Daily Thoughts from Numbers: Clean Up

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.  (Numbers 5:1-4 ESV)

There must be ritual purity in the camp where Yahweh dwells.  He is holy so His people must be holy.  Yet when ritual impurity occurs, such as here in the case of some skin disease, some unusual discharge from the body, or through touching a dead body, a designated time must be spent away from the camp until cleansing is accomplished.  This would be a hard law to obey.  Special tents would need to be erected on the outskirts of the camp where people could go to recover from their uncleanness.  This could be a long term stay if the skin ailment or discharge did not resolve.  Moses tells us that the people obeyed Yahweh in this command.

The implication for us is that whatever defiles us or makes us spiritually unclean must be dealt with radically.  Jesus’ statement, that if your eye offends pluck it out, is along this line.  Do whatever it takes to keep from sin.  Being right in the presence of a holy God is the most expedient of priorities.

The other implication is that we must help others deal radically with their uncleanness.  We have to adopt the inconvenience their uncleanness creates and compassionately help them become clean.  This is a priority that we will be tempted to neglect.  That’s their responsibility, we will think, not ours.  But that is not how God sees it.  He wants to dwell in our camp with blessing and calls on us to deal with what defiles.  We are our brother’s keeper, and, we cannot make progress as a community without seeing to the progress of the individuals within our community.

Our cry should be much the same as those who have filled the ranks of our military:  No man left behind!  We will not abandon our wounded.

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Daily Thoughts from Numbers: There’s Only One You

But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 1:47-54 ESV)

Of the 12 tribes of Israel God set Levi apart to be the priestly tribe.  They were not conscripted for war and they were not given land once they reached Canaan.  They were to be supported by the tithe God required of all the tribes.  Their responsibility was to set up and take down the tabernacle and to maintain the holy fire, the fire God sent down on the altar of burnt offering when the tabernacle was originally set up.

Access to the tabernacle was tightly controlled, emphasizing the holiness of God and the prescribed manner in which He was to be approached.  The Levites served as a kind of buffer between the people and God, preventing anyone from accidentally transgressing the boundaries of the tabernacle.  It is here called the tabernacle of the testimony because within the ark of the covenant were the tablets of stone on which were written the ten commandments and it is here God “sat” as on His throne and where atonement was made.  God’s presence was the basis of Israel’s existence.

In our costly discipleship to the Lord we each have our different responsibilities.  To each is given gifts that determine our responsibilities within the Body of Christ.  Each is a sacred responsibility.  Paul says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6).  How would it have helped if the Levites had insisted on going to war?  If each member of the Body does not do its part the Body does not thrive.  God has always had a unique use for each of His unique creatures.  You are unique and so is your benefit to the Body.

If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:17-20, ESV)

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Leaders

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Hebrews 13:17-19, ESV)

It would seem that the leaders of the Hebrews congregation were in agreement with the author of this epistle and faithful adherents to the true gospel.  They were also urging their congregation to abandon this idea of abandoning Jesus and returning to their former practice of Judaism.  As those charged with keeping watch over the souls of these believers they had no doubt spent many a night groaning in prayer for them.

How much better that our pastors/shepherds should watch over us with joy.  And how important that we pray for them.  Our author asks for prayer that he might continue to act honorably in all things.  Perhaps he is experiencing persecution as well and wants to keep a brave testimony.  He wants to be restored to this congregation, also, and we cannot fault him for asking prayer to survive whatever trial he is going through.

But what if their leaders were not faithful to the gospel?  Should they obey and submit to them then?  As much as we need leaders, true followership must not abdicate responsibility for maintaining the gospel’s purity to leaders.  We are all responsible.  That is why this letter was addressed to the congregation, not to the leaders.  All of us must wrestle with the arguments, with the Scriptures, and with our own consciences.  I won’t be able to make a case on judgment day that I listened to a bad leader and so I plead “not guilty.”

The apostles Peter and John refused to obey their spiritual leaders, the Sanhedrin, when this court required them to quit preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:27-32).  They said, “We must obey God rather than men.”  A leader’s authority is God-given but therefore always God-subservient.  A leader’s authority with people will necessarily be located in his or her example of godliness and faithfulness to the gospel (1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 20:28-35).  The apostle John commended Gaius  who helped traveling evangelists who arrived at his church in contradiction to Diotrephes, who “liked to put himself first,” rather than telling Gaius to submit to Diotrephes.

Still, the general requirement is for church leaders to be obeyed.  And we should pray for them.

PERHAPS the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others. [David Cooper, Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry]

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Access

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25, ESV)

What would it be like to be told by the most powerful person in the world that you would always be welcome at his or her office, never have to make an appointment, and always listened to with utmost attention?  That is akin to what the author of Hebrews is describing as the believer’s privilege.

This privilege was made possible by Jesus entering the heavenly holy place to offer his own blood as a permanent sacrifice and taking over the role as high priest forever in God’s tabernacle.  As a result of that he encourages the Hebrews and us to do three things:

  1. Draw near to God.  And don’t do it tentatively but with full assurance that you are cleansed and in full fellowship with the God who made and redeemed you.  You can enter the King’s court whenever you desire and He longs to meet with you.  He has always said, “I will be your God, you will be My people, and I will dwell with you.”
  2. Don’t waver in your faith.  God not only made this way for you and me but He made a promise that He will always keep that this access is ours because of what Jesus did.  Wavering is tantamount to calling Him a liar.
  3. Meet together for encouragement.  You can’t maintain your faith on your own.  The fellowship of believers you meet with will be doing what it is called to do when it encourages you to love each other and do good works that reflect His coming kingdom.

God designed church to be the place where our most important identity formation occurs, among other people. We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there. But too often we think we must have our spiritual house in order before we can fully participate. Or, by contrast, we see the church as a place of performance, instead of a place where we are developed into more fully authentic—that is, more Christlike—humans.

Further, our Christian subculture is marked by church hopping. We stay put as long as it suits us, until we are offended or decide we’re not being “fed.” So, wanting to quietly validate our own identities, we tend to silo ourselves into churches where everyone looks like us, talks like us, likes the same movies, and won’t embarrass us in public. But what if we took a cue from popular culture’s push for diversity and realized that surrounding ourselves with our duplicates only makes us more self-centered?

Christianity Today article by Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for CT and assistant professor of English and Humanities at The King’s College, and author of the book How to Survive the Apocalypse. (Jan/Feb 2016, vol. 60, No. 1, page 48, “The Year We Searched for Ourselves”)

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: The Glory of God in Us

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting…Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy…Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest.

This Moses did; according to all that the LORD commanded him, so he did. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected…Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40, ESV)

Can you imagine getting up in the middle of the night in your encampment in the wilderness, walking outside your tent and seeing a burning fire in and around the Tabernacle, or during the day seeing a cloud emanating from it?  From the first day that the glory of Yahweh filled the Tabernacle there was powerful evidence that God was with His people in demonstrative form.  If the cloud was lifted off of the Tabernacle it was the signal that it was time to move and you packed up all your belongings and your tent, while the Levites attended to dismantling the Tabernacle and preparing it for transport.  Perhaps you hoped you could stay longer rather than shorter.

God showed in the way He displayed His glory in the Tabernacle that He really did want to dwell with His people and that His dwelling with them was not going to be a passive one.  He is always about pursuing the purpose of restoring His kingdom in this fallen world.  He went after a nation that He would use to be a witness to all nations of His greatness.  He is leading this nation through the wilderness after having judged Egypt for its wickedness and with a judgment for the nations of Canaan who have filled up their iniquity to the fullest (Genesis 15:16).

We are to pray daily for His kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10).  We are to move when He moves and stay when He stays as we look for opportunities to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16).  We are the Tabernacle of God on earth today, His temple, His people, from whom He wants to demonstrate His glory.  People ought to see an evidence of His glory permeating our lives, fire and cloud.  The most obvious evidence of that glory, according to Jesus, will be our love for one another and for our neighbors (John 13:35).

How are we doing?

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: The Journey

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

Then the people of Israel went and did so; as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.

At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!”

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.

And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

All the people of Israel did just as the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. And on that very day the LORD brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts.  (Exodus 12:21-51 ESV)

God knows how weak we are.  He knows that if He did not institutionalize the Passover it would have been forgotten.  By making it a required festival it was assured that every year there would be opportunity to recount to themselves and their children what happened in Egypt on that fateful night, 430 years to the day that they entered Egypt and became slaves.

With the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn and the firstborn of all Egyptians and even their flocks and herds, Pharaoh has had enough and commands the people to leave immediately, with the Egyptians hurrying them out of fear of more deaths.  Yahweh gives Moses more instruction about how to observe the Passover and who may partake of it.  Those who are not Jewish must basically become converts to Judaism in order to participate in Passover.

The people bring with them great wealth donated by the Egyptians as well as their own herds and flocks.  So begins a journey of faith into the wilderness and on toward the land of Canaan.  They are not done with Pharaoh yet because God has more to show them.

God is still working in this way in our lives.  We are on a journey toward Christlikeness and we are on this journey as a family of believers.  Those not yet believers can become so and join us.  We have not arrived.  The journey is a process of never stopping to grow and never stopping loving one another as we await the coming kingdom.