Archive for the 'Old Testament' Category

God’s Gracious Response

Monday, January 28th, 2013

The first 11 chapters of Genesis serve as an introduction to the story of Israel. The people to Genesis was written were keenly interested in Abraham; he was the father of their faith, the founder of their nation. He was the one to whom God’s promise had initially been made. He was the one they wanted to hear about.

But the narrator of Genesis offers them a backstory, and it is in that backstory that we learn a lot about the God who made the promise. He is, as it turns out, the main character of the story. He is the real father of their faith, the real founder of their nation.

And one of the things I am struck with by reading this introduction is how graciously he responds to these humans he has created. From the very beginning, immediately after he creates them, he blesses them. His blessing does not come in response to anything. Adam and Eve haven’t had a chance to do anything yet.

He blesses the animals. He blesses the people. Blessing is his default setting; he is predisposed to bless.

And when the first couple rebels, he comes looking for them — not to punish them but to bless them again. He respects their dignity by not calling out, “Adam, I can see you hiding over there. Come out this instant!” Rather, he asks, “Adam, where are you?” Offering Adam a chance to come into the light on his own.

This God could have said, “Well, you’ve screwed up now. Go and kill some animals and make yourselves some proper clothes.” But he does not. Instead, God himself provides them the clothes they need. He covers their shame.

When Cain kills his brother, again God comes looking and again chooses questions over accusatory statements. When it becomes obvious what Cain has done, God does remove Cain from the community (people who threaten God’s community — particularly with violence — cannot be allowed to remain), but he offers Cain his protection. God will not allow harm to come to Cain, even if Cain is willing to harm others. Another gracious response from this God of the Old Testament.

Sin and evil continue to spread until every though and every intention of every person is only evil all the time. God began to regret his whole plan, and he was very sad about the mess people had made of things. He knew he had to act. No one wants to live in a world like that. So, he hit the reset button by sending a big flood to wash the earth clean. But before he did that, he selected a family through which he would start again.

Sadly, the flood did nothing to change the trajectory of humanity, and before long people were at it again. Only this time they were banding together to do evil. Sin was no longer a solo endeavor.

How would God graciously respond to this new twist in the story?

That is the question we’re left with at the end of the introduction. That is the question the author begins to answer in Genesis 12 — the calling of Abram.

What Elijah Didn't Know

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Elijah had a problem. He was a wanted man, so he panicked and ran as far away from his home as he could go. And then he ran a little more. Six weeks later, he was hiding in a cave in Egypt when God came to him.

“What are you doing here?” God asked — not really looking for information as much as giving Elijah the chance to just be honest and maybe to learn something while he’s talking it through out loud.

Though this conversation (which you can read for yourself in 1 Kings 19), it becomes clear to us that Elijah has forgotten all about God’s past faithfulness. He’s forgotten all about the amazing ways in which God has provided for him over the past several years. He’s even forgotten how God has come through on his promises for the people who had lived before him — Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David. God had made outlandish promises, and he’d gone to amazing lengths to see those promises fulfilled.

But Elijah forgot, and, because he forgot, he panicked.

But wait…there’s more! Elijah’s problem wasn’t just that there was some stuff he’d forgotten about. Elijah’s other problem was that there was some stuff he didn’t know about.

God tells him there’s going to be another king. God tells him there’s going to be another prophet. God tells him there are 7,000 others who haven’t sold out to a foreign god and are willing to fight to get the kingdom back on track. God had been at work preparing history for the next chapter.

Elijah didn’t know any of this.

Q: Why do you suppose Elijah assumed God had been inactive?

A: Because Elijah didn’t see any of God’s work going on.

See, we can sometimes assume that, if we don’t see it happening, it’s not happening. If God hasn’t given us the update, there’s no news to report. If God were up to something, we’d know about it.

That’s an arrogant and dangerous assumption. It’s the assumption that Abram & Sarah made. It’s the assumption the Hebrew people made while they were enslaved in Egypt. It’s the assumption they made again while they were wandering around for 40 years — trying to get all the Egypt out of them. It’s the assumption the Pharisees made. It’s the assumption Mary & Martha made while Jesus stayed put and they buried their brother, Lazarus. It’s the assumption the disciples made while Jesus himself was in the tomb.

And it’s the assumption I all too often make when I don’t see God at work in the way or in the timing I want.

What Elijah didn’t know — and what we must remember if we’re to resist the urge to run and hide from our stressful circumstances — is this: God does some of his best work in hidden, unseen ways. In the womb of a teenager. In the heart of a foreign king. In a dark cave carved out of the side of a hill.

Just you wait. His track record is pretty good. The seed is in the ground. It’s just a matter of time now.

Theocentric Thinking (Part 3): Good, Wise AND Humble

Monday, July 6th, 2009

I love the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar, and I hate it, too.

I love it because it has all the elements of a great story. A king, strutting around like a peacock, claiming all the power and all the glory is his alone, defying God to show himself, thumbing his nose at the heavens, goes mad and lives like the wild animal he’s become until he acknowledges and submits to the rule of God. Only then is he restored to his senses and his place in the palace.

The moral of the story is clear: “[God] is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Daniel 4:37).

That moral, as clear as it is, is why I hate this story. It’s too much about me. Too often I find myself playing the role of the peacock who turns into a wild animal. It’s humiliating. But it’s true.

Pride leads to madness; humility is sanity.

One time Jesus told a group of grownups that they had to become like children if they wanted what he was offering. He told them that greatness, as far as he was concerned, was measured in service. Note that he did not say service is the means of achieving greatness. He said service is greatness.

I sometimes fear we’re too familiar with sayings like these. They may have lost their ability to impact our ears. They don’t shock or stun us the way they should.

Of course, Jesus not only taught such things; he lived this way, emptying himself, humbling himself to the point of death — even death on a cross. Later, the Apostle Paul would say that those who claim to follow Jesus must have that same attitude, that same willingness to serve others to the point of death if necessary.

That chafes a bit.

Western society does not like this idea. We’ve been suckered in by Nietzsche. We’re all or trying to become Superman. Meanwhile, Jesus stands, all too often, as the lone voice in the wilderness calling us to become like a child.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the only category of people who are eligible for grace (according to the Bible) are the humble. This gets repeated so often in the pages of Scripture, it’s nearly impossible to miss. Still, I’m lousy at it.

I read a book about humility not too long ago, and I hated it. Part of the reason why I hated it was because I think the author (whose name I will not mention) and his ministry (which I also will not name) are borderline abusive and manipulative in their fixation on human depravity and sin.

But part of the reason I hated it was because it got under my skin. I get irritated when someone brings up my shortcomings. It bothers me to think of myself as less than adequate.

The only remedy I can think of (and here is where I depart from the book and the author and his ministry) is to not think even less of myself than I already do but to think of myself less than I usually do — to focus not on me, my sin, my smarts, myself and focus more on God and the gifts he gives and the gift he is.

This is the joyful byproduct of theocentric thinking: I learn to love myself correctly as I learn to love God completely.

Theocentric Thinking (Part 2): Good and Wise

Monday, June 29th, 2009

In our attempt to think Christianly, I’ve suggested that there is no real “good” without God. Today I will add that there is little actual wisdom to be found without God. So, if our desire is to be “good” and “wise”, I believe we’ll find these things as we seek after God himself. Wisdom and goodness, in other words, come as a by-product of godliness.

There are five books in the Old Testament that are known as the Books of Wisdom (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon). All focus, to varying degrees, on what it means to be human and how we all encounter evil, suffering, injustice and love.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is known for its pessimistic refrain, “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless” (or “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”). The point the author makes is that, for a life bound by time and space (“under the sun”), restricted to a brief lifespan, overshadowed by pain and injustice, leading inevitably to death, with no external reference point — life, indeed, is as pointless and profitless as “chasing after the wind”.

Only God — Creator, Judge, Beginning, End — can, by adding the missing elements of transcendence and eternity to our lives, give us meaning. Thus, in the alchemy of God’s kingdom, the apparent folly of pursuing and serving an unseen God, of living a cruciform life of self-sacrifice and service, is transformed into wisdom.

In contrast to the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, we discover another maxim often repeated in the Wisdom Literature: “The fear of the Lord — that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28; cf. Psalm 110:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Ecclesiastes 12:13). Here we find the two most important realities in all of human life: God and evil. God personifies all that is good (love, creativity, truth, beauty, etc.); evil is the absence of all those things and the presence of their opposite (fear, monotony, deception, destruction, etc.). These two categories dominate life on earth. One brings fulfillment; the other brings alienation. One gives hope; the other gives despair.

Wisdom, then, is a right attitude towards both. Wisdom is loving and embracing God (and, thus, that which is good) while also rejecting and hating that which is evil.

Viewed this way, the commands of God (especially those great commands to love God completely, love self correctly and love others compassionately) don’t appear burdensome and dreary. They appear now as the only lifestyle that really makes sense, the sanest way to live.

That’s what theocentric thinking will get you!

God According to the Old Testament (Part 2)

Monday, March 9th, 2009

A few weeks ago, I suggested that one very good reason to read and study the Old Testament is that we find therein a great and detailed survey of the Jewish worldview. Even if a person didn’t believe in the divine inspiration of the text, this certainly has significant historical importance as one of the earliest documentations of why a people lived the way they lived.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the entire Jewish worldview began with the concept that there was one God (YHWH) who alone created everything and should alone be worshiped.

But there’s more to this God of the Old Testament than his oneness. For example, this God created the heavens and the earth. That meant that the world had a beginning. It was an intentional creation. There was a plan, and the plan came from an intelligent being. Everything depends on God, and without his sustaining providence, things would cease to exist.

This benevolent Creator actually related to his creation. Material substance wasn’t “beneath” God. He enjoys his creation, calling it “good”. Through various episodes and stories, we see this Creator relating to people, demonstrating compassion, calling them to join him in a covenant of love and grace. He cares for and protects individuals and his people as a whole.

This God is also terrifyingly holy. His moral standards and demands are too high for fallen human beings. His holiness allows him to judge, and his judgments are universal — extending even to those who refuse to acknowledge him. His holiness and judgment, however, are never malevolent. His intent is to rid the world of evil and establish goodness on the earth.

Finally, this gracious and holy Creator is trustworthy. What he says can be trusted. He is utterly dependable, and what he promises will surely come to pass.

This is the beginning, the center and the circumference of the Jewish worldview as found in the Old Testament. And it is from this view of God that we are able to draw conclusions about their view of things like humanity, the cosmos, truth, meaning, morality, history, etc.

Now, I realize that most of the people reading this blog are at least somewhat familiar with this Jewish concept of God. But can we appreciate how radical it was. Try to imagine how the idea of a God who is holy and loving, compassionate and powerful, set apart from and yet involved in the lives of humans would have impacted the daily life of Jewish people.

What are the implications of this concept of God?

God According to the Old Testament

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

About a week-and-a-half ago I suggested that we could read the Old Testament to find out more than just ethics and morality. I suggested that as we read the Old Testament we could actually discover one of the most ancient worldviews in recorded history: the worldview of the Jewish people.

Now, any worldview has to reckon with big questions and fundamental issues. The Jewish worldview begins, ends and has as both its center and circumference its concept of God. And their concept of God stood in stark contrast to other belief systems of the time in the most significant of ways.

The Jewish people believed that there is one God. There may be other supernatural beings — both good and evil — but there is only one God (YHWH), and this God alone is to be worshiped.

This is a huge shift from the commonly accepted wisdom that was around when the Old Testament began to be written. If we take a conservative approach (and — believe it or not — I’m considered theologically conservative by most measures) and say that Moses started writing Genesis during the 40-years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, we can safely assume that the Jews coming out of Egypt may have bought into some of the Egyptian assumption that there was actually a pantheon of gods — several dozen of them — each with specialized abilities and powers — most with limitations and geographical boundaries.

So, they might have been a little surprised to find out that there’s really just one God who had no limits and was not bound to a specific location.

This, to me, is fascinating. Think through this with me. If the Old Testament is accurate, all human beings came from one man and one woman (Adam & Eve). Furthermore, all human beings could trace their lineage back to one man (Noah) and his family (Shem, Ham & Japheth). Even if these names and stories are viewed metaphorically, we can agree that the Old Testament claims all humans come from common stock if you go back far enough, right?

Now, that would mean that at some point in time, everyone believed in the same God, wouldn’t it? That theory is called “original monotheism” — and much has been written about it. The most compelling case is probably provided by Dr. Winfried Corduan. His version of the theory actually states, “[R]eligion began with God himself, who revealed himself to human beings. Consequently, all other religions are deviations from this original starting point” (A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity & World Religions, p. 17).

Okay, that’s the theory, and it makes a lot of sense to me. What I’m wondering is why do you suppose humanity moved from monotheism (the belief that there’s just one God) to polytheism (the belief that there are multiple gods) in the first place? And why do you think it was so important for Moses to establish the oneness of God?

Another Good Reason to Read the Old Testament

Monday, February 16th, 2009

People have always had ideas about big concepts like where we come from, where we’re going and how we ought to live in the meantime (origin, destiny and morality). It’s safe to assume that these ideas of theirs generally fit together to form some sort of cohesive worldview or philosophy.

It’s also safe to assume that people have always shared their thoughts about these big concepts with the people around them. Communities formed shared opinions about these things and cultures were established on the basis of these shared beliefs, passing a way of life down from generation to generation.

Every once in a while someone might come up with a new idea, but it would have probably taken a long time for that new idea to become generally accepted and absorbed into the commonly held beliefs of a community. So, it’s most likely the case that worldviews were handed down without much variation.

But every so often, something radical might happen to change things. It could have been a flood or a fire or some other natural disaster. More often than not, however, it was war. See, war wasn’t just seen as a conflict of military strength; it was seen as a conflict of ideologies. One community with its beliefs attempted to overwhelm another community with its beliefs.

The side that won got to claim that its worldview was superior. They got to force their worldview on those who had been conquered.

Consequently, most of the earliest philosophies have been completely lost or have come down to us in very limited and fragmented forms. We have no way to go back and discover what they believed. All we can do is guess. And it’s always wise to remember that guesses are just guesses — some are educated, most are not. The fragments that remain will always be open to multiple interpretations.

But the earliest collection of materials that can reasonably be called a coherent worldview is contained in the Old Testament. There were certainly other cultures that predate the Hebrews, but we don’t know very much about what those older cultures thought — especially compared to the legacy contained in the earliest portions of the Jewish Scriptures.

Now, this brings us to what I consider to be a rather interesting question. I absolutely believe that there is much more contained in the Old Testament than simply the components of an ancient worldview. There is beautiful poetry and historically accurate data. There are ethical teachings, and there is prudent wisdom.

But how might it change the way you understand the Old Testament if you read it as an explanation for why the Hebrews thought and lived as they did? What if we stopped reading it simply for moral instructions or practical advice on how to live and started reading it to find a way of thinking about God, ourselves and the world in which we live?

Looking Backward and Forward

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

By the time you reach the end of the Old Testament, God’s list of promises is pretty long — so long, in fact, that it’s understandable that people might get a little antsy, wondering when or if he’s ever going to get around to checking things off the list.

It had, after all, been nearly 2,000 years since God told Abraham, “I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). Abraham had been confused about how this would happen because he had no children, but God miraculously intervened and caused Abraham and Sarah to have a baby boy named Isaac. But God’s blessing didn’t come to the world through him, so that promise was still unfulfilled. It hadn’t been broken, but it hadn’t been kept yet either.

It had been nearly 1,000 years since God promised King David that one of his descendants would build a house for God and reign forever. David’s son Solomon built a spectacular Temple, but that wasn’t what God was talking about. That Temple had been destroyed, and the Nation of Israel had been split in two after Solomon’s death. Another promise unfulfilled — not broken necessarily, but not kept either.

It had been nearly 600 years since God had told Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he would create a community of people who wouldn’t live God’s Law out of a sense of obligation but because of an internal desire. Again, this promise was so far from reality that people began to wonder if God would ever make good on his word.

Perhaps you wonder about things like this. Jesus promised to return and set everything right once and for all. But one look at CNN provides enough evidence to know that there’s another promise that’s been left unfulfilled.

Beyond that, God has promised rest and joy and security to his people. And many of us know what it’s like to ache for those promises to be fulfilled in our personal lives. We live with stress and anxiety. Our relationships are fractured. Our health is failing.

We may join others in wondering when or if God will ever see fit to keep his promises.

But here’s something to keep in mind: Your circumstances do not reveal God’s character. In fact, the challenge of living Christianly in our world is to view our circumstances in light of God’s unchanging character.

You see, God is patient (and that’s a good thing); he does things in his own sweet time. He makes promises, and he keeps them. But he doesn’t always keep them when or how we want him to. If you think about it for more than a moment, he’s got a pretty good track record. He has never broken one of his promises. And the promises he has fulfilled have always exceeded the expectations of people.

Most of the people who have ever lived on this earth have lived during one of the periods of silence or hidden activity. They’ve lived during the 400 years of Egyptian captivity or during the 70 years of exile or during the 400 years of inter-testamental silence or, like us, between the advents of Christ.

Knowing that we might struggle with his timing, God calls us to live with hope and trust in that which he has promised — in spite of the fact that we don’t see it yet. He calls us to look back at his track record. He calls us to look forward to the coming fulfillment of his promises.

God has, in fact, decisively acted in our past. He has made startling promises regarding our future. Only by combining the backward glance with the forward gaze do we have sufficient perspective to live in the now.

———-

This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.

Living Between the Times

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Imagine what it would have been like to be born a Hebrew slave in Egypt. For more than 400 years, your people were held captive, forced to follow someone else’s orders. You might go home, weary from a long day’s work, and hear some old fool telling stories around a campfire about a God who made outlandish promises to your forefather Abraham.

He had promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation with a land of their own. He had promised that through Abraham’s descendants all nations on Earth would be blessed.

But you’re one of those descendants, and you’re a slave in Egypt. You don’t feel blessed.

It might have been difficult to believe the promises of this God who seemed so far away. This YHWH didn’t seem to mind your pain, your heartache. His promises might have sounded to you like some sort of fairytale, the kind of story you tell your children at night before bed.

But you would have been wrong.

Now imagine what it would have been like to be born a Hebrew slave in Persia. For more than 70 years, your people were held captive and forced to follow someone else’s orders. Again, you might head home, worn out from the kind of backbreaking labor only slaves have to do, and hear some old woman recounting (again) the stories of Israel’s God and the promises he had made to King David.

He had promised that there would always be someone from David’s lineage to sit on the throne. He had promised that someone from that lineage would eventually fulfill all the promises he had made to Abraham.

It might have been difficult to trust that God keeps his word, even though you had almost the entire Old Testament story to reflect on. It seemed as if YHWH had turned a deaf ear to the cries of this people. His promises might have sounded like old wives’ tales, the kinds of things you teach children in school to remind them to be obedient.

Again you would have been wrong.

Now imagine what it would have been like to be born in between the two testaments of the Christian Bible, in the period often referred to as “the 400 years of silence.” You may have lived in Jerusalem, but you were hardly a great nation. You were passed around like a hot potato from one superpower to the next, from Persia to Greece to Rome, with little or no say about your own laws, no foreign policy of your own, forced to pay taxes to a government that practiced the most abominable things imaginable.

The last thing you’d heard from YHWH was some cryptic message about sending the prophet Elijah back to Earth and how he would turn the hearts of fathers back to their children and vice versa, or else God himself would strike the land with a curse.

That was it. After that, nothing but a long, deafening silence for 400 more years. Clearly God was angry, but had he finally had enough? Was this the curse?

It must have been difficult for people to hold on to any kind of belief that God had anything good in store for the children of Abraham. It would have been easy to think that YHWH had given up on them and on his promises.

But once more, you would have been wrong.

———-

This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible

Valuing the Old Testament

Monday, December 10th, 2007

“We are a New Testament church producing New Testament Christians.” 

Ever heard that? The sentiment may not always be expressed in these same words, but it’s a prevalent mindset in our time. We spend so little time studying the Bible at all, when we do go to God’s word, we tend to reach for the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters (usually the second half of one of Paul’s letters — you know — the really practical parts).

The Old Testament seems to be relegated to children’s Sunday School (where it serves as a good source for morality tales) or adult Bible studies related to biblical prophecy (where it serves as a kind of Oijua-board, giving us shadowy clues for the future of our nation and our world).

It hasn’t always been this way. Christians throughout the centuries understood the profound sense of unity and harmony between the two testaments. But when Nazi Germany officially forbade the study of the great “Jewish book”, it was only reinforcing what many people already thought: we don’t need the Jewish parts; we just need the Christian part.

Here’s the problem with that statement: You can’t really be “New Testament” anything without being “Old Testament”, too. Just try to understand Hebrews or Revelation without the Old Testament background. When the apostle Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), what “Scripture” do you think he was talking about?

He was talking about what we now call the Old Testament.

To be clear: it is my belief that the Old Testament is incomplete without the New. It is also my belief that the New Testament is incomplete without the Old. Apart from the Old Testament we would have an incomplete understanding of what God is really like. We could never understand the origins of our truest problem, our alienation from God and others. And thus, we would have an incomplete understanding of what people are really like too.

The Old Testament constantly reminds us that God is the center and source of life. The world does not revolve around us. We are not the center of the universe. The earth is not ours to do with as we see fit. We are given the task of being stewards of God’s creation, and our lives are sacred — meaning we belong to God and are set apart by him for his purposes.

We learn from the Old Testament how life with God actually is, not necessarily how it should be. It is alarmingly real, refusing to gloss over life with all of its humanity and brokenness. Abraham, Jacob, Job, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Jonah — God refuses to wait until a golden boy hero comes along with his perfect teeth and broad shoulders and spotless character. He deals with people as they are, enduring arguments and complaints and wrestling matches and moral failures, and he is not unmoved by our problems.

The Old Testament gives us a history to join, a promise that God doesn’t kick us out at the first chance, choosing instead to enter into a relationship, with all that involves. We know from the Old Testament that we can actually interact with God, that he prefers an honest argument to dishonest compliance.

More than anything, Christians should value the Old Testament because Jesus did. These are the stories he learned and the prophets he quoted. These are the Psalms he prayed and the laws he lived.

Without a good understanding of the Old Testament, it will be impossible to become like Jesus. So, next time you open the Good Book, do some reading from the first half (more like 3/4). Read the Psalms. Read the Proverbs. Allow yourself to steep in the wisdom of the same Bible Jesus read.