Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stuffing Jesus Back in the Tomb

They each wanted to touch Him, chubby fingers possessively grasping molded legs and outstretched hands, eyes studying His bearded face. Even without being told, they all knew this, this was Jesus.

When all three had held Him, they crowded around to watch as I lay Jesus in the tomb, then rolled the stone firmly over the entrance. There, the children listened to my warning. Each solemnly nodded understanding and echoed back my words: "Jesus must stay in the tomb. Yes, touch the angel, but do not touch the stone until Easter."

This scene played out some sixty-eight days ago. Since then, the angel has moved from the bathroom to the kitchen to under the covers of someone's bed. But the stone? With a few exceptions early on, it has remained unmoved.

Late yesterday afternoon, like a child at Christmas excited at what was coming with tomorrow's sunrise, I just couldn't wait. Or maybe it was that I didn't want to wait, didn't want to live in the darkness of death for one hour more. So, I rolled back the stone and Jesus came forth--alive!

The twins found Him first. Within seconds, Amelia mumbled her disapproval to Emerson, shoved Jesus within, and rolled the stone back in place. I quickly intervened. "No. It's ok. Jesus isn't dead anymore! He's alive! He rose up from the grave."

It seemed they understood me; yet, sometime later, someone silently slipped into the foyer and re-entombed Jesus. I rolled the stone away again.

Four more times that evening, they and I replayed the scene of Jesus being placed into total darkness of death and sin only to then arise to new light and life three days later (or a few minutes in this case).

You and I--we are not children who have memorized only half the Easter story. And still, sometimes our actions reflect hearts that act as if Jesus is still in the grave.

I am guilty.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live enslaved to the guilt of past sin.
At times, my mind is my worst enemy. It can replay decade-old scenes better than any HD television with closed captioning. In those times when I allow my past sin to incapacitate me, to keep me from living in victory--even for a moment--that is when I am saying that Jesus' sacrifice wasn't acceptable enough to the Father...not enough for my sin.

Paul says, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 8:1-2). Under the blood of Jesus, my sins are forgiven.

And although my mind may still remember them, David says, "As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Ps. 103:12). The prophet Micah even says God "will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:19).

Living in the shadow of guilt over sins that we have confessed, repented of, and turned away from (and that God forgave long ago) is, at best, an act of ingratitude and, at worst, sin itself. In Scripture, God never once asks us to forgive ourselves...just to repent and accept His forgiveness so that we can fulfill the plan He has for us.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live enslaved to present sin . Even for a non-newborn Christian, it's all too easy to grow discouraged at a failure to stop sinning and simply give up the quest to overcome, especially with sin that is habitual, that has its roots deeply embedded in the past.

The problem is we can't just give into sin because "our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). In other words, Christ was a victor over sin; as Christians, we must claim that same victory and strive, strive, and strive some more to let the Holy Spirit empower us to be victorious over sin...not slaves to it.

I roll the stone back in place...

Each time I live in fear of man, of public perception, of circumstances.
Truth be told, this is where I put my back into it and press against stone the most.

Paul says, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). The Psalms are filled with the repetition of "What can man do to me?", a reminder that our free-will God is somehow mysteriously in control of every man's action as well as every atom's function in the universe since He "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ps. 56:4, Eph. 1:11).

I know all of this. And yet, I get stuck before the "but" in Philippians, forgetting the key to not being anxious is prayer...well, not really forgetting so much as being so caught up in the busy-ness of living with the problems that it's easier to let worry tug at the corner of my thoughts than to stop and take time to bow the knee.

If Jesus is a victor over death, what can He not be victorious over? We must embrace the Holy Spirit within us, the same Spirit that Christ's death provided to all believers, and stop living as if He is powerless to help in all circumstances.

Each time we fail to believe in the total cleansing power of a risen Savior, it's like we are placing Jesus back in the tomb, like we are saying He is not an acceptable enough sacrifice for our sin. Not a victor over the power of present sin. Not a victor over the power of death.

Our Savior is enough. And He is alive.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Long Before Jesus: Needing Some Pitch

The cross is well-recognized among Christians as a symbol of God's sacrifice, His mercy, His grace, and atonement for mankind's sin. While it may not seem like it during other times of the year, come Easter, the cross suddenly becomes mass marketable in every corner drugstore and grocery market. Right next to the band aid aisle, those two intersecting lines appear on everything from shrink wrap decals on plastic eggs and window clings to cotton shirts on plush bunnies and children's puzzle books.

While the symbol of the cross gets all the attention this month, and rightly so, I've been looking backwards from the cross, from the empty tomb--back from the Easter story's ending and beginning co-existing in one three-personed God.

It's sent me back to the very beginning in Genesis, when God first used symbols to communicate His plan of salvation to mankind...when God began prefiguring the road to the cross.

One of those first symbols was the ark Noah built to escape the flood. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary says the "ark was also a symbol of God's grace. Obviously, the ark was intended by God as an instrument of deliverance to preserve both human and animal life upon the earth...As such, it came to be understood as a symbol of His Grace and mercy" (112).

Deliverance. With Noah and his family, it was deliverance from literal death.

But there is also an implication that the ark gives a word-picture of deliverance from spiritual death, from sin as well.

God tells Noah, "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch" (Gen. 6:14)

Pitch is a literal substance used to waterproof sailing vessels, but the word means so much more! In the passage above from Genesis, we find the Bible's first use of the Hebrew word "kaphar," "where it is used in its primary sense of 'to cover over,' Here God gives Noah instructions concerning the ark, including 'Pitch it within and without with pitch'"1.

The word kaphar means "to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch"2.

In fact, when the word "kaphar" is used in the Old Testament, in 71 out of 102 instances, the word is translated as "atonement," usually "with the blood of a sacrifice, in order to atone for some sin"1.

For example, the same word for "pitch" is translated as "atonement" when Moses goes up the mountain to pray for God's forgiveness of Israel's sin: "On the next day Moses said to the people, "You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." (Ex. 32:30, my italics).

Knowing this definition and usage of the word kaphar, when God tells Noah to "cover it [the ark] inside and out with pitch," He is showing a picture of deliverance, of His grace and atonement for sin--one that covers both the literal vessel of the ark as well as its inhabitants resting within--inside and out.

This picture of God's atonement is finally fulfilled in the New Testament when His one and only Son's blood ran down the cross, acting as a "pitch" for our souls, covering our vessel inside and out with His one-time sacrifice and atonement for our sin, thereby delivering us from death's grip.

We have a God who was giving us glimpses of the Messiah way back in the beginning.

The word picture doesn't end there, though.

This ark, Noah's ark--it's not the only "ark" in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used in Genesis for "ark" is found in only one other place--in Exodus, when Moses' mother seeks deliverance from Pharaoh's decree that all Hebrew boys must be put to death.

She seeks deliverance with another "ark" (translated here as "basket") ark covered with pitch.

Scripture says, "But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket [ark] and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile" (Ex. 2:3).

Although God didn't choose to use the same word kaphar for "pitch" in this passage, He did use the same word for "ark." Since that word is used in only one other place in Old Testament concerning Noah, it makes me believe these two pitch-covered ark images could both be prefigurings of Jesus' sacrificial atonement for us and deliverance from death unto life...

especially when one considers that once saved in the "ark" from almost certain death, Moses went on to become the people of Israel's human advocate to deliver them from bondage, their intercessor who sought God's atonement for the people's sin, and the one who told an enslaved Hebrew people to cover their doorposts with the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death would "Passover" their homes.

I sit here amazed...amazed in His presence, waving my branch here on the eve of Palm Sunday, and crying out "Hosanna! Hosanna!" Save us Lord.

Photo: 95-acre Pitch Lake of tar on Trinidad's west coast. Click here for more extraordinary photos of the "living" tar lake.
1. Strong's Expanded Dictionary, p. 135

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor

On air for over thirty years, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has become a classic of sorts, embedding itself deep in the memory of several generations of children--the mechanical trolley clanging as it moved around the track, the striped tiger and royal king puppets. Then, there was the song he sang: "It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine?"

To me, the thought was always inviting. I was double digits before learning what a subdivision was. Before then, I thought real non-television people lived on individual plots of land lying beside the endless asphalt ribbon that ran in front of our house.

We did have neighbors...but not really. Living in the country on family land with my maternal grandparents on one side and one of my mother's sisters on the other, I was quite used to living side-by-side with people I loved, people like me.

Then, after the birth of our first son, husband wanted to move back to his family's land...deeper in the country. I said yes, but I wondered. These were people he loved, people like him. I was different. Could we really all live happily together in unity?

Lately, I've spent a little more time than usual contemplating not only my physical present home, but my eternal home as well...with neighbors I'll live with for all eternity.

Christ told His followers, "'In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn. 14:2-3).

I grew up reading "mansions" in the King James instead of the New American Standard's "dwelling places." What a vision I had--my very own mansion on a hilltop all its own, high above those golden streets running past and situated perfectly across to the sparkling, crystal sea.

A Hollywood-worthy image for sure, but really a poor interpretation of what Jesus meant.

Strong's Concordance defines "dwelling places" as "staying, abiding, dwelling, abode" (167). No mansion explicitly in that definition, just an implication concerning the eternity of this place Jesus is creating for believers.

Vine's Expository Dictionary says much more to dispel my childhood mansion theory: "There is nothing in the word to indicate separate compartments in heaven; neither does it suggest temporary resting-places on the road."

The "No separate compartments in heaven?" should catch your attention. Sadly, definitely not a mansion, at least not one that would be listed on the modern-day housing market.

The key may be found in the previous two verses when Jesus says twice, "prepare a place." In the Greek, the word for "place" can also be translated as "room." In other words, this passage can be interpreted to mean that Jesus has gone to "prepare a room" for each believer.

One of my favorite teachers of Jewish culture, Ray Vander Laan, also believes this is what Jesus meant. In the video "No Greater Love" from the That the World May Know series, Vander Laan explains that in Jesus' day, "families usually lived in clusters of buildings called insulas. These clusters were built around a central courtyard. Grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts all lived and interacted together in the insula."When a son married, he would add a "room" onto his father's house. Thus, when Jesus used this terminology, His original hearers would have understood that "This word-picture presented Jesus as a bridegroom, preparing new rooms for his followers in the insula of heaven" (Vander Laan).

Having this image of heaven in mind and knowing what John's vision in Revelation says about there being no need for a sun because of the Father's light, then heaven's dwelling place could literally look like one giant mansion-like insula, with every believer's room connected to another's...all surrounding one giant courtyard filled with the radiant glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What's more, consider what Revelation says about our eternal heavenly neighbors: " behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9).

Talk about different--from every tribe, tongue, and people group. Because God saw fit to mention these specific differences, it seems improbable that believers will suddenly become carbon copies of each other in heaven. Instead, your neighbors--my neighbors--will continue to show the depth of our Creator God in their remaining differences.

Yet, those differences won't matter. There will be no in-fighting in our insulas. Instead, our unity will be complete. Paul says the body of Christ will grow ""until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).

In heaven, unity will reign. Neighbors different in every way--all made pure by the blood of the lamb, all living together in praise of a holy God for all eternity.

If the structure and make-up of heaven show one thing, it's that everyone--no matter how different they are from us--everyone is worthy of being treated with the same kindness and Christ-like-love we show to our loved-ones...and that everyone is worthy of our offering them the redemptive plan of salvation, of Christ's grace, mercy, and love.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When 2 + 2 in God's Word Doesn't Add Up to 4

I remember the first time I knew that I didn't know anything.

It was the fall semester of my second year of college, and I was becoming fast friends with a young man named Hunter whose depth of thought intrigued me. In hour after hour of lofty conversation between classes, I learned to think beyond the parameters of what was considered normal and, instead, to contemplate philosophies and critical theory that, frankly, made my head hurt.

At first, I listened without interruption. Then, I slowly grew more comfortable with sharing slippery ideas I wasn't sure could be pinned down. Yet, when he started questioning me seriously about my faith in God, all I could give was an "it is what it is" line of answering that didn't convince anyone, least of all me.

I just didn't have the answers to all his less-than-superficial questions. At that moment, I began to spend an hour each morning in my car, Bible and dry highlighters in hand as I sought to put flesh on my bones of belief, to find answers both for Hunter and for myself.

One tenant he proposed was that Scripture was not inerrant. By God speaking through flawed men with their own personal agenda, speaking words that were then sometimes transcribed incorrectly on the thousands of manuscripts that didn't match up perfectly...that continued to be altered via various translations from the original--well, when you took all that into account, the words I read and believed were laced with flaws and unworthy of reverence.

I only knew one verse in rebuttal: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). Since God's character is perfect, His Word must be perfect. End of subject--right?

Wrong. If I were honest, in my heart, I also knew I had seen many places where I felt Scripture contradicted itself. And what's more, I didn't know what to do with those discrepancies...nor did I even feel that I could whisper such heresy aloud.

The Psalmist, himself, felt compelled to pen words confirming the perfection of Scripture--maybe he was a closet heretic, too, at some point in his journey to faith.

In one passage, he writes, "The words of the LORD are pure words; As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times" (Ps. 12:6). With the number seven symbolizing perfection, the Psalmist implies that Scripture is the most refined, the most perfect--to the 7th degree. There is not even a half of a half of a half of a half of a thousandth percent impurity within.

This same concept it picked up later when he says, "Your word is very pure, Therefore Your servant loves it " (Ps. 119:140).

In both passages, the word "pure" means "to refine, try, smelt, test." As Strong's Concordance says, "The believer can take comfort in the Word of God which alone on earth is tried and purified and by which we can be purified" (242).

Thus, as silver is literally purified by fire, we, too, can be spiritually purified by the purest Word of God.

BUT what about those times when we read a passage and it definitely contradicts something we've read elsewhere in Scripture. Then what?

1. Sometimes, it's all about seeing the whole and not just the part.
Scripture is much like a puzzle, with each piece perfectly fitting into another until the entire work is complete. Sometimes, though, we try to look at all four sides of a single piece without seeing where and how it fits in with the rest of the pieces.

This point was driven home about a month ago when I was studying the demise of Israel's last king--Zedekiah. One passage concerning his doom reads, " I will bring him [Zedekiah] to Babylon in the land of the Chaldeans; yet he will not see it, though he will die there" (Ez. 12:13).

Definitely sounds contradictory...until you read the entirety of Scripture and learn that when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem after the siege, they poked out Zedekiah's eyes, blinding him. Knowing this bit of history, the passage is quite accurate--he "saw," but didn't "see" Babylon.

2. Sometimes, it's all about going back to the original Hebrew or Greek.
The easiest example of this is the oldie (but goodie), "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

I've always had a hard time rectifying how many of my peers' could espouse "belief" in God when that fact contradicted their I-don't-really-believe-in-what-God-says lifestyle. Which was true? Their words or their actions?

Then, I discovered that "believes" is not mere intellectual assent. A quick jump to my Strong's Greek Dictionary of the New Testament revealed "believe" meant something different from my Americanized definition: "Pisteuo means not just to believe, but also to be persuaded of; and hence, to place confidence in, to trust, and signifies, in this sense of the word, reliance upon, not mere credence hence it is translated 'commit unto'..." (202).

The verse made so much more sense when I replaced "believe" with this new definition, "that whoever commits unto and relies upon Him shall not perish..."

3. And sometimes, it's all about faith.
My friend Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus has what she calls a "mystery" file filled with those passages she just doesn't understand but believes anyway by faith.

For one to say he knows everything about everything in the Word is laughable. If anything, the only thing I can say is that I know more than I did yesterday and less than I will tomorrow--in other words, I know nothing about nothing.

Over time, God may reveal how those seemingly-contradictory mysteries actually interlock perfectly with the rest of His Word. Yet, others will remain shrouded from our understanding until eternity. In these times, it comes down to faith--pure and simple.

So...when you run across a verse in Scripture that seems to contradict another verse in another part of Scripture--don't just stick your head in the sand and ignore it. Don't sigh in defeat, either. Ask yourself if you're misinterpreting the part outside of the whole, if you have gone back to the original Hebrew or Greek for a definition-check, or if this is just one of those times you'll need to believe on faith.

We Christians need not be afraid our Bibles will crumble under scrutiny. The more we test it, the purer it will reveal itself to be.

Photo: Brazilian aluminum smelting in Amazon.