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Sunday, July 24, 2011

What lessons can we learn from Israel?



http://www.freeisraelphotos.com/photo/42



Often I believe we tend to hurry through the Old Testament to get to the parts of the Bible that we think speak more directly to our lives today.  But should we disregard the ancient Scriptures and the history of Israel?  Which is to ask, “How does Israel in the Old Testament have any relevance to us today?”  Or, “How do the old laws apply to us now?”

The Old Testament teaches us much not only in regards to the people of Israel, but points us to the coming Savior of the New Testament.  Jesus’ fingerprints are evident all throughout Scripture.  This can be shown where Israel was delivered by Egypt for example.  There’s also the scapegoat as described in Leviticus and the Passover Lamb in Exodus.  Then there are the prophesies.  The Old Testament is rich in prophecies that would all be fulfilled in Jesus.  Much more regarding these topics is discussed in length by Matthew McGee at his website, “Wielding the Sword of the Spirit.”

The point is that we should regard all Scripture as profitable for learning and understanding for life today.  2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

So as I was going through Romans, I came across this section where Paul was in deep sorrow for Israel.  I paused for a moment and wondered what had happened with them.  What did the people of Israel do exactly that caused Paul to be so deeply distressed?  Seriously.  Paul is so distraught that he’s willing to be “cursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of his people.

Paul’s Anguish Over Israel

1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

So it seems that Israel did something that caused them to be cut off from Christ.  And now Paul is so moved by this that he is willing to take their place.  But why?  What did Israel do?  Well, we know about their disobedience and exile into Babylon.  But is that really what is going on here?  As bad as those events were that led to their exile several hundred years before, that isn’t their problem.  No, it’s much worse.  The problem, the real issue, was that the Israelites rejected Jesus Christ as their Messiah.  Years before Paul wrote those verses in Romans, Jesus said in Matthew 23:37-39:  "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

There’s a serious undertone in these passages.  Israel had miscalculated something about God and why He chose them, of all races, to display His glory.  Paul listed some of their advantages:  adoption, divine glory, covenants, the law, temple worship and the promises.  Maybe it was because of these advantages the Israelites began to believe there was something unique about who they were.  They were special, they thought.  They were the descendants of Abraham.  They were of the circumcision.  Whatever the reason, the people of Israel were boastful and saw themselves as being set apart by God because of who they were.

It’s probably inaccurate to say that all of Israel was guilty.  But as a whole, the people of Israel and their leadership took a perverted view of their circumstances and attributed their advantages to something other than God’s sovereignty.  God chose Israel for His purposes and plans, not because they were deserving.  It is true that within Israel’s lineage there were great men of faith.  God made covenants with them that would extend throughout the generations because of their faith and because they believed.  But ultimately, it was still all about God. 

Romans 9:21 speaks to the idea that the potter can create a vessel for whatever purposes He desires.  “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”  Israel was created to display His glory.  He chose them for this reason.  So in a twist of irony, Israel somehow missed this concept and instead of fulfilling their purpose, they become prideful and arrogant and thought too highly of themselves.  It was from this inaccurate viewpoint that Israel missed the single most important and significant event of all mankind:  the incarnation of the Christ. 

Israel was too busy with religion.  They even began to intertwine their own laws with God’s.  The leaders were making life difficult for everyone and burdening people with laws and regulations that they couldn’t follow themselves.  And in the process of doing religion, they missed something of far greater worth.  Maybe out of pride, a lust for power and authority, or for some other reason Israel refused to accept Jesus’ claims about being the Son of God and the One who was the fulfillment of all the prophecies.  In fact, because they were so busy organizing and doing religion, they inadvertently used their “golden calf” as the means to crucify the One that should have been their true object of worship.

The question then is, “How is this relevant to us today?”  For one, people in our time shouldn’t take salvation offered through Jesus Christ any more lightly than the Israelites did back then.  In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  

So there are several warnings for us, even for today.  And here’s another.

With Israel, God gave His commandments, His ordinances, that they should follow.  Those commandments didn’t mean much for a people who chose to disregard them.  Of even greater significance, they were given a new opportunity.  God sent His Son, who by the way is the Word, and the Israelites were told that this time He would write His Word on their hearts if they would follow Him this time.  It’s part of a New Covenant that God made.  Read what the writer of Hebrews says:

But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

So because Israel rejected Jesus, it opened up the door to where the Gentiles (the rest of us) could have this same opportunity:  to have God’s Word written on our hearts!  In Romans 4, Paul explains how this New Covenant would apply to all who believe and are justified by faith.

So here we are, faced with a choice.  We are given all these examples.  We are given plenty of warnings.  Much like the people of Israel were.  If you remember, Paul talked about all the advantages that Israel had.  They failed to grasp the gift that God was offering:  Himself!  We are given a significant advantage too.  Hebrews 10:29 gives us this poignant point:  “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”  An understanding of this passage is that God is extending His Son out to all who would believe.  If instead, there are some people who choose to ignore Jesus and what He did for us through the cross by shedding His blood, they risk a punishment that will also be severe.

The problem, I feel, is that people today are getting caught in the same traps.  The same allures of religion, pride, power and authority, or whatever.  Some are having a difficult time separating their thoughts and ways from those of God’s.  In the process, instead of searching and prodding for answers, they scoff and ridicule that which they do not understand.  In Jude 18, Jude says, “They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.”  Before he penned those words, however, Jude said, “These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”

Does any of this sound familiar?  My hope and prayer is that if there are those who would read these words, if they haven’t yet made a decision to follow Jesus, that today they would consider all that God has done.  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  It’s perhaps the most recognizable verse in all of Scripture, but its familiarity has perhaps escaped our attention.  Consider what this verse says.  God gave His Son.  The giving itself is a big deal, it’s a sacrifice.  God gave Jesus up to be crucified on the cross for our sins.  Don’t minimize the significance of this event.  By having the wrath of God poured out onto His own Son for our sins, God demonstrated the greatest act of love humankind has ever seen.  If it wasn’t for this one single, most important event, we all would be destined for hell.  And we would all incur the full wrath of God’s justice for our sins.

My prayer for you, as Paul’s prayer and concern was for his own nation, is that you would believe in Jesus.  If you sense God prodding your heart trying to get your attention, please do not ignore Him.  Let today be the day when you can say, “Lord!  I believe!”  All it takes is a simple prayer of faith.  Talk to Him.  Ask Him questions.  But more than anything else, don’t ignore Him!  The Bible says that if you were to draw near to Him, that He will draw near to you.  Take that step of faith.  Believe!...and be saved!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Man and President: John Adams

This work is in the public domain in the United States.



John Adams, 1823–24, Second President of the US. Painting by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828).
 It is with reservation that I would try to write and somehow expound on the life of a Founding Father (FF).  By no means do I consider myself a history buff or expert on any level.  I do, however, find that learning more about our history helps us to understand who we are and where we came from.  So with that little disclaimer, I encourage anyone who would find something I write inaccurate to correct me on factual evidence.

This past weekend, somewhat coincidentally on the 4th of July weekend, my wife and I watched the HBO miniseries on John Adams.  It was through the beginning portion of this series that led us to some questions as to the historical context.  Ashamedly, we found ourselves knowing very little about the many events that took place before and after the American Revolution.  Relying on what we could find on the internet, and through the miniseries itself, we learned a little bit more about our history and about some of our Founding Fathers.

I have never been na├»ve to believe that all those who came to America during that era were all somehow Bible-believing, born-again Christians.  But I have believed, and still do, that many Colonists and immigrants lived moral lives based primarily on Biblical principles.  This, of course, does not suggest that this was all-exclusive behavior throughout the Thirteen Colonies.  However, it does lend some background to the events that took place.  For the most part, the leaders of that day evidently did hold to Christian theology.  So, in turn, decisions were made and laws and documents were heavily influenced by their understanding and relation to God.

John Adams, as portrayed in the HBO series, was a very intelligent man.  Some have regarded him as being one of the most important FFs of the United States.  Not only was he a signer of the Declaration of Independence (DOI), he was virtually responsible, or at least integral, in its conception.  According to the miniseries, Adams was the one who nominated Thomas Jefferson to draft this important document and was even part of the process in its final state.  Interestingly, the three most responsible (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) were not what we would consider Christian, but each was drawn to certain Biblical principles as evidenced in the DOI.   This is not to say that only these three drafted or revised this important document, but their handiwork was responsible for most of its content.

The other FFs in our nations’ beginnings, the leaders of the Constitutional Convention, were also highly influential in shaping the political foundations.  93% of them were considered Christian.  Stand to Reason shows that Christianity was responsible for shaping the nation and its politics.  Given this, one would assume that the United States would be a Christian nation.  But as Stand to Reason states, “the Founders stopped short of giving their Christian religion a position of legal privilege. In the tradition of the early church, believers were to be salt and light. The First Amendment insured the liberty needed for Christianity to be a preserving influence and a moral beacon, but it also insured Christianity would never be the law of the land” (emphasis mine.)

Perhaps due to this important point regarding the intentional exclusion of Christianity as a legal basis in the Constitution, I believe there’s much indeed to be learned from what our FFs did intend.  And this weekend I enjoyed spending some time learning about the life of John Adams.  Though there were perhaps many influences in Adams’ life, from his father who urged him to become a minister, to his education at Harvard, a missionary-oriented college back then, it was his wife Abigail who was perhaps the one who gave him the greatest council during his prestigious political career.  According to Adherents.com, “They were lovers, friends, counselors, and mentors to one another into old age […] one of history's great partnerships.”  This was also seen quite clearly in the miniseries.  This fact is not a small thing considering Abigail’s upbringing in a Christian home and her understanding of theology.  This was certain to have played a factor in John and Abigail’s relationship and Abigail’s influence in her husband’s religious and political leanings.

Adams’ career did not start out in politics, however.  He began his career out of Harvard as a lawyer.  It was while he was practicing law that he also served in the Massachusetts legislature.  From there, he distinguished himself as a patriot and was elected a member of the Continental Congress.  About.com lists the process of Adams’ career and is nearly mirrored throughout in the HBO miniseries.

But it’s not necessarily Adams’ career that I think adequately describes this man.  He was a patriot and a leader.  He was also a man driven by purpose.  He seemingly wanted to be remembered for doing the right thing, not necessarily the popular thing.  Apparently, he was opposed not only by another political party, but opposed even within his own party (the Federalists.)  If nothing else, Adams was a man of principle and he stood by those principles even if history would one day present an adverse depiction of him.  Interestingly, Adams may have saved the United States from certain war as a young and fragile nation.  Through his perseverance, he kept the nation at peace and allowed it to grow militarily and financially, ultimately keeping the nation intact.

I would love to say that it was because Adams was a devout Christian that he was blessed and given all of this success in life.  Although there are some indications that his faith grew and it is possible he drew close to God in the latter days of his life, it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.  It is possible, and I believe this to be true, that even though someone is not a sincere believer in Christ Jesus that if they apply the principles of the Bible to life’s circumstances, they may find success in their endeavors.  For example, for a man and wife to take marriage according to God’s principles, they can have success in their union.  This seems to follow the principle of sowing and reaping.

I also believe there are lessons we can draw from the life of Adams based on principle.  I like what is written about him on Adherents.com:

Adams was aware of (and wary of) the risks, such as persecution of minorities and the temptation to wage holy wars, that an established religion poses. Nonetheless, he believed that religion, by uniting and morally guiding the people, had a role in public life.

Though he couldn’t exactly reconcile religion into how this matched with Christian behavior, he did acknowledge the legitimacy of Scripture.  Unfortunately, he also applied this reasoning to other religions as well.

There’s another side to this issue, John Adams’ belief system that is.  It seems clear God was working His plan during the founding of this nation.  Does that mean that God condoned the Founding Fathers’ decision to break off ties from the authority of the King of England?  Not necessarily.  However, God does use people, whether they make good or bad decisions, to accomplish His purposes.  He is Sovereign in all things.  It is quite possible that God used Adams, a vessel created for His purposes, to bring about a goal He had in mind.  Romans 8:28 says that, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  This verse obviously wouldn’t apply to Adams, but definitely would toward God’s children living in America.  In addition, Romans 9:20-22 says, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?”  This would indicate that God could have used Adams to advance His cause for this nation.

I think rather than ascribing certain accolades to men, we should look at the events at the founding of our nation and be in awe of the Divine Author and Supreme Being who is Almighty God!  I have no problem giving certain credit and praise to men such as Adams for their role, but ultimately it is God who orchestrates the affairs of man.  As Proverbs 19:21 states, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” 

When I think about how close it came that America could have been defeated by England, I’m even more in awe of God’s sovereignty.  Even George Washington was aware of the Lord’s providence:

The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.

The cause of our common country calls us both to an active and dangerous duty; Divine Providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge it with fidelity and success.

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

So, as much as there is to admire about the life of John Adams, my hope and prayer is that we look instead more intently into the heart of God who has blessed us with so great a nation.  There may be those who disagree and contend that God had/has nothing to do with the greatness of the United States.  These same people would argue that man in his wisdom has brought about the success, prosperity, and privileges of our country.  I disagree.  That is why it is so important that Christians stay engaged in politics and events of our time.  If Christians think that success and God’s blessings will come without effort, we should consider our FFs and their sacrifices.  As Stand to Reason declares, “Christians have no special privileges simply because Christianity was America's first faith. ‘If America ever was or ever will be a “Christian nation,”’ [John] Seel observes, ‘it is not by conscious design or written law, but by free conviction.’  Success for the Christian cannot be measured in numbers or political muscle, but only in faithfulness. Our most important weapon is not our voting power, but the power of the truth freely spoken and freely heard.”

And with that, I say “Amen.”