Advent thoughts: December 7

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15—read Deuteronomy 18:15-22).

The roles or tasks of the Messiah, as described in the Old Testament, are generally listed as prophet, priest, and king. A priest offers sacrifices; a king rules. The job of a prophet is to deliver messages from God. One might consider a prophet to be a press agent for God. The prophet is authorized to speak for God; whatever a prophet says in the name of the Lord is the word of God.

Jesus is the perfect priest, offering himself as the final sacrifice for all sins. Jesus is the perfect king, ruling the entire universe with authority given to him from his Father. Jesus is also the perfect prophet. Jesus is God, so anything he says is automatically a message from God.

As all the priests are pictures of Jesus and all the kings are pictures of Jesus, so likewise all the prophets are pictures of Jesus. When Moses speaks of one prophet who will rise in Israel, clearly Moses is thinking of Jesus. But before Jesus was born, other prophets also preached God’s Word. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many more were inspired by the Holy Spirit. He guided them as they spoke and as they wrote, so we may consider all their messages to be trustworthy and true.

Jesus is the ultimate prophet. The last prophet to precede him, John the Baptist, emphasized the difference between Jesus and all other prophets. John said that he was not worthy to deal with the sandals of Jesus. “He must increase,” John declared, “and I must decrease.”

When Muslims say that Jesus is one of the prophets, they severely demote him from his true position. Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, and they answered, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and some say one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked the key question: “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered correctly: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.”

When God spoke the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, the Israelites were so terrified that they asked for a mediator so they would not have to hear the voice of God. God agreed to their request and named Moses as the mediator between God and Israel. The other prophets, speaking for God, also served as mediators. But in the Christian Church we have one Mediator between God and his people: Jesus Christ, who is the perfect Mediator, because he is fully human and fully divine. As our great High Priest, he pleads to the Father for us, reminding his Father that the price has been paid for all our sins. As our great Prophet, he reminds us why we were created by speaking the Law of God, but he also promises us forgiveness by speaking the promises of God. Being human, he fully understands our needs and our requests. Being divine, he is able to do anything, and he does what is best for us.

Jesus is our Prophet, our Priest, and our King. Through him we have forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, victory over every kind of evil, and the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. Thanks be to God! J.

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“Your body is a temple of God”–part two

Last month I wrote this post to demonstrate that, when the apostle Paul wrote that “your body is a temple of God,” he was referring to the entire Church and not to individual Christians. The “you” of “your body” is plural, but he speaks of one temple, not many temples. But what does it mean to call the Church a temple of God?

People of many different religions have built temples. Ancient Sumer had temples; ancient Egypt had temples. These temples were built for gods so that believers in those gods would have a place to contact their gods. Temples were built, not because gods needed homes, but because people needed connections with the gods they trusted and worshipped.

When God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the design for a tent which would be a moving temple. This tent (often called the Tabernacle) was to be in the center of the campground when Israel was at rest. The Tabernacle represented God’s presence among his people. Animals were sacrificed in the Tabernacle as part of Israel’s connection with God. The lives and blood of the animals were given to God, pictures of the sacrifice God’s Son would make on the cross to remove the sins of the world. Even the tent was a picture of Jesus. When John wrote “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), the verb translated by “made his dwelling” refers to the pitching of a tent.

King David wanted to build a temple for God in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Nathan, God declined David’s offer. He said that instead of letting David build a house for God, God would build a house for David. That house would be a son (or descendant) of David who would rule an eternal kingdom. David may have thought that the promised Son of David was his son Solomon, but Solomon did not match the terms of the Promised Son. Solomon began to rule before David died, but the Promised Son was to come after David died. Solomon sinned and was forgiven for his sins, but the Promised Son bore the burden of the world’s sins and atoned for those sins. Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, but the Promised Son was to rule forever. Solomon was an adopted son of God, as all believers are, but Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.

David purchased land, gathered materials, and hired workmen to build the temple God had told him not to build. Solomon oversaw the construction of that temple, and God accepted his gift. The temple followed the pattern of the Tabernacle that God had designed. Sacrifices continued to be offered in the temple, drawing the power to forgive sins from the future sacrifice of the Promised Son. Yet God’s people strayed away from the Lord; even Solomon built temples for other gods, the gods worshipped by his wives. The unfaithfulness of God’s people made a mockery of the sacrifices to atone for sin. Therefore, God raised the Babylonian army and allowed it to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple.

Under the Persian government, God’s people were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Some of those who saw the new temple wept because they remembered the splendor of Solomon’s temple. Through the prophet Haggai, God promised that the second temple would be more glorious than the first temple, because God himself would visit that temple. This promise was fulfilled when Jesus entered the temple–first as a baby, forty days old; then as a boy, twelve years old; then as a man in his thirties. Jesus taught in the temple. He even cleared the temple of merchants who were defiling the temple. When asked by what authority he cleared the temple, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19)–“But the Temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). The Word made flesh was a temple, because it was the way God chose to be present among his people.

The tabernacle was a picture of the Word made flesh, promising the presence of God among his people. Solomon’s temple and the second temple were also pictures of Jesus, the presence of God among his people. God had the Babylonians destroy the first temple, and he had the Romans destroy the second temple, as pictures of his Son suffering and dying on the cross to atone for the world’s sins. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the promise to pay for the sins of the world, temples and animal sacrifices are no longer needed.

The body of Jesus, which is the true temple of God, rose from the dead. Forty days later that body ascended into heaven to fill the universe. Jesus, “seated at the right hand of the Father,” is present everywhere. Yet he is present in a special way whenever his people gather in his name. “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Since the Church is the body of Christ, it also is God’s Temple. The Church is the place where God’s people know that they are in the presence of God.

As God’s people, we need to be connected to God. God is everywhere, but as sinners in a sinful world we cannot always sense his presence. Therefore, Jesus promises to be present “where two or three gather in” his name (Matthew 18:20). One Christian alone is not a temple. Christians gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive his blessings are a temple. God reaches out to sinners from the Church. God cares for his people in the Church. The Good Shepherd provides for his flock in the Church. We are the body of Christ, diverse in many ways, yet functioning together to accomplish the will of our Head. As the body of Christ, we are his temple. We are the only temple God wants or needs in the world today. J.

Ten Commandments trivia

We have all seen the image of Moses—in paintings, drawings, and movies—carrying the two tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed by God. Like many of our religious traditions, the familiar picture is most likely inaccurate.

The Bible does not record the size of the tablets, although a maximum size is determined by the size of the ark built to contain them. The Hebrew word translated “tablet” (or, in the KJV, “table”) refers to the fact that the material—stone, wood, or metal—was polished; the word could be used to describe any such object, from a plate to a table. Rabbinic tradition says that each tablet was ten inches by twenty inches, which corresponds to similar legal documents of that time. (It’s also about the size of the tablets that people use today.) They also would have been rectangles with four sharp corners, unlike the shape usually shown in artwork. Rabbinic tradition further says that the stones were blue—either sapphire or lapis lazuli—taken from the floor under God’s throne as seen by Moses and the other leaders of Israel.

The Bible indicates that the stones were each inscribed on both sides by the finger of God. Many teachers describe the stones as if some of the commandments were written on one tablet and the rest on the other, but far more likely both tablets contained all the commandments. The two stone tablets were duplicate copies of a contract, similar to the two pieces of paper produced when you use a credit card at a store. The store keeps one copy you have signed and you keep the other copy. Because Moses was acting as a mediator between God and Israel, he was entrusted with both copies of the contract.

When God spoke the commandments from Mount Sinai to the people of Israel, before Moses received the same commandments in writing, he spoke “ten words” according to the book of Exodus. Because Exodus does not enumerate the commandments, different traditions count them in various ways. One tradition combines the prohibition of other gods with the prohibition of graven images; that tradition then closes the Ten Commandments with two prohibitions of coveting. In this tradition the Ninth Commandment forbids coveting your neighbor’s house, which includes any property that is bought with money alone. The Tenth Commandment forbids coveting your neighbor’s spouse, workers, or work animals, or anything that is your neighbors—anything bound to your neighbor by loyalty. (This would include pets and even friends.) Another tradition has a distinct prohibition of graven images—the Second Commandment—and closes with only one commandment against coveting. In the third tradition, both combinations are made, but the first “word” of God is the opening declaration, “I am the Lord your God.” Because of these different ways of numbering the commandments, mention of the Sixth Commandment without any context causes some people to think of murder and others to think of adultery.

When teachers or artists describe the two tablets as if they contained different groups of commandments, they separate the commandments into a vertical relationship—our relationship with God—and horizontal relationships—our relationships with other people. These relationships are summarized in the two greatest commandments: to love God wholeheartedly, and to love each neighbor as yourself. The first three or four commandments speak of other gods, graven images, God’s name, and God’s time; the remaining six or seven speak of parents and neighbors. In my opinion, the commandment to “honor your father and your mother” (as well as others in authority) should be counted with the vertical relationship. All figures of authority are pictures of God’s authority. The way we treat our parents, teachers, supervisors, and government officials represents our attitude towards God’s authority. After that commandment, the Ten Commandments continue with an orderly set of commandments about horizontal relationships, defending (in order) our neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations. Coveting is uniquely a sin both horizontal and vertical. We cannot love our neighbors while being angry that they have something good that we do not have. We cannot love God when we refuse to be content with the good things he has made available to us.

The Ten Commandments are an owner’s manual for our lives. They inform us why we were made, why we are alive today, and what we are supposed to be doing. When we break any of these commandments, we void the contract we have made with God; we void the warranty he gave us with these commandments. Yet Jesus Christ, the Son of God, obeyed these commandments in our place, setting us free from their burden. We live by them now, not to earn the blessings of God, but to imitate Christ since he has rescued us from the consequences of sin and made us free people, unbound by the commandments. Of course these facts are not trivia: the knowledge contained in this paragraph is the most important knowledge any person can possess. J.

Moses

Christ and the Passover

On Thursday night of Holy Week, Jesus celebrated the Seder (the Passover meal) with his disciples in a borrowed room. The next night, the priests and all the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated their Seder. I have not been able to fact-check this statement, but I have read that at that time thousands of Jews did what Jesus and his disciples did: they came to Jerusalem for the Passover and celebrated the Seder a night early, while the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated on the night of the full moon.

The Seder and the week of Passover commemorated an event that had taken place twelve to fourteen centuries earlier. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to command the pharaoh to release them. When the pharaoh refused, God sent a series of plagues against Egypt, showing that his power was greater than that of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague was the death of the oldest son in every family, except that God spared those families that trusted him. They were told to kill a lamb, to paint the blood around the doors of their houses, and to roast and eat the lamb. They were to eat quickly, prepared to travel, because freedom was just around the corner. They were to bake bread without waiting for it to rise. That night the Israelites began their journey toward freedom, a journey which would take them to Mount Sinai where the Lord would say to them, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Among the instructions God gave the Israelites through Moses was a command to observe the week of Passover every spring. During the week of Passover they would eat bread made without yeast, remembering the bread made during their hurried escape from Egypt, and also representing a life lived without sin. They would eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. They would kill and eat a lamb (without, however, painting the lamb’s blood on their houses), remembering the lamb of the Passover in Egypt and the way God rescued them both from slavery and from death.

God wanted his people to remember how he had rescued them in the past. He also wanted them to know how he would rescue them in the future. He killed the oldest son in every family among the Egyptians but spared the oldest son in every family marked by the blood of the lamb. In the same way, God spares all sinners marked by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (as John the Baptist described Jesus). Jesus is also the only-begotten Son of God, but he is the first-born son in a family that is filled with adopted children. The sacrifice of Jesus is the price paid to adopt all those children into the family of his Father. Like the bread made without yeast, Jesus lived a life without sin, yet he was broken on the cross so he could make whole the lives that have been broken by sin.

Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had their Seder meal on Thursday night. Later that night Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. Friday morning he would be handed over to the Romans, who would mock him, torture him, and crucify him. As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Seder meals of the citizens of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was shedding his blood and giving his life for all the sinners of history.

Through Moses, God commanded his people to celebrate the Passover every year. Some people continue to do so this year. On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover celebration by his sacrifice and by his victory. The Israelites were led out of Egypt across the Red Sea toward the promised land the third day from the Passover. So also Jesus, on the third day, blazed a trail across the valley of the shadow of death to bring his people to a promised land—eternal life in a new and perfect creation that will have no end. J.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Can you imagine seeing someone you know well suddenly begin to glow like a fluorescent light bulb? Jesus once provided this experience to Peter, James, and John, the inner circle within his twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the time that Jesus took the three of them up on a high hillside in Galilee to pray. Suddenly his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were brilliant white, more white than any bleach could make them. With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, discussing the “departure” of Jesus that he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Today Peter would have taken a selfie with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture, but he still tried to cling to the experience. He suggested putting up three tents so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could stay on the hill. Presumably, Peter expected other people to climb the hill to visit with the three holy men. Instead, a cloud surrounded the hill, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One—Listen to him!”

Liturgical Christians have chosen to close the season of Epiphany by remembering this event. During Epiphany, Christians have remembered the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity through his teaching and his miracles. Glowing with light might be the most impressive way Jesus had to demonstrate his true nature as the Son of God. Christians today want, like Peter, to hold on to the special times when Jesus seems close to them and peace and joy appear to be within reach. Sometimes congregations try to meet this desire with uplifting hymns and praise songs and a “worship experience” that dazzles the eyes and the ears and the brain. Jesus is not near only when his people are dazzled and uplifted. Sometimes his presence is felt most clearly during the dark night of the soul. Mountaintop experiences last a short time, but the reminder to “listen to him!” continues ringing long after the light has faded away.

For liturgical Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is somewhat of a holy Mardi Gras, a last blaze of glory before the somber time of Lent arrives. The secular Mardi Gras of the world seems designed only to give people a reason to repent and to regret their sins in coming days. Holy people do not use the excuse of a coming fast to “sin boldly.” They remain focused on Jesus during feasts and during fasts; they draw upon the power of his forgiveness to “go and sin no more.” All God’s people sin every day and need forgiveness every day. Even Moses and Elijah fell short of the glory of God. God’s forgiveness is real every day, and his love and mercy are worth celebrating every day.

Because of his sins, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before he died, he saw it from a distance, but he could not cross the river and set foot in the land. Moses first stood in the land when he stood with Jesus at his Transfiguration. His presence with Jesus in Galilee demonstrates that Jesus was completing the work of Moses. Moses delivered the Law to God’s people, but Jesus fulfilled the Law. Moses acted as a mediator for God’s people, praying for forgiveness when they sinned, but Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice as well as a mediator. Moses led his people through the wilderness but had to stop short at the border of the Promised Land; but Jesus leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death, bringing us safely to the other side where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy of Transfiguration is but an echo of the joy of Easter. The greatest glory of Jesus was not to glow with light: the greatest glory of Jesus was to defeat sin and Satan and death and to offer forgiveness and life to the people he loves. If one rejoices in the blessings God has bestowed, or if one is hoping and waiting for greater blessings, each of us can be certain that the glory of our Savior has made us his forever. To him be the glory! J.