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.

Jesus, the Lamb of God

All of the feasts of Israel pointed to Messiah, but probably the one that most clearly depicts the nature of the Messiah and the purpose of His ministry is Passover. It was a Passover Feast that was the occasion for twelve year old Jesus to meet the Jewish teachers in the Temple. It was the Passover Feast that He used to inaugurate the Lord’s Supper. Paul urged the Corinthians to keep the Passover Feast with purity because Christ was their Passover Lamb (I Cor. 5:7-8).

Passover was the beginning of the nation of Israel, their Independence Day. While Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was celebrated in the fall as the traditional date of Creation, Passover began a new era for God’s people. He established them as an independent nation, not merely as the extended family of a single man.

Just as all nations celebrate national holidays, the Jews were told to celebrate Passover annually. But as their celebration developed over their history, it is significant that it pointed more and more clearly toward Messiah. A case could be made that in the evolution of the Seder itself, one could see the hand of God pointing toward Messiah. A case could also be made that the annual celebration of the various feasts was highly instrumental in preserving the national identity of the Jewish people for the 2500 years of their dispersion.

Central to the celebration of Passover is the idea of freedom. The former slaves to Pharaoh became a free nation. But it was more than mere political freedom. Their political freedom actually pointed to a deeper, spiritual freedom, and the celebration of that event ought to have become a visual reminder of the invisible truths. Throughout their history the Jewish hope of freedom was associated with the Messiah. They anticipated that he would deliver them from their oppressors, but what they didn’t see was His nature in and through the various parts of the Passover Seder.

The lamb that was sacrificed for Passover was a spotless lamb (Ex. 12:5). As already mentioned, Paul called Jesus the Passover Lamb (I Cor 5:7-8), a designation consistent with the idea of purity. Studies in his theology make it very clear that Paul understood and held to the sinless purity of Jesus. He was the One who though He knew no sin, yet became sin for us (II Cor. 5:21).

The Biblical doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus is not just a superficial teaching but is integral to the notion of our freedom from sin. If Jesus had not been sinless, the sacrifice would not have satisfied the demands of God’s justice. The infinite quality of God’s attributes requires that any sin, however small in our eyes, will violate His holiness. That sin, therefore, cannot be simply overlooked, but must be covered (atoned for); the penalty for that sin must be paid. Of course, we on this side of the Cross, and who acknowledge the Cross, see the connection that was hidden in “spotless lamb” of the Passover and made clearer when John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Another parallel between the Passover lamb and Jesus is the vicarious nature of both deaths. The lamb in Exodus 12 was to be killed so that its blood would serve as a protection from the angel of death. The lamb died so that the people wouldn’t. Likewise, Jesus’ death was in our place, protecting us from death as well.

This idea is so often woven into the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – that it certainly is not incidental. When the Levitical priests laid their hands upon the head of the animal to be sacrificed, it was for the purpose of identification with their substitute. They recognized that that animal was experiencing death so that they would live. One of the ritual practices of the Day of Atonement used two goats, one of which was killed as a sacrifice, the other being set free. Our term “scapegoat,” meaning “a person bearing blame for others,” comes from this ritual.

One of the first events upon entering the land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership was their rehearsal of the story of how the blood over the doorpost caused the angel of death to “pass over” them. The Hebrew warriors must have been impressed when a week later the massive wall of Jericho fell, all of it except the part where a scarlet cord was hanging from the window, protecting Rahab and her family from death.

The idea of substitution comes out also in the prophecy of Isaiah. These verses should be read emphasizing the pronouns, “Surely OUR griefs HE HIMSELF bore, And OUR sorrows HE carried; Yet WE OURSELVES esteemed HIM stricken, Smitten of God and afflicted. But HE was pierced through for OUR transgressions, HE was crushed for OUR iniquities; The chastening for OUR well-being fell upon HIM, And by HIS scourging WE are healed. All of US like sheep have gone astray, Each of US has turned to HIS own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of US all To fall on HIM” (Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB, emphasis added).
When a Jewish family celebrates Passover, they often are reminded that the substitution of the lamb for their sins was not available only for the descendants of Abraham. The offer of protection by painting the lamb’s blood over the door was also made to the Egyptians. Likewise, the blood of Y’Shua ha-Mashiach – Jesus the Messiah – is offered to all Gentiles, to all who will apply that blood to their hearts. They don’t have to have a particular pedigree.

The images of Passover in the minds of many of us come from the imagination of film maker Cecil B. DeMille who cast Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” By today’s standards he did a remarkably good job at sticking to the text of Scripture – that is, by today’s standards. One of the best scenes that drew out the mood of the characters who were actually there takes place in Moses’ home. He and his family were protected by the blood on their doorpost, but that blood didn’t erase the sounds of the night, particularly the wailing of those who ignored the provision of the blood of the lamb. It is a sad and sober truth that there will be more wailing unless we reach the world soon.

The picture given to us in the Passover Seder of the lamb whose blood was shed that we might have life parallels perfectly the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we consider the other elements of the Seder, we will see Messiah in them as well. But taken as a whole they comprise a testimony to the Messianic role of the Lord Jesus that is beyond dispute.

Jesus, The Bread of Life

When a Jewish family prepares for Passover, they go through a very involved routine to rid their home of the yeast or leaven. Leaven (the Hebrew word is “chametz”) is considered a picture of sin and contamination, so their goal is to get rid of all of the chametz that is in their home during the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread – not just the packets of yeast that might have been purchased at the store. They search the house for anything that contains leaven, any bread, any cake or cookies. Many of the Jewish foods at the supermarket are marked as ready for Passover – they are without leaven.

This job of cleaning out the leaven is mostly Mom’s, but the Jewish dad participates also and, despite his disproportionate effort, he usually gets the credit. On the night before Passover Dad and a child go on the ceremonial search for the chametz. The child holds a candle while the father carries a feather, a wooden spoon and an old cloth napkin. Mom, who has done all the hard work, has left in a visible spot in the last room a few crumbs of leaven, so that their search would not be in vain. Dad then sweeps the few offensive crumbs into the spoon and wraps it – spoon and feather included – into the napkin. Then he declares, “Now I have rid my house of leaven.” The next morning he joins the other Jewish men at a ceremonial bonfire in which they burn their bundles of leaven. The thorough effort ought to be a picture of our effort to get rid of sin in our lives.

Actually both Testaments see leaven as a picture of sin. Jesus used its corrupting influence as a vivid picture of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). Similarly, Paul equated leaven with malice and wickedness while urging the Corinthians to “keep the festival (of Passover) with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).

The contaminating influence of sin is seen in the fact that when we begin to justify some known sin, it becomes easier then to justify another. There is a fascinating progression in I John 1:6-10 where John records that once we persist in lying to others, we then begin to believe the lie ourselves and finally we end up calling God a liar.

We’ve all seen this progression at work. A married man and a pretty co-worker strike up a friendship. It starts out innocently, but they become more and more attracted to each other. If anyone in the office questions them they get defensive (they lie to others). They justify lunch together all the while refusing to acknowledge the sinful feelings that are growing in them (they are lying to themselves). Finally they consummate the affair and defend their actions, calling God the liar for saying that something as beautiful as their love for each other is sinful.

This is the contaminating influence of sin. The sin began way back in their minds, and that is where the battle could have been won. Certainly the immoral actions are sin, but so is the unwillingness to check the temptation. But it is interesting that this goes even deeper. When sin is not checked, we not only justify the actions connected with that sin, but the sin expands. Now instead of dealing with a covetous or lustful temptation, we have to deal with immorality, with lying and with idolatry. If you are keeping track of the Ten Commandments, the one sin has grown to four. The leaven is at work.

We cannot live sinless lives, as Jesus did, because we are steeped in sin from birth. But we can dispose of known sin, and the picture of the Jewish family going through the house prior to Passover is intended to
remind us of this. We are to be as diligent in searching our hearts for sin as the family is in searching their home for the leaven. David wrote, “Search me, O God and know my heart; try me and see if there be any hurtful way in me.” (Ps. 139: 23-24). The ancient rabbis have seen a relationship between this practice and Zeph. 1:12 where the Lord declares, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’”

A calloused attitude toward sin was a serious offense in the ancient Jewish society. The failure to rid their homes of leaven led to exclusion from the community (Ex. 12:15, 19). Excommunication in ancient Israel was more severe than we perceive it to be in our society. To be cut off from the community meant that a man couldn’t trade or enjoy the protection of that community. He would be vulnerable to the attacks of enemies and wild animals. It was a real punishment. Today people perceive that there is no real consequence to sin beyond some personal grief. But this doesn’t mean that in God’s sight sin is any less severe.

The Church is to be a place where righteousness is promoted. Yes, we are to be a loving and caring community, but that doesn’t mean that we should be soft on sin.

At the same time, we should be conscious that every one of us has some skeleton in our closet. There are no perfect people; all of us are in some ways hypocrites. But the issue of personal holiness is not an issue of perfection. Mostly it is an issue of honesty. We are to be honest about our sin, especially as we speak to God. We are to align our lives with the Scripture, acknowledging that we aren’t perfect in this and confessing our failures. When we do this honestly, without pretense, we will find ourselves growing in holiness.
 The Unleavened Bread is a type of Christ, Jesus Himself having said, “I am the Bread of Life.”

The baker uses a fork to pierce the bread so that air bubbles don’t form. When the baked matzo is held up to the light you can see small holes in the cracker. It is pierced, just as was Jesus. The Bible says “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Is. 53:5). Furthermore, when the bread bakes, the places between the holes get brown, producing a striped look. A phrase in that same verse is often translated, “By His stripes we are healed.” Jesus took that unleavened bread at the Passover meal in the Upper Room the night before He died and He broke it before them with the words, “This is My body” (Luke 21:19).

The contrast between leavened and unleavened bread is intended to point out the serious nature of sin. But often people today are not willing to assume the cost of their sin, so they put on a façade that suggests to people around them that they have repented, when they really haven’t. Real repentance always costs more than a feigned penitence.

It is also costly for the Jewish family to rid its home of leaven. It is amazing to observe all the foods containing leaven that we have in our homes that would have to be replaced after the celebration. The financial cost would be quite high, had not the rabbis come up with a remarkable solution.
 The Jewish mother still gathers up all the leaven in the home, but instead of putting it in the trash, she sells it to her Gentile neighbor for a dollar. Sometimes she puts it in a spare room/closet in her home and sells the whole room to her Gentile neighbor. But the point is that it is no longer her possession and she can honestly say that there is no leaven in her house. She is ready for Passover. After the Feast she then buys it back from her neighbor – hopefully for the same dollar – and everyone is satisfied.

Everyone, that is, except God. It is not enough for us to say that we are giving up sin when all the while we have intentionally just put it aside for a period of time. The picture of the Unleavened Bread at Passover is a picture of our being diligent to rid ourselves of sin, of trusting Jesus, the Living Bread, to cleanse our hearts and purify our minds. Let us do so with sincerity and truth.

The Rain Dance

I wrote this essay is about twenty years old, but I read something recently that reminded me of it.

THE RAIN DANCE

It’s raining outside as I write this. A nice, gentle rain. We have been dry, but in other parts of the country “drought” is the more appropriate word. Water rationing has become necessary there. Restaurants will serve water only on request, lawns and cars will have to wait.

The Native American rain dance didn’t help this time either, although it seemed the perfectly logical solution, given the current state of humanism. Our society has decided that all religions are really one religion and to call on any god is tantamount to calling on the only God. If the truth were known, though, the humanistic powers-that-be really don’t believe that any god or the only God exists, so it is a nice little superstition to pass the time while we wait for Mother Nature to do her self-correction and equalize the rainfall according to the statistical averages.

But how quickly we forget! It is said that if we ignore our history we are doomed to repeat its failures. In their fine book, The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel recall the events of the summer of 1623 when a severe drought threatened to destroy the corn crop and, with it, the Pilgrim’s colony. It continued for 12 weeks, a longer period of dryness than even the oldest Indian could ever recall. The Indian rain dances and incantations had no effect, but the Pilgrims set aside a day for fasting, self-examination and prayer to call upon God’s mercy and provision. Marshall and Manuel quote from the journal of Edward Winslow:
“But, O the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask! For though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as ever it was, yet (our exercise continuing some eight to nine hours) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides. On the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it is hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived, such was the bounty of our God!”

Winslow went on to comment on the effects of this upon the Indians of this region:
“All of them admired the goodness of our God towards us, that wrought so great a change in so short a time, showing the difference between their conjuration and our invocation on the name of God for rain, theirs being mixed with such storms and tempests, as sometimes, instead of doing them good, it layeth the corn flat on the ground…but ours in so gentle and seasonable a manner, as they never observed the like.”

The devout confession of the Pilgrims is what God expected of ancient Israel when Amos the prophet declared that God “withheld the rain from (them)…then (He) would send rain on one city and on another city (He) would not send rain. One part would be rained on while the part not rained on would dry up” (4:7).

But instead of devout confession, we in America today turn to pagan gods to relieve our weather-related anxieties. Sometimes it is the Native American rain dance; sometimes it is the god of meteorology and weather forecasting with its cloud seeding technology. We have yet to learn what Job learned centuries ago when God asked him the rhetorical question, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water may cover you?” (38:34).

But whichever we turn to, as we do, we turn our backs upon the God who created us and redeemed us in His own Son. The Bible declares that His patience will not last forever.
Now, it should be noted that it is not wrong to study meteorological science, or any other science, for that matter. What is wrong is that we tend in our society to attribute to it the status of deity by denying that any outside force can suspend its laws. This tendency is a subtle declaration on our part that some day we humans will figure out how to manipulate the laws, create, and be completely independent of “God.” But for all the insights science has given us in the realm of meteorology, it has yet to create a cloud on such a scale that it can water our crops. It has yet to stop a thunderstorm, or even predict accurately where a tornado will travel. All it can do is warn us to get out of its way, yet often we lift our voices to praise it rather than turning to the God of heaven who rides “upon the wings of the wind” and “twists the oaks” (see Psalms 18, 29) or to His Son Whom the winds and waves obey.

Let us be very clear that the turning to pagan gods for rain dances is not merely a quaint and harmless superstition. It is our declaration that we are unwilling to humble ourselves before the God who created us and will ultimately judge us. The fact that the axe has not yet fallen must not lull us into believing that it never will or that God “tolerates” our sin. He is merciful and patient toward us, giving us every opportunity to repent and to be restored. But just like a good parent, He will allow rebellion to continue only until it is clear that we will not repent on our own.

The imminent danger of famine and hardship led the Pilgrims of 1623 to confess and repent of their sins. This was their only hope in Christ. Our deepest problem here around the turn of the millennium is that we don’t perceive that our danger is imminent. May God awaken us from our slumber.

The Law Perishes

Disaster comes upon disaster; rumor follows rumor. They seek a vision from the prophet, while the law perishes from the priest and counsel from the elders (Ezekiel 7:26, ESV).

The Lord has clearly met me on a handful of occasions in my life. Usually they were epiphanies that caught me by surprise. On several other occasions I can honestly say that He clearly gave me instruction without any accompanying emotion. I am also old enough to recall times when I have asked Him questions about direction or other decisions that needed to be made and have just received silence. In those times I have yearned for those clear revelations from Him. I suspect that my experience is not isolated.

Ezekiel ministered to ancient Judah as they were preparing for (or perhaps already experiencing) the hardship of the Babylonian Captivity. Because of their idolatry and their failure to heed the warnings of God’s prophets down through the years, He brought judgment upon them in the form of Nebuchadnezzar and the dominion of the Babylonian Empire. When the king of Judah resisted Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish people were carried off to Babylon for seventy years. That judgment ended the organized government of Israel/Judah (until AD 1948) but in God’s providence, and in keeping with His promise to King David centuries earlier, the ethnic connection continued until David’s heir — Jesus — could come as Messiah.

The precise fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies concerning Messiah is amazing, but not the point of this blog. The point of the blog is the mindset of the people of Judah as they were being warned of the impending judgment. According to the verse cited above, they were more concerned with getting an experience than they were with listening to and obeying the Law. Yet it was that Law that would help them avoid the judgment (see Deut 32:47); it was that same Law that would deliver them from the judgment once it came (Ps. 119:50); and it was that same Law that would give them the hope of God’s presence and His restorative grace in the midst of it (Ps 19:7). Sadly, though, “[it perished] from the priest and … the elders.” The religious leaders of the day didn’t teach it or heed it themselves.

Despite our marvelous technology, we are not different from the people of ancient Judah. Our world of convenience has trained us to expect drive through service from the Lord. We want the immediate gratification of an emotional experience without giving attention to the relationship He wants to establish with us as we meditate upon what He has already revealed in His Word. Ultimately, though, we know that He will require us to repent and change (just as He expected this from the ancient Judeans) and many of us would rather not. It would be so much easier to bask in the glow of an emotional experience than to dig out of Scripture what He has already revealed, especially when we expect to hear hard commands.

Christian orthodoxy has long taught that the canon of Scripture is closed. All that the Lord has intended to speak to us in this world has been given to us in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. We will delight to learn more in heaven, but for now, this revelation is sufficient. It’s a joy in this life, however, when He stoops to highlight a truth to us that He has told someone else in the Scripture. But He doesn’t have to stoop to our weakness in this way. if we would just read His Word, He will communicate regularly to us through it.

The Faith of Friends

“And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5, ESV).

This verse is part of the familiar story (told in three of the four Gospels), describing how four men brought a paralyzed man to Jesus for healing. The venue was crowded with hurting people, so they knew that their only hope was to remove the roof, thatched or tiled I assume, and to lower the man into Jesus’ presence.

At first glance it seems that Jesus connects our forgiveness to our faith and this seems right to us. But upon closer examination it is significant that He connects forgiveness (and in the end, the healing of the paralyzed man) to the faith of the friends that brought him to Jesus. All three versions of this story link the forgiveness and healing to the faith of the friends, not the faith of the needy man.

The primary purpose of the inclusion of this story in the Gospels is to point out the authority of Jesus to forgive sins which was a not-so-subtle claim to being God on Jesus’ part. The religious leaders present at the time would have understood this point (and so should we).

A secondary truth, however, is the dependence of us who are in need for friends who have faith. In the Lord’s grand design each of us, at one time or another, will be dependent upon the faith of one or more Christian friends when our faith is in a weakened state. Our faith in Christ’s presence and provision may be weakened by a constant barrage of problems or heartaches; it may be weakened by trouble caused by our own sin; it may be weakened by the encroachment of age or the oppression of our enemy. But what a joy it is to have friends who care enough for us to lay us in the presence of Jesus. Without these four men, this paralyzed man might never have been healed.

It is pure speculation, but I have often wondered how the healed paralytic changed after his healing, He would no longer have to beg or be dependent on his family; his gratitude to his friends must have been (pardon the pun) “through the roof”! People who have been so radically changed by Jesus typically are bold to introduce others to Him; perhaps this man brought other needy friends to Jesus or at least pointed them to Him. Just like his friends’ faith led to his healing, now his faith could encourage someone else, maybe even lead to their healing.

Let us also not imagine that this was the only time when this formerly paralyzed man would need the faith of his friends. In times of crisis we think that once we get through THIS one, we’ll be able to handle all others, but that is not usually the case. We have an ongoing need for a community of faithful friends.

Are there Christian friends in your circle going through tough times (maybe the needy one is you!)? How many have turned away from the faith or how many Christian couples have divorced for lack of a group of supportive friends to “hold the ropes” for them? Perhaps YOU could be that one faith-filled friend who takes the lead by organizing mutual friends to pray, or even fast, for someone who just doesn’t have the strength in himself to believe that Jesus can meet him in his desperate time of need.

Watching For Signs of Life


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19, ESV).

Slowly over the past several months (now into a couple of years) I have been cleaning out a brushy overgrown area between my house and my neighbor’s. I have tried to preserve a few shoots that have started there such as a couple of small redbud trees and some small Rose of Sharon shoots that have grown up off of a common root. Amazingly, despite my very brown thumb, they have shown signs of life! Last summer, however, I noticed that one of the Rose of Sharon shoots was not upright. Apparently a deer had broken it.

I couldn’t tell if there was still some life to the shoot or not, so I took some string and tied it to the remaining upright shoots, hoping that any life still within it would help to heal the break, but I have my doubts. The real test will be this spring (if spring ever comes) when the leaves and blossoms appear.

In several places in Scripture the Bible describes the life of the believer with an illustration from horticulture (see Psalm 1; Jer. 17; John 15, et. al.). The life of the believer is nourished from a root system that draws vitality from the soil (usually). In some plants the inter-connectedness of the roots stabilizes the plant just as the believer feeds off of the common faith of other believers in the church. In other words, we need the other believers in the church to be strong in the faith. But what happens when a tender shoot is broken off, when someone leaves the fellowship because of a nuance in doctrine, a sin, or a conflict over something trivial?

The Apostle John describes such a scenario in which an apparent believer leaves a congregation in the passage quoted above. We are tempted to ask if they were really believers in Christ to begin with, but that is not John’s point and we are not privy to their inner thoughts. John’s point is that they appeared to be alive and connected to the same Root (Jesus), but they left. He says, “Let them go; they were really not of us.”

As fallen people, it is natural for us to proudly tug on our lapels and congratulate ourselves on our steadfastness, usually imagining that it is because of our righteousness. May the Lord guard us from this sin and humble us with a truly repentant spirit, helping us to recognize our own areas of doctrinal or interpersonal error. The righteous don’t always win a church conflict.

The enemy of our souls also recognizes that this same fallenness makes us susceptible to a false guilt where we condemn ourselves for communicating an attitude of condemnation toward the person who left our fellowship. Maybe we did; maybe we didn’t. Happily it is the same genuinely repentant spirit of self-examination that can deliver us from Satan’s condemnation (see Rom 8:1).

As believers in Jesus, it is our purpose to seek to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Hopefully, if there is genuine life in the wounded friend, they will return to the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls, even if they don’t return to our fellowship. The real test, however, will be seen in the blossoms appearing in the spring as a demonstration of the life of Christ that produces genuine fruitfulness.

A Post-Church Society

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love…” (Ephesians 3:17, ESV).

I have been conscious for years that we live in a post-Christian world. The values of American society that used to be rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview have eroded into a largely secular philosophy. This has happened in the last sixty years, but it has been amplified by the postmodernism of the past 25 years. Recently, however, I heard our world described as a “post-church” society.

The post-Christian moniker alarms me, but God’s people have always thrived when there has been a sharp distinction between our values and those of the world. I admit, however, that I am more disturbed by the “post-church” label. It seems that many today think that they can meet and be close to Christ without joining with a community of believers.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he included two classic prayers, one in the first chapter and one in the third chapter. Unlike our prayers, they had little to do with someone’s health concerns or financial struggles. One phrase of the prayer in chapter 3 calls upon God to cause the people be “rooted and grounded in love.”

The imagery suggests a plant that grows because of the healthy soil in which it is planted. It draws nourishment from what surrounds it. If it is not in an environment that is conducive to healthy development, it will shrivel up and die.

When I lived in South Carolina many years ago I tried to duplicate my dad’s spectacular garden which was in downstate Illinois. My attempt was an utter failure because the sandy soil had few nutrients, especially compared to my dad’s garden which he planted near the old barn that had been where he had raised his hogs.

The technology of our day is a wonderful thing, but is no substitute for the rich wealth of the inter-generational relationships developed in the local church, especially in a church that feeds upon the richness of the Scripture. Yet, more and more, I hear of people who are turning away from the church. As I grow older, I understand the stress of people who tune in to some form of media because their physical condition limits their ability to assemble with the community of believers. But I am more disturbed by those who choose their “Lone Ranger” Christianity because the Church has been linked to right-wing politics or, worse, because they cannot forgive a hurt they experienced in the church in times past.

The Church has never been perfect; there have always been conflicts. Nuances in teaching can be sources of conflict, and hurtful comments over music, decorations, or architecture will always exist. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “When the devil was kicked out of heaven, he landed in the choir loft.” Even in Luther’s day, apparently, there was disagreement over the church music.

But the Church is the soil in which the nutritional benefits of the Word are best assimilated into a believer’s heart. It is here, in an atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion, that the Lord can create healthy disciples. Here, He can encourage us, rebuke us when necessary, and strengthen us to grow in the harsh environment of a hostile world. Without the Church (yes, and the Word), Christians shrivel up and die.

Avoiding Holiday Dysfunction

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments (Psalm 119:5-6, ESV).

The holiday season is one of the worst for depression. The contrast between the joyful facades that are supposed to accompany the season and the painful realities we feel increases our sadness. Then there are the obligatory, but awkward, family gatherings that often highlight the dysfunctions of our relatives (or, sometimes, ourselves). We genuinely love them but recognize that their drug, alcohol, relational, or financial struggles are ultimately the product of their own decisions. It is difficult to sympathize while holding our tongues so that we are not perceived as being judgmental. To avoid these subjects, the conversation turns to football, the entertainment turns to new movies opening on Christmas Day (that connection is not coincidental), and the parties turn to alcohol.

Despite our best efforts we cannot eliminate the dysfunctions of our families. At best we can merely minimize our own dysfunctions. Although he dealt with problems of his own, King David recognized the best method for avoiding them — fixing our eyes on God’s commandments and keeping them (see Ps. 119:5-6, emphasis added).

This was the same recipe that the Lord gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel,
“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47,ESV, emphasis added).

After Moses died and Joshua assumed the leadership position, the Lord told him the same thing, “[be] careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8, ESV, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, Jesus said the same thing in His first public address, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

This list of significant Bible characters could go on and on, but the point is made. Reading, thinking about, and obeying the Word of God is the key to avoiding a dysfunctional life. Many Christians try to read the Bible cover to cover each year, but (sadly) far more have never read it even once. Whether you purpose to read the whole of the Scripture each year is not the point. Immersing yourself each day in some part of it with the purpose of obeying it will go a long way toward keeping your family members from being embarrassed by your struggles next Christmas.

Flee for Refuge

“… we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us” (Hebrews 6:18-20)

A dear brother in Christ passed into the Lord’s presence just before Christmas. Dang Lee was born in Laos in a tribal group known as the Hmong people. The Lord was pleased to use Alliance missionaries when He opened the eyes of the Hmong people in a remarkable way to the power of God over Satan. Truly Paul’s words, “how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 These 1:9), could have been written about these people. Dang understood more about the power of the demonic world than most Christians I know.

When he was seven months old, Dang lost his mother; when he was seven years old he lost his father, so much of his childhood was spent in the home of his uncle. At about age twelve Dang fled for refuge to Jesus as his Savior, never losing faith in Him. It was at this time that the war between the Communist-backed North Vietnamese and the democratic South Vietnamese caught the Hmong people in the middle. I don’t know the political decisions that led the Hmong tribal leaders to align their people with the pro-Western government. It may have been due to their conversion to the Christian Gospel, but I am unsure. Though a tremendous number turned to faith, not all did. Some chose to remain with their shamans and fetish worship.

Whatever the politics, Dang joined a Hmong militia unit that rescued downed American pilots from the jungles of Laos if they were shot down. They would then flee for refuge to the safety of the Hmong people until they could be returned to their units.

When Vietnam fell to the Communists, one of the first targets of the North Vietnamese and their accomplices, the Viet Cong, would have been to eliminate the Hmong people who had opposed them, so Dang and many others swam the Mekong River into Thailand, fleeing for refuge to the safety of that nation. Ultimately the refugee camp was a stepping stone to refuge in the United States. For the past forty years he lived in a country whose customs were foreign to him. He learned to adapt, but anyone with whom he talked would know that this was not his native land and English was not his first language. Later, after the political tensions were over, Dang returned to Laos and helped some of his remaining family, but that region of the world was no longer his home.

Dang’s life was a metaphor of how we should live as believers who have fled for refuge to Jesus. This country is not ours. Its customs are (or should be) foreign to our own. We adapt (sometimes too much) but everyone we meet should know that this is not our native land; we are really citizens of a different country. We may have come out of this world’s darkness, but it is no longer home.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that, if we have genuine faith in Jesus, we also are refugees, waiting until that time when we can return to the home that Jesus has prepared for us. Now, for the first time in more than four decades, Dang is home, never again needing to flee for refuge.