Lessons from Moses of Faith, the Lack Thereof and the Purposes of God

Moses knew better, but his own emotions got the best of him.

Egypt, Sinai, Mount Moses: view from road on which pilgrims climb the mountain of Moses

The passage in Numbers 20:1‭-‬13, which I quote below (in the NIV), has puzzled me in the past. I have been unsure that I understand it well, and it has bothered me, perhaps, as a result.

As with many things I don’t understand well, I often “shelve” them for later consideration. Later is now, as I have just read through the passage again in my yearly journey through the Bible. This is the setting:

“In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.”

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, had just died. Not much is said about her death, but Moses and Aaron must have been grieving. That grief on top of the contention of the Israelites they were trying to lead according to God’s direction, and the harsh circumstances of the desert must have weighed heavily on them.

“Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord!'”

I believe their “brothers” who “fell before the Lord” is a reference to Korah who led a rebellion against Moses. (Numbers 16) Korah challenged Moses and his right to lead the Israelites. Korah was not happy with his clan’s roll in caring for the Tent of Meeting, and he was basically saying, “Who put you in charge?!”

Moses set up a demonstration before the people for God to identify who was in charge. When Korah and his clan burned incense, the ground rumbled. Moses told the people to back away from Korah and his tribe of rebels, and the ground swallowed them up.

Not long afterward the wanderings of the Israelites brought them to the Desert of Zin. These Israelites were so angry and distraught about the conditions in the desert that they wished they had died with Korah in rebellion against God.

The desert conditions must have been pretty inhospitable! Moses was losing the hearts of the people, and they were turning against him… again! The people said:

“‘Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!’” 

Of course, Moses was God’s man, as was demonstrated graphically in the Korah situation, but the continued to take their dissatisfaction over their circumstances out on Moses. Instead of seeing God at work in their midst, they saw only Moses, and they blamed him for their situation.

“Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.”

Moses and Aaron knew the real story. They knew that the people were really finding fault with God, not Moses or Aaron. They were intimate with God and knew well that God was not to be trifled with.

The glory of God appeared to them. God’s presence should have given them boldness to stand resolute on their confidence in God’s direction. They should have not have had no doubt that God was with them. Right?

At the same time, the Israelites should have had no doubt that God was with them, as well. God’s presence went with them also, going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They had seen the demonstrations of the power and holiness of God at the Red Sea, at Mount Sinai and in the ground swallowing up Korah and his band of rebels.

What more did they need to see to understand that God was with them?

Yet, they did not trust that God had their back. God had given them manna every morning, and God gave them so much meat when they demanded meat that it came out of their nostrils. Yet, they continually grumbled and complained and wished they were back in Egypt.

Something had to be done to put down the unrest!

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.’” (Emphasis added)

God told Moses to take the staff and speak to the rock. The instructions were simple and pretty clear.

“So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’” 

Moses started out all right. He took the staff as he was commanded, but things begin to go off the rails after that. Moses was obviously perplexed that the people were so angry, and he was taking it personally. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses turned to the people and spoke to them, and he was full of the wrath he felt for them in that moment.

It’s hard for me to blame Moses for feeling this way. I am sure I would take it personally also. It was personal! The people were obstinate. What more could Moses do to demonstrate that God put him in charge?! Yet, they continued to challenge Moses and blame him for their unsatisfactory conditions.

Moses knew better, but his own emotions got the best of him. He took their opposition personally, and his anger led him to forget God’s instructions to him:

“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.”

The result was good, right? But, Moses didn’t do what God commanded him. God told him to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses spoke to the people, and he struck the rock with his staff. Thus, God responded accordingly:

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.'”

I don’t completely understand the significance of these things. God’s response seems a bit harsh in light of the faithfulness of Moses before Pharaoh, in receiving the delivering the Ten Commandments, and in putting up with the grumbling, and complaining, and the obstinance, and waywardness of the Israelites.

Keep in mind that Moses grew up in luxury and privilege in Pharaoh’s household. The Israelites were “his people”, but only by genetics. Moses put up with a lot with these people he didn’t grow up with and didn’t even know very well, but clearly, his disobedience to God was more significant than I have appreciated.

Continue reading “Lessons from Moses of Faith, the Lack Thereof and the Purposes of God”

Why Should We Not Want to Make a Deal With God?

If you are bargaining with God for some immediate relief in your life, your view of God is too small.

Photo by Peter Avildsen

I have been reading through parts of Exodus. Today, I continued reading about Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh hardened his heart to the plea of Moses to let the Israelites to travel three days into the wilderness to meet with God, and Pharaoh did not take the signs Moses performed to heart.

Up to this point, all the signs Moses and Aaron performed Pharaoh’s magicians matched. Aaron threw his staff to the ground, and the magicians did the same. It didn’t matter that Aaron’s staff swallowed up the magicians’ staffs. The magicians answered what Moses and Aaron were presenting, and Pharaoh would not listen to them.

Moses turned the water of the Nile to blood. Pharaoh’s magicians did the same, “and Pharaoh’s heart became hard”, it says. (Ex. 7:22) He turned, walked away into his palace, and he didn’t take it to heart.

Aaron stretched out his arm with his staff and caused frogs to emerge all over the land. The magicians did the same, and Pharaoh was not moved, at least not right away.

Later, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and asked to them to “Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away…, and I will let your people go….” (Ex 8:8) Moses did it, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen….” (Ex. 8:15)

Moses responded by having Aaron summon a plague of gnats. This time the magicians could not duplicate what Moses did. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But, “Pharaoh’s heart was hard….” (Ex. 19)

At the former demonstrations, the Pharaoh’s heart became hard, or he hardened his heart. After the plague of flies, however, the Pharaoh’s heart was hard.

Pharaoh’s heart was already hard at this point. He had been hardening his heart all along, but Pharaoh’s heart was already hard by the time Moses and Aaron summoned the plague of flies and the plague of flies “ruined the land”.

Even though Pharaoh’s heart was hard at that point, “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.'” (Ex. 8:25)

Sometimes even people with hard hearts toward God will have moments in which they seem to believe, or seem to repent, but there is no heart change. They desire to be delivered from their dire circumstances, but nothing more. It isn’t really a true change of heart, and it doesn’t last.

Moses insisted that the people be allowed to leave the land and go into the wilderness. “Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to offer sacrifices to the Lord your God in the wilderness, but you must not go very far. Now pray for me.” (Ex. 8:28)

We make deals with God. We bargain for relief from the pain or difficulty that brings us finally to God, but we don’t mean it. We are “forced” to the point of praying to God as a last resort, but we don’t come willingly, and our hearts have not changed.

This was the case with Pharaoh:

“Then Moses left Pharaoh and prayed to the Lord, and the Lord did what Moses asked. The flies left Pharaoh and his officials and his people; not a fly remained. But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” (Ex. 8:‬30‭-‬32)

Pharaoh didn’t understand that the God of Moses and Aaron is the God who gives all people life and breath. He saw “their” God as a means to an end: a possible solution to the immediate relief he desired. Pharaoh didn’t perceive God as his God too!

We are often tempted in the same way to view the Bible, church, and God Himself as a means to our owns temporary ends. We aren’t looking down the road. We don’t appreciate that the universe, this earth, our world and our very beings are wholly dependent on God!

Once we get the relief we are looking for from the immediate difficulty we are going through, we harden our hearts again. We no longer take it to heart. There is no lasting change. We go about our own lives as if God does not deserve our hearts.

This is a human tendency we all have. All people can be “religious” at times. Many people go to church on Sunday, or once in a while, maybe on special holidays, but they live in Egypt the rest of the time.

We get religious sometimes in the same way that we might carry a rabbit’s foot or consult a medium. We want something. We want good fortune and good health.

God should not have to make a deal with you. If you are bargaining with God for some immediate relief in your life, your view of God is too small, and you are missing the mark!

Continue reading “Why Should We Not Want to Make a Deal With God?”

Why did Paul Go to Corinth with a Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power?

“My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power….”

Ruins of Ancient Corinth in Peloponnese, Greece

Over the couple weeks that I was paying attention to what happened at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY (and other places now too), and considering the people criticizing it or cautioning us about it, I have prayerfully considered the matter. I have written about the “Asbury revival” a handful of times, so I am not going to rehash what I have written.

I continue to mull over the seeming positive development of 20-somthings worshiping, publicly confessing sins, praying for each other, and exalting the name of Jesus while people have been critical of what was happening and questioning God’s involvement in it. At the same, I have been drawn in my daily Bible reading to the concern Paul expressed in most of his letters for unity in the body of Christ.

This focus that has been impressed on me as I read the Bible and meditate on it predates the Asbury thing by many months, but it is directly relevant to it. The lack of unity in the American Church stands in sharp contrast to Paul’s emphasis on unity in the body of Christ. Our lack of unity has been publicly demonstrated in the vitriolic responses to the “He gets us” commercials aired during the Super Bowl and now to the Asbury “revival”.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is all about unity and order in the local body of believers in Corinth. At the same time, the Corinthian Christians seemed to lack no shortage of what we might call the “outpouring” or “movement” of the Holy Spirit. None of Paul’s letters deals more with “the spiritual gifts” than this one.

I need to comment that the free exercise of the spiritual gifts, and God moving in peoples’ hearts and minds do not necessarily go hand in hand, as we will see, Paul also did not discourage the Corinthians from using the spiritual gifts.

This is the problem, though: while the spiritual gifts were demonstrably evidenced in the Corinthian church, they Corinthians were not producing an abundance of the fruits of the Spirit among. This lack of the fruit of the Holy Spirit was the problem in Corinth.

As a key indicator of that lack of fruit, Paul focused on their quarrelsome cliques: one group followed Paul, another group followed Apollos, and other groups of people claimed to follow Cephas, or simply Christ. That local body was being torn apart by arguments over who they should follow and other aspects of the Christian life, like whether they should be eating food sacrificed to idols. Meanwhile, they were ignoring other problems in their midst like sexual sin, relational issues, and other things.

They exhibited the spiritual gifts abundantly. Those exhibitions of spiritual gifting might be called today a “movement” or “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit was lacking. Whether the Spirit was “moving” or people were simply exercising gifts given by the spirit are two different things.

I have experienced that incongruity myself. A lack of harmony between a hyper focus on the spiritual gifts and a lack of unity, faithfulness, maturity, and holiness in the local body of Christ has caused many to pull back from Charismatic and Pentecostal forms of Christian expression. Me included.

We sometimes fail to appreciate the difference between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We think that a demonstration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit means that we are blessed by God, and everything we do is approved by God, but that isn’t necessarily true.

If those two things went hand in hand, Paul would have had no issues with the Corinthian church, because the Corinthians experienced a liberal “outpouring of the Spirit” characterized by prophecy, speaking in tongues, miracles, etc. Though the Corinthian church was demonstrably Charismatic (or Pentecostal), it was woefully lacking in unity and personal holiness.

Having acknowledged that, we need to notice that Paul’s issue with the Corinthians wasn’t (primarily) their misuse (or ineffective use) of the spiritual gifts. The more serious concern was their prideful, boastful, quarrelsome lack of unity and toleration of sin in their midst.

Something else occurs to me that I hadn’t noticed before, and this is the focus of my writing today. The Corinthians were Greek, of course. Paul famously says to the Corinthians that Greeks demand wisdom, while Jews (his people) demand signs.

Both of these things are forms of error, but the Corinthians, being Greek, were particularly prone to err along the lines of their particular, cultural bias. They valued discourse, argument and persuasive oratory. Thus, Paul said,

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.”

1 Corinthians 2:1‭-‬5 CSB

Paul says he did not come with brilliance of speech or with persuasive words. He came with “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. As I will show below, Paul’s focus is on the Greek tendency to err in demanding “wisdom”, not the Jewish tendency to demand “signs” (though the Corinthians experienced no shortage of “signs”). This is interesting to me in the light of the Asbury University phenomenon.

Continue reading “Why did Paul Go to Corinth with a Demonstration of the Spirit’s Power?”

Echoes of Paul in John and the Priority of Love over Knowledge

Paul and John had very different encounters with Jesus, but they both speak of knowledge and love in similar ways.

I listened to a podcast this week in which the topic of discussion was the difference between John’s Gospel and the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Some people say the Gospels are so different that they couldn’t have all been written by people who followed Jesus. People say that John’s Gospel, which was written latest in time, includes theological progression and embellishment.

NT Wright, on the other hand, points out that John’s words echo words found in the other Gospels, though it is very different in its emphasis. He also observes that since John’s Gospel was written latest, he would have had access to the other Gospels. There would have been no need for him to cover the same ground the other Gospels already covered.

Wright’s observation about John not wanting to cover ground already covered by the other Gospels, or not wanting to cover it in the same way, makes sense to me. John also had more time to think over and chew on the words of Jesus because he lived long, and he wrote his Gospel later than the others.

John’s Gospel is more philosophical and theologically developed in an obvious sort of way (not that the other Gospels are lacking in theology). Did he embellish on what Jesus said? We don’t know. Would embellishment make it any less “scripture”? I don’t think so.

John was one of the three apostles who spent the most time with Jesus and was most intimate with him. He was part of the inner circle of disciples who were closest with Jesus. He may have gained more insight into what Jesus said in that intimacy and the luxury of a long life to reflect on what Jesus said than the other Gospel writers.

I probably like John’s Gospel the best because it is so philosophical, beginning with some of the most poignant words found in writing anywhere:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-4

Fast forward a few days: A friend texts me and a group of people a Bible verse or two every morning. I always read it as part of my morning Bible reading. Sometimes the things that I am reading tie together with other things I am listening to and thinking about.

That was the case this morning. The verses sent in the text reminded me of NT Wright’s statements about the echoes of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in John’s Gospel. The verses in the text from my friend this morning are as follows:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

1 John 3:2‭-‬3 NIV

These words are not from the gospel of John, but from the first epistle of John. As I read them, I immediately heard echoes of the words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which was likely written earlier than John. In that letter, Paul said:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:10-12 (NIV)

1 Corinthians 13, of course, is the famous “love chapter”, ending with the statement: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) John’s first letter is all about love. Just as Paul focuses on love in 1 Corinthians 13, John focuses on love in 1 John, and both of them speak in that context about the present limitations on our knowledge and knowing more fully when we see Christ face to face.

The statement that caught my attention is that we do not know what we will be until Christ appears; then, we will be like him, and we will see him as he is. These words of John echo Paul’s words when he says for now we know in part, but then we will know as we are fully known. Now we see only as a reflection in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face and we shall know fully even as we are fully known.

The similarities between these passages are striking to me., and all the more that they are both spoken in the context of love. They emphasize transformation that will take place in us in the context of our relationship to God. They emphasize that we see and know only partially in this life, and we cannot see or know exactly who God is or exactly what God has created us to be at this point.

Both passages speak to a future in which we shall know fully even as we are fully known (Paul) and see God as He actually is (John).

Now, though, we do not see clearly. The King James says we see only as “through a glass darkly”. I am struck by the implications of these things: both the fact that John echoes Paul, and Paul echoes John, and by the emphasis on love because we do not know what we do not yet know.

Continue reading “Echoes of Paul in John and the Priority of Love over Knowledge”

A New (Old?) Take on Inerrancy

The Bible is the book God wanted us to have, and He wanted us to have it the way it is.

I did the research and wrote a thesis in college in support of the concept that Scripture is inerrant. I have mentioned this before. I was not a religion major in college only because I did not turn in my thesis.

I didn’t turn it in because I was having a hard time getting to where I wanted to go using Scripture and the scholarly work that was done up to the early 1980’s. I could not support my thesis with integrity, so I shelved it and did not return to the subject for almost 40 years!

I had a high view of Scripture then, and I have a high view of Scripture now. I read the Bible daily for personal guidance and edification. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God (which I can support from Scripture itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17))

I believe, like the Moody Bible Institute, that the Old and New Testaments are divine revelation from God. The original autographs were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit. The revelation is God’s self-disclosure recorded in human language. God is the source of it.

I stop, though, in going further to say that every word is true, and the Bible is free from error. The very statement begs the questions: which version? Written in which language? And other questions.

I agree with the Moody statement that the Bible is the supreme source of our knowledge of God and of salvation through Jesus Christ. I agree that it is “our indispensable resource for daily living”. I agree, also, that humans are left to interpret the Bible, and our interpretation is guided by “our reception and understanding of that which God revealed”.

I stop short of saying that God “recorded” Scripture, because we all know that it was written down by men. This difference distinguishes the Bible from the Quran and the Book of Mormon, both of which are claimed to have been dictated to men in a trance-like state.

I agree that “revelation is a divine act”, and “interpretation is a human responsibility”. I agree that our interpretation is fallible, but I must admit the possibility that the writing down of the Bible may, also, be fallible.

I say these things not to argue with anyone about the reliability of Scripture, and I do not desire to make a mountain out of a molehill. I go far down the road on my confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture. I have written on the subject many times, and I have even given presentations on the topic.

I also recognize that I am fallible and must remain humble in my approach, so take what I say with a grain of salt and make your own determinations. I share my thoughts for what they are worth.

When I was in college sitting in a World Religion class, reading the Bible for the first time in my life, I was struck by a thought that I believe to this day came from the Holy Spirit (along with others). My professor was liberal and progressive, so I can’t “blame” it on him.

It occurred to me that, if God is real, and the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then He could orchestrate His communications to humans in a way that they could understand them and preserve the important points for posterity. If God is sovereign, He can do that.

I believe the Bible is the book God wanted us to have.

NT Wright

I still believe that, but I also like the way NT Wright puts it: “I believe the Bible is the book God wanted us to have.” I can buy that! Other things NT Wright says about the character of Scripture also make sense to me, so I will mix his words with mine in the remainder of this piece.

Continue reading “A New (Old?) Take on Inerrancy”