The Rest of the Story

Man get's stoned.
photo credit: Monado via photopin cc

At first glance, it appears rather cruel. God had ordered some poor guy to be stoned to death simply for gathering a few sticks for firewood (Numbers 15:32-36). Could this really be the directive of a loving God? Does the God of the Old Testament have a mean streak? Or is something deeper at stake? Perhaps our understanding of this scenario leaves something to be desired.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” Exodus 31:12-17 (NASB)

It is obvious from this passage that God had clearly communicated the importance of keeping the Sabbath—along with the consequences of any potential disobedience. In short, the parameters had been well established and, by choosing to ignore God’s command, this unfortunate soul hastened his own death.

But what about us? What are we to do with this “perpetual covenant”? I did a little wood working in my home a couple of Sundays ago. Should I be in fear of being stoned?

The Stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments
photo credit: @jbtaylor via photopin cc

The key to understanding such an extreme punishment for breaking the fourth of the Ten Commandments lies in understanding the nature of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is full of Biblical types—people, things, or scenarios which foreshadow deeper New Covenant truths.

In this particular case, God was communicating an eternal message that no man or woman can find favor with God by attempting to work for his or her salvation. In other words, none of us can ever be saved by trying to be a good person, and anyone who attempts to meet God’s standards by self-effort will face eternal death (separation from God) as the unquestionable result.

Again, on the surface this may appear to be rather unfair, but if we can grasp the brilliant and loving nature of God’s plan, we soon recognize that no other reasonable way is possible.

Before the Sabbath command was given, ancient Israel had spent centuries in exhausting slavery in Egypt under the Pharaoh’s cruel hand. God then delivered the people by His own mighty hand. This picture represents our own slavery to sin along with the futility of attempting to deliver ourselves by our own good works. It is all very exhausting because we can never be good enough to meet the perfect standards of heaven.

In His mercy, the heavenly Father designed a plan by which the burden of perfection falls upon Christ and not upon us. You see, under the New (and better) Covenant, Jesus Christ has become our Sabbath rest. No need for perfection on our part. No need for constant striving. No need to redeem ourselves when we have failed and done wrong.

Our six days of striving under the unattainable standards of law are ended as we now find ourselves living in the seventh day of rest—finding the full confidence of our acceptance with God, not through our own efforts, but through faith in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.

Abiding in God’s rest does not come naturally for us since we can’t help but feel that we need to do something to gain His approval. Some Christian leaders even refuse to communicate these truths out of fear that their people will become lazy and self-absorbed. What they fail to understand is that the true Sabbath rest of the Christian faith will always result in devoted labors of love on the part of God’s people. Ours is not simply to rest from all manner of work, but to rest from an exhausting attempt to gain God’s approval through self-effort.

The Crucifixion
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The more I understand God’s plan for salvation, the more I find myself appreciating the fact that He has left us no wiggle room when it comes to obeying and enjoying His Sabbath rest. When we approach God through faith in the finished work of Jesus, the full favor of heaven smiles upon us–no matter how dark our circumstances may appear.

So there you have it—the rest of the story.

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How to Catch a Crustacean

Original Photo by Kevin Connors – morgueFile

Are you a fan of lobster? It is without question a delicacy in many parts of the world, but such hasn’t always been the case. Early settlers to New England found lobsters to be so plentiful that at times they could wade into the ocean and capture them by hand. An overabundance of lobsters actually served as a common staple for prisoners. Can you imagine a law in which New World colonies restricted the number of times per week a penal institution could feed lobster to its inmates? Prisoners could be heard making statements such as, “It’s horrible in here! All we get to eat are these stinkin’ lobsters!” Of course, things are much different today; with an amazing increase in transportation and a bit of skillful marketing, lobster has essentially become the steak of seafood.

Interestingly, lobsters are negligibly senescent, meaning that they don’t show the normal symptoms of aging seen in the majority of life forms. No dimming eyesight, loose antennae or creaky claws for these guys. If not for the pleasure to our palates and the benefit to our stomachs, a lobster might live for 100 years or more. The primary downfall for the lobster, it seems, is the lobster trap.

Photo by Hartmut Inerle – CC BY-SA 3.0

A working lobster trap consists of three main parts: a combination wooden and wire frame, a rope and buoy to mark the location and bait (i.e. something that appeals to a lobster’s tastes). Mr. or Mrs. Lobster smells dead fish (or some other convenient bait) and is drawn to investigate. Access to the trap is easy as the oblivious victim races toward an easy dinner. Once the pleasant meal is consumed, however, life becomes rather unpleasant as the design of the trap turns freedom into a distant memory.

When Lucifer launched his zombie conspiracy we can image he spent considerable time designing a trap that would be effective in capturing and binding the human race. Humans are smart you know, so he had to get it right the first time. Any stupid mistakes and the opportunity to open Pandora’s Box could be lost forever.

More cunning than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, old slewfoot determined that the most effective bait would be the very same temptation that led to his precipitous fall from glory—the desire to be as God; or more appropriately put—the desire to be like God apart from God. And the plan worked, perhaps beyond even his twisted imaginations. In eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity found itself not only separated from God, but also under the devil’s crooked thumb, entrapped by a power called Sin from which no human could ever escape (or so Lucifer thought).

Thus began what we call the human condition. Upon the once peace-filled and pleasurable Garden of Eden, pain, suffering, violence and death descended like darkness—the full scope of which is yet to be seen.

Photo by Miles Teg – CC BY-SA 3.0

Christ came to deliver us from the zombie conspiracy, not only freeing us from the trap of sin, but systematically working to eliminate the three tentacles of the temptation (self-centeredness, self-sovereignty and self-glorification) that captured us in the first place. For us to experientially know true and lasting freedom, it is imperative that each of those ensnaring tentacles be thoroughly severed from our hearts.

Humans were intended to be non-senescent–unaffected by time or age. But unfortunately for us, separation from God unleashed torrents of death. If only we can get back to abiding in God’s grace, no power in hell will be able to squelch the power of the life He imparts!

Help My Unbelief!

I believe in God. Really, I do. I believe that He exists and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. I believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, that 2,000 years ago He walked this earth and died an excruciating death on the cross as a substitute for my sins. I believe that His tomb is empty, that He rose again on the third day, destroying the power of sin and freeing its captives. I believe that after I pass from this earth I’ll be immediately translated to heaven where I’ll spend all eternity in His presence.

The reality of the cross as my source of moral righteousness has permeated almost every nook and cranny of my heart. When I do sin, I’ve learned to go directly to God to confess my sins and find restoration. Rarely do I run from God or suffer under the weight of condemnation; instead I rest in God’s grace, fully realizing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. These truths are essential to the Christian life, but despite their importance, they don’t form the sum total of all that’s involved in walking with our Creator.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the multi-faceted grace of God, explaining how various expressions of grace empower us for different tasks in our service to the King. But if grace is multi-faceted, it stands to reason that faith has varied expressions as well. God-confidence in one area of life is no guarantee that we’ll be strong in every expression of our faith.

Photo by cohdra - morgueFile

There are days when I have difficulty freely giving of myself because I’m not quite sure that God will take care of me without that extra $25 in my wallet. All too often I get anxious about my schedule. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for me to find myself comparing myself to others in an effort to measure up to certain expected standards. Still, I believe. Really, I do.

I have a friend with an amazing gift of faith to believe for financial provision. I know few people as generous. At the same time, he struggles desperately to trust God for the restoration of broken relationships. His faith is rock-solid in one area, while quite weak in the other.

Understanding this type of variance will go a long way in helping us to live out the Gospel on a daily basis.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” Romans 1:16-17 (NASB)

In all likelihood, Paul is referring here to the growth and perfection of our faith for the sake of trusting God for our eternal salvation; however, it’s quite possible that he also had various expressions of faith in mind. In other words, God’s strong and ever-present desire is for us to go from weak to strong in faith for righteousness, faith for provision, faith for identity, faith for healing, etc.

By loco's photos - CC BY-ND 2.0

A one-dimensional view of faith does as much damage as a one-dimensional view of grace. Week after week we preach a message of salvation, breathing a collective sigh of relief when our loved ones have finally been caught and are resting safely in God’s fishing creel. The result is that we put little focus on the development and perfection of faith in other essential areas of life. All of this serves to make Christianity both boring and irrelevant to those who live in a very real world, facing very real day to day challenges. If our goal is to develop spiritually immature Christians, we can be sure that such a one-dimensional approach to faith/grace will put us on the fast track to zero growth.

Recently I came to the realization that I had allowed a number of past disappointments to undermine my trust in my heavenly Father. It’s difficult to explain, except perhaps to say that it’s like trying to run in faith with a spiritual limp. It hasn’t stopped me from moving forward, but I long to run after God free from any hindrance whatsoever.

As we’ll see in coming posts, various expressions of faith really do matter, and working through these types of issues requires thoughtful and honest prayer–something more than some type of faith formula that can be indiscriminately spread like butter over any area of life.

Lord, I believe. Really, I do. Please help my unbelief!

The Almost Gospels – Part I

I don’t plan to spend much time with the Almost Gospels since it’s all very negative, and even writing about them may give the feel that I speak from a place of perceived superiority. However, I know so many people whose lives are a mess because of an incorrect or incomplete understanding of the true Gospel that I am willing to risk coming across as a negatively minded know it all.

Photo by Ron Sombilon Gallery - CC BY-ND 2.0

The Santa Claus Gospel

The word “gospel” means good news. So just what is the good news? It’s all about us! Given the self-centered bent of human nature, it’s no surprise that humanism would somehow find its way into what we proclaim as the very core of the Christian faith.

Santa Claus is entirely a product of human imagination. The jolly old man exists only to fulfill our material desires. Parents have wisely added a touch of behavior modification with the threat of Santa’s naughty list. The punishment of coal in the stocking serves as a convenient threat to keep kids attuned to the wishes of mom and dad, but in the end Santa almost always winks at undesirable behavior.

Using a similar model, we’ve made this gospel all about what God can do for us. The underlying message is that the Creator of the universe exists solely for our benefit. Upon accepting His free gift of salvation, we are free to live any which way we please, knowing that a quick, semi-remorseful prayer is all that is needed for Him to come running to our rescue. And if He doesn’t respond according to our expectations? Why, we’re highly offended! After all, that’s what He’s there for, isn’t it?

Forget about the problem of sin; the Santa gospel is all about self-actualization with a focus on God’s servant-like willingness to fulfill our dreams and desires, fanning the flames of happiness in our hearts. After all, if it isn’t fun, then it can’t be God. And all of that stuff about suffering? Well, for the most part, it’s best to simply ignore anything that resembles unpleasant because even thinking about suffering is unpleasant in itself.

Photo by melodi2 - morgueFile

The Gospel of Jesus as Savior                (but not Lord)

This gospel dovetails nicely with the Santa Claus gospel. In its entirety grace is nothing more than God’s free gift of unmerited favor; how we live matters not. After all, God always understands and always stands willing to forgive. It almost goes without saying that He doesn’t seriously expect anything of us.

Through this mindset Christianity is about a destination rather than a relationship. The goal is simply make it to heaven someday. Heaven itself may or may not actually exist, so it’s always safer to raise one’s hand and pray to accept Christ–just in case it’s all for real.

Personal devotions are optional, or reserved for times of crisis. Connecting with a local body of believers may be helpful for social purposes, so long as nothing resembling commitment is involved. And repentance, well, that’s a word best left to the clerics. The bottom line is that an accountable, transformed life means little. I mean, why change when we’re good enough by human standards to navigate life on earth? What we need most is a kind, passive Savior whose angels will lovingly transport us to a better afterlife (if it exists).

I once read a book in which a well-known author encouraged his readers to send a whole bunch of prayers toward heaven. Most won’t hit their mark, he explained, but if you send enough, every now and again one might luckily connect. While I don’t subscribe to this random perspective of prayer, it does provide a picture of how I see the Almost Gospels working. For the most part, very little real transformation is involved, but every now and again the truth takes hold and someone strikes gold as he or she figures things out.

And while I am extremely thankful for the few who do end up genuinely walking with God, my heart breaks for the many more who profess Christ, but miss His transformational power. This is too important an issue for the church to maintain the status quo; in the long run their poor or non-existent witness discredits the true Gospel and actually hinders genuine seekers from drawing near to God. I think we can do better!