Category: Mark’s Blog

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.

ORIENTING OURSELVES TO ISAIAH

This article takes the place of a lesson that deals with the “introductory” or “background” information for the book of Isaiah. It is not intended to comprehensive.

Isaiah was a prophet of God, and his call to be a prophet of God is recorded in the pivotal and crucial sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah had disciples who were entrusted with his teachings (Isa. 8:16). The ministry of Isaiah took place around 740-701 B.C. and was primarily to South Judah (although he does address foreign nations).

The external threat to South Judah was the empire of Assyria. Assyria was entering its climactic century of world dominance. The Assyrian goal was to rule all of the lands to and including Egypt. Standing in the way were the eight little nations in the Canaanite strip: Tyre and Sidon, Syria, North Israel, South Judah, Philistia, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. By 701 B.C., these nations are systematically conquered by Assyria, with only South Judah remaining in 701 B.C. The more significant threat to South Judah was its covenant unfaithfulness. These events and realities constitute the historical background for Isaiah chapters 1-39.

There is a significant change in the material in chapter 40. Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah address the Babylonian crisis, exile and include Cyrus as God’s agent for returning South Judah’s exiles to the land of promise (Isa. 44:28; 45:1). The oracles describe a period of destruction and removal, with many of the people being deported far away from their land, which will be ravaged and destroyed. God’s mission for Isaiah required a protracted view into South Judah’s future. Stated another way, “even though Isaiah was living and serving in Jerusalem in the pre-exilic period and speaking to his contemporaries, he was also writing and speaking in such a way that it was almost as though his oracles were directed to the people that were living in those later time periods as well” (Tully, OT355 Book Study).

In its canonical form, chapters 1–5 function as an introduction for the whole book. These chapters depict altering scenes of the rebellion and corruption of South Judah in Isaiah’s day (1:1–31; 2:6–4:1; 5:1–30) and the future holiness and blessedness which the nation could enjoy (2:1–5; 4:2–6). Isaiah is presenting the problem that needs to be fixed. How can the promised holiness and blessedness replace rebellion and corruption?

Chapter 6 provides the answer and explains why the prophet’s call is only narrated after the reader has worked through the first five chapters. Like Isaiah needed to be cleansed by God, so too must the nation. According to John Oswalt (The Holy One Israel, 17):

In many ways the rest of the book is an outworking of the components of Isaiah’s experience on a national scale. Just as Isaiah needed to see both God and himself correctly (6:1–4), so did the nation (chaps. 7–39). Just as Isaiah needed to receive the fiery, but ultimately gracious cleansing of God (6:5–7), so did the nation (chaps. 40–55). And just as Isaiah needed to receive God’s commission (6:8–13), so did the nation (chaps. 56–66).

As you work your way through the book of Isaiah, it will be helpful to look for the following themes or motifs: judgment and hope (the concepts are often intertwined in Isaiah), light and darkness, blindness and deafness, rebellion and trust, highways and trees, righteousness, servant, remnant, and holiness. You will find more themes, but tracking these motifs will help one understand the message and unity of the book of Isaiah.

REASONS TO STUDY ISAIAH

Columbine is embarking on a study of the book of Isaiah. A reading plan is being supplied. The goal is to read five chapters of Isaiah a week (with the final week have six chapters). I plan to preach from a text Isaiah (which will generally come from the weekly readings). After the sermon, the discussion session will be open to all of the Isaiah readings from the previous week. For example, the lesson for February 7 will come from Isaiah chapters one through five, and the discussion session will be open to the material in Isaiah chapters one through five.

I hope you will plan to be involved with as many parts of this program as possible.

The discussion session will be significantly enhanced if you write down some thoughts, observations, and questions during your Isaiah reading time and then bringing them to the discussion session.

You might be asking, “why are we doing this?” That is a good question. I am asking myself this question as I write this article. The first reason for me is that I do not know Isaiah’s book nearly as well as I should. So, this will be a dedicated time to explore Isaiah. Getting through Isiah in three months is a significant undertaking. I already anticipate being frustrated because I will not have the time to delve into the book like I want to and need to.

A second reason to work through Isaiah in the next few months is due to the studies on Jesus that I have been doing and presenting. I kept finding texts from Isaiah “behind” what is written in the New Testament about Jesus. These findings told me that I need to understand Isaiah better.

Isaiah foretells of a “herald of good news” (Isa. 40:9; 52:7). This “good news” is about “beholding God” (Isa. 40:9), “salvation,” and God reigning (Isa. 52:7). This “good news” is also about the coming of a Servant who will accomplish our salvation (Isa. 53:4–6, 10–12).

A third reason to help clarify our understanding of God. Isaiah insists on the uniqueness of God. The defining expression of the uniqueness of is that of “the Holy One” or the “Holy One of Israel,” which occurs thirty times in the book. This “Holy One” is revealed to us as “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” with seraphim calling out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:1–3). This elevated vision of God is sustained through the entirety of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah is relentless God-centered, and God-focused, which is what I am about in my Christian understanding.

Although God is “high and lifted up,” He is not out of touch, out of reach, or unconcerned about people. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15). Isaiah tells us that this God comes to us.

A fourth reason to spend time in the book of Isaiah is to expand our hope. Isaiah informs the reader about “new things” (Isa. 42:9; 43:19; 48:6). One of the “new things” is the “new exodus” (Isa. 52:11-12) that is accomplished by the Servant. Another “new thing” is the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). Our future is a joyful feast in God’s presence, with his people, in a new creation forever (Isa. 25:6-8).

Isaiah is a large book and has some complicated material. I am convinced that the time and effort we will put into Isaiah will be richly rewarded as we grow closer to “the Holy One.”

Affirmations About God

There are many affirmations about who God, how He operates, and what He desires found in God’s self-revelation (the Bible). This short article will briefly touch on three of those affirmations.

God is demanding. We often forget this when we emphasize the Fatherhood of a loving God. The two concepts are not contradictory. God is a loving Father, but He desires that we mature (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:20-24; 2 Pet. 1:3-11; 3:18). He wants us to grow up to be something (like Him and His unique Son). His love makes demands on our life and time. He wants us to be about His business. He wants us busy in His vineyard. He places demands on us.

God is forgiving. “Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Anyone who has ever felt the acid bit of guilt, the warm flood of humiliation by getting caught in wrong, or the bitter cold of isolation from God, will find these words “Good News.” God is forgiving.

God is empowering. The inspired apostle Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19) and “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Ephesians 3:16). Through the Spirit and the power of His word, influenced by the example of the biblical hero’s, encouraged by the fellowship of the saints, and lifted by prayer, we are given the power to meet God’s demands and grow and work. No Christian should say of God’s demands, “I can’t.” If we do not meet His demands, it is because “I won’t.” But His forgiveness invites us to change my “I won’t” to “I will.”

Table Talk

“Table talk” in this article does not refer to the family conversation around the dinner table. “Table talk” in this musing relates to the spoken meditation before or during the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes this talk is called a “communion mediation.” I am sure there are also other ways of referring to it.

The “normal table talk” during the first twenty-three years of my Christian experience was concise. It usually consisted of a sentence or two about Jesus and the cross, a reading of Scripture, and prayer.

The “table talk” during the last seventeen of my Christian experience has been more expansive than during the previous twenty-three years. The “communion meditation” has now taken on almost mini-sermon proportions.

I understand that the longer meditation style was practiced in the early days of the Restoration Movement. The “communion talks” of Robert Richardson were highly esteemed.

I am not claiming that one way is correct and the other practice is wrong. I am advocating that whichever method is used, the “talk” prepares us for the Supper. I have endured some longer “table talks” that distracted me from the Supper and made me wish the shorter talk method was practiced. Sometimes those mini-sermon mediations do not take God’s people into the Supper.

Communion meditations are a way of remembering the Last Supper. At communion, it is crucial for the participates to focus on the solemnity of the occasion.

The following are a few “table talk” pointers:

  1. Plan your talk. Communion mediation is not the place for rambling thoughts. The table talk is not the place for social commentary. The table mediation is the time to prepare God’s people to partake of a covenant meal with our Lord.
  2. Variation in scripture reading helps the congregation to focus. Any scripture that leads us to the cross is appropriate.
  3. Do not be afraid to get personal. Jesus died for you.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PREPOSITIONS

Prepositions, by definition, are small words that create relationships between other words within a sentence.

Prepositions are often tiny words – like in, of, by, for, into, with, through, or to. But a preposition can be the most important word for understanding some sentences. There are not many of them, and they are powerful words.

The apostle Paul wrote, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). This phrase contains the tiny word “in” (ἐν). “Circumstances” is in italics because it is not in the Greek text but is supplied by the translators to make sense. The Greek text is ἐν παντὶ εὐχαριστεῖτε (“in all give our thanks”).

Paul could have written, “give thanks for all circumstances.” Paul did not use the preposition γάρ (“for”) but the preposition ἐν (“in”). Sometimes we can even give thanks “for” our circumstances, but other times all that we can do is be thankful “in” them.

In our joy and pain, we should be thankful people. I God’s mercy and grace, we should be grateful people. Even in the year 2020, we should be thankful people!

Prepositions are crucial in what the New Testament (especially the apostle Paul) tell Jesus’ followers about our relationship to Jesus. This is because prepositions indicate position and express relationships.

The entire relationship between God and His people is very well expressed with prepositions. “Union with Christ” is often used to describe Paul’s theology of being joined to Christ. Union refers to a profound spiritual connection to Christ through mutual indwelling by the Spirit. It is reflected in the phrases “in Christ,” “into Christ,” “with Christ,” “through Christ,” and so forth. It is also seen through various metaphors such as the body of Christ, clothing, the temple, and the church as the bride of Christ.

Participation refers to sharing in Christ’s key narrative events, such as His suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and glorification. Identification refers to shifting our allegiance the realm of sin and death to Christ and His realm of righteousness and peace. Incorporation refers to being members together in a corporate entity shaped by Christ.

All of God’s blessings are bestowed to believers through our union with Christ (Eph. 1:3).

Choose

Americans went to the polls on Tuesday and made choices concerning political candidates and various initiatives. As I write this article on a Wednesday afternoon, the results of some (many) of the election races are known. However, the POTUS (President of the United States) race is still not determined.

As significant as some of those election choices seem to be, they are not the most crucial choice.

Shortly before his death, Moses urged Israel to make a choice. The choice was between “life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). It was a call for Israel to obey God.

Deuteronomy 30:8-14 And you shall again obey the voice of the LORD and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 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?’ 13 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?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel together at Shechem and called for them to make a choice.

Joshua 24:14-15 Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

In the most famous sermon of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls on people to make a choice concerning which path, way, or road in life they will travel.

Matthew 7:13-14 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Whoever ends up being chosen as POTUS is not the most important decision people will make.

The way one chooses to go through life, the “road” that one takes is the most crucial choice. Will you choose to follow God or not. The choice between “life and good, death and evil” is the essential choice.