The Unexpected Commission to Harden Hearts: Jesus

 

Here we are, absorbing the idea that sometimes God chooses to divide people and force a choice—follow God or walk away. Some will walk away. I’m not suggesting that we are called to divide, but we need to understand why twice in the Bible it was necessary. In the case of Isaiah, his prophetic words set the stage for exile, which in turn resulted in the healing and redemption of God’s people.

Delivering a Vague Message

Let’s turn our attention to Mark 4 where Jesus teaches the parable of the sower. This simple lesson in agriculture illustrates what happens to seeds when a farmer sows them—some grow, some don’t. The crowd of people crammed along the shoreline to listen to Jesus likely sensed that he was using a metaphor, though Jesus chose to leave the meaning unclear. Jesus later explained to the disciples that his message was purposefully ambiguous. “They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12)

Tearing Down the Middleman

Why would Jesus be so exclusive and leave people so confused? Jesus did this for the same reason that Isaiah preached decisively and with the mandate for action. While the initial result was the rejection of God, the bigger goal was to bring God’s judgment to fruition.

Jesus’ ministry sought first to bring judgment to the temple system, not because the system was flawed but because human sin made it unsustainable. The temple system, exposed to sin and legalism, destroyed the very thing it was meant to protect—the relationship between God and his people. The people made it their middleman, relying on the temple system to cover their sin and facilitate their relationship with God, so it had to go; Jesus’ death rendered it obsolete.

Forcing the Issue

Jesus’ second objective was to bring judgment upon the sin of human beings; his obscure parables hardened hearts and provoked hearers to stop wavering and make a choice. Their rejection would bring about the fulfillment of God’s judgment and it would be poured out, not on the people, but on himself. Jesus would take on all the wandering, rebellion, and foolishness that prevented people from knowing God; he made it possible for people everywhere, not just those living among the temple, to live in relationship with their Creator.

When I consider all this, my response is worship. God set up the temple system to engage in relationship with us and then when we ruined it, he replaced it with the infinitely more glorious work of his son.

The Unexpected Commission to Harden Hearts: Isaiah

 

How many of us have ever interviewed for a leadership/pastor/ministry position and when asked to describe our calling answered, “I believe that God has called me to preach the word in such a way that it will harden people’s hearts and they will reject God”?

I’m guessing none.

An answer like that is sure to stop an interview right in its tracks. “Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch.” And yet two people explicitly said this was their intention in the Bible—Jesus and Isaiah.

God Gives Isaiah a Tough Assignment

This isn’t new information but it’s important to keep in mind that Isaiah’s role as a prophet was not just to predict the future but to call people to action in the present. Isaiah appears on the scene hundreds of years after the Israelites earned their exile from the Promised Land; generations have rebelled against God, worshipped idols, and finally completely rejected God. God waited hundreds of years for the Israelites to repent, return to him, and dwell in the land. He withheld the exile and sent judges and prophets to help free them from their oppressors and plead with them to return to him.

 We already know this didn’t work. Isaiah was commissioned to preach in such a way that it would force the Israelites to make a choice. No more waffling. Isaiah’s prophecies were delivered with such decisiveness that the people were forced to commit one way or another. The Lord already knew they would choose rejection.

Healing and Grace for Self-inflicted Wounds

As promised, Babylon invaded and carried the Israelites into exile. It was long overdue and yet God still extended his grace. The exile was ridiculously short and it cured the Israelites of their idolatry. So you see, God knew his people would self-destruct and he knew what it would take to heal them of their self-inflicted wounds. God used Isaiah to bring this to fruition—to give the people one last chance to repent and then to set the stage for judgment.

Isolated Events Distort Our View of God

We tend to think of the Old Testament God as harsh and full of wrath and the New Testament God as patient and full of grace. He hasn’t changed. This is the difference that context makes; when we look at isolated events in the Bible and use those to build our understanding of God, we build a deeply flawed and confusing picture of God. When we look at the entire picture—the flow of historical events—we see that the God of patience, mercy, and grace we read about in the New Testament was there all along. What changed was how he drew us into relationship with him. It’s time we re-evaluate our understanding of the Old Testament God and gain a greater understanding of his love for us.

That’s where Jesus comes in and we’ll get to that Thursday.

What Makes a Good Leader (and does it really matter?)

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We’re all looking for good leaders, even those of us that might be considered leaders are looking for someone to lead us. But what are we looking for? What marks a leader as good or bad? Does it really matter?

Oh it matters. It so matters.

The Old Testament is riddled with examples of why the quality of your leader matters and it all comes down to this:

As the leader goes, so goes the nation.

Let that sink in for minute, because it’s still true today.

Two Qualities of Good Leaders

Good leaders possess two major qualifications: character and competence. One without the other is no good. We see this when we look at Moses in his early days, full of character but lacking the competence to keep up with the demands of the job. Thankfully Mt. Sinai happened, Moses learned to delegate, and went on to be a great leader.

Was Wisdom Really What Solomon Needed?

When Solomon took the throne God gave him permission to ask for anything. Whoa. Not sure about you, but I could come up with a few things. Solomon—he asked for wisdom. Well played. God responded favorably and granted Solomon the discerning heart he asked for and wealth and honor. Throughout 1 Kings, we see Solomon acquire riches beyond his wildest imagination. Chariots, shields of hammered gold, a personal zoo—these were crazy riches in the Ancient Near East. Did I mention his 700 wives and 300 concubines? It would be easy to think, “Wow, God really blessed Solomon!”

Are We Missing the Real Message for Leaders?

See, in Deuteronomy 17 God gave some pretty specific guidelines for the king who would rule over the nation. Those guidelines warned a king not to take a great number of horses, not to take many wives, and not to accumulate large amounts of gold and silver. Oops. Solomon just happened to do all of those. While we thought we were reading about Solomon’s blessings, what we were really reading was Solomon’s descent off the deep end. Solomon had competence but his character couldn’t contain his success. He allowed his heart to be dragged in different directions and to other gods. As a result, his nation was split. As the leader goes, so goes the nation.

Let’s be on the lookout for leaders with both competence and character, leaders who will stay true to God’s directions and who will guard their hearts from the many gods that compete for a piece of it. Better yet; let’s be those leaders. Let’s hold fast to God’s promises for his people, fine tune our craft, and ask for God’s wisdom and discernment.

Character and competence—go find it. Go live it.

Tithing: Probably Not What You Think

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I think it’s time we discuss some of the confusion around tithing. The conversations and teachings surrounding this topic often leave church-goers confused, upset, and feeling like the church is simply after their money. While churches can make some silly mistakes, it’s exceptionally rare that I run into a church leader who seems to simply be after people’s money. The more common error is that most people simply don’t know the context of the tithe in scripture. So let’s quickly look at how the tithe in presented in the bible.

A Tax, Not an Offering

In the Old Testament, a tithe was nothing more than a temple tax, designed to keep God’s house running. In fact, the tithe was common in cultures of the ancient Near East because the temples were the economic centers of those societies. Paying a tithe to the temple was very similar to paying taxes to the government today.

While we call the money we put in the offering plate (or send from PayPal) a “tithe”, the fact is that there is no tithe today because there is no longer a temple. The local church is not the temple, nor is it God’s house. We are God’s house.

There’s No Tithe in The New Testament

It’s true.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about the tithe because they understood what it was and they presumed its payment. No way would Paul or the local congregations ask people to tithe because the tithe was for the temple. We often think our first 10% should go to the local church, an institution designed for believers, and any giving to missionaries and those reaching the lost, should be above and beyond the 10%. Interesting, isn’t it?

It’s time we stop talking about the tithe because it simply does not exist anymore. Let’s give to our local churches and to missionaries and to local charities; let’s love God with our resources. But let’s stop teaching tithing as giving, because it wasn’t and it isn’t—it was a tax. Let’s change the discussion of giving and free people to love and give abundantly knowing that God rewards a cheerful giver.

Not sure what you think about this? That’s ok! Join the conversation in the comments below or on Twitter @ericincontext

What’s With The Snake?

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Am I the only one who has ever wondered why snakes were significant in the Bible? Sure, the snake has a key role in Genesis, but why did God choose the snake to convince the Egyptians that Moses was sent by God? Why did God choose this as a sign of his power and authority? It was more intentional than you might think.

Pharoah Loved The Snake

I’m not sure how he felt about the snake as a pet or part of the family, but as far as the Egyptians were concerned, the snake was a symbol of protection for Pharoah. It was part of Pharaoh’s headdress (called a uraeus) and Pharoah believed the uraeus actually went into battle ahead of him.

God Was Not Impressed with Pharaoh’s Snake…

Moses realized at the burning bush that God was calling him to go before Pharaoh and declare the very words of the Lord. He knew that unless he could give some sort of sign to confirm that his message was from God, Pharaoh wouldn’t believe him. God tells Moses and Aaron that when Pharaoh asks for a miracle, they are to throw down the staff and it will turn into a snake. If you’ve read the story, you know that Moses and Aaron do as they are told only to have Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into snakes as well using their “secret arts” (chapter 4). Aaron’s staff swallows the magicians’ staffs; it was a message that God’s uraeus was bigger than Pharaoh’s.

…Or Moses’s Capabilities

Moses was well aware of the fact that Pharaoh would be well within his rights to simply look at him and say “you’re dead”. Imagine the fear and trepidation that Moses must have felt; it makes sense why he argues with God and asks him to send someone else. This makes God angry, not because Moses is afraid, but because Moses doesn’t get it. God wants Moses to know that he’s not after his capabilities; he’s after his heart. When Moses needed a win and a sign that God was in control, God hit Pharaoh where he was his most confident, in the symbol of his protection.

There will be times when God puts us in uncomfortable situations and we realize we are in over our heads. So what? Moses is proof that our inadequacies are powerless to derail Gods plans. 

Our Anemic View of The Gospel: Part 3 of 3

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Heaven is Not Synonymous with The Kingdom of God

 The kingdom of God isn’t heaven. Let that sink in for a minute. We blend these two concepts all the time but they really aren’t interchangeable and defining the difference changes the way we live day-to-day. If the two were interchangeable, everything Jesus came to do on earth, including his death on the cross, would be about what happens after we die. That’s a hard faith to stick with. If following Jesus is about attaining eternal life, we’ll get hung up along the way. We just aren’t long-term minded enough to withstand the junk that gets thrown in our path. Most of us at some point have given up a major long-term goal for something that we wanted immediately.

Thank Goodness There’s a Difference

So let’s clarify. Heaven is the magnificent place we go when we die. It will be amazing in every way. The kingdom of God however, is anywhere that the rule, reign, and authority of God are being worked out. Heaven is where God’s rule, reign, and authority are perfectly manifest— which is impossible here on earth (at least until Jesus returns). The Kingdom of God is HERE and NOW, and we have a chance to be part of it. That’s why Jesus came, so God could dwell within us, have ongoing relationship with us, and so we could be included in what he is doing. Actively doing. Today.

Do you know what this means? What we do day in and day out matters. It’s part of something bigger—bigger than your career, your hobbies, even your family. Our entire life is a place for God’s rule, reign, and authority to be manifest. God is here, in the details of our everyday. Every time the insurance guy underwrites a policy or the nurse changes an IV, or a mom labors over homework with her kids—kingdom of God. Every time the executive meets with his peers, or the college student works towards her dreams, or the realtor shows a home—kingdom of God. When we live in the understanding that we have a role in God’s ongoing plans, all the crap that gets in our way no longer has the power to throw us off course. God walks us around it, through it, over it, under it. However you say it, he gets us through.

What We Do Today Matters

My prayer for you today is that God will consume your thoughts and guide your decisions. Submit your choices, your many roles in life, and your people to God; ask for his rule, reign, and authority to be present and actively working in every area of your life. And then, experience the difference. I’m talking about the difference that takes place in your life when God is no longer your long-term exit plan but the one authoring your story every single day.

Our Anemic View of The Gospel: Part 2 of 3

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Why Jesus?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever wanted more from the Gospel than a reminder that Jesus made our way to heaven? We know that Jesus died on the cross, we know he cleared us of our sins, but there has to be more. Jesus’ sacrifice was enormous, but the gravity of what Jesus did goes far beyond whether you and I end up in heaven or hell. The book that gives us a glimpse into the bigger story of the Gospel is Leviticus.

Leviticus: Useless Instruction Manual or Valued Resource?

Leviticus can be the most useful or the most useless book in all of scripture and it’s up to you to determine which. If you view scripture as your instruction manual, then this book has no purpose for you. But when you realize that scripture is first and foremost God’s revelation of himself to you, then Leviticus becomes a vital resource. It is Leviticus that teaches us about the holiness of God.

I’ve mentioned the tabernacle a time or two; it was the place in which God dwelled among the people. I’ll say it again—among the people. God, who is holy and separate from us, came and settled in among us. Leviticus tells us how he did it. Leviticus shows us just how holy God is; it reveals his identity. In order for this holy God to take up residence among us, He needed a tabernacle pure enough to be his dwelling place.

God Makes His People Clean Enough to Be His Dwelling Place

God longed to be more tangible to his people. He wanted to reveal himself in a way that would allow us to see his holiness and establish lasting intimacy with him. Hebrews 9 refers to “the earthly tabernacle.” Jesus came so we could be the tabernacle; so that God could reveal himself in the ultimate way and dwell in us forever. Jesus’ death was the cleansing of God’s house so he can live in our midst and have relationship with us. No more rituals. No more sacrifices. After Jesus died, his resurrection was God’s way of saying “I got this.”In other words, “I relate to you, I am with you, I’ve got this.”

It’s About What’s Happening Today

So you are the tabernacle and I’m the tabernacle and God is dwelling in the tabernacle today because Jesus cleansed us once and for all. We get to spend eternity in heaven and hell isn’t our future and that’s all very good news, but it isn’t the good news. Hear me friends, if you are walking through life focused on what will happen at the end, you have missed the point. Jesus came so we could participate in what God is doing today, so we could be part of the kingdom of God right this minute.

This changes everything.

Our Anemic View of The Gospel: Part 1 of 3

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It’s time to redefine our understanding of the Gospel. If you believe the primary message of the Gospel is Jesus saving us from our sins, we have a problem. That’s nice, it feels good, but it’s weak. Anemic even. I may have just ruffled your feathers, but keep reading. My intention is to strengthen your grasp on the gravity of Jesus’ story. To do this, we need to look at—yep, you guessed it—the Old Testament.

God’s Pursuit of Intimacy

The Old Testament is the story of God’s desire for intimacy with us. It starts with the creation of the world. We had perfect intimacy with God and it was beautiful, until we messed up the entire plan with one apple. From here, things just got worse. We started killing one another and the nations were scattered across the earth. Genesis 12 is the beginning of restoration.. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be blessed for generations to come.

The Law Never Saved Anyone

Exodus opens with the Hebrews in slavery in Egypt, not quite the mighty nation we envisioned. But God had a better story and bigger plan in mind. God uses Moses to free the Hebrews. At Mt. Sinai, God tells his people that of all the nations, they will be his treasured possession (chapter 19). Boom. The relationship with God is now official at a national level. By chapters 25-40, God is dwelling in the tabernacle among his people.

Leviticus details some intense regulations for keeping the tabernacle pure and clean. If this is a book you tend to dismiss, you need to read this next sentence. The laws of Leviticus were never intended to cleanse our souls or make our way into heaven. This amazing book illustrates God holiness; those laws make is possible for our holy God could to dwell in the midst of a very unholy people.

Another Bad Breakup 

It would have been nice if we could have kept this intimacy in tact. Unfortunately, in Judges a new generation of Israelites has takes up idolatry. By 1 Samuel 8, the people who had never needed a king other than Yahweh, request a king. Once again things goes from bad to worse until God finally exiles these folks.

God Never Gave Up

Here’s the thing about God; he’s not one to abandon his people.. God knew that exile was the only way for them to overcome their sin. And it did, the exile cured the Israelites of their idolatry and they later returned and rebuilt Jerusalem.. Even in exile, God was there, working to bring them back to a place of intimacy with him. Isaiah 40 is God’s message of hope. Even when all seems lost, “here is your God.”

God’s desire from the start has been to have a relationship with us and he has never wavered in his pursuit of intimacy. The Old Testament tells that story—a story where God makes himself tangible, meets us where we are, and redeems our sins over and over.

So why did Jesus come? We will discuss that on Thursday.

Are You Building Your Own Tower of Babel?

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Welcome to story time! Have you ever heard of Gilgamesh and Huwawa? This story was written in Sumerian roughly 4,000 years ago and it tells the story of Gilgamesh’s search for fame. He is confronted with the fact that he is mortal and will one day die. He reasons that if he can figure out a way to establish a name for himself, then he will have achieved a sort of immortality.

When Enough isn’t Enough

The irony here is that Gilgamesh is already a man of renown. He is the king of his people; they love him and view him as their shepherd. He single-handedly built the city defenses to protect them from their enemies. In short, he’s got it all.

But it’s not enough. Gilgamesh strains his neck over the city wall—that he built—and laments that his past accomplishments are not enough. He wants to live a life of meaning and significance; he needs a new adventure to secure his spot in history. He will travel to the east to defeat the mighty monster Huwawa. Before embarking on his journey, Gilgamesh seeks out and receives the blessing of the sun god.

You May Have Heard This Story Before

There’s a similar story in the Bible. In Genesis 11 we read about a group of people who, just like Gilgamesh, wanted to make a name for themselves. They sensed their mortality, so they chose to build a tower that would reach into the heavens.

The big difference between these two stories is that God responds negatively to the undertaking. Why? Why did the sun god bless Gilgamesh in his search for fame but God thwarts the people in Genesis? Because God refuses to be manipulated.

You see the people weren’t building just any tower. They were building a ziggurat, a tower to serve as the home for a deity. They figured that if they could build God a home then they could contain him and manipulate him. After all, if they build a nice home for God, shouldn’t God bless them in return?

Stop Trying to Impress God So He’ll Act

Maybe we don’t build towers to house God anymore, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if we perform—go to church, give to missionaries, read the Bible, serve in the youth group—then God is somehow obligated to bless us. And he might. He might choose to bless us, but he’s not obligated. In fact, sometimes the ‘reward’ for our faithfulness is suffering. Remember Job? Job’s very righteousness and obedience qualified him for his suffering. And Job was faithful even through his suffering. He had questions and appropriate emotions, but he was faithful to a God he knew would pull through. What about you? Do you have what it takes? Will you serve God, knowing that you may earn yourself some distress as a result of your obedience? I can promise you this: God’s blessings for you will far surpass your wildest dreams, if you’re willing to participate in the entire journey.

Will You Dare to Hope?

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Hope—it’s a scary thing. Most of us have learned how dangerous hope can be. Hope means vulnerability, it’s risky and messy and it sets us up for potential disappointment. Hope means we dare to believe in something that carries no guarantee. If you’re watching the news these days, hope seems like a foolish choice. The politics of our country and the atrocities taking place in our world make hoping for change—real change—seem like a waste.

The prophets of the Bible would say differently, they had a formula and a mandate for hope. Their role was to pass along messages or “oracles” from Yahweh and while the message was often an outlook on the future, it was always discussed with an eye to the present. Prophets never simply forecasted for the sake of sharing the future; they gave an urgent critique of the present coupled with a vision of things to come.

A Look at Moses & Pharaoh

Moses was perhaps the greatest example of this formula. For Pharaoh, Moses’ critique contained both a social and theological directive. The social directive was easy to identify: God’s people would be slaves no longer. In other words, “Let my people go.” Then Moses issued the theological critique, demonstrating through the ten plagues that the Egyptian deities did not have the power or freedom to act, as the Egyptians believed they could. 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. The oracle: Yahweh would free the Hebrews and Egypt’s deities had no authority to stop it.

Reflect On the Past, Move Toward Hope

Vision for the future begins with looking back. We must look at what God has done in the past, reviewing scriptural narratives of God’s power and work again and again. We must think back on our own stories, histories, and experiences. Recalling God’s faithfulness in the past emboldens us to respond to the vision of change.

Hoping for change is hard. At the risk of making generalizations, we tend to ridicule hope. It’s easier to forget what God has done for us and accept our current reality than it is to hope for something new. 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. Yes, we live in depraved world but we must rehearse God’s work in the past and grasp a vision for the reality God offers. This hope, placed in God’s power and authority, this hope is our very best possibility for change.