Relax

 

quiet boatSo how do we find this balance between recognizing the importance of the law without thinking that we have to as Christians somehow Judaize ourselves, or keep every single little letter of the law? The key concept is that we as believers are in Christ. Take a look at Matthew 5:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18, TNIV)

The Law Holds

So as long as you look around and say, “Well the earth hasn’t disappeared,” then the law still holds. The other thing I would point you to is in Romans 8:

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4, TNIV)

Righteousness Transferred

Jesus makes it very clear: “The law holds. The law has not passed away. I didn’t come to abolish it; I came to fulfill it.” And the miracle is that by virtue of being in Christ, Christ’s righteousness in regard to the law is transferred to us.

This is an amazing thing and really it should give us permission to relax. Just relax. Some of us are so concerned about if we should be keeping the festivals, or how do to keep the Sabbath, or how to do this, or how to do that. To some extent we can let our own consciences guide us on those things, but at the end of the day we have to sit back and relax and realize we are in Christ and therefore we are righteous in regards to the law.

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The Law and My Ditch

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It’s hard to stay on the road in regards to Old Testament law. We tend to veer off into one of two ditches. The first is legalism.

Why the Legalism Ditch is So Inviting

Let’s be honest; most of us just naturally tend toward some sort of legalism because it feels safe. If I have really clearly delineated dos and don’ts, it gives me a sense of comfort to follow the dos and don’t do the don’ts. An easy example of this is the command, “Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In the intertestamental period, the Jews said, “Hey, if I never take the name Yahweh at all, I’ll never have to worry about taking it in vain.”

It’s this kind of legalism that develops when we put a hedge around the law to ensure that we don’t break it. The tendency is to go beyond the actual intents of the laws and put extra dos and don’ts in our lives. This tendency toward legalism is a very common thing and it can get in the way of a proper understanding of God’s grace.

Or We Could Just Reject it All

The opposite extreme of legalism is what in Church history is called Marcionism. It’s the idea that the Old Testament is completely irrelevant. That was for them and now that we are Christians the Old Testament no longer applies. It’s basically an outright rejection of anything in the Old Testament including the law.

I have to be honest and say that even though most of us say that all Scripture is super important, we act as though it’s not. Frankly, the Old Testament is tougher to get into. It’s easier to read to read a letter from Paul—say Paul’s letter to the Philippians—and apply that to our lives than it is to dig in to something like Exodus 21-23. There’s a bigger cultural barrier, and that sort of makes us into pragmatic Marcionists—pragmatically ignoring the legal sections of scripture.

This is a problem because honestly, God calls all sections of Scripture useful and profitable and all of those sections of Scripture reveal something about who God is that I think is quite important.

Let’s start by being honest about which ditch we’re in and challenge each other to try to live with balance in regard to the law.

The Law is About Works (and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves)

 

As I talk with people who read the Bible and in general believe what it has to say, I often hear three common misconceptions about Old Testament law.

God Didn’t Really Mean It, Or Did He?

The first common misconception is that God never really intended for anyone to keep the law. Now the problem with this view is that God explicitly states, “No, I’m intending for you to keep these laws.” Look at Deuteronomy 30:11.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, TNIV)

So we can’t go around claiming that God just never even expected anyone to keep the law.

No One Can Do That, Or Can We?

The second misconception is the idea that no one ever actually managed to keep the law. But look at this Scripture from Luke:

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Luke 1:5-6, TNIV)

Or what about what Paul said in Philippians?

“…though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:4-6)

So we can’t just say that no one ever managed to keep the law.

Grace Replaced Law, Or Did It?

The third common misconception is that law is all about works but the New Testament is all about grace. In regards to this one, I would just take you back to Exodus 19 where God shows up and says, “Hey guys, you’re saved. It’s done. It’s delivered. But if you want to be my representatives to the world, then here are some regulations of how you can represent me well.” When viewed from this perspective, you realize that grace is tied into everything that’s going with the law from beginning to end.

So that leaves us with viewing the law as what it is; part of God’s revelation of himself.

Does All Mean All?

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We have to be honest and say that there are portions of scripture that most of us just completely ignore, and most of those just happen to be in the Old Testament. You know the passages I’m talking about: those long lists of laws, or endless lines of begets.

Many of us have been taught that the Bible is our handbook, so as we read we’re looking for application or instruction on how we should live our lives. When we come across something like Exodus 21-23 where it talks about a bull goring someone else’s bull, or what to do with the fat from our festival offering, we say, “Hey this doesn’t apply to me,” and skip over it.

Stop Dismissing the Old Testament

The thing is, there’s an interesting line that Paul said to Timothy. Maybe you’ve heard it before. Paul said that “all scripture is useful.” (2 Timothy 3:16) I’ve often wrestled with that verse. If all Scripture is useful then why do you have genealogies or legal sections? How are we supposed to view those sections as useful?

First, we should know how God views those long sections of Old Testament law. He calls them good. In Romans 7:12, we read, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” We’ve got to get away from this idea that the Old Testament law was this bad thing, or some bad experiment that God tried, but New Testament stuff is where it’s at. The Old Testament law is good.

All Part of One Divine Whole 

Next, we’ll be more likely to view a passage as useful if we realize that the law is unified. In an effort to figure out which parts of the Old Testament law they should keep and which parts they should ignore, some people have broken up the Old Testament law into civil laws, ceremonial laws, and ethical laws.

Civil laws would be things like how to govern the nation. Well, that doesn’t apply to us. Ceremonial laws would be things like we find in Leviticus; how you do sacrifices, and stuff like that. That doesn’t apply to us. But the moral stuff, things like don’t commit adultery, well that applies at any time and at any place.

I’ve got to be honest. That kind of makes sense, but the problem is the Bible never talks about the law that way. It never breaks up the law into those divisions. It always speaks of the law as a unified whole.

Missing Part of God’s Heart

All Scripture is useful, because it’s all about God. Part of what the law is designed to do is reveal God. This is why it troubles me as an Old Testament Professor that so many people ignore the Old Testament law. God is revealing himself. He’s revealing his character and that’s super important. If we’re going to go around saying that it’s important to know God, but we ignore these huge sections of scripture that actually reveal his heart and his concerns and his character to us, I think it’s to our own detriment.

Now about those genealogies. We’ll discuss those another day.

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.