Author: Mark Johnson

Darkness And Light In Isaiah

The book of Isaiah begins with God’s people in rebellion and they need to learn to seek good (Isaiah 1:2-6, 16-23). Israel is in spiritual darkness and needs to submit to God and walk in His “light” (Isaiah 2:5). This interplay between light and darkness makes a significant contribution to the message of the book.

The theme of “light and darkness” is evident in Isaiah’s initial call to be a prophet. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:8-10). The rubric of “blind and see” contributes to “light and darkness” theme for spiritual understanding or lack of understanding (Isaiah 6:10; 29:9, 18; 35:5; 42:7, 16, 18, 19; 43:8; 56:10; 59:10).

The pairing of “light and darkness” occurs in eight places in the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:30 They will growl over it on that day, like the growling of the sea. And if one looks to the land, behold, darkness and distress; and the light is darkened by its clouds

Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined

Isaiah 42:16 And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them

Isaiah 45:7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things

Isaiah 50:10 Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God

Isaiah 58:10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday

Isaiah 59:9 Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom

Mark Johnson

IMPLICATION OF 1 CORINTHIANS 12:14

  1. The church doesn’t belong to any one of us (or even all of us). Christ is both the head (Col. 1:18) and the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20) of the church. It’s His church. Nobody – nobody – in a local church can legitimately say, “This is my church.” Christ is the one who purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28). “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ” (Eph. 5:23-24).
  2. The church is not dependent on any of us for survival. Some folks think their church will die without them, but God has a way of teaching us otherwise. The church is “nourished” by Christ (Eph. 5:29).
  3. Each person in the congregation matters; including those who seem less significant in the congregation. “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it” (1 Cor. 12:22-24). We should support, empower, and trust other church members (this is especially true for the leaders, Eph. 4:11-13).
  4. If every member is a clone, the church won’t be healthy. “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of 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?” (1 Cor. 12:15-17).
  5. No member is supposed to be doing everything. Some church members hold many positions, and there is a tendency to think of themselves as more faithful. It’s not biblical that any one member plays all the parts that God intends others to play. “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?” (1 Cor. 12:18-19).
  6. Members must never leave a body lightly. If one part of the body disappears, the entire body is weakened. There are times when it is right to leave one congregation to join another. Prayer, wisdom, and godliness are essential in this kind of transition for the body’s good.

Chuck Lawless (edited by Mark Johnson)

THE POTTER’S HANDS

The potter at work with the clay is one of God’s favorite images of Himself and people. God’s hands began shaping people at creation. “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew word for “formed” is יָצַר (yāṣar) which means to shape, form, fashion, or create.

The potter pictures God’s ability to fashion and make things. According to Alan Coppedge, the strength of the potter and clay image is its “graphicness in creating pottery, often beautifully,” and “the key purpose is to communicate that God has the power to do what seems good to Him to do (Jeremiah 18:4)” (Allan Coppedge, Portraits of God, Kindle).

Isaiah connects the role of the potter with God’s role as creator or maker.

Isaiah 45:9-12 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? 10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” 11 Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? 12 I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.

The potter image describes God as creator, and the above text also uses the concept of the potter to compare God with the work of a Father fashioning or shaping his children in their growth. The father aspect of the potter metaphor is brought to the forefront in Isaiah 64:8, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

The physical properties of clay make it a powerful biblical metaphor. It is soft and pliable in one form, and it can also be hard or brittle. Clay provides an excellent image for human beings as the work of God’s creative hand. As the master potter, God has the right to give each of His creations a specific shape and purpose (Leland Ryken, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity, 2000, 155).

We may not always like the way we are being shaped. The clay is gouged, poked, molded, heated, etc., as the potter works. Yet, it is futile for the clay to argue with the potter (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:19-21). The potter uses the clay to express His will. The clay needs the potter; without the potter, the clay is formless (purposeless).

We must be careful and not become “spoiled” clay (Jeremiah 18:3-6) or too hard for the potter to use. Let us determine to be soft, moldable, pliable clay that is open to God’s Word and God’s people. Sometimes this is painful. Yet the call is to have the attitude of the psalmist:

Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me

Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Mark Johnson

The Cloud Rider

Clouds rarely appear in the Bible in a simple meteorological context, which means that clouds often have a theological meaning. When Israel “looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10). After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelite journey through the cloud, and the fire represents God’s presence with them during their journey (Exod. 13:21, 22; 14:19, 20, 24; Neh. 9:12, 19; Pss. 78:14; 99:7; 105:39).

Several passages associate God’s appearance as a warrior with the cloud. Michael Heiser wrote the following concerning the widespread concept in the ancient Near East that the one who rides the clouds is a deity:

In the Ugaritic texts, the god Baal is called “the one who rides the clouds.” The description became an official title of Baal, whom the entire ancient Near Eastern world considered a deity of rank. To ancient people all over the Mediterranean, Israelite or not, the “one who rides the clouds” was a deity—his status as a god was unquestioned. Consequently, any figure to whom the title was attributed was a god (Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015, 251).

The writers of the Hebrew Bible were familiar with Baal and the Baal stories because the worship of Baal was an ongoing problem in Israel. One thing these inspired authors of the Old Testament did to counter the Baal legends and emphasize that Yahweh (the God of Israel) should be worshiped instead of Baal was to depict the God of Israel as the real warrior who rider the clouds as His chariot. Please do not misconstrue my point. Yahweh is the real cloud rider (the Old Testament authors did not image Him as something He is not).

Deuteronomy 33:26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty

Psalm 18:6-12 In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. 7 Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. 8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. 9 He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 10 He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. 12 Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds.

Psalm 68:4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the LORD; exult before him!

Psalm 68:32-34 O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God; sing praises to the Lord, Selah 33 to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice. 34 Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel, and whose power is in the skies

Psalm 104:1-4 Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, 2 covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. 3 He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; 4 he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire.

Isaiah 19:1 An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.

Nahum 1:3 The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.

The point of this recurring image of God is to tell the reader that when God puts on His armor (Isa. 59:17) and rides His cloud chariot, things happen. God is doing battle for righteousness and justice. God is waging a spiritual war against the powers of darkness.

When the warrior God goes to battle, it is an excellent time to make sure that you are “on the Lord’s side” (Exodus 32:26).

This image is carried into the New Testament with Jesus as the “son of man coming on the clouds” (Daniel 7:13; Matthew 24:30; 26:57-66; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 17:24-25; 21:27; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Revelation 1:7; 14:14-16).

I AM HE WHO COMFORTS YOU

There is a multitude of “I am” statements God makes in the book of Isaiah. Yet, God makes one “I am” statement in the first thirty-nine chapters (Isaiah 28:16 thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion). Only two “I am” statements are made by God in chapters fifty through sixty-six (Isa. 60:22; 65:5).

Things are dramatically different in Isaiah chapters forty-one through fifty-one. God identifies Himself over thirty-five times as “I am” in this section of Isaiah. Some of the ways that God identifies Himself with the “I am” include:

Eternal – Isa. 41:2; 44:6; 48:12

With His people – 41:10; 43:5

One who helps (strengthens) – Isa. 41:10, 13, 14; 48:17

His name (glory) – Isa. 42:6, 8

The holy one – Isa. 43:3, 15

Savior – Isa. 43:3; 43:11, 12, 13; 49:26

Does a new thing – Isa. 43:19

Blots out sin – Isa. 43:25

Creator – Isa. 44:24; 45:7; 51:15

Unique – Isa. 45:5, 18, 22; 46:9; 47:8

Trustworthy – Isa. 49:23

All of these are great, important, and helpful self-designations (self-revelations) by God. The “I am” that struck me in the Isaiah readings this past week was, “I, I am he who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12).

One reason that “I am he who comforts you” stood out from the other designations for me is because of the implications it has for our understanding of God’s character. Since Marcion of Pontus in the early to mid-second century, the Old Testament’s God has severed from the New Testament’s God. The Old Testament God has been characterized as a God of anger, wrath, and malice (in contrast to the God of the New Testament being a God of love and grace). Marcion’s reading of the Old Testament and God’s characterization continues to occur, taught, and promoted (in various forms and degrees in our time).

Disconnecting the God of the New Testament from the Old Testament is absolutely wrong.

Separating the God of the New Testament from the God of the Old Testament is biblically incorrect.

Characterizing the Old Testament God as angry, wrath and malicious misses what the Hebrew Scriptures claim concerning God. Does God get angry? Yes. But His anger is not triggered nearly as fast as our anger is, and His anger is not about trivial things. By the way, the wrath of God is not just an Old Testament concept (for example, read John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).

God reveals Himself as a God of “comfort” in Isaiah 51:12!

The second reason “I am he who comforts you” stood out from the other designations for me is because of the importance of the “comfort” motif in Isaiah 40-55.

The Hebrew word that is translated as “comfort” is נחם (nāḥam) and occurs 108 times in the Old Testament. נחם (nāḥam) is the word that is found in Psalm 23:4, where David says of his heavenly Shepherd, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

According to Marvin Wilson,

The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of “breathing deeply,” hence the physical display of one’s feelings, usually sorrow, compassion, or comfort. The second primary meaning of nāḥam is “to comfort” (Piel) or “to be comforted” (Niphal, Pual, and Hithpael). This Hebrew word was well known to every pious Jew living in exile as he recalled the opening words of Isaiah’s “Book of Consolation,” naḥămû naḥămû ʿammî “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (Isa 40:1). (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1999, 570-571)

According to Ludwig Koehler, “to comfort does not mean to sympathize but to encourage” (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1994–2000, 689).

Similar to the “I am” statements, the word “comfort” (nāḥam) rarely occurs in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah (1:24; 12:1; 22:4) and chapters fifty-six through sixty-six (57:18; 61:2; 66:13).

Chapter forty is Isaiah’s recommissioning and begins with the charge to “Encourage, encourage my people” by God (Isaiah 40:1). This recommissioning is an extension and expansion of Isaiah’s prophetic call found in chapter 6. No longer is the prophetic message to be primarily one of judgment. Now the message is to be one of hope.

The repeated verbs “comfort” (nāḥam) are plural imperatives commanding the prophet what to say to God’s people. The God of comfort (Isa. 51:12) wants His people “comforted” (“encouraged”) because God’s servants will be crushed to the ground under the burden of their sins. The message to be proclaimed to them is that the exile was not designed to destroy them but only to punish them. God has a word of hope for them.

The verb disappears for a few chapters but then emerges again in chapter 49 at verse 19, “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! for the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” “Comfort” (nāḥam) occurs six more times in the following five chapters (Isa. 51:3, 12, 19; 52:9; 54:11).

The need for God’s people to be encouraged is because they are struggling in their faith, as they are following foreign gods (Isaiah 40:18–20; 44:9–20; 46:1–7), doubting God’s trustworthiness (Isaiah 40:27), and needing to be commanded to heed God’s word (Isaiah 55:1–3, 6–7).

God’s people asked, “Are you really the one who did all those wonderful things in the past?” (Isaiah 51:9–10). God responds with a definitive “I, I am he, your comforter” (Isaiah 51:12). God offers Himself as the constant comforter to His fearful people in Isaiah 51:12. The reality of God being able to comfort His people is predicated on His uniqueness and incomparability.

Like the people of God that Isaiah addressed, God’s people still need to be encouraged today (have God’s hope spoken to us). Let us provide a word of comfort, a word of encouragement to our brothers and sisters in the Lord this week (maybe even every day this week). God will be glorified, the body of Christ strengthened, and you will be manifesting the character of God by doing this simple task.

Mark Johnson

Walk His Way

We are now 45 chapters into the book of Isaiah. One theme that has emerged in these chapters is that of “way.” Isaiah used several words to develop this motif, including (but not limited to): way (דֶּ֫רֶךְ, dārak – 41 occurrences in Isaiah), highway (מַסְלוּל, mesillâ – 7 occurrences in Isaiah), path (אֹ֫רַח, ʾāraḥ – nine occurrences in Isaiah), and way/path (מַעְגָּל, maʿgāl – two occurrences in Isaiah). I am familiar with this motif in the Wisdom Literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). I also knew that the “way” motif made cameo appearances in the Prophetic Literature. However, in Isaiah, the “way” is one of the book’s central themes, not just a bit part.

All humanity, righteous and wicked alike, are on a journey along a “way” that leads to life or death. “The difference of outcome lies strictly in how the individual identifies himself with Yahweh, and the success or failure of the journey of the believer is determined by the degree to which the traveler is obedient to the covenant stipulations that govern the pursuit of the spiritual itinerary” (Thomas McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise, 153). In other words, to obtain a successful outcome from walk one’s path in life (“spiritual journey”), one’s life needs to find its orientation from or in the God of the covenant (Eugene Merrill, “דָּרַךְ (dārak)” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 1997, 989).

The problem is people often seek their “path” through life based on “the way of the heart” (Isa. 57:17) or the way of human culture (Isa. 8:11; 30:21; 53:6). What is needed is the disclosure of a path from outside us, from above us. Mercifully, God has revealed the way for us to go: “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go” (Isa. 48:17). Yet, there is often resistance to the way of the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 30:11).

Isaiah 2:2-5 is the initial appearance of the “way” theme in Isaiah’s book and provides insight concerning several aspects about the “way” of the LORD. First, the “way” comes from the house of the LORD (Zion). Second, the “way” is about the way one “walks” (lives). Third, the “way” is something that is learned by being taught the word (or law) of the LORD. To keep the law is, at the same time, to walk in the ways of the LORD. Finally, the “way” results in peace. These observations indicate that “way” or “path” is used in a metaphorical or symbolic sense.

Isaiah urged those who walk in darkness not to despair but to trust in God (Isa 50:10). To fear and trust God is to live life as God designed it. There is a path made by God, a highway created as a standard to which human behavior should adhere. The heart of the problems in Isaiah’s time remains the root of our contemporary problems – failure to trust and obey God!

The way of God is one doing the right things in God’s sight (Isa. 26:7), practicing justice (Isa. 26:8), and holy living (Isa. 35:8). This is a life that is “grounded in a walk that adheres to covenant principles. It is that kind of lifestyle that will characterize the walk of all of God’s saints in the eschatological age (Isa. 2:3).

Intertwined with the “way” motif is the word “walk.” Eugene Merrill writes, “Just as דֶּרֶךְ (“way”) is the most common metaphor for life, so הָלַךְ is the vb. most frequently employed to describe the act or process of living. It occurs more than 1500× in all, with several hundred examples of a figurative rather than literal meaning” (Eugene Merrill, “הָלַךְ (hālak)” in NIDOTT, 1033).

Students of the New Testament recognize that both “way” and “walk” are essential concepts for the Christ-follower. For instance, Jesus stated that He is the “way” (John 14:6). Following the Wisdom Literature teaching (and the prophets), Jesus explained that there are two ways, one way leads to destruction, and the other path leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). It appears that the early church favored the designation of “the way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) and taught people the “way of God” (Acts 18:26).

The apostle Paul preferred the symbolic use of the term “walk” for “lifestyle” from the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul’s usage of “walk” is evident in the Ephesian letter (Ephesians 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2,  7-8, 15).

The holy God has graciously provided a “highway” for people to “walk” in loving fellowship with Him. The prophet Isaiah wrote about this way. Jesus claimed that He is the way. The early church instructed people in the way. The apostle Paul provided instruction for walking the path of God.

Are you walking God’s way?

IS THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW A BURDEN, IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP?

In the small book “Lies My Preacher Told Me: An Honest Look At The Old Testament” by Brent Strawn (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), the author deals with ten common mistruths concerning the Hebrew Scriptures that many people have. I shared the first mistruth that Strawn dealt with (“the Old Testament is someone else’s mail”) a couple of weeks ago.

Mistruths can be more harmful than lies. Mistruths are like misinformation in this way: they are hard to expose and to set the record straight. Mistruths are thus far more insidious and intractable than a bald-faced lie: they extend their tendrils to all sorts of areas, like the roots of a tree, so that uprooting them is often very difficult (2).

In his book, Strawn deals with the ninth mistruth that “the Old Testament Law is nothing but a burden, impossible to keep.” I am sure that you have heard this. Strawn opens the about this mistruth by relating a conversation he had with one of his in-laws. The in-law said, “I thought Jesus came because we couldn’t keep the law.” The author’s response was, “I think Jesus came because we didn’t keep it.” Strawn notes, “The difference in those two sentences is slight, grammatically, but truly massive, theologically. My in-law thought the necessity of Jesus’ incarnation was related to the inability of people to keep the Old Testament Law: at best the Law was a burden they couldn’t, in the end, shoulder.” (84)

The “Old Testament Law” is generally defined as the first five books of the Old Testament (also referred to as the Pentateuch and Torah). The Pentateuch is composed of more than law; there is narrative, song, and poem. The rabbis identified 613 laws in the Pentateuch, primarily found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

You have probably heard the “613 law” factoid numerous times, and it is usually used to emphasize how oppressive the Mosaic law was. I wonder how many national, state, and county laws each of us has to obey? I am sure that the total is more than 613 (the IRS tax code is probably more than 613 by itself). Yet, somehow we survive and do feel too burdened (the tax may be an exception). More importantly, it is the reality that most Israelites were not responsible for keeping all 613 laws. The vast number of those laws concerned the priesthood and the sacrifices, and the high priest had the most laws to obey.

If the Mosaic Law was unbearable, the Pentateuch never presents it that way: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

The Psalmists did not think of God’s Law as a burden:

Psalm 1:2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 19:7-9 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;  8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;  9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

Psalm 37:30-31 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. 31 The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.

Psalm 40:8 I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.

Psalm 119:1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!

Psalm 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.

Psalm 119:72 The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Psalm 119:92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.

Psalm 119:97 Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

Psalm 119:165  Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.

Psalm 119:174 I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.

The Hebrew Scriptures “never presents the Law as something designed to frustrate the people; quite to the contrary, it is part of the covenant relationship that Israel willingly enters into in grateful response to the prior gracious salvation of God, experienced in the Exodus” (86). Strawn goes on to write, “there is no works righteousness in the Old Testament or Judaism. The Law is thus a measure of grateful obedience offered back to a gracious God. In this way, the Law is a means—a divinely given means—to maintain the relationship with the Lord who saves” (86).

Even after the golden calf disaster (Exodus 32), Israel can be forgiven (Exodus 32-34) and continue as God’s covenant people with God dwelling in their midst (Exodus 33:9-17; 40:34-38). The Law did not call for perfection but grateful obedience. The Law contains provisions for failure within it. “The details about sacrifice, including sacrifice for sin, come in Leviticus 1–7, hard and fast on the heels of “Calfgate” in Exodus, showing the way Old Testament Law accounts for and atones for disobedience. And the very center of Leviticus, itself the very center of the Torah, is Leviticus 16, which concerns the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when everyone gets all of their sins, of whatever sort or severity, forgiven for sure at least once each year. Yom Kippur and the sacrificial system are all part of Old Testament Law, the Law that God gave. If the Law is a burden, it is a burden that the Law itself helps to carry” (89).

According to the Gospel of Luke, there were Israelites who kept the Law. The inspired author of the Gospel describes both Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). In the next chapter, the reader is introduced to Simeon, described as “righteous and devout” (Luke 1:25). The Mosaic Law does not appear to have been a burden to these people.

How did the apostle Paul describe the Law? “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Paul claimed that he kept the Law when he wrote, “as to righteousness, under the law blameless” (Philippians 3:6).

There are several (many) mistruths that have been unwittingly (and sometimes purposefully) passed on by people with good hearts and good intentions. However, good hearts and good intentions do not turn a mistruth into truth.

Are The Hebrew Scriptures Our Mail?

I just read a small book entitled “Lies My Preacher Told Me: An Honest Look At The Old Testament” by Brent Strawn (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021). Strawn deals with ten common mistruths concerning the Hebrew Scriptures that many people have. There are a few things that I can’t entirely agree with in the book (like any book by a human author), but Strawn is correct with the identification, clarification, and correction of these mistruths.

Strawn notes that the title is a spin-off of James Loewen’s well-known “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” The author then indicates that he is dealing with mistruths and not “lying” because “lying implies intentional misrepresentation of the truth, and I suspect – or at least I dearly hope – that that is rarely the case in the church contexts” (p.1).

Mistruths can be more harmful than lies.

Mistruths are like misinformation in this way: they are hard to expose so as to set the record straight. Mistruths are thus far more insidious and intractable than a bald-faced lie: they extend their tendrils to all sorts of areas, like the roots of a tree, so that uprooting them is often very difficult (2).

The first mistruth that Strawn deals with in his book is the statement that the “Old Testament is someone else’s mail.” The response to that statement is “yes” and “no.”

The Hebrew Scriptures are someone else’s mail because they are not addressed initially to you and me. However, the same is true for the New Testament. I did not live in the first century, and I do not live in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, etc. Strawn states, “the Old Testament wasn’t originally written to Christian believers in the twenty-first century, but neither was the New Testament” (5).

Part of what drives a statement that the first two-thirds of the Bible is “someone else’s mail” is that the Hebrew Scriptures were not originally written for or to Christians. This aspect of the statement seems to be blissfully ignorant that the Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible of the first Christians. “The Old Testament was, therefore, the only Scripture that early (Jewish) Christians knew. Or that Jesus knew” (p. 6).

When the New Testament was written by God-inspired writers, they relied on the Hebrew Scriptures. Citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament are in the hundreds. Strawn notes:

even more prevalent are the “under the surface” echoes and allusions to the Old Testament found throughout the New Testament. These number in the thousands. One way to put this would be to say that if you tried to remove all of the Old Testament “stuff’ from the body of the New Testament, the patient wouldn’t survive the surgery (pp. 6-7).

The inspired apostle wrote the following concerning the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures for the saints:

Romans 4:22-25 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

1 Corinthians 9:8-10 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.

1 Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

It should not escape our notice that at least twenty years after the new covenant was initiated, Paul believed that the Old Testament was still relevant for those “in Christ.”

It is a mistruth that the Old Testament is “someone else’s mail.” Not only are the Hebrew Scriptures “our mail,” but according to Paul, the Old Testament is exceeding useful for those who follow Christ:

2 Timothy 3:14-17 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

As Strawn closes his chapter concerning the mistruth that the “Old Testament is someone else’s mail,” he writes:

The real truth is that the entirety of Scripture—Old Testament and New—is to be viewed and heard as an urgent speaking presence exercising benevolent pressure on our lives. That statement does not mean that the Old Testament (or the New for that matter) is always easy to understand, let alone easy to apply to our lives now (9).

Much more could be written about this, but this should suffice.

Depending on how one currently understands the Old Testament place for the Christian, “Lies My Preacher Told Me” will either be challenging or encouraging.

The Warrior God

Throughout the Bible, God appears as a mighty warrior who battles against evil in the spiritual and physical worlds. The image of the warrior God is found as early as the Exodus.  After God delivers Israel from Egyptian slavery at the Red Sea, Moses and Israel sing a victory song that asserts, “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name” (Exodus 15:3). The Bible virtually closes with King of kings and Lord of lords’ vision victory over physical and spiritual foes (Revelation 19:11-21).

According to Tremper Longman III, the biblical picture of God as a warrior is developed in five stages:

The first stage is God’s appearance as a warrior who fights on behalf of his people Israel against their flesh-and-blood enemies. The second stage overlaps with the first, yet culminates Israel’s independent political history as God fights in judgment against Israel itself. The Old Testament period ends during the third stage as Israel’s prophets look to the future and proclaim the advent of a powerful divine warrior . . . The Gospels and letters reflect on the fourth stage, Christ’s earthly ministry as the work of a conqueror, though they also look forward to the next stage. The fifth and final stage is anticipated by the church as it awaits the return of the divine warrior who will judge the spiritual and human enemies of God (God Is a Warrior, Zondervan, Kindle Edition).

There are many accounts of God fighting Israel’s physical enemies, which He promised to do as long as Israel was covenant faithful (Deuteronomy 28:7). One dramatic revelation of the warrior God took place before the battle of Jericho when Joshua beholds “a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand” (Joshua 5:13). The identity of this person is that of the “commander of the LORD’s army,” and His presence makes the ground “holy” (Joshua 5:14-15). Then, the LORD gives the battle plans for Jericho to Joshua (Joshua 6:1-5).

The primary symbol of God’s presence with Israel’s army was the ark of the covenant. Typically located in the sanctuary’s most holy place, the ark was removed to accompany the army during war times. The account of the defeat of Jericho focuses on the ark of the covenant (Joshua 6:4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13). “The ark then functioned somewhat like the divine standard of the armies of the ancient Near East. It was a tangible representation of a spiritual reality–God’s presence as divine warrior with his people” (Longman, Warrior).

God fighting for and against Israel is depicted in the poetic and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. The portraiture of the warrior, God in the Psalms, includes: 1) God fighting alone, sometimes by a miracle without any physical means and other times by using weapons (Psalms 7:12–13; 17:13–14; 35:1–3; 59:11–12; 64:7); 2) God using elements of nature such as fire, lightning, and hail as weapons (Psalms 18:12–19; 68:8–10; 83:13–18; 97:3–5); 3) God leading a divine army of heavenly beings (Psalm 34:7); and 4) God as the commander of Israel’s army as it goes into war (Psalms 18:34; 44:9; 60:10; 124:2–3). “By using the imagery of Yahweh as a divine warrior, these texts recast the community’s military victories as gifts rather than accomplishments achieved by its own might” (B. E. Kelle, “Warfare Imagery,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, 831).

The divine warrior motif carries forward into the New Testament. John states, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Immediately following His baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to do battle with Satan (Mark 1:12-13). Following His victory in the wilderness, Jesus assaults the kingdom of Satan by preaching the “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14-15) and casting out demons (Mark 1:23-25). Satan did his worst to Jesus at the cross. Yet, Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave and ascended to the throne of God (Ephesians 1:18-23) and disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

Though Satan was defeated, the battle continues to battle rage. As Leland Ryken observes, “The period of time between the cross and Christ’s return is the time … the battle continues, and the church is called upon to wage war against God’s enemies just as Israel was God’s army in the OT. The difference is that the church’s weapons are spiritual, not physical” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 213). It is in this time that you and I live. It is in this time that we are to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” by putting on God’s armor and doing battle against the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20).

(a longer form of this article is published in the March edition of The Unveiled Gospel)

Thinking About God

It is a good thing (helpful, beneficial, profitable) thing to think about God. I hope you agree with this statement. The problem with thinking about God is that God is grander than we can comprehend. The love of Christ alone “surpasses knowledge,” and God’s power can accomplish more than all that we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:19-20). Attempting to comprehend what surpasses my comprehension makes my head hurt and tempts me to not think about God.

The reality is, we all have thoughts about God. Some of our beliefs concerning God are accurate, and some are inaccurate. Some of our reflections about God are well informed, and some are not. We are all theologians (“theology” means the study or thinking about God). The question is whether we are good or bad theologians. There are plenty of bad theologians of various persuasions, beliefs, and abilities; let us decide not to be inadequate or inept theologians (God thinkers).

I do not know how much or how little Isaiah the son of Amoz had thought about God before the year that Uzziah, the king of South Judah, died. I do know that Isaiah’s thinking about God was profoundly impacted by an encounter with God in the year that king Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1).

Isaiah states that he “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1), he heard that the LORD is “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3), and this encounter left him undone (Isaiah 6:5). Encountering God can do this to us because God is absolutely holy. Thankfully the holy LORD does not want to leave people in an undone condition. Isaiah is purified and commissioned (Isaiah 6:7-13).

This God encounter seems to have profoundly influenced Isaiah. Isaiah refers to God as the “Holy One” twenty-nine times in the book (Isa. 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:17, 20; 12:6; 17:7; 29:19, 23; 30:11, 12, 15; 31:1; 37:23; 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14, 15; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5; 60:9, 14). Isaiah’s understanding of God was deepened, enhanced, and changed by his encounter with God.

I do not expect to have the same kind of encounter with God that Isaiah had, but that does not mean that one does not encounter God. When we open God’s Word to read and study it, we should be encountering God. When we join God’s people in worship, we should be encountering God. These God encounters should be deepening, enhancing, and changing our understanding of God. We should be thinking about God in our times of study, reflection, and worship.

It may hurt “stretching the brain,” but our understanding of our God should not be stagnant. God is too grand not to contemplate. God is too magnificent not to reflect on and about. God is too incomparable not to ponder. God is too extraordinary not to consider. Let’s commit to thinking about God and letting those thoughts draw us closer to Him in heart, mind, and life.