Advent thoughts: December 6

“And when he [the king of Israel] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statues, and doing them” (Deuteronomy 17:18-19—read Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

When the people of Israel wanted a king, Samuel told them that having a king was a bad idea. He told them that God was supposed to be their only king, and he threatened them with the cost of a king—both in terms of money and in terms of freedom. God told Samuel to listen to the people, and God guided Samuel in choosing and anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. God had already anticipated that his people would one day have a king. In Deuteronomy 17 God gave directions for the king of Israel, requiring him to be an Israelite rather than a foreigner, telling him not to acquire many horses or many wives, and instructing him to keep a copy of God’s Law with him at all times, keeping the Lord’s Word and doing what the Lord commanded.

The name “Deuteronomy” means “second law.” It contains, not a new set of laws from God, but a restatement of God’s laws and promises. Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell message to Israel. He spoke the words of Deuteronomy shortly before he died and was succeeded by Joshua. The book of Deuteronomy includes a succinct history of Israel leaving Egypt and traveling through the wilderness. It also provides instructions for their life in the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is famous for its covenant language, promising blessings to the nation when they obeyed God’s Word and threatening curses when they disobeyed. Yet, like every book of the Bible, Deuteronomy is also about Jesus. The commandments in Deuteronomy are commandments he obeyed in the place of sinners. Because Jesus obeyed these commands, he can bestow the blessings he earned on his people while he takes away the curses they earned and endures them himself upon the cross.

Every priest is a picture of Jesus. Every king is also a picture of Jesus, for he is King of kings and Lord of lords. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. He rules the universe, and with his royal authority he takes care of his people, those who trust his promises, the members of the Holy Christian Church.

Therefore, as King of God’s people, Jesus was required to know what is written in Deuteronomy and to be guided by its teachings. We see this clearly in Matthew 4:1-11, when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Three times Satan tried to steer Jesus into sin, and three times Jesus resisted by quoting from Deuteronomy. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3); “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16); “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

When Jesus defeated Satan, he won a victory which he shares with all the members of his kingdom. Ruling faithfully as God’s anointed King, Jesus provides peace and comfort to his people. He has forgiven us all our sins, washing us and making us pure and acceptable for eternal life in his kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

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Authority

God says, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”

Salvageable adds: Once again, to despise can mean to hate, but it also can mean to consider unimportant. When we treat parents and other people in authority as if they did not matter, we sin against the authority of God, because all human authority represents God’s authority.

This commandment has no age of expiration. Adults honor and respect their parents in a different way than do children living in the homes of their parents. Even the white-haired father and mother in a retirement village or nursing home still should be honored, loved, and cherished. As we grow older, though, we encounter more authorities. Parents entrust their children to sitters and then to teachers. Anyone who applies for a job is expected to honor and respect the authority of a supervisor. Pastors have authority in their congregations, and all citizens are under the authority of the government. That authority is held not only by elected officials, but also by other government employees, including police officers and judges.

But those in authority often sin. When they command us to sin, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Still, even when Daniel was commanded not to pray to any God but only to the Persian Emperor, Daniel did two things. He broke that wrongful law, but he continued to honor and obey the Emperor in all other matters. Likewise, Peter and Paul both wrote that government authorities should be respected and honored, in spite of the fact that the highest authority of their government was the corrupt and wicked Caesar family.

American culture struggles with our relationship toward authority. We value independence and the right to question authority. Worse, we are surrounded by people who mock authority. After an election, supporters of the losing candidate often fight against the plans and commands of the winner, seeking to undermine his or her authority. Entertainers join the fray, mocking and scorning those who have been placed in control of the government. Likewise, literature and drama belittle teachers and school administrators, workplace management, police officers, and—especially—parents. It seems as if no one remembers that opposing earthly authorities is, by its very nature, opposition to the authority of God.

Jesus is our model of perfect obedience. As a child he honored and obeyed his parents, and as an adult he continued to honor his mother. Though he debated scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees, he did not seek to overthrow them, nor did he treat them with scorn and mockery. In his trials he respected those of authority, earning in return the grudging respect of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who three times declared that Jesus was innocent and tried to set him free. Though the Jewish authorities and Roman authorities were corrupt, Jesus never called for their overthrow. His respect for human authorities did not have to be earned by them; it already existed as part of the respect Jesus has for his Father.

When we fail to follow the perfect example Jesus set, we grieve the Holy Spirit and contribute to the penalty Jesus paid on the cross. Yet Jesus has freed us from all our sins, even our sins of disrespect towards authority. We are free—not to mock and scorn authority or rebel against it, but free to submit as Jesus submitted, doing what is right in all matters, only breaking the rules when those rules conflict with God’s rules. J.

Noah, the ark, and the Flood

Noah, the ark, and the Flood are familiar to almost every person living in western culture. Efforts to recreate this account for movies inevitably bring new details into the story; the description in the Bible does not provide nearly enough material for a feature-length movie. Many people probably think that they know about Noah, the ark, and the Flood, but much of what they know might be fiction that has been added to the Bible’s account.

Noah is easily seen as a picture of Jesus. Noah is a savior, obeying the commands of God and—through his obedience—rescuing and preserving lives from God’s wrath and judgment. From the time Noah began building the ark until the time rain began to fall, 120 years passed, according to the usual understanding of Genesis 6:3. During this time, by his words and by his actions, Noah was able to warn his neighbors of the coming destruction, warning them to repent before it was too late. By the same token, Jesus spent about three years teaching in Galilee and Judea and the surrounding area, calling upon people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The structure which Noah built to save lives was made of wood; the cross where Jesus suffered and died to bestow eternal life was also made of wood. Those who were to be saved entered the ark through an opening in its side, faintly echoing the Bride of Christ coming from his side as Eve came from the rib of Adam.

Those who accept the premise, based on John 1:18, that God the Father is revealed only through Jesus—and that, when God speaks or is seen in Genesis, Jesus is present among his people—will picture Jesus visiting Noah and giving him detailed instructions about how to build the ark. We are told that Noah was righteous and blameless, but we also know that only Jesus is without sin. Noah was made righteous and blameless through his faith in the promised Savior. All believers, from Adam and Eve until the glorious appearing of Christ, are saved in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus.

Often the Flood is seen only as an act of wrath, God’s judgment on a sinful world. The water of the Flood also had a cleansing action, washing away sinners and the consequences of their sins. The apostle Peter wrote about the time “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you….” (I Peter 3:20-21). The water of the Flood lifted Noah and his family out of a sinful world and carried them safely in the ark until they landed in a new world, a world which had been washed clean by water. Likewise, Christians are carried through this sinful world by the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit until we land safely in the new world God has promised us—a world won for us by the work of Christ.

Peter stresses that eight persons were saved by the Flood and by the ark. He stresses this number, so it must be significant. God created the world in seven days, establishing the length of the week. Sets of seven in the Bible often represent completeness. The eighth day is the beginning of a new week. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on the eighth day, Easter Sunday—the day that Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death, the day that promises his people new life in a new creation. Like Peter, early Christian writers often associated the number eight with a new beginning, as they also associated Baptism with a new beginning. The apostle Paul wrote, ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

When Noah and his family exited the ark, Noah offered sacrifices to God, continuing the tradition of “pre-enacting” the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Afterward, he planted a garden. This garden is no minor detail; it reinforces the concept of a new beginning, since Adam and Eve began in a garden. Yet, as Adam and Eve sinned and were driven from the garden, so Noah’s garden also became his downfall.  He drank wine, made from the grapes of his vineyard, became drunk, and lay naked, uncovered in his tent. In spite of his new beginning, Noah was no longer clothed in righteousness. One son laughed at Noah’s nakedness, bringing trouble upon himself and his family. The other two sons covered Noah’s nakedness, bringing blessing upon themselves and their families. In the same way, Christians today should not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others, but instead should seek to share the good news of Jesus with sinners, hoping to clothe them in his righteousness by the power of his Word. We do not desire to humiliate them over their sins or condemn them, but we hope instead to call them to repentance and faith.

God promised Noah that he would never again flood the world to destroy it. He established the rainbow as a sign of that promise—a reminder to God of the promise he had made. Rainbows mean different things to different people today, but they remain to God a reminder of his mercy upon his creation. Light shines through the clouds, and through the drops of water they produce, to display a rainbow upon the earth. God’s light comes through water to his people to display God’s promise of new and eternal life for all those who trust his promises.

 

God’s Commands

What is the first command from God in the Bible? I don’t mean the commandment to have no other gods; that is the first of the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. I don’t mean the commandment to love God whole-heartedly; that is the greatest commandment of God, but not the earliest.

Some people will guess that God’s first command was not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. That is the first command from God that was broken, but it was not his first command. Others will remember God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. That was the first command God delivered to Adam and Eve, but it was not his earliest command.

God’s first command was, “Let there be light.” Because God gave that command, light occurred. Don’t let anyone tell you that words have no power. When God speaks, things happen. The universe is unable to resist the will of God when he expresses it with words. As God spoke, the universe came into being, and it still follows the same rules established by God in the beginning. The behavior of the sun, earth, and moon remains consistent with God’s will, so consistent that the shadow of the moon across the earth can be predicted many years in advance or extrapolated far into the past. Plants grow and reproduce according to God’s command, each according to their kind. Animals exist and thrive on the earth and in the water and even flying through the air, each according to their kind. Physics and chemistry and biology are reliable sciences because everything God made continues to work according to his original design.

Everything except people. Unlike everything else in creation, people are free to obey the commands of God or to disobey them. People are free to love God or to reject him. People were created in the image of God, and part of that image is freedom. God is perfectly free, and the people he made have a certain amount of freedom.

Once a person has rebelled against God, though, that person is no longer free. That person has become a slave to sin and is subject to all the consequences of evil, even death. Every day people choose rebellion and sin and death rather than God and life and love. We are no longer in the image of God, because we have exchanged our freedom for sin and death.

In other ways, we maintain part of the image of God, even though much of it has been lost. God creates, and we are able to create. God is perfectly wise, and we are able to exercise wisdom, to gain in knowledge and understanding. God enjoys beauty and has a sense of humor, and we also appreciate beauty and humor. Most of all, God is love, and we show the image of God when we love him and when we love one another.

God commands us to love, and the rest of his commands tell us how to love. God does not command us because he enjoys his authority over us. The commands of God are like an owner’s manual for our lives. If we all followed God’s commands perfectly, none of us would have any problems. We have problems because we, along with the people around us, keep on breaking God’s commands.

The commands of God are useful, even in a sin-stained world. Parents, teachers, managers, legislators, police officers, and judges all have authority to make and enforce rules because of God’s commands. Even our efforts at self-control and courtesy are based upon God’s commands. Although those commands do not make us or the world perfect, God’s commands make the world and us better than we would be left to ourselves.

The commands of God also warn us that we have a problem, namely, sin. They show the difference between the people God intended us to be and the people we, in fact, are. They show how badly we need to be rescued from our own sins and from the evil in the world around us.

Although they show us that we need to be rescued, God’s commands cannot rescue us. They are good, but they still are no help to people seeking to escape sin and evil. Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable, they walk past us without helping while we are victims of sin and evil. Jesus can and does help us. He heals and restores us, paying any price necessary to bring us back to the people we were meant to be. He restores to us the image of God which we had lost through sin, although we will not fully possess that image until we rise to life in God’s new creation.

Meanwhile, God is transforming us into the image of his Son. As forgiveness is passive, received by us but not earned by us, so the transformation also is passive. Yet we can reject the transformation or we can cooperate with the transformation. When we love God and try to obey his commands, we are cooperating. When we love the people near us and try to serve God by helping those people, we are cooperating.

The commands of God describe the results of the transformation Jesus works in us. The same commands that diagnosed our sin and prescribed a Savior (because the commands themselves cannot heal us) also assist us to cooperate with God’s transformation of our lives. They tell us why God made us, and they tell us what we are like as the children of God.

All this is preamble to what I really wanted to write. I wanted to address the reason that all the commands of God to Israel do not apply to Christians today. This subject I will address in my next post: The difference between ham and premarital sex. J.

 

Jonah

Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.

The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.

For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.

Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.

Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.

Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

 

Job interview fantasy

Do you create silly scenarios in your head, imagining situations that will never happen? I do.

I imagine myself applying for a job at a Christian company. In the job interview, they ask me some difficult questions: which law in the Bible do you find hardest to obey, and why; and which commandment in the Bible do you find easiest to obey, and why?

How would you answer these questions?

I think the hardest commandment for me to obey is “love your neighbor.” Some of my neighbors are easy to love, especially the ones I don’t see very often. I can love people I never met and donate money to feed them and to send missionaries to them. Other neighbors make obedience to that command much harder for me.

In particular, I find it hard to love Mrs. Dim. The sound of her voice, like the sound of her lawn tools, wracks my nerves. Her negative judgment of me, based on the quality of my lawn care, offends me. Her deliberate insults bother me. Some days, just hearing the sound of her car’s tires on her driveway sets my heart racing with anxiety.

But if I saw her ox or her donkey wandering, I would help bring it back home. If her car was stuck in ice and snow, I would help push it free. If she collapsed in her yard, I would rush to her aid, carrying a cell phone to call 911. If that’s not love, what is?

I find it hard to love Mrs. Dim, in part because she gives me no opportunity to love her. Other people are also hard to love. A message has been traveling around Facebook to the effect that each of us should care as much about the people we see every day as we care about our favorite celebrities. That’s good advice.

Which commandment do I find easiest to obey? I have no trouble not cooking a goat in its mother’s milk. I realize that some legalists have banned all dishes that mix dairy and meat because of the slim chance that one of the animals that provided the meat was the offspring of the cows or goats that were milked. No pizza with both meat and cheese. No cheeseburgers. No casseroles with both meat and dairy. I would struggle to accept those dietary restrictions, if I thought that’s what God intended, but Jesus and the apostles have declared all foods clean.

The original command probably banned a practice of Canaanite religion. The zeal of those who try to observe it in extreme ways today is admirable, but the freedom Christians have is beautiful. We do not have to worry about what we eat or what we drink or what we wear, aside from good stewardship of our bodies. It is easy to follow commandments that have already been fulfilled for us by the righteousness of Christ.

So, do I get the job? J.