Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's Missing?

Reading: Numbers 15  
I suppose there are not many devotionals written on Numbers 15—even fewer on the verses I have in mind. However, as my bible reading plan had me reading Numbers 14-17, I couldn't help but notice something missing in chapter 15. “Missing,” I say only in the sense that it seems obvious to me that it ought to have been there.
In this chapter, there are instructions about what to do if the whole community or an individual is led astray1 into sin, and how an offering can be made for atonement (Numbers 15:22-29). There are instructions for those who blaspheme the Lord in open pride (Numbers 15:30-31) and how they are to be removed from the community. Then there is this odd little story about a man found gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). He is brought before the community and held in custody until they decided what to do with him.
35Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:35-36)
Now I am not sure as to whether gathering wood on the Sabbath constitutes a sin in which one is led astray and deceived, or whether it constitutes blasphemy against the Lord in a self-exalting manner, but I lean toward the former. Regardless, though, it still seems that something is missing.
It may well be that the reason this story is here is only to teach us about the holiness of God that we might fear Him and keep His commandments. And it may be that the observation that I am about to make is unintended by the Author of the Bible. However, I offer this observation and will let you decide. My observation is that something is blatantly missing in this story; that Numbers 15:36 ought to have been able to report something else. Something else that didn't happen but should have.
This chapter is sandwiched between two chapters in which the Lord also spoke and told Moses that someone was to die. In those chapters, the Lord told Moses the whole community was to die—this same community that is doing that stoning here in Numbers 15:36. (See Numbers 14:11-12; 16:21.)
In each of the cases in Numbers 14 and 16, although the Lord told Moses the community was to die, they didn't. Why? Because Moses interceded on their behalf (Numbers 14:13-20; 16:22-23). Now in the latter case, some still died, but only those who had acted in self-exalting pride while the community was spared. And yet the community still complained against the Lord and the Lord once again declared He would destroy them instantly, and once again Moses and Aaron interceded and made atonement for the people (Numbers 16:41-50). So the account in chapter 15 is followed by two accounts in a row of the community being condemned to die and spared through intercession. (See also Numbers 21:7.)
What do I think is missing in Numbers 15? Let's compare. In Numbers 15 we have sin just as we find in Numbers 14 and 16. In Numbers 15 we have the Lord announcing the judgment of death just as in Numbers 14 and 16. But, in Numbers 15 we don't read, “But the community fell on its face before God and cried out for the Lord to spare the man.” This is the same community who was sentenced to die and was spared through the intercession of Moses in chapter 14. They don't seem to understand what Moses understood when he interceded on their behalf.
Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 18'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.' 19In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now. (Numbers 14:17-19)
They don't understand the nature of God's love. The same people who here receive mercy fail to call on God for the same mercy on behalf of others. I wonder how many of the Israelites, as they were picking up stones and stoning the man thought to themselves, “Wow, I hope I never get caught doing what I've been doing.” Where was the intercessor to say, “Let the one without sin be the first to cast the stone.”
Moses was a great intercessor. We have an even greater intercessor—Jesus Christ. Moses turned away God's wrath. Jesus absorbed God's wrath on our behalf. Yet how many of us are found in the prayer meetings, or before the throne of God in private interceding on behalf of those who are condemned to die all around us? I don't say that to condemn, but rather to spur us on to cry out to God on behalf of the lost. The Lord is abounding in love and forgiveness. Would that we would call on Him and experience His pardon in the lives of the lost around us.
As I read the account of the man brought before the community in Numbers 15:32-36, I can't help but think of some who have inquired, “Does this church practice church discipline?” (Meaning, do we practice Matthew 18 and, if need be, remove people from the church when they are unrepentant.) Although my answer is, “Yes,” I sometimes wonder if they are asking because they want to make sure we are laboring to restore people, or if they are just a little too anxious to see people called to account for their sin. Maybe it is in their tone, or their follow up questions that make me wonder.
If we were present in the wilderness in Numbers 15, would we have picked up stones, or fell on our face before God in intercession? Is that the point of Numbers 15? I can't say that it is, but I can't say that it isn't. I can only offer the observation. I am not certain something is missing in Numbers 15, but maybe the bigger question for us is whether there is something missing in our own lives. Are we interceding for the dying world around us? Are we interceding for the struggling brother or sister in our church? Am I? Are you? (See Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1“Unintentionally” is the translation of a word that means to be led astray and has in its etymology the idea of having been deceived. This is contrasted with the person who sins “with a high hand” or sins exalting himself above God. The difference seems to be not in whether one intended to sin or not, but whether one was knowingly exalting himself over God, or deceived and led astray by the enemy.   

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Day Every Prayer is Answered: A Meditation in Psalm 102

Reading: Psalm 102
God does not despise the prayers and entreaties of the destitute (Psalm 102:17). The destitute are those brought to the lowest low; they are desperate. The description of this psalm in the Hebrew manuscript reads: A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD. (Psalm 102:1 ESV)
Many of us are well aware Israel tested God by their complaining in the wilderness. They were complaining because they didn't like God's provision and the fact that He didn't bring them to a resort the week after they got out of slavery. That kind of complaining is reprimanded in Scripture. However, there is a complaint that God hears. In fact, it is a whole category of prayer called “lament.” It is the complaint of faith—the faith of the destitute that knows something is wrong in the world and refuses to accept that God will do nothing about it. Verses 1-11 demonstrate what those prayers often look like.
Hear my prayer, LORD; let my cry for help come to you. 2Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. 3For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. 4My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. 5In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones. 6I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. 7I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof. 8All day long my enemies taunt me; those who rail against me use my name as a curse. 9For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears 10because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. 11My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
Job prayed many prayers of lament in the middle portion of that book. There are many psalms which are prayers of lament. We even find some in the Gospels... most notably the application of Jeremiah 31:15 to the slaughter of children in Bethlehem with Rachel weeping for her children (Matthew 2:18). That was the ultimate lament and Matthew's Gospel is pointing to the coming of Jesus Christ as the ultimate answer to that lament.
The psalmist brings his complaint in faith. In Psalm 102:12 he begins to speak of what God is like. First he had laid out his own situation and the reason for his crying out as he is. Now he lays out truth about God that anchors his soul in the middle of his desperate circumstances. In this, the psalmist speaks of what he knows God will do. This is his hope (meaning expectation; not wish).
13You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come.... 15The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. 16For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. 17He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea.
When will God do this? Verse 13 alludes to the time for this: “for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come.” God will do this at the appointed time. When is it that this “appointed time” comes? When will all this happen?
This will be written for a later generation, and a newly created people will praise the LORD: (Psalm 102:18 HCSB)
Newly created people” expresses well the more literal, “a people yet to be created”. What generation is this? Who are these people yet to be created when the Lord will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory?
The language of verse 13, “...for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come” is reminiscent of Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Cor. 6:2. There in the time of God's acceptance of us He listened (answered their cry); in the day of salvation He came to their aid. And the context of 2 Corinthians 6:2 makes clear that this day is the day the Gospel is made known to us that God is not holding our sins against us but rather Jesus bore those sins and gave us his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). There we discover who this “newly created people” are: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17) Psalm 102 is fulfilled in Christ and results in the creation of the church!
God does not despise the complaint of the destitute. He suffers with them. He is moved with compassion. He took on flesh that He might bear their griefs and carry their sorrows (Isaiah 53:4 ESV). The day that God ultimately answers all prayers of lament is the day we hear the message of Jesus Christ and our hearts are opened to see Christ and be saved. For only in salvation can there truly be the answer to our griefs and deliverance to a new heaven and earth where everything is made new.
God hears the prisoner's groaning; He sets free those condemned to die, so that they may go forth in their freedom and declare the name of Yahweh in Zion. God does this to assemble peoples (all nations) and kingdoms to serve the Lord (Psalm 102:20-22). This reminds me of what Jesus declared when He said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to send forth the oppressed in their release...” (Luke 4:18 my translation of the last phrase).
God frees us and sends us to free others. God hears our complaint and answers us in Jesus Christ. And then God uses us to reach others and answer their complaint by saving them too. No longer because of God's wrath will he cast us aside (Psalm 102:10).
[Side note: This does not mean that God does not also hear our cries and change our circumstances (heal; provide; deliver). That would make this a cold, unfeeling answer. It would also disregard the multitude of times that God did answer and heal, raise to life, provide, etc. But all of those “mini-salvations” are only small pieces along the way in the grand salvation that we have in Jesus. And without the grand salvation, they would be ultimately meaningless as all would end in damnation.]
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Don't Be So Quick to Blame the Devil

Reading: John 10  
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
How often have we heard this scripture quoted and assuming the thief is the devil? Don't get me wrong, I am not disputing the fact that the devil is a thief. Nor that he is bent on destruction. He is indeed. But by too quickly concluding that Jesus is speaking of the devil here we might miss the more significant and relevant application for those in positions of leadership over God's people. If we read more carefully we may find a warning for leaders to beware lest they be the thief who destroys.
This scripture has a context, and the context of this verse doesn't seem to have anything to do with devils or demons. The context of this verse is all about presumed leaders of God's people who prevent the people from seeing Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The end of John 9 flows right into the beginning of John 10:
39Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." 40Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, "What? Are we blind too?" 41Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. 10:1"Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. (John 9:39-41; 10:1)
In John 10, Jesus is speaking to the same pharisees as in chapter 9. He tells them they are guilty of sin and under judgment. The “very truly I tell you...” of John 10:1 is a continuation of the same thought. John 10 is a warning against these Jewish leaders that they are thieves and robbers.
Jesus is speaking to them in parables. In the first, Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep (John 10:1-5). The gatekeeper opens the gate for Him. This is what the Jewish leaders were supposed to be: gatekeepers. But they weren't opening the gate for Jesus. Jesus came to give life and that more abundantly. Instead of opening the gate so the sheep might have life they were barring sheep from Jesus. They were stealing life from the sheep by keeping them from Jesus.
Then, as if He is shifting parables, Jesus is now the gate and the Jewish leaders are “all who have come before me” that are “thieves and robbers” (John 10:7-10). How is it that the Jewish leaders, teaching the scriptures as they were, were thieves and robbers? How were they keeping people from Jesus?
Though I am certain there is more than one answer to this question, I think we have a big answer in John 5. There Jesus is also speaking to the Jewish leaders.
39You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
In John 5 we discover that the Jewish leaders studied the Scripture, but refused to see Jesus in the Scripture. They were not rightly handling the Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). All of the Scriptures are to point us to Christ (Luke 24:27, 44). The Pharisees thought they had life in the Scriptures. But they refused to go to Christ to get that life. Likewise, in their teaching they were not opening the gate of the Scriptures to lead the people to Jesus but rather were hindering their ability to see Jesus by teaching everything but Jesus from the Scriptures.
So although it may seem harmless to think that John 10:10 is talking only about the devil, I wonder if in fact it might lead to a bigger problem. If we think it is the devil, we might miss the warning that applies to any that would presume to teach the Scripture. We (those who teach God's word) better make sure we are using the Scripture to open the door to Jesus. If not, we are thieves and robbers, keeping the people from the life, the abundant life that Jesus and only Jesus can give them. (See also James 3:1.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

For More on John 10 and Jesus' handling of the false shepherds of Israel see I Said, “You are 'gods'”!