Strength and Wealth

If you’ve been teaching the Bible, reading the Bible or just curious about the Bible you know the inevitable question:  What’s God’s deal with money?

First some context: In some ancient Near Eastern languages the words for ‘strength’ and ‘wealth’ are interchangeable. In Deuteronomy 6:5, the so-called shema, Moses tells the Israelites to love the Lord their God with all their hearts and with all their souls and with all their strength. The problem with this verse is that it literally says to love God with ‘all your exceedingly.’ Obviously, ‘all your exceedingly’ doesn’t make sense and so translators had to figure out how to put that into sensible English.

Not a New Problem

The funny thing is that ancient translators experienced the same problem. The translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made before the time of Christ, used the words power or might. This is where we get the translation ‘all your strength.’ The targums, Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, use the word mammon. This is the very word Jesus uses when he says, “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” i.e., money.

Beyond Money and Guilt
The point is that in Deuteronomy we are being told to love God with everything we’ve got, including our money. It’s not about tithing. It’s about loving God with all you’ve got, not just the first ten percent. It’s also not a guilt trip. Moses wasn’t some greasy con-man who just wanted people’s money. Moses was telling us that God wants us to love him with every financial decision we make: paying rent, eating out, buying groceries, investing in your 401(k)… everything. God’s desire is that we revel in his blessing while eagerly desiring to pay that blessing forward.

November 30, 2015

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Finding Favor

 

When we tell our kids the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it in its simplest form, a high-level overview of someone who obeyed and trusted God. But if we will look closer at this Old Testament story, we find answers to some of our big questions about what it means to walk with God.

God Has Second Thoughts 

As we edge into chapter 6 of Genesis, we find that things are starting to get really bad for humanity. We see that the wickedness on earth is so extreme that every intention of the thoughts of people is only evil all the time. That’s quite the indictment. We read that God, grieved in his heart, regrets having created people. As a result, he decides to take action saying he will “blot out man” from the face of the earth (verse 7).

One Guy. Really?

Then we find a fascinating statement: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Genesis 6:8). In the midst of things being all evil all the time, one man finds favor in God’s eyes. Why? Was he super righteous? Really good looking? A master at giving great sacrifices? In chapter 7 we are told, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (verse 9).

There it is! Noah was righteous and blameless. Apparently walking with God is connected to being righteous and blameless. But we still might wonder, “What does that look like, and who could really achieve that anyway?” Jesus says that no one is good except God (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). If that’s the case, why does Genesis say that Noah was righteous? Was Jesus just wrong? Had he never read Genesis?

Don’t Skim Over the Best Part

Genesis 6:14-7:5 gives God’s specific directions for constructing and outfitting the ark. We like to skim over this section the same way we skim over a genealogy because we’re not sure why it’s there. I’d argue that the instructions are included so that we can see that Noah followed them just as they were given. What seems at first to be the boring plan for a construction project is in fact a picture of what it means to walk with God: Obedience to his word. The bottom line on walking with God is that you listen to what God says and do it.

Here’s the point: Noah was righteous because he believed God and demonstrated his belief by obedience. This is what set him apart from the wickedness surrounding him and it will do the same for us. We can complicate this message all we want but it really can be that simple.

Genealogy: So What?

 

Could a genealogy of guys who lived really long lives be useful for showing us how to walk with God? Let’s take a look and see what we find. Right off the bat we’re given an account of Adam’s line:

The List Begins

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathers a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died. (Genesis 5:3-8)


And Goes On…

I’ll stop before your eyes glaze over, but suffice it to say that it goes on like this. Did you notice the formula? So and so lived a certain number of years, had children, and died. In fact, you probably start skimming over genealogies as we usually do when we recognize a pattern. We also have a tendency to get sidetracked by the ridiculously long lifespans, but that’s not really the point of the passage. No, I think what we are supposed to notice is that every entry ends the same: “and he died.”

Wait! Here’s Something Different

Genesis 5 says Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, had a son, named him Jared, lived another 830 years for a total of 895, and then he died. Jared lived 162 years, had a son, named him Enoch, lived another 800 years for a total of 962 years, and then he died. Enoch lived sixty-five years, had a son, named him Methuselah, lived another 300 years for a total of 365 years, and then “he was not, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:24)

The break in the pattern means that we should pay attention. Something’s different with Enoch. Verse 24 tells us that unlike the others in the genealogy Enoch walked with God. A quick scan of the next verses shows that Enoch was unique; all the other men on the list died. In the entire list of generations, one person managed to escape death, and we’re told he walked with God.

A Man Who Knew Who He Was and Where He Came From

For Enoch, walking with God was simply doing what was commanded. That’s why Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) Jesus echoed this concept of walking with God when he spoke to his disciples shortly before his death in John 15, saying “Abide in me and I in you.” (Verse 4)

It’s as much about being with Jesus as it is active obedience. This is sometimes hard for us to grasp. It’s not about perfection; it’s about knowing the one who created us. And it’s what separated Enoch from the rest of his genealogy.

Cain & Lamech: Two Murders, One Appeal

 

You’re probably familiar with Cain’s story, Lamech maybe not as much. These two men from the Old Testament both demonstrate an approach to confront and deal with our sin, though the outcomes are very different. Cain, though an unlikely example, offers an excellent paradigm for what it looks like to have an ongoing relationship with God.

Unexpected Grace

Cain is remembered for committing the first murder when he killed his brother in a jealous rage. Genesis 4:10 records that God confronts Cain with his sin and tells him that he’s banished from God’s presence, destined to live as a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. Cain cries out to God for mercy, which may seem like an incredibly cheeky thing to do, for someone with blood on his hands, but Cain clearly knew enough about God’s character to appeal for mercy.

Even in his righteous judgment, the Lord responds to Cain’s plea with a gesture of grace. He places a mark of protection on him and says, “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Genesis 4:15) Note that Cain is still banished, but because he called on the Lord, even in his punishment God demonstrates mercy.

A Dangerous Assumption

Later in Genesis, we read about Lamech, who commits the second murder. Like Cain, Lamech speaks about his guilt, but instead of crying out to Yahweh, he assumes the same mercy extended to Cain will be extended to him. But there is no indication in the text that his words are sanctioned by God, and thus I don’t think God is bound by Lamech’s insistence that God avenge him.

We are given these parallel stories to show us something about the Lord’s character and how he invites us to deal with our sin. Lamech takes matters into his own hands and declares that anyone who touches him will be in big trouble. When Cain is confronted with his sin, he calls out to God and is met with grace. This theme is echoed at the end of the chapter, “At that time, people began to call on the name of Yahweh.” (Genesis 4:26)

We don’t have to wait until we get to the New Testament to see a God who meets us with grace and mercy.

First Fruits

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The Old Testament describes several rituals and ceremonies, including the consecration of the firstborn, which is tied in with the celebration of the Passover. It’s a commemorative sign of what God did for the Israelites; a ritual they would perform to remember.

Let’s Remember Where This Came From

But the firstborn ceremony is not the only first-fruits type offering. There is an offering described in Deuteronomy 26 that is specifically about the first fruits of the soil. The point is this: the first thing you do when you receive your income—the first fruit of your labor, so to speak—is give some of it back to the Lord as a reminder of who provided for you in the first place. When the first fruits offering were presented in Deuteronomy 26, it was accompanied by a narrative: “Our ancestors were in Egypt and the Lord delivered us and he brought us into this good land so we give back to the Lord a part of what he has given to us.”

In other words, “Hey Israel, God delivered you from Egypt, and as a way of remembering who ultimately provides for you, you need to give back the first fruits of all of your income.”

Be Creative in Your Offerings

Let’s think for a moment about the implications for us. There are two big ramifications for us as believers: First, God really likes it when we commemorate his provision by giving back to him. It doesn’t really matter what it is, though it’s easy to think in terms of income. I’ll give back a certain percent of my income right off that bat and that makes good Biblical sense. But we’ve got to think in terms of everything. What is it that the Lord is giving us? If you have a plot of ground in your backyard where you grow some awesome corn, when you harvest that corn, take a little bit of it and give it away. Or throw a party with your friends and eat some awesome corn. The nitty gritty details of exactly how we give back to God are not important. The important thing is that we continually remind ourselves of who is ultimately our provider.

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: 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.