A Separate People

“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, ESV).

My kids think I am older than dirt. I’m so old that I remember the Blue Laws, the laws that forbade Walmart (et. al.) from being open 24-7-365. In my small hometown when I was young, only one (of the two) grocery stores was open on Sunday with minimal staff for emergency purchases. The only pharmacy would be open just a few hours on Sunday afternoon and the few gas stations would rotate being open on Sunday. The calendar that we got each year from our bank would identify holidays in red — Sundays were considered holidays (or “holy-days”).

But those days are gone now. I need to take down all of my Bibles from my bookshelves and end tables and night stands and cross out Deuteronomy 5:12-15, along with Exodus 20:8-11. While I am at it, maybe Isaiah 58:13-14 should go too! But if I did, then what would I do with the passage in Hebrews 13:8 that says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? Was His statement to the Pharisees that He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5) intended to dismiss the fourth commandment altogether?

We who hold to the authority of the the revealed Truth of Scripture wrestle with this in our current generation. The culture around us has chosen to ignore the God we worship and the Truth He has revealed about Himself. One way that it has done this is to encroach upon the Sunday observance. The choice before us seems to be between legalistic observance and total disregard. Some Christians try to justify the latter position by claiming that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament in some form. But that position places this statement in the category of the Ceremonial Laws that restricted what foods the Jews could eat or what sacrifices should be made for various offenses. The Ceremonial Laws were once-and-for-all fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Those who hold the position that the Fourth Commandment can be ignored still believe that the Moral Law is valid. But — interestingly — this commandment is the only one that Moses tied to the creation, predating the Law given at Mt. Sinai. Even if our theological perspective discounts the Old Testament Law, we are still products of the creation, so the weekly day of rest is still important to observe for believers, if Scripture has any authority. 

The best way to reconcile this dilemma is to read the word “holy” as “separate,” which is its original definition. Just as every penny to our names comes from Him, just as every morsel we consume comes from the earth that He created (Ps 24:1), every moment of every day is a gift of His grace. In one sense, it is all holy, but earnest believers who want to honor the Redeemer SEPARATE a portion of their income to offer it as a token of the whole. These believers bow to acknowledge that the source of their meal is the earth that He watered, and they SEPARATE a portion of their 168 hours each week for worship. Solomon reminded us that honoring the Lord should come from the FIRST of our produce (Prov 3::9-10); it is customary to bless our food BEFORE we consume it and it is appropriate that we START our week with a time of worship. Certainly these things can all become legalistic observances, but they don’t have to be.

When Moses approached Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go to worship their God, Pharaoh’s response was to increase the intensity of their servitude. If they had so much idle time to go and worship, they could work more, he reasoned (Ex. 5:17). As we have moved away from the Sunday observance laws, employers have become much bolder in requiring work on Sundays, much like Pharaoh of old. Sunday work is no longer limited to doing good and to deeds of mercy (Matt 12:12). 

But the intent of the observance of a day of rest was to identify the Hebrew people with the God they worshiped — the Lord God of Israel (Ex. 31:12-17). This was originally why it was incorporated into our laws. He is and was separate and distinct from every other pagan deity, and His people should be separate as well, identifying themselves as His.

A Substantive God

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11, ESV).

Social media is a wonderful way to keep track of old friends and family, and it has become a venue for airing political or social opinions in a proper setting. But, I admit, I have “de-friended” some because of the crass and crude language that many use, and I am tempted to do the same with some others. I would do so, not because I am a Christian, but because the profanity that I am forced to read to keep track of these friends is simply gratuitous. Unlike the airwaves where the FCC used to monitor and “bleep” offensive language, social media is self-monitoring (or, often, unmonitored).

But let’s be clear…as offensive as this language is, it does NOT violate the third of the Ten Commandments. Moses didn’t command the Hebrew people to refrain from crass speech (neither did he encourage it); he commanded the people to refrain from references to the God of Israel that reduced Him to a common status. The word, “vain,” could also be translated “empty” or “deceitful.” Whenever we extract the meaning of the name (character) of the God of Israel in our speech, we have violated this command.

To avoid violating this command the ancient Hebrews were careful not to pronounce the personal name of God — the one given to Moses in Exodus 3 when they met at the burning bush. The four letters would be translated into our English language as “YHWH.” The Hebrew language does not have any vowels, so those would have to be supplied by the readers and the sacred name is usually translated “Jehovah.” But Hebrew scribes were so very careful not to mispronounce the Name or to use it in an empty/vain way that they did not pronounce it at all. Instead, when they read the Scripture aloud, they substituted the word “Adonai” which means “Lord,” and which could refer to either a human or a deity. The scholars who translated the Scripture into English faced a dilemma about how to remain true to the written Hebrew text while avoiding vain or empty usage. Is there ANYONE who has not read the words of a text or sung the words of a song while his mind was distracted in some way? To read a reference to the God of Israel in this way would violate this Third Commandment for many people.

The solution that the English translators arrived at years ago was to follow the lead of the Hebrew scribes. When the Hebrew text makes reference to the personal name of the God of Israel, “Jehovah,” the translators will use the word, “LORD.” To distinguish the Hebrew word “Adonai” from the personal name of God, they will write “Adonai” as “Lord” and “Jehovah” as “LORD.” Most translations follow this convention. 

So, if the crude “sailor’s language” does not violate the Third Commandment, what does? In a word, irreverence. Personally I take greater offense at references to the Sovereign Lord of creation as “the good Man above” or “the Man upstairs” than to the four-letter-words that FB friends will use (though I still sometimes “de-friend” them!). That reference suggests to me that He just an average Joe that I might “shoot the breeze” with over coffee/coke/beer or sandwich. Such an impression has reduced Him to a common position.

I am also concerned in our world today at all of the hints and suggestions that the God of Israel is no different than any other religion’s god. It is common today in much music/conversation to refer to Him as simply “God” rather than to Him as “Lord” (implying submission) or to “Jesus” (referring to His revelation of Himself). I am not attributing any improper motivation in this but in a society that has interpreted grace to be license and blended the holy with the common, I have to wonder about the ways in which we refer to the Lord we worship. Sometimes I wonder if an adherent to some other religion could sing our worship songs, substituting in their minds “Allah” or “Buddha” in place of “God.” Is our worship distinctively Christian? Have we substituted something empty for the name of the God of Israel?

After spending nine and a half chapters explaining the supremacy of Christ over the entire religious system of the Jews, the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19-22, ESV). I like to read the word “confidence” as “audacity” because it implies to our modern minds that He is NOT just like the rest of us. He is substantive and separate.

 

Picturing the God of Israel

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6, ESV). 

We are a very visual society, and they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Thousands of images float through our minds each day, spurred on by TV, internet, magazines, billboards and a host of other outlets. Early pagan worship made use of images carved into trees or charms on jewelry. Not all images are objects of worship. God told the Hebrews to bind the Scripture on their hands and foreheads and to put them on the doorposts of their homes as a reminder to keep the truth always before them (Deut. 6:8-9). To this day in some orthodox Jewish communities the men wear phylacteries in an attempt to follow this command.

In some ways images stimulate the imagination to more imagery, as the pornography “industry” can attest. It is no accident that many of the idolatrous images of paganism were intended to excite the sexual imaginations of the worshipers. Political ideology can also be promoted by carefully selecting images (or not). As I write this, there is a big flap in our culture war over a reference by our President to a street gang that is responsible for some heinous crimes. Those that are against the President’s position denounce his statement that they are “animals” by appealing to the image of God in every human being, never using any pictures of these people. On the  other hand, those that take the President’s side show pictures of these people who have tattooed every square inch of their faces. They are seen (typically) as part of riotous scenes and the narrative tells of the sickening crimes for which they are responsible. Happily the reporters refrain from images of their mutilated victims.

But in other ways images limit our imaginations. A popular picture of Jesus that I recall from my youth portrayed Him to be a winsome and gentle Shepherd, caring for the lambs in His charge. That image is utterly irreconcilable to the picture of Him that comes to my mind when I read of Him driving out the money-changers from the Temple (which He did twice, if you read the texts carefully). I cannot conceive of this gentle Teacher and compassionate Friend pronouncing the woes upon the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. If this picture of Him dominated my understanding of Him, there would be several facets of His personality that I would miss. It is not by accident that no picture of Him has remained from the era in which He walked the earth (if one ever existed).

When God (through Moses) forbade the use of images in true worship it was for the sake of stimulating the whole of our imaginations concerning His character. He didn’t want one image of Him to dominate our understanding. That happens when people overemphasize one aspect of His character to the exclusion of another. That happens anyway, by the way, but it would be even more prevalent if there were pictures of Jesus available to our sight.

The passage quoted above indicates that the jealousy of God is incited when we worship a false image of Him. That false image could involve any degree of misrepresentation. The warning that His wrath would be visited on succeeding generations for failing to follow this command indicates how earnest He is in this matter. The point is that God cares deeply what we think of Him, that it should be true to His revelation of Himself, and that we would take care to never distort the revelation that He has made of Himself in the Scripture.

The Primacy of the God of Israel

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7, NASB). 

For many people in our modern society, the Ten Commandments seem distant and for another era. We acknowledge that they are foundational to our system of laws in America, but they don’t seem to have any bearing upon our daily lives any more. The Culture War in which we are currently embroiled has made the display of them a point of contention with conservatives fighting to preserve them and progressives wanting them to be removed. Sadly, however, many conservatives want them to remain only because they have a place in our history. They are less concerned about their having a place in our hearts. As a society we wantonly violate them — even if we acknowledge their historical importance.

The first Commandment tells us that it is our responsibility to hold the God of Israel FIRST in our lives. No god is to have a higher value to us. Yet, for much of American society, there are many things that we value more than the God of Israel.

One of our gods is success. We prize success so much that we will sacrifice truth before it. We justify “bending” the truth even if we don’t break it, but David told us that the man of integrity, the man who is true to the God of Israel, will “swear to his own hurt and not change” (Ps. 15:4) Success comes in many forms — popularity, power, influence. It’s not by accident that so many vie to be the “American Idol” with all of the popularity, material prosperity, and influence it accords. Success is even more important than the God of Israel in the contemporary church. It is more important today to appear successful than it is to be faithful to the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Another god of America is ease. As long as it is easy, we will follow Jesus, but when following Him is uncomfortable, many fall away. This was Jesus’ point in Mark 4:5-6 and 16-17 in the Parable of the Soils (some call it “The Parable of the Sower”). When the seed is planted in rocky soil, the heat of the sun burns up the plant because the root has no depth. The heat of the sun is illustrative of the affliction that ALWAYS comes to believers in Jesus.

Another soil is the thorny soil of our god of pleasure. It is closely related to the god of ease. Hedonism has invaded the church in subtle ways. For many today, ministry is no different than entertainment. We switch churches as readily as we switch channels on our TVs. Paul spoke of the coming time when men would choose a church because the teaching “tickled” the ears (2 Tim 4:3) instead of being true. What Paul saw as a future expectation is now a present reality.

Relationships, for many, are more valued than the God of Israel. Jesus Himself told us that no one is worthy of being His disciple if he is not willing to put Him before family (Matt 19:29, et.al.). Some parents of unbelieving children stay home from worship when the kids are visiting rather than declaring their allegiance to the Lord over their children. How many, in defiance of the clear commands of Scripture, marry unbelievers thinking that they “can’t live without him/her”? Invariably, that relationship draws the believer away from the Lord rather than drawing the unbeliever to Him. This idolatry is not just true of young people and parents. Some preachers fear offending certain people in their congregations more than they fear offending the God of Israel by compromising the revealed truth of Scripture.

When my children were small we had a big back yard surrounded by a privacy fence that kept them in and danger out. The Ten Commandments function in that same way for our society. There is great freedom within their boundaries, but much danger when they are torn down. Admittedly, when my children were small, they knew they needed parental permission to venture outside the boundaries of the fence. We moved from that home before they challenged that expectation. But in this society the Church has failed to stand against the challenge to these boundaries. Perhaps that failure is because we are not sure we believe it ourselves. Whatever the reason, we need to repent and return Him to His proper place — first in our lives. 

A Credible Truth

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8, ESV) 

When the Apostle Paul was defending himself before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he explained that he was on trial because he believed what the Jewish people down through the centuries had believed — that God had spoken to men from outside of this world. Then he asked what in that context was a rhetorical question, “Why is it thought incredible that God raises the dead?”

Although this was rhetorical (meaning that the answer was obvious) when Paul spoke it before King Agrippa, it is no longer so. There are reasons in our day why many ask this question. 

The idea of God raising the dead lacks credibility in our day because we have been indoctrinated with a philosophy called Naturalism. Only natural causes are allowed. Philosophically we have declared that anything outside of nature cannot be considered. Evolutionary teaching dominates our public education because the alternative requires something outside of nature to have created us. Somehow, by ignoring the question of how life could be produced from non-life, the various versions of evolution can be seen as naturalistic, therefore allowed in our society, therefore credible. A God creating outside of natural experience must not be credible — according to the prevailing philosophy.

Another aspect of that philosophy of Naturalism is Uniformitarianism. Naturalistic scientists have determined therefore that the world is billions of years old because they have observed the aging process of natural things for the relatively few years that the technology to do so has been available. They then assume that things have always aged at the same, uniform, rate. But what if a worldwide flood did occur (for example)? Would not the pressure of the water skew the rates of change? What if God created with an appearance of age? The assumption of uniform rate of change denies the miraculous intervention by an outside force and makes in-credible any miracle, including the miracle of resurrection.

But if there really is a God — if there really is Someone outside of our world who in His own time and in His own ways chooses to step into space and time — how could His doing so be considered in-credible? In fact, if He is there, it would be incredible to believe that He would NOT step into our world in some way. If He were to be silent to a world He created, it would imply that He had no purpose in mind when He created, much less that He cared for His creation. But if He had a purpose, it is only natural that He would step in at times and make His will known, just as a responsible parent would do for his child.

This is what Christians in every age have believed — that down through history the God of creation has spoken to direct His people, culminating in the final revelation of the promised Messiah, Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews says it this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (ESV). 

The fact that so many in our day find the resurrection of Jesus incredible to believe is a demonstration of the philosophical shift that has taken place in recent years (that is, in the past 200-300 years, perhaps longer). That philosophical shift has led many to re-define the meaning of resurrection so that now it is often preached as the emergence of the perennial flowers each spring. It is too incredible to believe that a dead Man now lives.

Paul understood, and the true Church has preached through the years, that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we have no hope for a life beyond this one. If you read the other speeches of Paul in the book of Acts, you will observe that in every case it is the teaching of the Resurrection that is the sticking point that prevents belief in Jesus. The Resurrection is not only credible — it is the foundation of all we hope for.

Can I Hear God’s Voice?

When I was first a believer in Jesus I had the tendency to think of the will of God in terms of location or vocation. Where would he want me to be? What did He want me to do with my life? To a certain extent, of course, these things were related. But a study of Scripture revealed very little connection between the will of God and those ideas. The will of God is for the repentance and conversion of the lost (1 Tim 2:4); my good works, as a testimony to Christ’s wisdom and truth before an unbelieving world (1 Pet 2:15); a holy lifestyle (1 Thess 4:3); and my thankfulness (1 Thess 5:18). Beyond these, the Scripture says very little about God’s will.

Recently, as I have revisited the question, I have considered not “What is God’s will?” but “How do I hear from Him?” There is MUCH in the Scripture related to that question. Ultimately the answer comes back to the Scripture for David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). 

In the Biblical record, however, I am struck by the number of times that people think they are hearing from God when they are not. Job’s friend Eliphaz had a vision in the night in which he thought he heard the advice that Job needed in his affliction. The text, however, reads eerily (Job 4:12f) and describes a shadowy form rather than a clear person. The advice given seems right, but is rejected by Job as “half-truth.”  Personally I believe that the vision was of a demonic spirit and not the Lord. Eliphaz’ counsel along with the advice of the rest of his friends was ultimately rejected by God (Job 42:7).

Even more confusing is the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. He follows what God tells him and then is rebuked for doing it. He speaks a blessing upon Israel three times, but in the end is killed along with Israel’s enemies because he counseled the Moabites to tempt Israel into sexual immorality (Num 31:8, 16). Did Balaam listen to God or to Satan? The best answer I can come to is that he heard from both but did not have the discernment to know which was which. The only time, it seems, that he clearly understood that it was God’s voice that he was hearing is when his donkey spoke to him!

Certainly we recognize that those who make no claim to worship the true and living God  will be deceived as was the representative of the Assyrian king before Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:25), but our dilemma is heightened when we realize that Satan tried to use Scripture to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6) and can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

So, if one of Satan’s tactics is to confuse the voice of God with his own, we are back to the question, “How do we discern the voice of God in our world?” Godly men through the years have offered the advice that when Scripture, circumstances, and the advice of trusted counselors all are aligned, we can be confident in the Lord’s leading. 

The problem with this, however, is that waiting for that alignment often doesn’t fit my timetable. I get impatient waiting for the microwave to reheat my coffee. My time is too important. I get impatient with the driver who is going the speed limit on our town’s side streets (admittedly, those speed limits are often set way too low!). I am used to instant communication, instant information, instant service. I consider myself to be holy when I spend fifteen minutes of my morning in a “sweet hour of prayer.” 

I admit that I don’t really know what the Psalmist means when he tells us repeatedly to “wait for the Lord.” Why didn’t Moses feel angry or guilty over his wasted time when he went up to the mountain to get the Law and it was seven days later before God finally spoke to him (Ex 24:15-16)? I know that I would have.

The result of that “wasted time” was that he heard from the Lord; God had clearly spoken; in the end, that was all that mattered. Perhaps that’s the answer to our struggle as Christians to hear and discern the voice of God in our day — slow down, meditate on the Scripture, and just wait. He promises to “instruct [us] in the way [we] should go” (Ps 32:8).

Honest Confession and Repentance

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).

Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.

Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.

Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).

Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.

Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.

As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped. 

The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.

Listening to His Voice

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1-2, ESV).

Fifty days after the festival of Passover, the Jewish people celebrated another holiday — Pentecost. At this festival Jews from all over the world came to the Temple at Jerusalem. Traditionally Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated the freedom that the Hebrew people enjoyed having been released from Egyptian bondage; Pentecost (aka, the Feast of Weeks) commemorated the giving of the Law (or Torah) at Mt. Sinai.

It happened on the first Pentecost after Jesus rose and ascended that the Apostles and the other followers of Jesus went together to the Temple for the service commemorating the giving of the Law when the Lord broke through, coming upon them to fill them with the Holy Spirit. Luke recorded that it came upon them “suddenly” — unexpectedly, not according to any natural laws.

Many people deny any historical connection between the Jewish Festival and the Christian experience at Pentecost. In their minds, the filling of the Holy Spirit was merely coincidental to the Feast of Pentecost. While that may be true historically, it is not true philosophically. The giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai was a record — in time and space — of the revealed Truth of the God of Israel, who created the world and all that is in it. For the first time in all of the history of mankind, when Moses received the Law, men could see in written form who the Lord was and what He expected of them. Between the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the ministry of Jesus, the Lord broke through many times to reveal more of Himself and His will for His people. These were unpredictable events, sometimes through the mundane recording of the history of His people, sometimes through the intimately personal poetry of men like David, Solomon or Job, and sometimes through the fiery preaching or writings of the prophets. None of these was predictable, yet to the listening ear — attuned to His voice — these revelations were clearly from Him.

When He broke through at Pentecost, the Lord was reiterating that He was still revealing Himself, this time writing the Law upon the hearts of men through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself had told the Apostles at the Last Supper (seven weeks earlier) that the Holy Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, ESV).

It may appear to be coincidental historically, but the Lord’s plan was to connect the revelation in Scripture with ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Peter (who was at the Last Supper and the Day of Pentecost) saw this connection when he wrote that the Scripture was given to men who were moved by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

The importance of the Scripture cannot be overemphasized in our day when most people who claim to be Christians rely on their fickle feelings to discern God’s Truth. He still desires to break into space and time to reveal His will to men, just as He “suddenly” broke through on the day of Pentecost. He does not reveal new truth, for in the wisdom of God the canon of Scripture closed after the Apostolic era, but He will still guide us through the wisdom that the Holy Spirit moved men to record.

Our job, just like His people in every generation, is to have a tender heart to listen to what He is truly saying, not just what we want to hear from Him. Sometimes, like in Acts 2, He accompanies His revealed truth with signs and miracles; sometimes He speaks in the still small voice, as He spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), but He never violates what He revealed previously. Either way, His voice will be clear and unmistakable to those truly listening and He will delight to lead us, His people, in the time and space in which we live. 

Remember the Bitter; Enjoy the Sweet

When God called upon Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, the Scripture says that it was because Israel was groaning under the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters. “Many years later the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Their cries for relief from their hard labor ascended to God: God listened to their groanings. God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw what was going on with Israel. God understood” (Ex. 2:23-25, MSG).

The importance of pain and affliction cannot be overstated. Without pain, few of us would see our doctors; without hard times, few of us would develop the endurance (physical or in any other form) to persevere; and without the pain that accompanies our sinful conditions, none of us would come to the Savior for His mercy and grace.

When the Hebrew people groaned under the Egyptian bondage, God saw their affliction from the very beginning. But, as with most of us, their condition had to become unbearable for them before they would consent to the hardships that would come by leaving. Even then, it only took them three days before they started complaining that God had not provided them any water (Ex. 15:22f).

A Jewish family at Passover remembers the whole experience of their ancestors. But the sweetness of freedom cannot be fully appreciated without remembering the bitterness of slavery, so the Passover table includes a few items to remind them of this bitterness. One item is a bowl of salt water in which the family will dip some of their ceremonial foods to remind them of the tears that were shed in their bondage. Various bitter herbs also bring back the memory of those tears, particularly the horseradish.

Horseradish is a strong bitter herb, too strong for some. But the sweetness of freedom becomes something that we take for granted unless we have something to compare it with. Likewise, none of us can enjoy the sweetness of the grace of God if we fail to remember the bitterness of sin.

 Our culture doesn’t help — it applauds sin as being fun, sweet, and satisfying. How quickly we forget the financial or familial destruction that usually accompanies alcoholism. How many children are horribly impacted by the pedophile that became addicted to sex through pornography? How many lives are in financial bondage through the debts incurred by the lottery or another form of gambling? These are just some of the more obvious bondage-producing sins that our world tells us are sweet, but all of us have experienced (or are experiencing) a slavery to sin. Just as there are no “victimless crimes,” there is no sin that does not lead to some form of bondage.

Deliverance from any kind of bondage is sweet, and that is what the Passover commemorates. It is also the purpose of the cross of Christ. Jesus said, “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This was also the Apostle Paul’s point in Galatians 4 and 5 — having been enslaved by sin, we can experience true freedom through the redemptive work of Christ.

But there are two dangers that are described in these two New Testament passages. Like the Jews in John 8, we can proudly declare that we have never been enslaved to anything (see v. 33) and therefore do not need to be redeemed. Or, like the Galatians to whom Paul was writing, we can turn back to our old ways and trust that somehow our good works will merit eternal life for us. This too, is a form of pride. The truth is that redemption is all from Jesus. In other places Paul wrote that eternal life is wholly and completely a gift — something given, not earned (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-6).

All who celebrate Passover rehearse the events that led from the bitterness of slavery to the sweet freedom of redemption. Until we come to the same point of the bitterness of bondage and the impossibility of deliverance that Moses and the Hebrews experienced, we can never fully appreciate the sweet redemption that is available to us in Y’Sua ha-Mashiach (Jesus, the Messiah).

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The Aphikomen

A Matzo Tash is a cloth container for the unleavened bread that is eaten by a Jewish family when celebrating Passover. There are three compartments in the Matzo Tash into which are placed three whole matzahs. Early in the Passover Seder, the leader will take the middle piece of matzah and break it in half (roughly). One part will go back into the Matzo Tash and the other part will be wrapped in a napkin. This broken matzah is known as the “aphikomen;” the leader calls it the “humble bread” and sets it aside. At some point while everyone is distracted with the ceremony, the leader will discreetly hide the part that is wrapped in the napkin, the aphikomen.

Toward the end of the Seder meal, the leader will call upon the children to search for and find the aphikomen. In a Jewish family it is typical for the youngest child to “find” the napkin with the aphikomen (usually with the help of the adults and older children) and to be rewarded with a piece of candy by the leader of the ceremony.

We don’t find any reference to the aphikomen in the Old Testament. It is a part of the ceremony that probably developed in the early part of the first century while Christianity was still considered a sect of Judaism. Yet it remained a part of the ceremony even after it became clear to the Jewish people that these “Christians” were going to keep on insisting that Jesus was the Messiah. In the early third century, the rabbis standardized the Seder ceremony and the aphikomen remained a part of it.

But to what does it refer? Why are there three compartments in the Matzo Tash? Why is the middle piece of matzah removed and broken? Why is it called the “humble bread”? Why do the children look for it; why a reward when it’s found?

Groups of three can be found in Judaism, but not all of the parts of this ceremony fit them. The three patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — might be considered. Isaac was almost sacrificed in Genesis 22, but none of the other parts of the ceremony come close to fitting this triplet. The religious hierarchy of the priests, the Levites, and the people don’t seem to make sense of the other parts of the tradition either. Some think that the three matzahs is a reference to the three measures of flour that Sarah prepared for the three angels in Genesis 19, but this is a stretch because they weren’t any part of the exodus from Egypt.

There is, however, a triplet that the unbelieving Jews don’t recognize, but the early church did — the Triune God. This triplet makes complete sense of the tradition of the aphikomen. The middle matzah (representing God, the Son) was broken (or crucified); He was humbled (or humbled Himself); He was hidden (buried) and found (resurrected). A reward was paid (for the Christian, Messiah paid for our redemption). The Jews, though, don’t recognize this symbolism because to do so, they would have to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, inexplicably, this remained part of the Seder ceremony even after Christianity parted from Judaism.

Interestingly, and to reinforce the point that the aphikomen is a symbol of Messiah Jesus, many Jewish people recite the Shema daily, a phrase of which is “Adonai echad” — in English, “the Lord is one.” The Hebrew word, “echad” (one) is a word for a unity that has multiple parts (e.g., one car, but with an engine, steering wheel, seats, etc.). So the Matzo Tash that originally held the unleavened bread was a single unit with multiple parts.

The nature of symbolism is that it can never be perfect, but the explanation of Y’Shua as representing the aphikomen comes far closer than any other. Curious people can look up “aphikomen” on the internet to find some very wild explanations to avoid recognizing the connection between Jesus and the aphikomen. Some people will go to great lengths to cram the square pegs of their worldview into the round holes of the reality that surrounds them.

All of the important symbols that the Jewish people remember in commemorating Passover point to Y’Shua ha-Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah. The necessity of a Deliverer was symbolized by the bitter herbs, evoking a sharp contrast with the sweetness of freedom; His sinless life was seen in the fact that the bread was unleavened; His substitutionary death was represented by the blood of the lamb that protected the people from the angel of death; and the aphikomen points to the nature of the Triune God, specifically Jesus.

The shallow understanding of Christianity in our world leads some people to imagine that God’s work has changed from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era. But from the beginning of time He was pointing ahead to a future Deliverer — not just in Passover, but in all of the feasts, in the ceremonial law, indeed, in all parts of the Old Testament. He never changed His plan, and never will. In the end, all of mankind will have to give an answer to the question, “How did you respond to Messiah Jesus?” Sadly, many Jewish people rehearse that plan each year at Passover but miss it. Just as sadly, many who identify themselves with Christianity miss His plan as well.