I can’t how many times I have been reminded and drawn to the words Paul penned in his letter to the Philippians about Jesus (Phil: 2-6-8):
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Scholars tell us these words were an early creed. The creed that Paul recited to the people in Philippi was probably familiar to them, as it was intended to be recited. That is the nature of creeds: they are meant to be repeated.
Thus, I suppose, the fact that I find myself drawn over and over again to the Philippian creed is apt. It carries significant and timeworn meaning to me, as it certainly must have done for Paul and and the early followers of Jesus to be considered so worth repeating.
I found myself thinking again about these words today as I wrapped up another blog post (Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness). As often is the case when meditating on Scripture, meanings deepen, grow and broaden. The Philippian creed takes on new meaning for me in light of the exercise of comparing and harmonizing the “God of the Old Testament” with Jesus (another theme I have focused on in the past).
In Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness, I was thinking about the fact that Moses and the people of Israel were distanced from God – such is the fate of all people in our natural, created and sinful state. In this piece, I want to explore what that means (and why it is the case), and I want to explore why our perception of God changes in the revelation of Jesus.
I am reading through the Bible chronologically. By the way, the “books” of the Bible are only roughly chronological. Following the chronology closely requires jumping around a bit. I didn’t realize to what extent that is true before taking this journey that I am on.
Presently, I am right at the point where Moses stands on top of a mountain (east of Jericho, on the edge of the plains of Moab) to survey the land that God promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Moses dies right before they go in.
Before he dies, though, he reminds the people of all that has transpired. He reminds them how God delivered them out of their slavery in Egypt and went with them every step along the way. The reminder of God’s presence was with them by fire at night and cloud during the day.
God revealed Himself in dramatic ways to these people and instructed them through Moses down to very particular details for establishing a relationship with God through the Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant and the offerings they were to make through the intermediaries of the Levite priests, among other things. They had 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with God’s presence continually among them in visual demonstration and ritual reminders.
Reading through this history of God’s interaction with the people He chose to lead eventually into a land He promised many, many generations before through a modern, intellectual lens can be unnerving. The skepticism of the age echoes in my mind and unsettles my heart.
Of particular note are the times we read that people are stricken dead for ignoring or refusing to follow the instruction. For instance, the Sons of Korah, the sons of Moses’ cousin Korah led a revolt against Moses. They and all the people who followed them died when God caused “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah”. (Numbers 16:1-33)
Incidences like this prompt a person of modern sensibilities to wonder, “Why would a good God do such a thing?!” It seems Draconian.
The stakes were high for these people, and even less intentional “slips” were sometimes met with the same fate. It’s hard to imagine living in those circumstances, especially in light of the grace that seems to color everything that Jesus said and did.
If the phrase, “mic drop”, had been coined in the First Century, Jesus would have cornered the market. One of those mic drop moments occurred the day his ministry began.
Picture this. Jesus walks into the church (synagogue) where he grew up. Everyone knows him well. They all knew him because he grew up in the community. Nazareth was a small-town place, so they knew him very well.
Jesus wasn’t a stranger to the church. It was the church where he grew up and went to Sunday school. He was still very much part of the church community as an adult. When he attended church on that Sunday morning and stood up to read, he was doing what he had done many, many times before. Only this time would be different.
Jesus had been making quite the stir lately. His cousin, John the Baptist, was well-known for his unrelenting, uncompromising message about the coming of the one, the Messiah. (Luke 3:4-6)
Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.
Cousin John was literally quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 as if it were coming true out there in the countryside, outside of town where he spent most of his time. Crowds of people made their way out to hear him, but he wasn’t very popular among the church leaders. In fact, they rather despised him, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. He even called them a “brood of vipers”!
Until recently, Jesus seemed more respectable than that. Though they were cousins, it wasn’t like they hung out together. They were each keenly devoted to their Hebrew lessens, Bible reading and participation in church from a young age, but John seemed to “go off the rails” as he got older.
John the Baptist was out there in the countryside baptizing people. Lots of people. He was attracting quite the crowd talking about one who was coming who was more powerful than he. Not that he had any power, really. That was the crazy part: he lived like a homeless person, eating bugs and shunning even the modest comforts that most people had become used to.
And John was attracting a less than reputable crowd too, including tax collectors. Tax collectors were sell-outs to the Roman occupiers, collecting Roman taxes from the people, often collecting more than they should, lining their own pockets. They were a unsavory and despised lot. Tax collectors were worse than the Romans. The fact that John was attracting tax collectors didn’t speak well for his efforts.
But, the common people loved John. They practically worshiped him. This was particularly galling to the faithful leaders in the churches who had given their lives in service to the Lord. Who did he think he was?!
Of course, many were the so-called modern prophets who came, claiming to be the Messiah spoken of old, stirring up the crowds, creating a tenuous hope that was always dashed when the Romans got tired of the charade. John was more or less harmless out there where he had retreated.
John was just like the ones who came before him, though his message was different. He was bold like the others, but in a different way. He wasn’t stirring people up against the Romans, like the others did. In fact, John seemed more interested in criticizing the religious community than the Romans, which hardly endeared him to them.
When Jesus attended church that day, the word was all over Galilee that Jesus had gone out to meet John, and it was apparently quite a meeting by the reports that were circulating. Jesus even let John baptize him. In fact, he insisted on it, and this is where things got a little sideways, if you could believe the reports.
People said they heard a loud voice. Some said it was the voice of God. Others said that a dove swooped down and landed right on his head. People were saying Jesus was a prophet. Some seemed to think he was the Messiah that John had been talking about. It seems that Jesus had gotten caught up in John’s delusion, and he was starting to believe it.
When Jesus stood up to read that day, these things were going through their minds. They knew something was up, but they weren’t at all prepared for what he was going to do.
I am reading through the Bible again this year, but I am reading it in chronological order using the You Version Bible app. I am not sure how old I was when I realized that the books of the Old Testament are not in chronological order and that events in one book overlap events in other books. But that isn’t the point of this blog piece.
I am in Leviticus right now. The struggle is real! So many laws! So many times the text goes over the same things, or so it seems, but I am trying to maintain focus, and I am asking the Spirit for help in understanding what is going on, what God is saying, what He is foreshadowing, etc.
The last couple of days I have been reading the instructions for all the various types of offerings (animal sacrifices if we want to be blunt), and I have just gotten into laws for ceremonial cleansing for various “leprosies” and other “unclean” conditions. It can seem so mundane, archaic, maybe even naive and unenlightened to a modern mind.
For instance, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that all kinds of skin conditions were labeled leprosy. When we read in the English Standard Version about leprosy in houses, we realize that it’s probably talking about mold. (Some translations call it mold in fact.) The vocabulary and understanding of the Bronze Age mind was limited. It’s no wonder the Richard Dawkins of the world, reading these passages with a 21st Century mind, scoff at first blush.
But, underneath that temptation to scoff is a heavy dose of pride and lack of appreciation for what God is doing in the information and instruction that He was inspiring Moses to write in these passages. God was speaking to them in their language and according to their understanding to set the stage for a global plan that would be unveiled over many centuries and millennia that, even now in the 21st Century, is unfolding and being revealed.
Jesus is the key that unlocks the door to the Old Testament Scriptures.
I don’t claim to have all the answers or all the insights, though I am reminded of the words of Jesus to the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40) For the scoffer, Jesus might have said, “You don’t study the Scriptures because you think that they are mythical superstition that has no life. Those Scriptures testify about me, and you refuse to come to me to have life!”
Jesus is the key that unlocks the door to the Old Testament Scriptures. But, I still struggle sometimes to find the relevance, significance or meaning in some of these passages. I’ll be honest. I am sure I’m not alone.
One thought comes back to me today as was I reading about the ceremonial cleansing rituals. A thought that goes back many years, but with a new twist today. It has occurred to me before that many of the cleansing laws, laws about what animals they can eat and not eat, and so on, acted like in place of our modern knowledge of germs, disease and other health dangers that the people in that time simply didn’t know. I have long been struck by that thought, but I had never made the additional connection that strikes me with significance today.
This blog post is inspired by today’s sermon where I go to church. The sermon was the last in a series about how followers of Christ are called to have an impact on the world. The text is out of Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:13-14 ESV
The themes here are salt and light. God calls His people to be salt and light in the world. These should be familiar concepts, but it always helps to dive a little deeper into the things we think we already know, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded and encouraged to live them out.
I will preface my thoughts with a personal story I have told before. In high school and college, I found in myself a yearning to go off in the woods and retreat from society. That feeling might have been originally inspired by reading My Side of the Mountain when I was in grade school.
My Side of the Mountain was about a young boy who left his home for the woods of the Catskill Mountains where he took up residence in a hollow tree. He fended for himself in the quiet and solitude of nature, taming a peregrine falcon in the process, in a very idealistic depiction of life alone in the Eden of nature.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that I was very drawn to Henry David Thoreau. That kind of contemplative life lived alone in the peace and abundance of the outdoors was alluring to me. Even after I became a believer in college, my personal dream included peace, quiet, solitude and nature.
I am still drawn to that, but God took me through a college class in which I realized that God was calling me to the noise, bustle and busyness of society – despite my reluctance. It seemed like a personal paradigm shift to me, and it was; but it really wasn’t as profound a revelation (or shouldn’t have been) as it seemed at the time.
I won’t bore you will the details here, but I realized that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) run from the encroachment of “civilized” society on that idyllic vision of personal utopia. I needed to turn and face it. I realized God was calling me to engage the world and not run from it.
Throughout history, religious believers of various kinds formed groups that cloistered themselves from the world. From monasteries to modern communes, the tendency to want to run from the grit and grime and dirt of humanity and human institutions is a strong idealist and religious theme, but not one, it seems, God wants most of us to pursue.
That is because He calls us to be salt and light.
As I listened to the sermon today, it dawned on me that salt is only effective when it comes in contact with food. It’s purpose in drawing out the flavor of food and in preserving it can only be realized when salt is in close contact with it. Salt can’t flavor or preserve food it doesn’t touch. Continue reading “On Being Salt (and Light) in the World”→
Job was a righteous man the Book of Job says in the opening chapter and verse. (Job 1:1) But was he really? It seems that Job was very well regarded in his community, taking a prominent place (at the gate where the wise men sat). Job thought he was righteous and believed that everyone saw him that way too: as a righteous man above reproach. (Job 32:7-17)
Job was also a very wealthy man. He had a large family. He was proud of his good fortune, which he believed was the result of his righteous living. He even offered sacrifices for his children in case they sinned. (Job 1:5) I get the impression he didn’t think they had sinned, but he wanted to get a jump on it if they did.
Job reminds me of the kind of person who lives in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. The kind of person who has a perfect wife and perfect children who got good grades, got along with each other and always did the right things in their parents’ eyes. The kind of person who listened to his parents and other authorities growing up, was the example the coaches pointed to on the athletic field, got good grades, went to a good college, got a good job, didn’t smoke or drink, went to church on Sunday and lived a good and secure life.
Job was probably the envy of all who knew him, and he was probably insufferable because of it. It seems Job was righteous, at least compared to other people. Job was also righteous in his own eyes (Job 32:1). And that’s the issue: Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness.
Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness
Job reminds me of the kind of person who was good and proud of it. Job clearly believed that his goodness was the source of all the good things he accomplished and acquired in his life. Job believed in God, of course, like a good Catholic or Protestant Christian. Job would have been a good American, a self-made man, equal parts proud of good living and proud of the wisdom of his belief in God. He would probably be a proud patriot too, if he was alive today.
Scripture is clear, however, that no man is righteous before God. (Romans 3:10) None! Job may have been righteous compared to other people, but no one can stand up to God on his own merit.
Jesus eliminated all doubt on the subject when he said, “No one is good but God.” (Mark 10:18) To bring that point home, Jesus challenged the holy men of his day (men like Job) saying: it’s not enough to refrain from murder – you sin when you are angry at your brother, insult him and call him a fool (Matt. 5:21-22); and it’s not enough to refrain from committing the act of adultery – you commit adultery in your heart when you lust after a woman (Matt. 5:27-28).
Then Jesus really got down to the bottom line: if you really want to be good, then don’t just be just (Matt. 5:38) – be merciful and gracious and loving:
“[I]f anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt. 5:39-42)
If you really want to be good, then don’t just love your family, friends and people who are good to you:
“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'” (Matt. 5:44-48)
The statement in the first chapter and verse of Job, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It isn’t true. It can’t be true, because we know that no man is righteous before God, but that statement sets the stage for the entire Book of Job. It isn’t meant to be taken as true, but it is the way Job viewed himself.
Job’s view of himself a a righteous man colored Job’s view of the world. His belief that he was righteous defined who he thought he was. He attributed all of his success to it.
As we will see in the next blog post, Job viewed others through the lens of his own self-righteousness. We see this in his friends who mirrored to Job the advice Job had given others. Now that the tables were turned, Job and his friends would come to realize how cold and hollow that advice really is, and they would come to see God in a different way.
We tend to think that all of the misfortunes of other people are brought on by their own bad decisions, bad actions and bad living, but that isn’t always the case. We tend to think our fortunes are the result of our good decisions, good actions and good living, but that isn’t necessarily true either.
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)
I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”
The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.
I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?
Do I protest too much?
I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.
Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.
When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?
As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.
It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong, as he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.
Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.
Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. We think like that, don’t we? Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?
Of course, that is pride talking.
Would Able have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? We don’t know. We can’t really say.
Did Abel just get lucky? Did he happen just to offer a better sacrifice. Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but I doubt his assumptions were very good.
Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. I kind of doubt it, though. If Cain had known what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, I don’t think he would have taken his anger out on Abel. Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better.
Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope, and he warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.
If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. Our own perspective on our circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.
If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.
If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.
We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!
Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.
Where else would we turn anyway?
In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh foe us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.
This world also isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an able.
Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.