Covenant: God’s Plan to Restore Relationship

How Did you Become A Christian?

Take a moment to think about how you became a Christian. Or, if you’re not yet a Christian, what prompted you to check out more about it? Odds are there was a person in your life who first told you about Jesus. There are, of course, exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of believers have someone in their life who first introduced them to faith in Christ. For me, it was my parents. I would suggest that the norm has always been that God would draw people to himself, bless them, and they would, in turn, have the responsibility to bless others.

CORRUPTION IN CREATION 

Scripture opens with the story of creation. In the first couple chapters of the Bible we read that God created the world and when everything was put together and functioning as it should, God looked at it and said it was very good. But then sin entered the world and that which was very good got corrupted, the effects of which we still see today.

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As the opening chapters of Genesis roll on we see that by chapter 11 things have gotten so bad that people are being scattered across the face of the earth and there seems to be no hope for the unsullied relationship between God and people that were presented in Genesis chapter 2.

GODS PLANThen we roll into Genesis 12 and we read of God’s plan to begin restoring his relationship with people. He calls Abram, later Abraham, and tells him to go to the land God will show him and that God is going to bless him and make his name great and that Abram’s job is to be a blessing to the nations. The basic idea is that God is

  • pulling Abram aside
  • pouring out his blessing on him
  • commanding Abram to be a blessing to the nations.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations. People would look at Abram, see that he was being blessed, and desire to know who his God was.

GOD MAKES A COVENANT 

Fast forward to Exodus 19 and we see the same basic idea on the national level. Here we have the nation, freshly released from slavery in Egypt, gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God is going to make a covenant, a treaty, with them to bless them so they can be his representatives to the nations.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. –Ex 19:3-8 (NIV)

SAVED FROM SLAVERY The first thing to notice from this passage is that the people are already saved from slavery. They could go their own way at this point, but God is giving them the option of entering into a treaty relationship with him where they will be his people and He will be their God. The law comes in the next chapter because God has always been about drawing people into a relationship with himself prior to addressing issues of behavior. In other words, we shouldn’t expect unbelievers to act like believers prior to coming to faith.

GOD PROMISES

There are a few key promises God is making to the Israelites in this passage.

  1. They will be a holy nation. This simply means that they will be set apart from the other nations to be God’s special people.
  2. They will also be a kingdom of priests. In other words, they are to be his representatives to the nations. Just like Abram, they will be blessed by God and they will in turn be a blessing to the nations.

SPECIAL AND SET APART

The next big concept in the passage is that Israel will be God’s special possession or his ‘special treasure.’ The word here indicates that Israel will be what the special treasure was to kings in the ancient Near East. The Assyrians were masters at this. They would have foreign dignitaries walk down special halls full of unique, exotic treasures and wall reliefs depicting the many Assyrian military victories. The goal was that by the time the delegate reached the presence of the Assyrian king he would be completely overwhelmed by his majesty. It’s a similar idea to a foreign ambassador visiting the White House. They don’t typically go to McDonald’s. Rather, they have a lavish meal at the White House designed to show off the wealth and prosperity of the US. What God is saying to Israel is that she is to function like the royal treasure, showing off to the world how amazing the Lord is.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations, and it’s the same for us today. Peter wrote,

As you come to Jesus, the living Stone, rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

–1 Peter 2:4-5, 9

Peter was writing to believers scattered through the provinces of Asia Minor and his message holds for us today. We are built into a spiritual house, which likely means we are made into a house for the Spirit of God. As we are built into this house, we are to be God’s special treasure that he uses to show his glory and draw people to himself. Our job–our mission–is to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light.

Seek to Understand First

The basic principle here is that we need to seek to understand others before we try to make ourselves understood. This is often difficult for believers because we are convinced (rightly so) that we have something everybody should want. To us, it doesn’t matter what someone else believes because we already know that Jesus is the answer.

The problem is that we build walls between ourselves and others by not seeking to understand them prior to sharing the gospel. We’re already convinced they’re wrong and need to accept our truth. However, the lack of empathy we display prevents us from having a voice in the lives of others. Unfiltered and on the corporate level, this can quickly become the local church remaining entirely unaware of the felt needs or struggles of the community we are trying to reach.

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This struck home to me recently while visiting with a wealthy philanthropist. Because of his business acumen and financial success, he had it in his mind that he already knew what the community he was trying to impact needed. The problem was that he was dumping money (lots of money) into programs that didn’t work and weren’t having the impact he wanted because he had not taken the time to ask people living in the community what they felt their needs were.

Now, I know it isn’t always this simple. There’s a famous quote of Henry Ford saying, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” There are in fact times when we do know better what someone needs than they do. It still doesn’t negate the problems that arise when we don’t take the time to listen and package our solutions in a way that makes sense to the people in our lives.

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Ford still needed to tell people that he could get them from point A to point B more quickly than they could imagine. He was solving the problem in a way they couldn’t possibly anticipate. In the same way we need to be diligent to offer faith in Christ as a solution to the felt needs of others; something that demands also taking the time to understand before seeking to make Christ understood.

God Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart

Now we come to the plagues. In order to properly understand what’s going on in Exodus chapters 7-10, we have to account for a comment that God makes in Exodus12:12, where he says, “Look, what I’m doing here is bringing judgment on all the God’s of Egypt.”

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Taking on the Gods

By virtue of the plagues, God is demonstrating his authority over things that were thought to be under control of Egyptian gods. Many people have tried to make one-to-one correlations between each of the plagues and a specific Egyptian deity. It doesn’t work. Egypt had somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 different gods and each of them could take on different manifestations. You can understand the issues with trying to find a direct connection between each plague and a single god, but the point of Exodus 12:12 still stands: When you look at the different plagues, different Egyptian deities had control over each of those aspects of nature.

For example, let’s look at the waters of the Nile River turning to blood. The Nile itself was actually deified in Egyptian mythology. The name used for the Nile god was Hapy. Hapy was responsible for bringing agricultural abundance to the valley through the waters of the Nile. So when God turned the waters of the Nile to blood and upset the entire ecosystem, it could be viewed as a judgment against Hapy.

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While we can point to the Nile running red with blood as an indictment of Hapy, it can also be viewed as a judgment against Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh is the manifestation of the sun god, and it is Pharaoh who has ultimate responsibility for the well-being of Egypt. He is responsible for ma´at, the Egyptian concept of truth, balance, and order. When God unleashes the plagues, it destroys the ma´at and challenges Pharaoh’s authority as a god and undermines his right to rule.

A Hardened Heart

As we read about the plagues, we encounter this concept of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. For many, this is an upsetting idea. Some people read it as God has predetermined to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but when Pharaoh’s heart is hard, God judges him for it. What’s the deal? If God is hardening him, how can God blame Pharaoh? I don’t think that’s a good reading of what’s going on in the text. First, when God says he’s going to harden Pharaoh’s heart, he doesn’t say why or in what manner. Once you actually get into the interactions between Pharaoh and God, you see that Pharaoh is hardening his own heart and God is responding in kind.

Second, in stories from the ancient Near East, they don’t do scene shifts the way we do. For example, if I take a coin from my pocket and describe it to you, I’ll say, “This coin is round and it has the word ‘liberty’ on it above this dude’s head. Underneath the guy’s head, it says, ‘1995’. And this coin has a bird on it and it says, ‘The United States of America’ above the bird and ‘quarter dollar’ under the bird.” You’ve seen a quarter so you understand that I’m describing two sides of the same coin. In Hebrew narrative, it’s very normal for the author to give you two sides of the same coin without ever alerting you to the fact that he has flipped the coin. That’s exactly what’s going on with the description of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

A Heavy Heart

But there’s more to it than that. Scripture uses a few terms that are translated as “harden the heart.” The first word actually means “to be strong.” It’s the same word used in Deuteronomy 31:6 and Joshua 1:9 when we are told to be strong and courageous. Another word sometimes translated as “hard” means “to be difficult.” If you have a really difficult task, you would use this word and say the job is hard.

The third common word that is translated as “hard” actually means “heavy.” This is significant when you consider the Egyptians’ concept of what happened after death. They believed the dead person’s heart would be placed on one side of a scale and a feather on the other. If the heart was lighter than a feather, the person was admitted to the afterlife. But if the heart was heavy with sin or evil, it would be devoured and the person would cease to exist.

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So when we read that God made Pharaoh’s heart heavy, we’re essentially being told that God is putting Pharaoh in a situation where he’s not even meeting his own standards. When you get to Exodus 14:7, God says he going to harden Pharaoh’s heart and later in verses 17 and 18, he’s going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians to “show his own glory.” What’s so compelling is that the word that gets translated “harden their hearts” is the same word for “glory.” It’s the word that means “heavy.”

Through the plagues, God created circumstances that put the heaviness of Pharaoh’s heart on display for all to see. By doing this, He revealed his own heaviness—his weightiness or significance. In other words, his glory.

Heeding God’s Promptings

Another thing to consider in this encounter is that Pharaoh is not coming off a clean slate. Even before Moses showed up, the view of Pharaoh (and Pharaoh’s own view of himself) is that he is a god. For example, one ancient Egyptian text admonishes,

“Worship Pharaoh. He lives forever. Worship him within your bodies and commune with his majesty in your hearts. He is the sun by whose beams we see. He is the one who illuminates both Upper and Lower Egypt, even more than the sun disc itself.”

When Moses first starts dialoguing with Pharaoh, he says, “Thus says Yahweh….” He is bringing Pharaoh a message from a deity and Pharaoh’s response reveals where Pharaoh is coming from during the whole interchange. “Who is this Yahweh that I should pay the least bit of attention to what he has to say?” (Exodus 5:2)

The implications are pretty obvious. Those of us who have walked with God for any length of time can recall experiences when we felt like the Spirit of God was prompting us in some direction. I’ve borrowed a line from a pastor of mine and incorporated it into my life:

I have decided to follow the promptings of the spirit as best I understand them.

That’s the lesson here. When we develop a lifestyle or a habit of ignoring the promptings of the Spirit, we are hardening our own hearts and we run the risk that God will respond in kind. It is our job to remain open to the promptings of the Spirit and to follow them as best we can.

Passover

In Exodus Chapter 12, we come to the Passover. The Passover is still a major Jewish holiday. In fact, you may observe it or know someone who observes Passover every spring. If you’re not Jewish, my guess is that you might not know much about the Passover, except that around Easter, grocery stores advertise specials on matzo and lamb.

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Passover is surprisingly relevant to our understanding of Jesus. Jesus’s death and resurrection took place during Passover and early Christians used Passover as the central metaphor for understanding his life, teaching, death and resurrection. Familiarizing ourselves with the Passover story in Exodus offers another chance for us to add dimension to our understanding of Jesus.

Setting the Scene for the First Passover

As we’ve already discussed, Moses delivers God’s command to Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Pharaoh responds by doubling down on the oppression. The first nine plagues sent by God fail to change Pharaoh’s mind. Then God says to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.” (Exodus 11:1) This sets up the crucial moment when God liberates his people from Egypt.

 So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 11:4-7)

Next, the Lord gives Moses a set of instructions for the Israelites to prepare them for a quick exit from Egypt. These preparations mainly have to do with the last meal the Israelites will eat before they leave the land of their enslavement. It seems a little strange that God would put so much emphasis on the preparation and eating of the Israelite’s final supper in Egypt, but it makes sense when you consider that God is setting up the meal as a ritual to be recreated yearly by later generations of Israelites. (Exodus 12:17) More importantly, God is putting in place a symbolic event that would foreshadow the work of Jesus.

The Lamb

The Lord’s instructions put special emphasis on two parts of the meal: the lamb and the bread. In preparation for the Exodus, the Lord tells Moses that on the tenth day of the month, every Hebrew household is to take a one-year-old male lamb without any blemish and keep it until twilight of the fourteenth day of the month, at which time they are to kill it. If there aren’t enough people in the house to eat a whole lamb, they are to share the lamb with another household. It is important for them not to have meat left over after the Passover meal.

It goes without saying that the first Passover was a radical event. In the midst of issuing a warning about his judgment on the Egyptians, the Lord gives his people instructions on how to survive the night in Egypt. The lamb isn’t just to provide a quick bite of dinner on the way out the door; it provides the Israelites with a protective mark, a sign to show they are the people of God. In Exodus 12:7, God instructs the Israelites to take the lamb’s blood and smear it on their door frames to mark them as distinct from the Egyptians.

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Does it seem odd that you would gather with your family every year to celebrate the killing of a lamb and the smearing of its blood in order to have the wrath of God pass over you? Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. We call it Easter. In fact, early Christians commonly connected the death of Jesus, who was called the Lamb of God, with the Passover.

 

The Bread

The second key element of the Israelite’s last supper in Egypt is the bread. The Passover is the first day of a longer celebration that God is instituting called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Notice again that while God is giving the Israelites instructions on their preparation to leave Egypt, he is also giving directions on how to remember and re-create the Passover meal for future generations. Each element in the celebration serves a symbolic purpose. Exodus 12:15 lays out the requirements for baking and eating the bread:

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For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel.

For emphasis, the rules for preparing and eating bread during are repeated in verses 17-20.

“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I   brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:17-20)

In between these two lists of regulations about the bread, God issued another command that no work be done during the festival. (Exodus 12:16). I don’t know about you, but a seven-day rest period sounds really good. God also mandated a special time of worship on the first and last days of the festival for all the people. The only work permitted was the preparation of food.

Why all this talk about the unleavened bread? It was to facilitate the Israelites’ quick exit from Egypt. If you’ve ever wondered why some churches today serve flavorless crackers or cardboard-like wafers that melt on your tongue, it goes back to Exodus and this passages describing how the Israelites needed to be ready to hit the road. They couldn’t take the time to let their bread rise.

For Now and Later

So this section of Exodus is about now and later. The Israelites are to follow the Instructions that Moses has laid out while they are in Egypt as the angel of death literally passes over their homes, and later as they remember the Exodus.

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 12:24-29)

God is setting up this holiday because he knows that getting the people out of slavery in Egypt is going to be a core memory that has to be rehearsed in order for ancient Israel to have an identity.  In the years, decades and even centuries to come you continually see this reminder from the Lord: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. Even when future generations of Israelites who never lived in Egypt are thinking, “That was like 500 years ago. I was born right over there,” it doesn’t matter. God is going to continue to say, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt because there’s a community identity, and the identity of the Nation of Israel is we were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians, and it was our God who delivered us from slavery.

Identity and Purpose

And God knows that they have to continue to rehearse that memory year after year for over a thousand years, because if the Nation of Israel loses sight of that identity they lose their purpose. If you read further in the Old Testament you see that’s exactly what happens. They lose their purpose. They lose their way because they forget.

I’ve been walking with the Lord long enough now that I’ve watched believers drop like flies. When circumstances of life come at you, it is so easy to forget. When you’re a mom and you can’t even get a moment to breathe, because your life is being poured into your children who demand constant attention, how do you take a slice out of life to even be able to pause and remember just for a few minutes? It becomes incredibly difficult and everything in our lives is screaming at us to distract us, to keep us remembering who we are in Christ and what God has done in our lives.

We need the rehearsal of those stories, we need those moments in our lives where we pause just to remember that God has done amazing things for us. That’s a necessary part of the Christian life. For all of us there will come times, whether is a dark time or more often it’s a distracted time, when we begin to lose sight of what God is doing in our lives. We have to build in rhythms that allow us to remember. God knows this and this is why he institutes the Passover for his people.

PRESENCE IN ABSENCE

If you’ve ever felt as though God is not active in your life, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever felt abandoned by God, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever wondered where God is in your life, what happened to the miracles, why he seems so distant or unconcerned, the book of Exodus is for you.

What’s the book of Exodus about? The easy answer is that it’s about the exodus, and this is true. The exodus is referred to in scripture more than any other event because it sets the paradigm of God’s saving work for his people. But the exodus is over by chapter 15 of a 40 chapter book, which begs the question: What’s the book of Exodus about?

 

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GOD’S PRESENCE

I contend that the book of Exodus is about the move from God’s apparent absence to his tangible presence. At the beginning of the book, the people are in slavery, wondering if their God cares. By the end of the book, God is in a tent in the center of the camp.

In the first two chapters of the book, God is conspicuously absent. In 1:8 we are told that a new king has come to the Egyptian throne who has no regard for Joseph and what he did for the nation (recorded in Genesis 41) and, in turn, for the Hebrews living in the land. 1:11-14 tells us the Hebrews are put under slavery and harsh oppression, ruthlessly forced into slave labor. By 1:15. the situation has gotten to the point wherePharaoh is ordering the death of Hebrew children! We get a hint that God at least knows what’s going on when we’re told in 1:20 that he was kind to the midwives who didn’t cooperate with Pharaoh in the killing of babies, but the Hebrews are still left to wonder how they got into the situation in the first place. And finally, in chapter 2, we’re told of a mom who has to place her child in a basket and send him down the river in order to save his life.

WHERE WAS GOD?

All of this would have the Israelites wondering:

  • Where was God when we were becoming slaves?
  • Has God abandoned his covenant with Abraham?
  • Has God Forgotten it?
  • Is God too lazy to follow through?
  • Is God angry with us?

This is why 2:23-25 is so critical to the theme of the book: The Israelites groaned under the harsh yoke of their slavery and their cry for help went up to God. God heard their groaning, remembered his covenant with their ancestors, and took note, a very Hebrew way of saying God is about to take action.

GOD IS WITH HIS PEOPLE

By the end of the book of Exodus God is in a tent in the middle of his people. In fact, the bulk of chapters 25-40 concern the construction of the tabernacle, God’s tent. Exodus ends by telling us that the cloud representing his presence covered the tent and that his glory filled the tabernacle such that Moses was not even able to enter. There was a cloud by day with fire in it by night to tangibly represent for the people that their God was in their midst. So we see that the bookends of the narrative of the book of Exodus go from God’s apparent absence to his very tangible presence.

GODS LAW BRINGS UNITY

There are two parts of the book that we as Christians typically overlook that were of special concern to ancient Israel. This first is the giving of the law in chapters 20-24. The law was not a stodgy list of rules to keep. Rather, it was that which gave Israel identity as the people of God. It allowed them to have a strong sense of national pride and unity, similar to what the constitution is for the United States. While in slavery in Egypt, they were not a true nation. Yes, they were a clan of people with an ethnic identity, but they were not a self-governing political entity that could properly be called a nation. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a mighty nation. It is the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai as recorded in chapters 19-24 that serves as the official fulfillment of that promise.

BLUEPRINTS FOR THE TABERNACLE 

The second is the regulations for the construction of the tabernacle. Now that God lives in us via his Spirit, the tabernacle is no longer an issue. But for ancient Israel, the building of God’s house and the realization that he was going to be living in their midst was certainly a very big deal. This is why there is an almost annoying level of detail about the finest points of construction in these chapters. They were building God’s house, and this realization was a source of pride as well pressure to take the utmost care in construction. Their national identity was wrapped up in being the people of Yahweh and thus the construction of the tabernacle was a source of national pride.

GOD IS PRESENT IN HIS ABSENCE

So the next time you open the book of Exodus, think about where the story is at in terms of the broad theme of the book. It’s about the exodus event, yes, but a more thorough view reveals that the swath of the narrative is about moving from a seemingly absent God to a God who is living in the midst of his people. God is present in his absence. Though it seemed he did not care, he was, in fact, orchestrating events for the good of his people.

The same is true today: Even in those times where circumstances scream the absence of God, he is in fact present.

PROVEN WAYS TO KILL CREATIVITY

Every ministry needs intellectual capital to thrive. By intellectual capital, I mean the know-how, innovation, brains, talent, and imagination required to find and solve problems. The leaders I admire have an ability to design the workplace in a manner that liberates intellectual capital.

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When designing, here are some things to avoid.

1. Bureaucracy

Policies serve people, not the other way around. The value of a policy is that it prevents the need to make the same decision over and over again. However, over time — especially with the on-boarding of new employees — it’s easy to forget the context of the creation of the policy and begin to apply the policy to situations it was never intended to address. This is why an annual review of policies is important.

2. Command and Control Leadership

This seems so self-evident to me I hardly know how to address it. There’s simply no way your people are going to feel the space for creativity and effective problem solving if all they’re worried about is doing exactly what the boss wants.

3. Constant Restructuring

Every time a person’s role changes, even slightly, there’s a learning curve that delays production. That’s not to say shifts in job descriptions are bad, it’s simply to say that loss of productivity has to be accounted for as the person adjusts to the new or modified role. The danger for me is that I enjoy constantly tweaking the environment. If I’m not careful to pace changes I run the risk of frustrating the people I work with.

4. Fear of Failure

How do you respond to the failure of others? Do you chastise them? Do you tell them the last person who had their job wouldn’t make that mistake? Do you tell them it’s okay while allowing your body language to communicate it’s actually not? One of the joys of working in a start-up is that failure is assumed. Every failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn. Not that we want to be irresponsible with it, but there is a sense of “Ready…FIRE…Aim.” As we would say in the Army, “Adjust fire and drive on.”

Compassion in Exhaustion

I was struck by the set up to the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the book of Matthew. (Mt 14:13ff.) Jesus had just heard about the death of John the Baptist. The text tells us that Jesus got in the boat attempting to get away to have some alone time, presumably to grieve, but people somehow heard what Jesus was up to and followed him.

Jesus-compassion-motivation-anger-sadness.jpgBy the time Jesus landed a large crowd had followed. Looking over the crowd he had compassion on them and began to heal their sick. How on earth, in the midst of his own grieving, did he have the strength to have compassion?’

Jesus mom and John’s mom were relatives. Luke tells us that Mary spent three months of her pregnancy with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56). John played a key role in Jesus’ ministry as the Isaiah-like announcer of Jesus’ arrival. John preached in the wilderness of Judea saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near… After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear this threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:2, 11-12). Matthew tells us that John was the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mt 3:3) In other words, John was Jesus’ biggest cheerleader. So when Jesus hears of John’s beheading at the hand of Herod, it’s’ no small deal. He’s devastated when he gets in the boat to withdraw to a solitary place. And yet, even when evening approaches and it’s legitimately time to send the crowd home, he feeds them so he can continue to pour himself out to them.

Exactly how Jesus had compassion is not stated in the text. Was there something about his relationship to John that triggered compassion for people? Was he predisposed to gravitate toward compassion when grieving? Is he simply always compassionate because he’s God in the flesh? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But I do think Matthew is pointing us to the necessity of compassion when serving others. I would go so far as to say that compassion is a necessary motivator for any effective ministry.

Compassion has to be a key motivator in our ministries. Reaching people and growing our churches has to be more about compassion for people far from God and less about building our own mini-kingdoms where we get to pat ourselves on the back for all the people we’ve reached. We all know this, but how do we pull it off?

In my opinion, one of the key metrics for motivation is monitoring what makes me angry versus what makes me sad. I’m a work in progress on this, but I try to allow my anger to turn to sadness and compassion before taking action. For example, I get angry when I hear the complete and total garbage that gets taught on Genesis 1-11 and then see our young people leave the church when they get to university because the faith has become intellectually untenable for them. But my writing and teaching on the topic has to be born out of a severe compassion for people. When my anger has turned to a sadness over disillusioned young people then I know it’s time to write.

Easier said than done.

Why I Love Leviticus

There’s nothing quite like the book of Leviticus for getting a feel of what scripture means when it calls God holy. When I was doing my doctoral studies my dissertation advisor, Gordon Wenham, told me that in all his years of being an Old Testament scholar the thing that had the biggest impact on his faith was writing a commentary on Leviticus. Why? What are we supposed to get out of Leviticus?

Leviticus Teaches that Holiness is a Real Thing.

If I had to boil the book of Leviticus down to one sentence it would be: How does a holy God live in the midst of an unholy people? Holiness in ancient cultures was not an intangible, abstract notion of ethics or morals as it is for the modern west. Holiness was just as real to them as nuclear or biohazardous waste is for us and the measures taken to prevent outbreak were tangible.

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They would fear an outbreak of the holy the same way someone living near a nuclear reactor might fear an outbreak of radiation from a meltdown. Think of the response of sheer terror of the Israelites towards Achan when he took some of the things devoted to Yahweh. The book of Leviticus makes God’s holiness concrete.

Leviticus Shows that God Actually Likes People.

The whole point of the sacrificial system introduced in Leviticus is to figure out how God can be near his people. I go back to what the book is about: How to have a holy God live in the midst of unholy people. The story of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus is a story of going from a seemingly absent God (Ex 1-2) to Yahweh living in a tent in our midst (Ex 40). The tabernacle was a tangible way God could remind people of his nearness to them. Yahweh loves people and desires to be with them.

Leviticus Brings a Deeper Understanding of Christ.

Just as the sin offering in Leviticus was meant to cleanse the tabernacle, Jesus’ blood sacrifice is meant to cleanse people so God can live in them via his Spirit. People become the tabernacle and the sacrifice required to cleanse people is above and beyond what was required for the tent. Knowing Leviticus gives clarity to the flow of thought in Hebrews 9-10, a couple of the most epic chapters of scripture.

I wrote about this in chapter four of my book Jesus Prequel. I hope you’ll take a look at it. If it inspires you in your faith even 1% of how much writing it inspired me it will be worth your time.

Moses the Prophet

I would imagine most of us are pretty familiar with Moses as the guy who led the Israelites out of slavery, or Moses the guy who went up on Mount Sinai. But maybe what we’re not as familiar with is the fact that in the Bible Moses is often described as a prophet. In fact, he was the model/prototype prophet of the Old Testament. God said that he would raise up others like him (Deuteronomy 18:14-15), which is why in John 1:19-23, the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask John the Baptist if he was the Prophet, a reference to Moses. Moses proclaimed his message using the dual avenues of critique and hope, casting a vision for a different reality.

A Prophet’s Two-Part Approach

It’s worthwhile to look for a moment at the role and ministry of the prophet in the Ancient Near East. Prophets were not mere fortune-tellers. The primary role of a prophet in any ancient Near Eastern culture, including Israel, was to declare a message, or “oracle,” from a deity. Therefore the role of biblical prophets was to pass along oracles from Yahweh. Although these messages sometimes h ad a future outlook, that future was always discussed with an eye to the present. A prophet’s message was never simply forecasting for the sake of knowing the future; it was an urgent critique of the present coupled with a vision of things to come.

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Walter Brueggemann, whose work The Prophetic Imagination, a rich meditation on the role of the prophet, contends that

“the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Awakening our consciousness and perception can be done using a dual approach. The first part of the approach involves issuing a critique of the current situation on two grounds: social (how the current situation negatively affects people) and theological (how the current situation displeases God).

The second part of the prophetic approach offers hope for an alternate, a better situation in the future. Critique and hope together motivate people to work toward this alternative. The scriptures demonstrate again and again the power of this pattern to move people out of their apathy and toward the worship of God.

Moses Delivers a Social and Theological Critique

To Pharaoh, the critique delivered by Moses contained both the social and theological directive. The social one is easy to identify: God’s people would no longer be slaves; they would instead be formed into an independent, self-governing entity. In other words, “Let my people go.” Then Moses issued the theological critique, showing through the ten plagues that the Egyptian deities did not have the power or freedom to act as the Egyptians believed they could. This is important because the social situation, the enslavement of the Hebrews, was directly connected to the Egyptian religious system. For Egyptians of the period, Pharaoh was regarded as the manifestation of the sun god. His power was absolute. At the lowest rung of Egyptian society were shepherds, and sheep herding was the traditional livelihood of the Hebrew people. So the enslavement of Hebrews arose logically from Egypt’s religious system and was manifest in their social structure.

Brueggemann claims the theological cause at stake here is the freedom of Yahweh. In order to challenge Pharaoh, Moses had to issue a critique of Egypt’s gods, which included Pharaoh himself. When Pharaoh didn’t respond to the social directive by freeing the Israelites, God used the plagues as a judgment against him and all of Egypt’s gods. Only the freedom of Yahweh could result in the freedom of the Israelites.

Prophets after Moses also motivated people toward an alternative reality via this two-part approach: critique and hope. This duality is present in much of the Old Testament as God makes covenants with Israel and prepares them for the coming of the Messiah. Old Testament prophets continually critique Israel’s (and other nations’) sin and social problems and hold forth visions of change and blessing to motivate faithfulness. The first twelve chapters of Isaiah offer a clear example of this pattern. The book cycles back and forth between calling Israel to repent of her unfaithfulness to God, and offering her a new vision of restoration and hope.

Reflect on the Past, Move toward Hope

Vision begins with looking back. Brueggemann argues that

“the prophet is rooted in energizing memories, summoned by radical hope. The church,” he says, “has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.”

Thus we must begin by looking at the work God has done in the past. This means reviewing Scriptural narratives of God’s power and work again and again. It also means that we must think back to God’s work in our own stories. This can be done corporately, by discussing current ways God is bringing his kingdom in our midst. It can also be done privately by reflecting on our own histories and experiences. Recalling God’s faithfulness in the past emboldens us to respond to the vision of new reality and to change.

But we do well to acknowledge that hoping for change is hard. At the risk of making generalizations, we tend to ridicule hope. For many of us, both believers and unbelievers, hope is countercultural. We can always draw on our experiences to show us that hope is a risk. It’s much easier to forget what God has done for us and accept our lot than it is to hope for something new. Brueggemann calls it “the depreciation of memory and the ridicule of hope.”

The prophet demands that mindful of God’s work in the past, we push through our fear and embrace hope. Like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea and saw their enemies defeated, we crave the joy of a new vision. Like the prophets, we must critique passivity and forgetfulness. We must rehearse God’s work in the past. We must grasp a vision for an alternate reality God offers. If we can effectively ponder the ways God is working, the natural result is heartfelt praise.

God Commanding the Watery Chaos

Genesis 1:2 presents the world in watery chaos. How is Yahweh going to bring order? Why a watery chaos? Ancient Israelites would have seen a watery chaos at the beginning of a story as a genre trigger for a creation story (what we call a “cosmogony”). In the same way we think, This is going to be a fairytale, when we hear the words “once upon a time,” an Israelite would think, This is going to be a creation story, when they heard “watery chaos” (i.e. “now the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep”).

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There are four elements at the beginning of creation that find close parallel to Egyptian beliefs about creation (a separate post will look at Mesopotamian parallels): Emptiness (i.e., an earth that is “formless and void”), darkness, the deep (i.e., the primeval sea), and the spirit of God (some translations have “mighty wind,” – but that’s a post for another day). Egyptian texts (more specifically, Hermopolitan texts) feature four deities that are frequently called “the chaos gods”: Nu, whose name means the watery one and who is called the father of the gods (His name is later rendered Nun from the Egyptian word for inert.); Huh, whose name means infinity or boundlessness; Kuk who is darkness; and Amun, the god of wind, whose name means hiddenness.

J. Hoffmeier, an evangelical Egyptologist, and bible scholar propose the following parallels:

Nun = the deep

Huh = the earth that is ‘formless and void’

Kuk = darkness

Amun = spirit (or wind) of God

The image portrayed both in Genesis 1:2 and in Egyptian texts is that of a cosmos that is without proper form. The creative activity of the deities brings order and function out of the initial inert chaos. Which god is actually doing the creating varies in Egyptian texts. No attempt is made to explain the origin of the watery chaos in any text from the ancient Near East. Apparently, they didn’t care. However, there is general agreement that life springs from the primeval sea.

What’s the point?
Two things:

1) We need to understand that ancient Israelites, especially the Exodus generation, were not monotheists. They needed to be taught that their God, Yahweh, was in fact the creator God. They needed to understand that their God put each facet of the created world into its correct place, for a specific purpose.

2) For us, I think it’s helpful to see that God enjoys and is capable of bringing order out of chaos. God has an ability to make things, even seemingly crazy, chaotic things in our lives, work together for good.