The tone of God’s instructions

We’ve all experienced rules and regulations in life that do not have clear reasons behind them. While they may have had some logical justification at some point, that time has gone.

There are also laws in this world that may not be any better than another way of doing things, but they are enforced because there needs to be some sort of consistency. Think about what side of the road you drive on. The left or right side of the road is no better or worse; one is not a more morally superior option. All that it is really important is once a decision is made you stick with it.

Sometimes we see the path God lays out for us and we wonder, “Why?” Is there a good reason to follow? Is it just arbitrary? Does God just want me to follow his way, yet any other way could be fine, too? But he just wants me on his side?

While we do not always know the full benefits of following God, for we do not always see what is around the corner and we never can see what might have been, God doesn’t want us to think following him is arbitrary. He doesn’t want his people to worship him and him alone just because that is the way he happens to prefer us to act. God desires that we follow because his ways are good and true. And that doesn’t mean just for him. When we follow it is good for us.

That’s why when we read a psalm like Psalm 81, we get a clear tone from God. He says listen to my voice, remember what I have done, turn to me so I may provide! He is grieved when we turn away because he knows it won’t go well for us.

Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!

God is pleading with us because he wants what is good for us. He’s not a hall monitor yelling at us, merely upset we’re not presenting our hall pass. He’s not demanding we retake some test because we used the wrong pencil. He’s certainly not trying to put up countless hoops of bureaucracy and paperwork, like we navigate to complete our taxes. He’s not looking to make life more frustrating or painful or arbitrary. God loves his people and he knows his ways are best. Let that help guide your reading and give you a sense of the tone we see in the words of God.

Can we find questions to the struggles of life?

There are a variety of types of questions in life. Those questions we have answers to, the questions we may one day be able to answer, and there are questions we may not ever be able to answer. Our curiosity may not be able to sit well with the idea that we don’t have every answer and that instead we’ll need to be satisfied with mystery.

You could put these extremes on a spectrum, with a sense of certainty about all things on one side and a belief that we can’t know anything on the other. We, the church, can get into trouble if we fall too far to one side. We can get dogmatic and argumentative about every minute detail, puffed up with a pride that we can know everything, even everything about God. On the other hand, the church may be too reactive to this and shrug its shoulders claiming “who are we to claim to know anything?”

The difficult task is then to discern what in fact God has shown us and what is kept concealed. Where can we have boldness and certainty and when must we patiently wait with our mouths quiet? And how do we learn the answers when we are able to find them?

John Calvin speaks well on this:

“Let us… permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, man also shall at once close the way to inquiry.”

We ought to seek wisdom and answers and understanding throughout life. God has gifted us with our minds and blessed us with great understanding by his Spirit. The church should be a place of deep questioning and long meditation. Yet we must remain humble knowing that we have our limits and our place—a place far below the full understanding and wisdom of God. We must remain dependent upon God and his word.

All this to take me to the passage I read this week from Psalm 73. The psalmist is struggling with the way the world seems to operate. The wicked are finding such riches and comfort, and this seems to go against the ways that God has prescribed. He can find no answer for his questions. Does this question have an answer or not?

It turns out that this is the sort of question that finds an answer in only one place: the presence of God.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end. (Psalm 73:16-17 ESV)

We may not always know where this discernment will lead, but doing so holding the hand of God (v23) will lead us nearer to him. And while our flesh and heart may fail, God says he will forever be our strength (v26).

Dealing with the Details of Exodus

Not the real ark.

The parts of Exodus that we are more familiar with are likely the dramatic activities in the front half of the book. We know Moses and Pharaoh, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. But once the people stop moving and the book deals more with the details of God’s directions to Moses, we don’t follow that as well. Yet there is much to learn from what God has to say to Moses.

So don’t let the details of cubits and gold keep you from reading. Perhaps pick up a different translation. Here’s the beginning of chapter 26 in the ESV:

Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. 2 The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the breadth of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be the same size. 3 Five curtains shall be coupled to one another, and the other five curtains shall be coupled to one another. 4 And you shall make loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set. Likewise you shall make loops on the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. 5 Fifty loops you shall make on the one curtain, and fifty loops you shall make on the edge of the curtain that is in the second set; the loops shall be opposite one another. 6 And you shall make fifty clasps of gold, and couple the curtains one to the other with the clasps, so that the tabernacle may be a single whole.

And here are the same six verses in the Message version:

“Make The Dwelling itself from ten panels of tapestry woven from fine twisted linen, blue and purple and scarlet material, with an angel-cherubim design. A skilled craftsman should do it. The panels of tapestry are each to be forty-six feet long and six feet wide. Join five of the panels together, and then the other five together. Make loops of blue along the edge of the outside panel of the first set and the same on the outside panel of the second set. Make fifty loops on each panel. Then make fifty gold clasps and join the tapestries together so that The Dwelling is one whole.

There are great strengths to a version like the ESV. But having to do mental math about a cubit to try to understand the size of a tapestry can be distracting. Those distractions can even tone done what we are reading. God is giving instructions to Moses for something radical! God is going to dwell right in their midst within this tabernacle/Dwelling, with himself intensely present above the ark of the covenant. He wants this structure built to precise specifications because the details are symbolic. The tabernacle and the practices related to it are to remind the people of God’s desire to be with them and of the original garden when that was true. It should be beautiful. Yet it also reminds them that even though their sin now separates, God has provided a way to dwell in their midst. And this central structure (literally to be at the center of their encampments), would one day help the people understand what Jesus would come and fulfill.

For a bit more help on the where we’re going in this second half of Exodus, here’s another great video from The Bible Project.

Romans 3 and Laborers in the Vineyard

Paul often steps through many questions in his letters. These are either questions he has heard or he does well to anticipate the questions himself. In chapter three he, a Jew, is asking about the status of the Jewish people. Do some say that the Jews have no advantage now because of what Jesus has done (3:1)? Are the Jews any better off (3:9)?

Paul says there was an advantage to being entrusted with the “oracles” of God, but does that mean the Jews are now better off? Is there any different status or level for the Jewish believer as opposed to the Gentile believer? To that he says no. Receiving the promises of God did not mean that those promises were not for the world, as well. And this was not a race in which one runner was given a head start. Paul is de-emphasizing our activity completely in order to focus on the faithfulness of God.

This is one of the parts of the good news that can be uncomfortable at times. When grace means that “I am saved apart from what I do” it is easy to accept. But if grace also means “they are saved having done less than me” that can feel different.

Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a master of a vineyard hires workers at different times throughout the day. At the end of the day the foreman calls the workers in to be paid:

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:9–16 ESV)

Our attention ought to be less on the others working alongside us in the kingdom of God, and more fixed on Jesus. If we let ourselves be caught up in comparison, we aren’t looking to him. And he is our true reward.

We should be thankful that God is gracious, and we should pray that more would receive his grace. When God gives generously, it doesn’t take away from what he has done for us.

God be merciful to me – David chooses repentance over defensiveness

King David, while regarded as a great king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart, was by no means a perfect man. When we think of his failures, his infidelity with Bathsheba and murder of her husband is likely the first thing to come to mind. After this abuse, the prophet Nathan goes to David to confront him.

Now bear in mind that a king doesn’t have to listen to a prophet or even be nice to them. When Nathan calls out David for his sin, David could’ve made life miserable for Nathan. No one likes to be called out, criticized, judged. We don’t tend to seek out opportunities for our secret sins to be named. Yet, David, the man as king who could’ve done anything to continue to cover up his sin, doesn’t choose further defensiveness. When Nathan comes to him, David is broken and he repents.

The narrative of this is recorded in 2 Samuel 12, and in our readings this week David’s response is recorded poetically in Psalm 51. We may quickly skim the headings of the psalms, but there we see that 51 is written after Nathan rebukes David, leading to this long confession of sin.

It’s a beautiful psalm with a tragic backstory. It reveals a desire for real repentance, not merely to deal with the outward appearances or public actions. David asks that God create in him a clean heart and renew a right spirit. For while all the external actions and sacrifices could continue, we see in verses 16-17 that what matters most to God is the heart behind it.

May we learn from David’s mistakes and from his repentance, and rather than be defensive, be open to confess.

I’d recommend reading Psalm 51 and listening to this song taken from this scripture.

Why does Jesus seem reluctant to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter?

By chapter seven of Mark, we’ve seen many miracles and healings of Jesus. But it isn’t commonplace—it is still marvelous and people flock to him to see what will come next. So as you flip the pages the image in your mind should be one of Jesus constantly surrounded by crowds pushing to come near him, hoping for Jesus to show his power again. So why does this interaction with the Syrophoenician woman play out so differently? We know Jesus has the power?

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24–30 ESV)

As mentioned yesterday, Jesus had clear intentions with his actions that lead him to not only reveal himself, but also work to quiet the crowds and maintain some distance. He travels out of the predominantly Jewish areas into Tyre and Sidon to find such space. He wants to be hidden. Yet even here, a Gentile woman finds him out. The news has spread far and wide regarding Jesus and all he’s doing.

Why does he talk of dogs? Is this insulting? Why isn’t he eager to heal a Gentile if the gospel is intended to be spread to the ends of the earth? If he doesn’t want to heal her daughter, why does he do it in the end? Was he corrected or convinced?

This passage gives us another angle on how Jesus is sticking close to his plan. It isn’t just about controlling his timing that will take him to Jerusalem and controlling the crowds that want to move things along. His plan is also to come first to the Jewish people, helping them to see the that the long-awaited Messiah had come to deliver them. That means he focuses sharply on the Jewish audience, revealing himself as the Jewish Messiah, who then later will be understood with a universal scope that is hinted at here as he does heal this Gentile woman’s daughter. NT Wright says it well (and better):

This story is therefore a sharp reminder to us that Jesus wasn’t simply called to go around being helpful to everyone. He had specific (and controversial) things to do and a limited time to do them. If we remake Jesus in a cosy image of a universal problem-solver, we will miss the towering importance of his unique assignment. If he must not be distracted from the messianic vocation that will lead him to the cross, nor must we, readers of the gospel and followers of Jesus, be distracted from focusing on that too by our natural, and indeed, God-given, desire to spread the healing message of the gospel as widely as possible. (Mark for Everyone, NT Wright, 2001, p.96.)

Jesus had a narrow focus in that he must walk the one road to the cross, but it would be wide in scope with its implications. He would be for the Gentiles, but to be for them he had to walk the narrow path, fulfilling his call in the unique way only he could. So now on this side of the cross (and resurrection) we see how this Jewish Messiah is the King of all, and our response is to spread his good news as far as we can, just as he told us in the beginning of Acts.

Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

In this first half of Exodus, there are many (at least 19!) references to Pharaoh and his hardened heart. What is that about?

First of all, I want to point out the importance of reading this part carefully and in order. We want to see the progress of the story as a whole. If we just single out one occurrence like “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27), and then try to understand the meaning of this verse apart from the whole, we will miss the bigger story and meaning.

What have you noticed about Pharaoh from these first 10 chapters? He’s pretty terrible, isn’t he? I think we are supposed to be able to see that Pharaoh is an evil character. He epitomizes the turning away from God that had been the problem of humanity throughout the book of Genesis. Pharaoh is a powerful figure that wants his own way and will do anything to keep the power and control he desires. Before his confrontation with Moses, we already see that Pharaoh’s actions are oppressive and in defiance of the Lord of the universe.

Now to the references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart… While reading about the first five plagues, you’ll notice that the text says that either Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that his heart “grew hard.” In these instances, the responsibility for the hardness of heart is attributed to Pharaoh himself. And, in each of these plagues, the Lord give him a chance to humble himself, to change his ways, to soften his heart. And yet, Pharaoh chooses his own way, and hardens his heart. It seems that this hardness of heart is what happens when people choose their own way and reject God’s way.

In the span of the next five plagues, there are instances of God hardening Pharaohs heart, Pharaoh’s heart growing hard, and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. What we are meant to see in these chapters is that God is going to use Pharaoh’s evil for his own purposes. The Lord’s plan to deliver Israel from their bondage will not be thwarted. Even Pharaoh’s ruthlessness, his unwillingness to bend, his hardness of heart will not stop God from doing his redemptive work.

What do we learn from these references to Pharaoh and his hard heart?

  1. Pharaoh is responsible for his actions. He has hardened his own heart and chosen his own way.
  2. Pharaoh’s actions lead to his own destruction. During the final plague, he loses his own son, and finally allows the people of Israel to depart. But it is a short time before he changes his mind (yet again!) and pursues the Israelites with his armies and chariots. His continued hardness of heart draws him and his army into the middle of the Red Sea where they are destroyed. God allows Pharaoh’s evil to lead him to his own destruction, and to the Israelites freedom from the pursuing army.
  3. God wants to save us from our own destructive tendencies. This is why he shows us mercy, he gives us chance after chance to repent (how many chances did he give Pharaoh?!). God is patient with us. He warns and encourages us to soften our hearts. He is both merciful and just, and we see these characteristics throughout the Exodus narrative.

Jesus comes to reveal, yet conceals?

Gustave Dore, Jesus Walks on the Sea, c 1866
Gustave Dore, Jesus Walks on the Sea, c 1866

On our way back from a Young Life meeting my son asked a question about something he heard that evening. In Mark 1 Jesus heals a man with leprosy, but tells him to keep it quiet. Why does he do this? Why does he keep telling people to keep their mouths closed?

In Mark 1 the man doesn’t listen. He can’t help it and shares openly about Jesus. This makes it so Jesus can’t move about town anymore, and he had to go out to “desolate” places. He’s like a celebrity that leaves Los Angeles after being harassed by the paparazzi.

In the next chapter his following continues to grow. Jesus is teaching and the house he’s in is so crowded that a group of friends destroy the roof to reach Jesus. In chapter three he’s headed out to sea as crowds follow. In verse nine it says his disciples prepare a boat for Jesus “lest [the crowds] crush him.” He had gained quite a following with his authoritative teachings and especially his miraculous healings. Yet he still tells people to stay quiet, even after he brings a girl back from the dead at the end of chapter five. He does wondrous things and says to keep a lid on it.

So why would Jesus, who came to do these things tell people to stay quiet or tell no one? Why is he often withdrawing from the crowds? Why not keep all eyes on him at all times to see everything he does? Even in Mark 6 it seems like he may be trying to play things down a little. We read about Jesus walking on water, and there is this line in verse 48, “He meant to pass them by.” The words jumped out to me and upon further research it may not be what I thought at first. It could be that meaning to “pass them by” echoes the Old Testament where God passes by someone like Moses. So Jesus may not have intended to be unseen but this wording expresses an intent to reveal. But it could still continue this tension of revealing his power yet keeping things hidden. Again why?

Why didn’t Jesus fly around and write in big letters in the clouds, “I’m the Son of God”? Couldn’t he at least encourage, rather than discourage, people from sharing about him?

It seems the answer, or at least the one I told my son, comes back to the fact that Jesus isn’t winging it. Jesus didn’t make things up as he went along, rather he is following a plan that has been around since before the world was made. And part of that plan necessitated a bit of quiet. Even with Jesus trying to limit talk, the crowds were already mobilized. Word was spreading and spreading fast. But things needed to progress as Jesus intended, building up and coming to a peak just when he enters Jerusalem ready to be the true passover lamb.

We may have a time table that suits our desires, but God has a plan that cannot be rushed. In the moment it may be difficult and may leave us with some confusion. But we need to trust the one who was willing, according to his plans, to go to the cross for us.