger, but about a brother or sister in Christ.  He is talking about someone within the body of Christ who is in obvious need.  This implies that the person who says they have faith knows the person in need, knows their need, and rather than helping them out, simply says “go in peace, be warm and well fed.”  This almost seems sarcastic, because the words they say are in direct correlation to the specific needs of the person.  But rather than help them, they just say some words.  This is the exact issue that James has with their so-called faith.  It is nothing more than words.

James calls that kind of faith dead in verse 17: 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James is calling for our faith to be alive.  Our faith should be evident in our lives.  People should be able to see Christ in us.  Our testimony cannot just be a testimony of words, it needs to be a testimony of life.

In verses 20-23 James points to the example of Abraham and how his faith showed up in what he did and then he shares a controversial statement in verse 24: 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

In this verse it seems like James is kind of contradicting the belief that we are saved by grace through faith, rather than works.  But we need to understand verse 24 in light of the rest of what James is saying.  He is not comparing faith to works, he is not even saying it is faith plus works, he is saying that true faith is shown in works.  If we really have faith, then it should be evident in our lives.

And then James points to the example of Rahab and ends with a strong challenge in verses 25 and 26: 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

So like the example of Abraham, Rahab is commended here for her actions or works.  That does not mean that she was saved by her works, but rather that her works were a response of faith.  The work that James is referring to is that she harbored the spies and hid them and went out of her way to help them.  Why do you think she did that?

In Joshua 2:8 – 13 Rahab actually answers that question for us.  She tells the spies about how word of the Lord had spread and fear of him had fallen on the land and then she testifies to what she believes at the end of verse 11: for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.

The reason she helped the spies is because she believed in their God.  She believed that he was who he said he was and that he would do what he said he would do.  That is faith.  She had faith and so she did what she did.  Her works were her response of faith.

I believe the example of Rahab is very poignant.  Notice that James refers to her not just as Rahab, but as Rahab the prostitute or Rahab the harlot.  Her life was so defined by prostitution that that is how she is known.  And yet James refers to her being justified by her works.  He is not talking about her work as a prostitute, but by what she did when she took care of the spies.  So even though she is known as Rahab the prostitute, with that stigma attached to her for her whole life, she is described here and in the book of Hebrews as a woman of faith.  She could have let her past define her and continued along that path, but she stepped out in faith and followed God.

I think that is a powerful reminder to us.  We may often look back at our lives with feelings of failure and discouragement.  We may even feel defined by things that are not flattering.  But while we can’t change the past, we don’t have to let it define how we are going to move forward.  I am not calling on us to focus on the work we haven’t done, or the things we have messed up or done wrong.  I am calling us forward from this point on, that our faith would be alive and that we would step out in faith and follow God.

 

 

Does God Contradict Himself?

pexel gravesI was recently asked the question, “why does God contradict himself?”  This person was focusing on how God says, “thou shalt not kill,” but then there were lots of times in the Old Testament where he called for whole cities to be wiped out, which seems a lot like genocide.  Have you ever struggled to put together something you believe about God with the way you see him act in Scripture?

Before I consider the specific example, I think it is important to take a look at the big picture.  In 2 Timothy 2 Paul is challenging and encouraging his young apprentice in his pastoral role, and he wraps up the passage with an interesting quote in verses 11-13: 11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

So Paul seems to be quoting something here, but it is not Scripture.  Some scholars believe it was a saying or possibly even a hymn within the early church.  We don’t know.  It seems to connect with the previous two verses where Paul talked about his own personal suffering in prison.

The first half of this statement connects with the hope of resurrection that awaits us as Christians.  Those who believe in Jesus, have had their sins forgiven, are brought back to a right relationship with God and can look forward to eternal life in Heaven.

The quote then moves on to those who have denied Christ.  This word is sometimes translated disown and suggests a deliberate choice to not follow Jesus as Lord.  So Paul is saying that if we deny Christ, that he will deny us.  If we don’t accept him, he won’t accept us.  Now that sounds harsh, but God has offered his free gift of salvation to the whole world, and those who deny him or turn their backs on that free gift will also be denied.  Those who accept Christ will be accepted, but if you want nothing to do with him, then that is your choice.

But then Paul’s quote moves on to one final point that I think brings out an important characteristic about God that is good for us to consider regarding our question for today.

Paul talks about being faithless.  That doesn’t mean to not have faith, it means to be unworthy of faith.  It means not doing what would be considered faithful.  We are faithless a lot.  We mess up and don’t keep our end of our covenant with God.  We go our own way, do our own thing, and faithlessly fail to live out what we say we believe.

But notice that this quote says that even though we are faithless God remains faithful.  That means he always keeps up his side of the covenant.  And Paul points out that God remains faithful because he cannot deny himself.

This means that God is who he is, all the time.  We talk about how God can do anything, but one thing he can’t do is something that is contrary to his nature.  Who God is, is who God is.  He will always act in a way that is true to his nature.

So what does that have to do with our question for today?  It means that God doesn’t contradict himself.  So we need to take what we know to be true about God and let that influence how we understand the things that don’t make sense.

Now, I understand that actions need to back up words.  I don’t like hypocrites any more than you do.  Sometimes people say one thing and do the opposite and so we tend to judge people more by what they do, than by who they tell us they are.  That is understandable, but it is also not entirely informed. Sometimes we might see someone do something and misconstrue what is really going on.

We see this all the time in situation comedies on television.  They are great at creating circumstances where someone sees someone else doing something but only gets part of the story and it leads to a whole bunch of funny outcomes.

Allowing someone’s actions to dictate what we believe about them is ok, but it is not complete, because we may not really understand what is going on.  If we know their character and we see something that doesn’t fit with that character, we are probably going to give them the benefit of the doubt, because we know them.  We should do the same with God.

I believe that if we hold on to what God says about who he is in Scripture, it is okay to wrestle with the things that don’t make sense.  But we have to do that while maintaining a firm grasp on what God has already revealed to us about himself.

So how about we start with what we see here in 2 Timothy that God does not deny himself.  He will always act in a way that is consistent with his nature.  We also know from James 1 that God is the same, yesterday, today and forever and does not change like shifting shadows.  And in Numbers we are reminded that God does not lie.  So if we believe all of that, then we can hold on to those truths and wrestle with any apparent contradictions we think we see.

So let’s apply that to our earlier example of the apparent genocide we see God commanding in the Old Testament compared to the command to not kill in the 10 commandments.

There is not some simple, easy answer, but let me first point out that technically speaking, the Hebrew word in the 10 commandments could be translated either as kill or murder.  And there is a difference.  Killing in a war or executing a person for crimes he has committed or killing someone while defending yourself from someone are very different than murdering someone in cold blood.  On the flip side, we could look at the word murder referring to unlawful killing.  With that in mind, even if we are against all forms of killing we would recognize the difference between killing and murder.  So comparing what we see God commanding the armies of Israel to do in a war is not the same thing as committing murder which is probably what the 10 commandments are referring to.

But when God has the Israelites wipe out an entire town, what do we do that?  Is God really commanding genocide?  That is a tougher question, but if I hold on to what I know to be true about God I can wrestle with that question as well.

In Exodus 34 God declared to Moses who he is and he said this about himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands,[a] forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

In that description I see a God who is loving, merciful and gracious, and yet also holy and just and aggressive in his dealings with sin.  Those are both facets of his character.  I think sometimes we only want to think about God as being loving, merciful and gracious.  But that is not a complete picture of God.  It is only in light of his holiness and justness that we can real understand his love and mercy.

God could have wiped us all off the face of this world because of our stubborn refusal to obey him and he would have been totally justified.  What should amaze us more is not when he chooses to show wrath, but when he chooses to show mercy, because we all deserve death.

Now I know that is a very imperfect explanation, but I think we also need to consider that the Old Testament was a long time ago and it was a very different time in the life of man, that we do not understand.   Things have changed a lot over the history of man, through the dark ages and medieval times and then on to where we are today.  And while God doesn’t change, man does and therefore God’s dealings with man, while coming from the same character, look different depending on our viewpoint.  So ultimately I believe God is who he says he is and that he will not contradict himself, and I continue to trust in him even if there are some of the things that I do not understand.

 

Good, Good Father

pexel fatherIn Matthew 7:7-8 we read:  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

So in this passage Jesus is speaking on prayer.  Asking, seeking, and knocking are all basically forms of prayer.  They are speaking of us going to God with requests.

I don’t believe this passage is saying that we can ask for whatever we want, regardless of God’s will and we will get it just because we ask.  I don’t believe that is what it means to be a good father.  I don’t give my kids everything they ask for and it is not because I am being mean, it’s because I love them and I am trying to do what is best for them.

Sometimes we go to God with things that seem good and we can’t see any reason why it would not be good for us to receive what we are asking for.  And yet still God does not give us what we want.  Those times are tough.

I have a good friend who is a pastor and his wife has cancer.  I don’t know why God has not just stepped in and miraculously healed her.  There is no reason that I can see for that not to happen.  I can only imagine what it must be like to cry out to God again and again and not receive that healing.

Sometimes when we cry out to God again and again, and don’t receive what we are asking for, our souls hurt and we can begin to forget who God really is and who we are in him.

This passage is teaching us something very important about God.  Overall this passage is about prayer, but Jesus is also pointing out that God is a good father.  Look at the example Jesus gives in verse 9-11: 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

A good earthly father may not always give his son what he asked for, but he is not going to ignore him or taunt him or give him something harmful instead.  And Jesus says that if that is true of an early father how much more true is it of God.

This is known as an “a fortiori argument” or an argument from the lesser to the greater.  If a good early father would respond like this, then think about how much more we can expect from God.  God is better than even the best image we could have of what a good earthly father is like.

I think I am a decent father and I believe that my children know that I love them and want the best for them.  But I know I am far from perfect.  I have had to apologize to my children many times for losing my cool, or accusing them of things they didn’t do or lack of patience or other things.  I am far from perfect.

But I know how much I love my children.   They mean more to me than I could possibly express.  Recently I was singing the song “Good, Good Father,” by Chris Tomlin.  As I was singing I was drawn into the image of how I see my kids.   I was trying to put myself in their shoes and if only they could see themselves through the way I see myself looking at them.  If they could only recognize how much I love them, not because of how good they are at pleasing me, but simply because they are my children.  And then I was thinking, do I see God that way?  Do I really see him loving me with the kind of love that I have for my kids, only infinitely greater?

I sometimes get a very warped idea of who I am in God’s sight.  I can be very performance based in my thinking like I have to please God or always be on my best behavior rather than just recognizing that he is my dad and I am loved by him.  And his love for me is not based on how well I am doing, but because I am his child.

So as I was singing this song I felt like I was crying out for my soul to get this.  I want to know, down deep in my soul, that God is a good Father and I am loved by him.  That doesn’t change.  It is who he is and it is who I am in him.

This passage is about prayer, but it is also a reminder that God is a good father.  A few chapters earlier when Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray he used the word Abba, which is a very intimate expression of father.  Imagine thinking of God like our daddy.

I may not know why God doesn’t answer some of our prayers the way we think he should and I don’t know why some of us are going through the things we are going through.  But if I know that my Father God is a good father, and that he loves me and wants what is best for me, then I can rest in him and trust that he will take care of me.

Sometimes in our lives we forget that image of God.  And in those times it is easy for us to give up and lose hope.  But when times are bad, that doesn’t mean that God is not a good father or that we are not loved.

In this passage where Jesus uses the words ask, seek and knock, those verbs are all in the present tense.  They could be looked at more along the lines of keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking.  I understand what it is like to be tired of asking, seeking and knocking.  But I want to remind us today that our God is a good father.  Let’s hold on to that image of him, even if we need to cry out to our own soul to remember that.  And let’s continue to bring our prayers before him, trusting that he hears us, that he knows what is going on in our lives, and that he loves us very much.

 

 

Resurrection not just Reanimation

pexel zombieSo Zombies are kind of a big deal lately.  There are many TV shows and movies related to zombies.  There was even a youtube video that went viral recently about a couple of brothers who pranked their younger sister on the way home from having wisdom teeth surgery.  They got her to believe that a zombie apocalypse was beginning.  Last I saw it had almost 14million hits.  According to Wikipedia “A zombie is a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse.”

Today zombies are potentially more popular than they have ever been.  If you go online you will find all kinds of information on zombies, including many sites that focus on the best way to survive a zombie apocalypse.  I even came across articles on this subject on the websites for The Center for Disease Control, US News and World Report, and The Washington Post.

Recently I was asked by someone in my church, “What does the Church mean by bodily resurrection?”  This person referred to the apostle’s creed which refers to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  They were wondering if this means that when we go to Heaven we will have a body like we have now?  In other words, will we be resurrected back into the body we had before we died?  And if so, then at what stage?  Does a person just end up with the body they had right before they died, or is it from like when they were in their prime?  And what about someone who was missing a limb or had some major problem with their body, is that fixed?  And what if you were cremated?  Does that mean you can’t be resurrected?  The person who was asking these questions didn’t specifically connect this to zombies, but they are trying to figure out what to make of the idea of bodily resurrection.

Well, first of all let me point out that we are not talking about reanimation we are talking about resurrection.  That is a significant difference.  Scripture may not give us a definitive picture of what these resurrected bodies will look like, but in I Corinthians 15 Paul gives us enough of an image to recognize we are talking about something a whole lot better than zombies.

Paul begins that chapter with a very succinct outline of the Gospel.  In a few verses he reminds us that Christ died for the sins of the world, that he was buried and that he rose again and appeared to many people.  It is kind of like the Gospel in Cliff Notes fashion.

These first six verses provide an important foundation and then Paul moves on to connect Christ’s resurrection with our own. It is important for us to realize that Jesus did not just die as a sacrifice for our sins, he rose again in victory over death and sin and paved the way for our resurrection.

There were apparently some in Corinth who were suggesting that there was no resurrection for the dead.  In these verses Paul lays out a very logical argument that reminds them of the completeness of the Gospel.

Paul then moves on to talk a little bit about what this will be like.  Paul doesn’t give us an exact picture of what to expect, but he gives us a few images to think about to help us consider the idea of a resurrection body.

The first analogy is of a seed in verses 36-37. A seed that is planted in good soil germinates.  Basically the seed itself disintegrates or dies, but out of that seed grows new life in the form of a plant.  And what comes up out of the ground is not the same thing that went into the ground, but something new and different.

So we can understand the analogy to the seed.  A person dies, they are even planted in the ground, and a new body comes up out of the ground at the time of resurrection.  We should not expect it to be the same as it was when it went into the ground, but rather something new.

Paul moves on to the analogy of different kinds of animals in verse 39.  We know and understand the difference between a human being, an animal, a bird and a fish.  Their bodies are designed for very different purposes that are right for the environment where they will exist.  Our resurrection bodies will be different than our earthly bodies and will fit the needs of the new environment awaiting us.

And then Paul moves on to compare earthly and heavenly bodies in verses 40-41.  Right now we live in earthly bodies.  They are fine and work for here on earth, but God has something different in store for us in Heaven.  These bodies were not meant for Heaven.

Paul then goes on to make some comparisons in verses 42-44.  First he talks about how our bodies will be imperishable compared to perishable.  That means that our resurrected bodies are not going to fade away or be temporary.  It is a body that will be built to last.

He then talks about how when we die, that is the low point for our earthly bodies.  They finally run out of strength and fail completely.  And when they do our bodies are at their weakest and most dishonorable.  But out of that weakness and dishonor of death our new bodies will rise in glory and power.  I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but it sounds pretty good.

The last comparison Paul points out is that our resurrected bodies will not be natural, they will be spiritual.  This is an important distinction.  I don’t know exactly what that will mean, but I would image that a lot of the limitations we know now, will not be limitations then.

Then in verses 45-49 Paul talks about how we will be born in the image of the man of heaven.  We started life with earthly bodies.  Adam was made out of the dust of this earth and so were we.  Our earthly bodies reflected Adam.  But our new bodies will be more reflective of Christ and that doesn’t mean we will look like he looked while he was on this earth, but more in the image of who he is in Heaven.   We will all finally have heavenly bodies.

Then Paul ends the chapter by telling us of the victory that is coming.  For those of us who believe in Christ, death is not the end.  Death is a result of the fall.  It Is because of sin.  In Christ we are set free from that curse of sin and have victory over death.  For most of the world death is seen as the biggest defeat of our lives.  But Paul is turning things upside down and saying that it is not defeat.  Death has been defeated and victory is ours in Christ as we are raised to new life with imperishable, glorious new spiritual bodies.

We may not be able to picture exactly what that means or looks like, but the specifics don’t matter.  Paul gives us enough information here to recognize that we have a lot to celebrate.

Paul’s final verse ends with a good note of encouragement for us in light of the resurrection.  He writes: 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.

There is a confidence in this resurrection that allows us to get on with our daily lives.  We can be steadfast, immovable, abounding in the work of the Lord, because we know that our future is secure.  In Christ, we know that one day we will rise again to spend eternity with him, and that understanding of our future allows us to have confidence here and now for whatever we are facing today.

We are looking forward to a glorious life in Heaven and while we are here on this earth we can stand in that victory even though we have yet to experience it.  I know life is not always easy here on this earth, but understanding this chapter can give us strength to stand immovable, knowing what is to come.

 

Why Blood?

pexel crucifixion stained glassHave you ever asked yourself why there is so much of a focus on blood in the Bible?  Between the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament and Jesus’ death in the New Testament there is a lot of blood.  In church we read about the blood, we talk about the blood and we even sing about the blood.  Some people probably question why the Church seems so infatuated with blood.

In chapter 9 of the book of Hebrews the author spends a lot of time talking about blood and does a good job of connecting the blood we read about with Old Testament sacrifices to the blood we read about with the story of Jesus on the cross.

First, he reminds his readers of the Mosaic covenant that existed in the Old Testament.  This was a covenant God had with Israel that they would be his people and he would be their God.  It consisted of a system of rules like the 10 commandments and others that taught them how to live and what it looks like to follow God.  This covenant also included animal sacrifices for them to offer when they messed up.

The system was not bad, but it was temporary, pointing forward to what would be completed in Christ.  And that is what the author is focusing on throughout the chapter.

He talks about the tabernacle, which was set aside as the place for God to dwell with his people.  And that tabernacle included the Most Holy Place, which was located behind a curtain that separated it from the rest of the tabernacle.  In this Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant which represented the very presence of God.  Nobody went behind that curtain except the high priest and he went back there only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  On that day he would make atonement for his sins and the sins of the community by way of animal sacrifices and sprinkling the blood on the cover of the ark.

In Hebrews 9:9 we find out that this was symbolic.  The word used for symbol is a word that means comparison, from which we get our word parable.  And then verse 10 ends with the phrase, “until the time of reformation.”  That is not referring to the reformation time period in history, the word means to set or make right.

So the old covenant was like a symbol of what was to come.  It was a system that God put in place that signified repentance and God accepted it as a way of purification.  It was a system that was temporary and incomplete but pointed the way to the time things would be set right and become perfect in Christ.

The author of Hebrews then moves on to connect Jesus to that old system of sacrifices.  He points out how Jesus became the perfect sacrifice.  In the old covenant the sacrifice of animals symbolized cleansing from sin, but in Christ those sins are truly atoned for and there is no further sacrifice necessary.

In verse 15 the author calls Jesus a mediator.  Our sin separates us from God, but Jesus came between us and God and made it possible for us to be reconciled.  And not just us but everyone, including those who made those sacrifices in the Old Testament.

Notice in verse 16 the word covenant is used and in verse 17 the word will is used.  In the original Greek that is actually the same word.  The old covenant looked ahead to the death of Jesus, the promise of what was yet to come.   Hebrews 9:15 says, “since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”  Jesus completed or perfected what was begun with the first covenant.

The animal sacrifices that were offered in the OT had to be offered again and again.  It was not enough for them to just be done once.  It was over and over again.  But Christ’s sacrifice was complete.  What he did on the cross was perfect and atoned for the sins of all people, past, present and future, once for all.

And the author points out at the end of the chapter that Christ is coming again.  This same Jesus who died for the sins of the world and rose again is coming back and when he comes he is going to raise all those who believe in him to a new eternal life.  That is what we are looking forward to and the way we have access to that new life is through the blood of Jesus Christ.

So that gets us back to the original question, why blood?  My answer is, I don’t really know.  We can trace animal sacrifice back to the sacrifices of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis and how the animal sacrifice of Abel was accepted while the fruit and vegetable sacrifice of Cain was not accepted.  And some even trace it back to the Garden of Eden when God clothed Adam and Even with animal skins after they sinned and realized they were naked.

But the closest answer I can find is in Leviticus 17:11 where we read: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

So while that is not an exact answer for why the blood, it does point out the importance of blood.  Blood represents life.  We need our blood to survive.  With the blood sacrifices in the Old Testament it is not like they just took blood from the animals and then set them free.  They killed the animals.  Using their blood cost them their life.

And the word for atonement means to cover or appease.  In the Old Testament the people would sacrifice animals to atone for their sins.  They would take one of their animals, that they had raised, or one they had bought with their own money.  An animal who had done nothing wrong, and they would sacrifice it to atone for their sin.

It wasn’t literally the blood of the animal that saved them or washed them.  Romans 6:23 tells us that the penalty or wages for sin is death, the life of the animal was sacrificed in place of the life of the person.  And the life was represented in the blood.

It might seem cruel today, but I think it is important for us to recognize that dealing with sin costs something.  We too easily blow off sin today, and it is good for us to recognize that there has always been a cost.  Back in the OT they saw that cost.  They recognized that an animal would be sacrificed for what they had done.

But we don’t live under the Old Covenant anymore.  God made a new covenant with his people when he sent his Son Jesus to this world.  Jesus became the perfect completion of the Old Covenant.  He died on the cross as a perfect, sinless sacrifice for the sins of the world.  His blood covers our sins.  And it is important for us to recognize the cost.

Now that we don’t regularly offer an animal as a sacrifice it is easy for us to forget the cost of sin.  We take sin lightly and therefore we take grace lightly. We forget how great a price was paid for our sin.  We tritely pray “forgive me for this or that mistake that I have made today” as if it is really no big deal.

I may not know exactly why blood, but I do know that it is good for us to remember that sin costs.  There is a price that was paid.  When we ask for forgiveness for our sins it is not like God says “oh it’s ok, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal.”  When we ask for forgiveness, God says, “it is a big deal, it separates me from you, but I sent my son as a sacrifice for your sin, because I love you and I don’t treat you as your sins deserve, I choose to show you grace and mercy, you are forgiven.”

Let’s not ever take sin or grace lightly.  Let’s always remember that sin costs and be thankful for what Christ paid for us.

 

Footwashing

pexel feet waterIn John 13 we find a well-known story about Jesus washing his disciple’s feet.  In Jesus’ times people walked around all the time in sandals or barefoot and picked up a lot of dirt and other grime along the way.  Footwashing was essential, but it was a menial task that someone usually did themselves or had a servant do for them.  Yet in this story we see Jesus washing his disciple’s feet.

In verse 8 Peter objects saying, “You shall never wash my feet.”  Why was Peter so appalled by the idea of Jesus washing his feet?  Because it was a task reserved for servants or slaves.  Jesus was their teacher, their master and their Lord.  And yet he put himself in a subservient position, stripped down to his skivvies, grabbed a bowl of water and a towel and went around on hands and knees washing their feet.

Should somebody else have washed the feet?  Maybe.  It was customary at the time for the host to have a servant wash the feet of those who were guests.  That doesn’t happen here.  No host or servant is even mentioned in the room at the time.  But it does seem that there was a pitcher and a bowl and a towel readily available.  Any one of the disciples could have offered to wash the feet of the others.  But I would imagine they all that task was beneath them.  Knowing the disciples they were probably looking around at each other figuring that one of the other guys should do it.  They did after all get caught on multiple occasions arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

In reality, one of the disciples should have done this footwashing.  If there was one person in the room who should not have done it, based on the customs of that time, it was Jesus.  And yet he is the one who did it.

This would have been an emotional, powerful, jarring image for the disciples.  And that is probably what Jesus was going for, because the lesson is not just about serving one another.  This is a lesson in humility.  Jesus is saying, if I would wash your feet, then whose feet could it possibly be beneath you to wash?

Jesus then goes on to challenge them to follow his example in verse 17, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Jesus wants us to serve one another, but I think we can serve others without really getting the lesson that Jesus is giving here.  We can approach this almost like a boy scout approaching getting a service merit badge, but I don’t think that is the point.

I believe Jesus is challenging them to a brand new way of viewing their lives.  I believe he is calling them to a radical self-abasing, others-focused kind of life.  It is the kind of life that Jesus himself exemplified in the way he lived and died.  He didn’t just sacrifice his life on the cross, he sacrificed it every day he lived on this earth by the way he cared for and served those around him.

I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to acts of service.  I think he is calling us to heart change.  He is calling us to a heart of humility and servanthood and that is harder than just volunteering for some service projects.

This is a lesson or us to have different view of our lives.  It is for us to humble ourselves to look at our lives with a different perspective recognizing that we are servants of Christ and therefore servants of one another.  Remember, as followers of Christ, we are to be becoming like the one we are following.  Well, this passage is who Christ is.  He lived a life of humility and servanthood.  And I believe the only way for us to become like this is for him to work supernaturally in our lives to make us more like him.  The question is, do we want this and are we willing to yield our lives to someone who wants this for us?

 

Guilty Pleasures

pexel pizzaThere are many things that I love that I am somewhat embarrassed to share with people.  For instance, I love Totino’s froze pizza.  It is one of my guilty pleasures.   I enjoy it, but I don’t tell everyone.  I want them to believe that I have a more refined palate.  Sometimes I do.  But I also still love a good Totino’s frozen pizza from time to time.

I am willing to confess that to you in this blog, because it is funny and quirky and interesting.  But how willing would I be to confess more than that?  how willing would I be to go deeper and share some of the deep, dark things that I don’t want anyone to know about my life?

James 5 contains an excellent passage on healing ministry within the church, but sometimes we pay so much attention to what James is saying in verses 13-15 on healing, that we miss out on what he says in verse 16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16, ESV)

James says to confess our sins to one another.  That idea seems somewhat foreign to us.  We are okay sharing things like our silly love for Totino’s pizza, but we don’t really want to go any farther than that.  We don’t want to be that vulnerable.  We don’t want to let others know the stuff we struggle with.  We don’t want to air our dirty laundry.  We are more comfortable letting others think that we have our act together.

But James is telling us to not hold that stuff in.  We are to confess to one another.  There are many benefits to this type of confession.  It allows us to welcome and invite accountability into our lives.  It allows us to publicly recognize our struggles.  It brings dark things out of the shadows and into the light.   It invites others to get involved in our brokenness and to pray for us and help us in our spiritual journey.

Also, it is interesting to note that verse 16 is part of this passage on healing.  Sometimes when we have unconfessed sin in our lives, it can eat us up from the inside out.  We can literally be stressing about our unconfessed sin to the point where it is causing physical problems and sometimes we don’t even realize what is going on.

It is also a benefit for the church as a whole.  I believe the church over the years has done a disservice in that we have hidden sin, and pretended that we all have our act together.  Confessing to one another breeds intimacy, and helps others be open to sharing what is going on in their lives.  It allows those who struggle with similar things to recognize that they are not alone.  It allows us to reach a new level of authentic community.

In order for this kind of confession to happen, we must not be judgmental and we need to be trustworthy.  We have to be a safe place where people can be vulnerable without worrying that it will be used against them in some way.

James then goes on to challenge us to pray for one another.  It is a natural progression for us to go from sharing with one another about our sins, our struggles, our failures, and our needs and then to simply pray for one another.  And that also is good for both the individual and for the church as a whole.

But for this too we must be vulnerable.  We have to stop asking for prayer for our neighbor or our great aunt, and start asking for prayer for ourselves.  We need to let other people know of our struggles, our failures, our hurts and our pain.   And then we can really pray for one another.

It doesn’t seem natural for us to be that vulnerable with one another.  We are more comfortable sharing about the things that don’t really matter.  But if we are going to become the church that God is calling us to be, then we need to put aside those barriers that get in the way and confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.

 

Ultra-Marathon Life

malcolm mcA few weeks ago at Crown College I had the opportunity to meet Malcolm Mcloughlin. He is an Irish author who was at Crown to speak for their Missions Fest. He shared about running ultra-marathons of 40, 50 and even 100 mile races and compared that to the endurance of a lifelong journey with Christ.

Hebrews 10:19-39 is a powerful passage about recognizing who we are in Christ, drawing near to God and having endurance in the faith.  This call to endurance reminded me of what Malcolm Mcloughlin was talking about at Crown College. He referred to how someone could fake a 5k or a 10k race. You don’t have to be a runner to run those races. Malcolm also said that you could even train for a bit and fake a half marathon, or maybe even a marathon. But ultra-marathons are different. They take a different amount and level of training and endurance that you can’t fake. And then, he likened that to the Christian life.

This theme of endurance seems to be central to what the author is talking about. But what jumped out at me is that right in the middle of the passage there are a couple of verses that are focused on our relationships with each other. In verses 24 and 25 the author writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV)

That word spur is actually a word whose meaning is more along the lines of irritation or exasperation, contention or argument. The overall wording would direct us toward the idea of provocation and it is used with one another to denote the idea of like mutually provoking one another.

It brings to mind that training buddy who pushes you to go on even when you think you can’t do anymore. The one who challenges you to do one more push up, or to do one more weightlifting rep, or to run one more mile.  And in the midst of those times when we are being pushed to continue on, we may even become annoyed with that training buddy, but we know that we need them. If we are going to run this race, we need them in our lives.

In these verses the author says do not neglect meeting together as is the habit of some. We need to realize how important we are in one another’s lives. When we come together it is not just about singing a few worship songs and listening to a sermon.  The times that we get together are opportunities for us to connect with one another and become a body, so that we can be in position to speak truth into one another’s lives and encourage each other, and correct one another’s theology and help each other stay strong in the midst of weaknesses and hold each other accountable, because enduring through a life long walk with Christ is hard.

If all we look at church as is a place to sing some worship songs and to hear a sermon, then church hopping, or occasional attendance, or staying on the periphery, or even just catching sermons online and listening to worship songs in our car can take the place of that kind of church.

But this passage is telling us that there is more to church than that. We need each other. We need the relationships within the church to help us endure. We need to recognize that we are running a marathon, not a sprint. And while it may seem easy today, there will be days ahead that will not be as easy.  So let’s not give up meeting together, but rather let’s intentionally develop the kind of relationships with one another where we can encourage each other and spur one another on in this ultra-marathon of life.

Bear With Me

pexel bearIn Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

When I think of bearing with one another, I tend to think of putting up with someone.  When I was growing up and we had to do something that I didn’t really want to do, I was supposed to grin and bear it.  And when someone is talking about or doing something boring or tiresome they might say “bear with me.”  So along those lines, when I hear the phrase “bearing with one another,” I get the image of putting up with one another.

However, I think Paul is challenging us to do more than just put up with one another.  I think he is challenging us to choose to be in relationship with one another regardless of how comfortable or easy that relationship might be.  I believe that “bearing with one another” is a choice to make the relationship important enough that we will work at it.

I think in typical church society today it is easy for us to have the kind of relationships where as long as things are good, we are good, but as soon as things get tough we drop the relationship.  We do that because it is easier to drop the relationship than to bear with one another and make it work when it is no longer easy.

And that means that we need to forgive one another.  We need to be willing to let go of the stuff that separates us, and stop being offended so easily.  Sometimes we can be so petty that it seems like we are just looking for people to offend us.  We need to have thicker skin and assume the best about one another.

And then when real problems come up or when there is a legitimate complaint, we need to be willing to make things right.  We need to seek and grant forgiveness and do everything we can to work things out so that our relationships stay intact.

Let’s face it, if we are really going to go as deep with one another as we are talking about.  If we are really going to develop that level of intimacy, then we are going to annoy one another and step on each other’s toes.  And if we are not committed to making this relationship work, or if we are not willing to forgive, then we are going to just give up and walk away.

And notice also what Paul says in verse 16: 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

There is something incredible that is happening when we are together.  It is supernatural.  As followers of Christ we have the Holy Spirit alive inside of us and so when we talk with one another, we have the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to allow us to communicate on a whole different level.  When we share our struggles with someone else from church we are not just relying upon their ability to understand our problem or give us advice from some great life lesson that they have learned.  We are providing an opportunity for God to speak to us through one another.

We need to understand that church is God’s gift to us.  He has brought us together to make our lives here on earth better as we help one another follow him and walk through this life together.  Let’s put a priority on these relationships and be the church he is calling us to be.

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