Sunday, December 28, 2014

Our Cup Runneth Over, Part 2

Having been to Israel many times, I have witnessed with my own eyes the deep, dark valleys of the Judean hills. In these potentially treacherous gullies (called "wadis" in Hebrew), danger may well lurk for unsuspecting sheep.These recessed valleys might well be valleys of "the shadow of death" for sheep or even their shepherds. Today, these valleys continue to provide cover for wild animals to prowl and pounce upon the unsuspecting. It is not "evil", i.e., moral corruptness, that the sheep must fear there but, rather, the danger of what might await in the unknown darkness.

However, we are reassured that the sheep do not traverse this valley alone. God the shepherd protects His sheep by means of the shepherd's two common tools of the trade -- a heavy rod, to beat off attacking animals, and a staff, to keep the sheep in line and on course. Our Lord uses these tools with his "sheep", even today and offers the same protection and guidance with us as He did with David, three thousand years ago.

*You prepare a table before me in my enemies' presence; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows!*(v. 5).

 David sets aside the shepherd/sheep metaphor of verses 1-4 and in the final two verses switches to s metaphor of host and guest.The Lord is viewed as a host who honors David, the guest, with abundant provisions and hospitality. A private table is laid out before David by his host. Anyone who has partaken of Middle Eastern hospitality knows full well the elaborate and abundant meals that are so typical of that tradition! Course after course is laid out; appetizer upon appetizer, entree upon entree, dessert upon dessert. David's language vividly creates a sense of ongoing and bountiful provision. This is not just one trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet but, rather, a lifestyle as this divinely prepared banquet is never-ending.

Furthermore, David reveals that God is providing this elevated level of blessing in full view of David's enemies. This "feast-ival" is happening right in front of hostile faces and leaves no room for doubt as to whose side the Lord is on. The divine host has spared no expense or amenity.

As was customary in Biblical times, the host anointed the head of his honored guest with oil. David's cup cannot contain the blessing the Lord is pouring out. Can you relate? Have you ever felt that way? The holidays are a splendid opportunity to take a moment and meditate on the times you have felt this way in the past year. What is the level of your cup?Have you viewed it as only being half full? Half empty? Or does it overflow?

*Assuredly, goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever*(v. 6).

David, as a member of the covenant people of God, is confident that God's goodness and love will pursue Him the rest of His life.Note the irony here--instead of David's enemies (v. 5) in hot pursuit, instead, David is pursued by God's love!/Hesed/, the Hebrew word translated, "love" means God's loving loyalty to His people, His steadfast love which never ceases (Lam. 3:22).This level of loving commitment is as equally applicable for God's New Covenant people as it was for Israel. We can run but we can't hide from the relentless pursuit of the Lord's goodness and love for us. Sooner or later it will catch up to us and we will be showered with blessing after blessing.

The imagery David utilizes in Psalm 23, although ancient, is timeless. God is portrayed as both provider and protector and as both shepherd and host. The psalm is particularly concerned with the personal aspect of God's protection and provision for the single, individual sheep. This means you! It has been my purpose to provide a fresh and refreshing study of a very familiar psalm, and it is my prayer for all of you that in the coming year God's goodness will catch up with you and overtake you, with the result that you will dwell in His presence all the days of your life, both in this word and the world to come.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Our Cups Runneth Over, Part 1

The holidays art upon us again! Already! Soon, we will have survived the gastronomical extravagances of Thanksgiving and prepare to face the hustle and shopping frenzies of Christmas and the beginning of another(!) new year. As we sprint through the holiday season, with Christmas lists and New Year's resolutions formulating in our minds, let's take a moment to focus on our relationship with the Lord of both the holidays and our lives.

Our Scripture passage this month is Psalm 23.This is perhaps the most "famous" of all the psalms, and I'm certain that most of our readers are quite familiar with its lyrical poetry. I know of no better Biblical passage to provide a much needed refreshing pause during the busy holidays.

When Psalm 23 comes to mind, I immediately think of it being read from the King James Bible in the velvet tones of Alexander Scourby or some other British actor with rich, dulcet tones. In addition, I also think of funerals. I don't believe I've ever attended a funeral or memorial service without hearing this moving passage. The familiarity we all share concerning this psalm is a testimony to its poetic brilliance and spiritual insight. Through its economical six verses this psalm has managed to communicate the cry of the hearts of millions of God's people for three thousand years.

However, this familiarity with the psalm carries with it the danger that we will take its message for granted. It is only natural that through repeated hearings we may cease actually listening to the words. As we go through the psalm, using my own translation of King David's original Hebrew, let us allow David's intimate words to impact us anew.

*The Lord is my shepherd; I never lack anything*(v. 1).

The initial portrait painted by David is that of a shepherd relating to one of His sheep. In this classic metaphor, David himself is the individual sheep and He identifies the Lord as His personal shepherd. Of interest is that David does not write, "God is my shepherd", or, "the Most High is my shepherd; no, David specifically uses the most sacred and holy name for God, YHWH. From ancient times to modern, Israel has cherished this awesome covenant name of God, the name by which he revealed Himself to Moses. To David's original audience, this name symbolized the Lord's protection and provision for His covenant people, Israel.

The portrait of God as a shepherd was one of the most common illustrations of God's relationship to His people in Scripture (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Is. 13:14; etc.). Indeed, it was also the role that Jesus described Himself as portraying.Millions of believers through the centuries have known Jesus as, "the Good Shepherd."

Since the Lord is the author's shepherd, he will never lack a single thing. (The more familiar translation, "I shall not want", although certainly reading more poetic in English, does not do justice to the nuance of the original Hebrew.) There will never be a time when this sheep will not have enough to eat or drink, shelter from the elements, time to rest, etc.Whatever his needs are, the Lord, as personal shepherd, will provide for them.

*He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside refreshing waters*(v. 2).

Continuing the sheep/shepherd metaphor, David is contentedly relating that the Lord always arranges a safe haven for him to get some rest. David is dependent upon his protector/provider to direct him to green, lush pasture land and calm waters where he can rest and nourish himself in peace and quiet. The author's experience is one to which many of us can relate: when needing respite from the stress and anxiety of our twenty-first century lives, we can turn to the Lord, our good shepherd, to find the peace that passes understanding.

*He restores my vitality. He guides me in straight paths for His name's sake *(v. 3).

David's poetic imagery is much earthier than the familiar King James version would lead us to believe.Since sheep do not have "souls", what the shepherd restores here is the sheep's vitality. In the same way, neither can a sheep be led on a morally "righteous" path.Although the poetry of "being led down righteous paths" is moving, what David is actually conveying is that the shepherd leads the sheep in the most direct, safest and straightest course possible to get to their destination.

The reason the shepherd directs his sheep in this fashion is that His reputation as shepherd is on the line! What manner of shepherd would willingly expose his sheep to unnecessary danger by meandering off-course and taking needless detours before arriving at their final destination? The Lord, YHWH, has pledged to protect and provide for his people. Scripture is clear that the Lord directs the steps of His people. It is true that we all have a tendency, like sheep, to go astray. Nonetheless when we follow our Good Shepherd, He does not lead us in an aimless course, but rather with divine purpose and meaningful direction. We believers are on the fast track and our God's fidelity to his promises is on public display.

*Even though I walk through deepest, darkest valleys, I won't fear any danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me *(v. 4).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jeremiah: Weeping for the Disobedient, Part 3

Welcome to the third installment of our study of the dynamic message of the prophet Jeremiah. We have previously established the uniquely autobiographical tone of the book, concerning the one whose name means both "the Lord exalts" and "the Lord throws down". We have confirmed that Lord's message through his prophet in the first six chapters is indeed to "exalt" the righteous and to "throw down" the disobedient. This month we will continue on through the emotional and vivid journey of Jeremiah's message and see the passionate reaction of a spurned God to His people's faithlessness and rejection of His law. Let's proceed on to this month's invigorating portion of the prophetic word, Jeremiah 7-13.
The prophet in chapters 7-10, standing in the gate of the great Jerusalem Temple, indicts Judah for backsliding away from the Lord. In front of crowds of priests, merchants and worshipers, Jeremiah addresses the issue of true religion, i.e., religion that is acceptable to God. He demonstrates that salvation does not come through ritual or sacrifice or going through any other pious "motions,” but rather comes from knowing the true God and then acting accordingly.
Early in the ministry of Jeremiah, good King Josiah had begun to reform the religious practices of Judah and to restore and purify the worship of God.  He had even initiated a building project to repair the decaying Temple.  Some years later, in the wake of Josiah's religious reformation, the Jewish people were falsely placing their trust in the sacrifice and ritual of the Temple. They believed that although the Lord may have judged the idolatry and rebellion of the northern kingdom of Israel, that there was no way He would allow His holy city of Jerusalem to suffer judgment. Certainly He would not permit the great Sanctuary of Zion to be desecrated. 
Jeremiah proclaims that this is futile wishful thinking. The Lord will not spare a people who have brazenly transgressed a full half of the Ten Commandments (7:9). Pronouncing the judgment that Jesus would later echo over six hundred years later, Jeremiah cries that the house of the Lord has become a den of thieves (7:11). The Temple will provide no shelter for those who have profaned its sanctity.
Jeremiah knew that elaborate sacrifice and ritual were meaningless unless they were accompanied by individual changes of heart. Knowledge was useless without obedience and Jeremiah evoked the message of his prophetic predecessors in calling for social justice and renewed obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. Jeremiah again promises destruction on Judah if there is no repentance. He contrasts God's infinite wisdom with their foolishness. Unless the people of Judah change their ways their sin would be severely punished. Their claim of “peace, peace” when there was no peace would suck them down in a whirlwind of terror; the terror of destruction, death and exile from their homeland (10:17ff). Disaster cannot be averted. The prophet himself identifies and personifies the hopelessness of the imminent judgment to come. The weeping prophet cries out for "the balm in Gilead;" healing medicine to close the gaping wounds of Judah (8:22-9:1).
In chapters 11-13, Jeremiah implores Judah to face the fact that they were grossly violating the Covenant and that dire consequences were about to follow. To say the least, the prophet's message lacked popularity. In fact, he records that there was a plot to muffle his message by assassinating him. Disturbingly, even members of his own family were involved with this heinous scheme (11:18-12:6). However, the Lord revealed the plot and protected his servant and Jeremiah continued to speak the word of the Lord against his people. The message continued to be uncomplicated: those who were obedient were under God's divine protection and those who were disobedient were under His wrath. God and his prophet were both acutely aware that the people would not listen and Jeremiah wept bitterly at the pending disaster for his people.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Jeremiah: Weeping for the Disobedient, Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of our overview of Jeremiah's message. Last month we introduced the prophet himself and the background of his ministry and message. We learned that Jeremiah is one of the most autobiographical books in the entire Bible, and that his name means both "the Lord exalts" and "the Lord throws down". We will see after studying this book that God exalts those who seek Him but does indeed "throw down" entire nations (even Israel) which disobey Him. This series is entitled, "Weeping for the disobedient"; Jeremiah is known as the "weeping prophet", who agonized over the coming judgment on his people. This month we will examine the first six dynamic chapters of the book bearing Jeremiah's name. Before continuing with this month's lesson, please review Jeremiah 1-6. Buckle your seat belts; the prophecy of Jeremiah is a bumpy road!

The first six chapters of Jeremiah comprise his earliest messages to the people of Judah. The first chapter introduces the Lord's call and commissioning of the prophet. We see that God chose Jeremiah from the womb and called Jeremiah to ministry when he was only a youth. Young Jeremiah, like Moses had centuries earlier, claimed incompetence for prophetic ministry. Jeremiah knew the magnitude of the opposition he would face . God, however, promised to be in relationship with Jeremiah and to give him the words to speak.

Basically, the message God gave Jeremiah was concerned with condemning Judah's sinfulness. God appointed his prophet to "uproot, tear down, destroy and overthrow". Judah had forsaken the Lord and served other gods. Jeremiah's message was specifically designed to bring the people to repentance. The Lord also commissioned Jeremiah "to build and to plant". If the Jewish people could be persuaded to repent of their gross idolatry, then there was a chance that the curses promised for their sinfulness in the Mosaic Covenant could be avoided and God's blessings delivered in their stead.

Judah was given two choices. They could either repent and be saved or they could continue in sin and be severely judged. Their idolatry was an abomination to the Lord. However, they hypocritically and blindly continued to believe that all was right between themselves and God. God called them to circumcise their hearts, to truly return to Him. They were to perform radical heart surgery on themselves and cast away their corruption. these were necessary actions in order to actuate their nation's corporate healing, individual's personal restoration and in order for all nations to be saved. It can not be doubted that there was ample justification for God's judgment. From the greatest of the people to the least of them; priest and prophet, king and peasant alike were all sinful and unrepentant. Jeremiah's heart was tormented as he prophesied God's judgment on the people and the land.

The direction from which the judgment was to come would be from the north. It would come swiftly and as a direct consequence of their sin. There was no ambiguity as to whether this referred to the then most powerful nation on earth, Babylon. Those of you readers who happen to be teachers know the educational value of object lessons in order to communicate a topic. The book Jeremiah is a veritable handbook of educational object lessons. The specific object lesson the Lord would use to teach Judah to obey Him would be exile and captivity in a foreign land. As Judah had served other gods, so they would also serve foreigners.

Even so, note that even through this harsh punishment, the Lord promises that a remnant of the Jewish people would survive to appreciate and learn the Divine lesson. Jeremiah's message hearkens to the future messianic age, when Judah and Israel would be reunited in the land. In that age Jerusalem will be exalted again and all nations would serve God. At that time the symbol of God's presence, the ark of the covenant, would be irrelevant because God Himself would be present in the midst of His people.

After reading through these first six chapters we have seen that the book of Jeremiah is an emotional, vivid journey into the hands of an angry and jealous God. Next month we will see the Lord's condemnation through Jeremiah of the corrupt rituals of the Jerusalem Temple and the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Jeremiah: Weeping for the Disobedient, Part 1

I strongly believe that one of the Biblical areas most churches tend to neglect is the writings of the great prophets of Israel. When one contemplates that the prophets comprise over twenty percent of Old and New Testaments combined, it can be seen as a rather large omission on the part of our pastors and teachers. And yet I am hard-pressed to select a more relevant portion of Scripture for our day; a section of the Bible that speaks to our nation's moment in history and our window of opportunity as the church. If we are indeed to be the preserving salt to our decaying culture as our Lord intended, we need the timeless, and timely, message of the prophets.

Let us endeavor, then, to continue together to correct this oversight and supplement our Biblical knowledge by undertaking a brief survey of the prophet Jeremiah. As I've spoken with many people and taught over the years, I have come to the realization that many of us have never even opened the book of Jeremiah. In fact, in many Bibles, the pages are still stuck together! Take a moment before continuing and run a maintenance check — make sure all your Bible's pages in Jeremiah are free and clear!

I have called this study "weeping for the disobedient," and in fact, Jeremiah is often called "the weeping prophet." This is because the main concern of the book is Jeremiah's continuing prophecy of God's judgment against Judah. He denounced Judah in order to warn them to stop being disobedient to the Mosaic Covenant. If they would not return to the Lord, the people of Judah would be exiled. Of course, as we know, the Jewish people did not turn back to the Lord and were exiled to Babylon by the end of Jeremiah's ministry. This is why he wrote the book of Lamentations; because he grieved over the destruction of his people as they had not heeded his message.

Jeremiah is perhaps the most autobiographical book within Scripture. Jeremiah reveals more personal details concerning his life and inner feelings than any other of the prophets. Some of his writing resonates with the stark emotional force of several of the more vivid, personal psalms. The book of Jeremiah is composed of many literary styles, however, ranging from history to prophecy and spans several decades of Jeremiah's life and ministry. One interesting feature of the book is that, unlike most Biblical books, there is a marked lack of chronological arrangement. The author has arranged the material in a logical, progressive pattern, to advance the overarching theme of God's judgment on the disobedient nation. Even in the midst of this theme, however, the pattern of Jeremiah's work, like other Old Testament prophets, also encompasses the tempering of final judgment with the promise of their eventual restoration to the land.

The Hebrew name "Jeremiah" means, "the Lord exalts" or "the Lord throws down". This seemingly contradictory, dual nature of the name can be seen in the message of the book. The prophet grew up in a priestly home, and the book records that he was called to be the Lord's messenger while still a child. He was appointed by God to "pluck up and break down, destroy and overthrow, and also to build and plant". How's that for a mission statement?! Jeremiah's message was primarily of judgment to a disobedient and unfaithful nation. However, it was also one of hope, comfort and promise of restoration with their God, Who had promised never to completely reject His chosen.

The historical period Jeremiah encompasses is that of the book of Kings of Judah and Israel, approximately 600 BC. You will remember that at this time, several centuries after David and Solomon ruled a united Israel, the nation had split into northern and southern kingdoms. The southern kingdom is called Judah, and it is here that our weeping prophet ministered. Judah's gross disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant, their rampant idolatry, injustice and sinfulness, occurred within a context of religious renewal under the good King Josiah. In the aftermath of one of the most exciting times of actual religious reformation came a disastrous period of rebellion against the Lord. This is the backdrop for the prophet's dramatic ministry and message of impending doom on a hypocritical nation.

Now that we have laid our groundwork for our study of Jeremiah's message, I'm afraid I will have to leave you in suspense until next month. Between now and then, though, be sure and read through the first ten chapters of the book. I know that the prophets can seem a little intimidating, but just jump in — the water's fine! Next month we will see what the weeping prophet had to say to a backsliding nation.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Feast of Shavuot

The Feast of Shavuot, or Pentecost, was celebrated this year during the first weekend of June. It marks both the anniversary of the giving of the Law to the Jewish nation and the giving of the Spirit to the Jewish believers; a celebration of both the theophany at Mount Sinai and of the indwelling at Mount Moriah.

Pentecost is one of the “big three” pilgrimage festivals, when, as during Passover and Tabernacles, every Jewish male is commanded to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. In Deut. 16:9-10, the holiday is designated Hag Hashavuot – The festival of weeks. It is so named because seven weeks, or fifty days, are counted down from the week of Passover.

Although not specified in Scripture, Pentecost came to be understood as the day on which the Torah was given to Israel. In fact, the central Scripture reading for this holiday is Exodus 19–20. On Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to tell Israel that He has chosen them to be His people and to enter into covenant with Him. They are to be a holy nation of priests (Ex. 19:4-6).

A priest, by definition, is someone who has special access to God, an intermediary between God and man. A whole kingdom of priests makes intercession not for one individual, but on behalf of entire nations. Israel was called to be a nation of priests and to minister to the other nations, the Gentiles.

In Ex. 19:9, God visibly manifested Himself on Sinai and communicated to Moses from within a dense cloud. This publicly established Moses as the intercessor between God and the nation of Israel. Moses was to be the only one who could speak to God face‑to‑face. The people needed to have confidence in their intercessor. To that end, the Lord firmly validated Moses’ authority in the eyes of Israel.

Following the dramatic, awesome manifestation of God’s presence on Sinai as He thundered the Ten Commandments to His people, with accompanying lightning, smoke, fire-flashes, supernatural shofar blowing, and earth quaking, the people of Israel were a little shaken themselves. They told Moses that they had experienced all of God’s manifest presence they could stand! Hearing from God proved to be too intense an experience; they feared sensory and emotional overload and asked Moses to be God’s spokesman, to be a “middleman” between God and Israel (Ex. 20:18-19). Moses ascended the mountain to commune with God and disappeared in the midst of the thick, dark cloud which was God’s manifest presence.

But Moses disappeared for forty days, and no one had heard from him since he had disappeared within the dense fog. In their fear, the people built themselves a more tangible, far less traumatic representation to worship — a golden calf.

When Moses returned, he condemned the nation for their grievous sin. Moses, in holy indignation, destroyed the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. He instructed his own tribe, the Levites, to kill the idolaters. The Levites struck down 3,000 Israelites before God mercifully restrained them from decimating the nascent nation.

As discussed in the pages of Acts, God directed the sequel to the events of Exodus some 1500 years after Sinai.

On Pentecost, 33 A.D., we find the twelve apostles, like all Jews in Jerusalem, in the Temple courts awaiting a wonderful communal festival meal, an international Jewish picnic.

Acts 2:2-4 describes strange, supernatural manifestations that suddenly envelop the disciples. The Spirit’s presence was marked by three similar signs also experienced at Sinai: violent wind, fire, and supernatural sounds. The Holy Spirit, the Ruach Hakodesh, had dramatically arrived.

For the Holy Spirit to be given on Pentecost would have been appreciated by a Jewish audience. The anniversary of the divine gift of Torah is the most eloquent of moments for the revelation of the divine Spirit. This is the logical sequel to the Sinai experience. ­­­­The God who came near on Sinai has now come ultimately near as He indwells believers with His Spirit.

The response to these manifestations and to Peter’s powerful message was that 3,000 Jewish people came to faith that morning. While we should not imply that God uses a “holy calculator,” it does seem that He’s balanced the book of life pretty nicely. Three thousand Jews were killed in judgment at the Sinai rebellion when the Law was given; in that case the Law literally killed. But here, 1500 years later, the Spirit gave life. God restored the three thousand Israelites removed from the equation following the gift of the Torah.

This sequel to Sinai was necessary because Exodus 19-20 leaves no doubt that external experiences - even the most awesome ones such as the miraculous escape from Egypt and the thunderous voice of God himself shaking Mt Sinai - ultimately do not change lives. Lives can only be transformed from the inside out.

Ultimate life change which results in obedience can only be accomplished by the Lord taking up residence in His temple. Not the temple in Jerusalem, which no longer stands, but that temple that is each one of us frail, imperfect men, women and children. Individual Jews and Gentiles alike are transformed into a community of saints by the receipt of a gift – the indwelling Torah.

Pentecost reminds us that God has personally engraved His righteous standards on our hearts (Jer. 31:31) by His Spirit. He has given His Spirit to permanently indwell us, enabling immediate and direct access to the Father. He has provided the perfect Intercessor: a great High Priest, Jesus, the incarnation of Torah (John 1:1). Unlike Moses or the Levitical priests, this intermediary is no mere “middleman.” God’s presence was manifest on Sinai within an ominous and distant cloud. On Pentecost, God gave us His Spirit so that His presence can be more intimate than the very air we breathe. We now have the eternal, abiding presence of Immanuel, God with us.