Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Needing a Prophet

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV)

One of the most amazing and gratifying facts of God’s dealing with humans is that He has spoken to us.  He is not the Deity of Thomas Jefferson’s Deism who makes the world and then leaves it to itself.  He has not left us to figure out from what is created the truth of who He is or what He wants for us, though indeed His creation shouts that eloquently (Psalm 19, the first half).  Instead He has spoken to us at many times and in many ways.  It hasn’t been a once or twice kind of thing saying, “Here, get it now because I’m not going to say it again.”  And it hasn’t been through one format alone.

He came in the form of a human and talked to Adam and Eve in the garden.  He spoke directly to the ear of Abraham.  He met Moses in the tent of meeting and made Moses’ face glow with His glory.  He gave us laws, He gave us songs, He gave us history, He gave us wisdom, all through men and women whom He had gifted to be able to receive His message.  All these people could be termed “prophets” in that they were navi (Hebrew, ‘spokesmen, announcers’) or prophetes (Greek, ‘those who speak, interpret’) for Him.  They were sometimes called “seers” as those who could see or perceive what He wanted communicated.  He wanted to communicate to us so He equipped chosen humans to be His voice.

What these people said had God’s authority so He gave His people tests for determining who was truly His prophet with His authority.  Moses taught us in Deuteronomy 13 and 18 that a true prophet would always speak in line with the message of the 10 Commandments that there is only one God, the God who delivered Israel from Egypt, whose name is Yahweh.  The true prophet, if he or she made a prediction, would always be vindicated by that prediction coming true.  And so we would know.

But in these last days, the days that have seen the fulfillment of all those prophecies regarding God’s coming in His Messiah to establish His kingdom on earth and await only the return of the Messiah to finish all, God has chosen to speak through His Son.  The human prophets were authoritative and special, but none could be more authoritative or special than the Son.  If we were required to obey the message of human prophets, how much more the divine prophet or spokesman for God!

This is the beginning of the author of Hebrews’ message to a congregation of Jewish believers who have been toying with returning to the unbelieving Jewish system of sacrifices, Sabbaths, and stipulations that carried on as if the Messiah had not made his grand entrance into history and brought to completion what these practices only foreshadowed.  He is needing  to remind them of the truth and warn them against sliding back away from that truth, because such a step back would be disastrous in the way it defamed God’s Son and what He accomplished.

Do we toy with going back to the way things were before we met Jesus?  Do we need a reminder and warning?  How tempting is it to “hang it up” or just let our Christian life run on automatic, without any real feeling for or commitment to it?  What is it that tempts us to take such a backward step?  Is it the same thing that tempted these believers?  We will see.

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Daily Thoughts from Exodus: The Hidden, Glorious God

And all the craftsmen among the workmen made the tabernacle…These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were recorded at the commandment of Moses, the responsibility of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest. Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, made all that the LORD commanded Moses; and with him was Oholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, an engraver and designer and embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen.

All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and 730 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary.

From the blue and purple and scarlet yarns they made finely woven garments, for ministering in the Holy Place. They made the holy garments for Aaron, as the LORD had commanded Moses. (Exodus 36:8-39:1, ESV)

This lengthy step-by-step description of how the Tabernacle was made shows that it indeed followed the instructions given to Moses based on the model Moses saw on the Mountain, the heavenly version of what was being built on earth (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23-24). And God used these skilled craftsmen to accomplish the job. They must have felt very privileged to be included in this holy enterprise. No doubt craftsmen of cathedral projects have felt the same way. But are we supposed to be building such structures today?

It would seem in principle that it is not wrong to spend amazing amounts of the peoples’ money on such buildings as we long to honor God with everything we have and show Him to be glorious. But we have not been so instructed as Moses was to do such building. The church building we most frequently erect is decidedly not a temple or sanctuary, despite how much we use those terms. The people of God are the temple, not the building. We are the intersection of heaven and earth because the Holy Spirit indwells us. People meet God in us, not a building. The way into the Most Holy Place has been opened by Jesus and His sacrifice and we are living testimonies that the sacrifice availed for us.

We hope that in the building we erect for the purpose of meeting, if such a thing is deemed wise, people will meet the living God in us and the building itself will not be a deterrent to that.  If we can make it attractive or suggestive of the glory of God, and the Spirit so directs us to invest in that, we have freedom to do so.  But we must count the cost of such architecture and décor to make sure that it is not something that puts us in debt, prevents us from really ministering to the needs of our community, or even distracts from realizing that the people are the church, not the building.

If we think about how the Tabernacle functioned in ancient Israel, it did give a sense of how glorious the God of the universe is, though even in its beauty it could not approach that fully.  But it also created a mystery about God and how things functioned inside, hidden from all but the high priest.  It mostly communicated that you could not approach this holy God without following His precise instructions.  Humans are too intent on creating their own path to God, believing that we have that capability and that God is okay with that, even endorses it.  Just the opposite is true.

“If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He would have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightening and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness because so many had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency that he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire.  It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing everyone, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them.  Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not.  There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.” [Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 79-80]

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Jealousy

The LORD said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

“You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal.

“You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed.

“Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.

“You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:1-28, ESV)

Yahweh shows his “back” to Moses and confirms that He is going to go up with these people to the land of promise. He writes, on the stone tablets Moses’ has had fashioned, the ten commandments once again and rehearses who it is that Israel is entering into covenant with. He is the one who is compassionate and forgives, the only reason the Israelites are not destroyed.

But the covenant must be rehearsed, if only in a small representative fashion, as Yahweh notes several key aspects of how Israel must live before Him. And Yahweh makes the astonishing promise that if Israel observes His law foreign nations won’t even have a desire to attack and take the land Yahweh is going to give them.

Most of all they must know He is a jealous God. For us, this seems a potentially petty way to speak, making God seem self-centered. But He is the most properly self-centered being in the universe whose love is absolutely best for us and without Whom we are entirely lost. He loves us so much that He must warn us against falling for anyone else. Such falling for another will cause our ruin. No one else can fulfill our deepest needs or guide us more truly in the path of life.

Human jealousy can be like this, but it is most often not, coming not from a place of unselfish love but from a place of fear and desperation.   We are most often jealous because we feel we lack something we need and fearfully grab for it by any means necessary.  Like God, however, we might be jealous in the sense of knowing that we are best for someone else and yearn for their well-being without putting our well-being first, without falling apart if that person doesn’t see our worth the way we do.

Today, serve Him only. All of your needs are important to Him, but He is your biggest need.  If we are filled by Him nothing can destroy us.

The marital relationship may be the best way to help us understand the difference between sinful jealousy and righteous jealousy. I can be jealous over my relationship with my wife in a wrong way or in a right way. For example, if I feel resentment or anger merely because I see her talking to another man, that would be self-centered possessiveness and unreasonable domination—in other words, sinful jealousy. It would stem from my own selfishness or insecurity rather than from my commitment to her and to what is right.

But, on the other hand, if I see some man actually trying to alienate my wife’s affections and seduce her, then I have reason to be righteously jealous. God gave her to me to be my wife. Her body is mine just as my body is hers. I have the exclusive right to enjoy her fully, and for someone else to assume that right would be a violation of God’s holy standards. I am zealous for the exclusiveness and purity of our marriage, and that is a righteous jealousy. Jehovah feels the same way about His relationship with His “wife.” There is no selfishness in His jealousy. It is the appropriate expression of His holiness. [https://bible.org/seriespage/21-jealous-god]

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: What Makes God Angry

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.

And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.”

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. (Exodus 32:15-35, ESV)

The consequences of idolatry are severe. Moses’ destruction of the tablets of stone is symbolic of the way the Israelites, with Aaron’s help, have destroyed the covenant. Moses’ anger reflects Yahweh’s anger.  Oh that our anger burned as hot in regards to idolatry, in our own lives and the lives of others.

Aaron attempts to deflect blame from himself but his explanation is ridiculous. The path to restoration from the sin is fully owning up to or confessing one’s guilt, not trying to minimize it. The other Levites, on the other hand, stand with Moses against the idolatry and slay those at Yahweh’s command who have been guilty. Yahweh sends a plague to slay the rest who were guilty. Moses is willing to sacrifice himself for the people, another example of his humility, but God wants justice for those to whom justice is due.

Nothing must stand in the way of our worship of the true and living God. No false representation of who He is must be allowed in our worship. He is the sovereign God whom we cannot control and He will be worshiped in truth only.  How dare we offer up what we call worship to a God as we have perceive He ought to be and expect anything less than His wrath.

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Second Command

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4).

Whereas the first commandment was a prohibition against worshiping anyone other than God, this commandment focuses more on how one is to worship God. It deals with the habit in fallen man of seeking to make God into an image he can cope with and feel some control over.

The original sin of Adam was to want to be God and rule his own life. Ever since that fall, we have sought to rid ourselves of God’s authority. Our most subtle technique for doing so is refashioning our image of God. By viewing God as someone who is more like a human we can now think of ways to manipulate Him. This soon devolves into magical thinking, believing that if we can figure out the characteristic of this God and make an image like that characteristic, we have somehow captured God in the image. Having an idol of one’s god is therefore having a way to control Him. That tangible object becomes for us a sacred relic which binds us to our god and our god to us.

This is why Protestants have always been suspicious of relics and statues and icons used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Though they can be told over and over that such things have no special power, it is most easy for us to begin to invest them with special power.  But vestiges of this wrong perspective can be seen in superstitions about how to get God to hear us or objects we invest with “magical” power.

Our most subtle idolatry consists, however, of distorted views of God that shape our practice of our faith.  For example, the wrong belief made most obvious in Job is that God will always reward in this life our obedience or punish our disobedience.  Job, his friends believe, is suffering because he has been disobedient.  If this is true it enables believers to determine their future and the way God must respond based on our behavior.  A version of this is the prosperity gospel with its belief that God is most concerned about our prosperity and if we have enough faith in Him He will honor all our requests for healing, riches and success. Psalm 73 gives expression to this view and the corrective Asaph, the psalmist, learned when God would not be controlled by his requirements of God and Asaph nearly then lost his faith.

God will not be controlled by any human.  No image can capture Him.  He is the incomparable sovereign of the universe before whom we must always bow and worship in truth.

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: First Command

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 

“You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3, ESV)

The first commandment is easily the most basic one to all the ten. It begins with a historical reality: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). This formed the adequate basis for God to say to Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). A literal rendition would be, “You shall have no other gods before my face.” It would be the ultimate effrontery to God to “have” another besides Him and yet in His condescending grace He lets us “have” Him as our God.

What does it mean to “have no other gods?” Negatively it means not to take from God what rightly belongs to Him. Calvin says that to God belongs: (1) adoration – He alone is worthy of the honor due the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He alone is worthy of obedience. (2) trust – God alone is worthy of our staking our whole existence in Him. Anything else we are trusting in is our real god. (3) invocation – None other can be available for us whenever we call on Him. No other god is so near when we need Him. And none other should be called upon in adoration and trust. (4) thanksgiving – No one else could be a lawful recipient of our gratitude, because no one else is the real provider of all our needs.

Positively, this command requires wholehearted loyalty to and love for God. Moses’ own application of this law is found in Deuteronomy 6:4,5:

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. Therefore love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (author’s translation).

We violate this command whenever we find our loyalty and commitment to another person – spouse, pastor, political leader, etc. – taking precedence over our loyalty and commitment to God. This may be evidenced by neglecting those things God requires of us (because if you love him you will obey him, John 14:23), or it may show itself in terms of actual deviance from the truth (apostasy). Many false teachings center in a strong personality who actually usurps the place of God in his or her followers’ lives. Anytime we devote ourselves to any one personality, no matter how orthodox his teachings, we are in danger of failing to give God His due.

We violate this command whenever we find ourselves committed to a pursuit other than what God has said is good for us. The love of money is particularly attractive for Americans. We don’t even realize for the most part how utterly taken with money we are. Material things, philosophies, self-help books, business success, family success, and even marital success can all become substitutes for the worship that belongs to God alone.

Have you given in to another god without labeling it such? What must you do to repent, to show that you have really had a change of heart and want to “have” God alone as the one you adore, trust, invoke and thank for your life?

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Learning Faith

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.  (Exodus 14 ESV)

God, what is up with You?  You rescue us from a supreme danger then dangle us before that same danger right when we were able to breathe a sigh of relief.  This feels like torture.  And right when we’re rebuking You for your bad behavior, You rebuke us back and say, “Why do you cry to Me?” and tell us to go forward and You’ll handle things.  What are we to learn about You?

What we need to learn about God is that nothing is more important to Him than teaching us to trust Him as He accomplishes His purposes, which, of course, are always good.  From a practical standpoint it was important to deal with the Egyptians, and especially this Pharaoh, to prevent them from being a problem for Israel in the land of Canaan.  Egypt’s reach was not limited.  But equally important was that Israel learn to trust God because they were going to go through a very difficult desert journey and an even more seemingly insurmountable impossibility, war against the Canaanites.  This was a lesson they would take 40 years to learn.  So what about us?

When you need a God-sized rescue your job is to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD.”  You need only be silent and watch God work.  You don’t need to complain to someone else, or create your own solution, but trust instead in the One who loves you and can do mighty things that no one else can do.  How long will it take you to learn?