Not Empty Words

For [the Law of Moses] 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 32:47, ESV).

There are many types of literature that I pass by when I go to a bookstore. I care little for romance novels or science fiction; I have little interest in cooking (my interest is just in the eating!) so cookbooks and nutrition guides are easy to ignore. My real interest is in the ideas that drive us to do what we do, so I peruse books on philosophy and theology and classic literary stories. The rest are just empty words.

Many people today view the Bible as a large book of empty words. The stories coming from ancient times don’t seem to have any relevance to their lives today, and they can’t imagine how a 2000—4000 year old book could be relevant in an age of such advanced technology. Sadly I am talking about people who claim to be Christians.

Biblical theology claims that the God that created us has revealed Himself to mankind. He has not left us to wonder if He exists or what His will is; the Bible asserts forthrightly that its words are the very Words of God. (There are some who choose not to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, but there is no question that the claim to authority is made in the text.) To read those claims for oneself, a person merely needs to turn to the end of the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and read into the first few verses of chapter four. Jesus Himself told us that the words of Scripture will never pass away (Matt 5:18).

If, as Biblical theology also claims, the realm of this God is our everlasting destination, and this space-time existence is only temporary, it seems logical to figure out how He has communicated to men through the ages and what He has said to them. For all our advanced technology, after all, we are still just created people — even as they were in every other age. We must also understand that the Bible’s 66 books claim to be the complete revelation (Heb. 1:1—2:4); don’t be fooled by the claims of some that God added an addendum (see Gal. 1:6-9).

This understanding is the rationale for Moses’ statement that the Law God gave him was not an “empty word, but [our] very life” (Deut 32:47). It is relevant to us today, just as it was when it was written, even though we have to filter the ideas through our changed culture. An initial reading may take us through parts that are difficult to understand (we might even describe them as “boring”), but with some understanding of ancient cultures those difficulties can be overcome — by any normal adult. Some parts are understandable even to preschool children. We simply must begin with the understanding that these are not “empty words.”

Many years ago I decided for myself that if these are indeed the words of God, nothing is more important than for me to understand them, so I began to read the Bible cover to cover each year. No decision has had a more profound effect on my life than this one.

To Whom Much is Given

Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the LORD And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).

To a man, the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance to a people who said they trusted God but in reality followed after idols. Sometimes that message was a message of the tender love of God for his erring people (Hosea); sometimes it was a general call to repentance (Joel); and sometimes it was an in-your-face demand for repentance. That was Amos’ message; he wasn’t subtle at all.

The first two chapters of Amos’ prophecy pronounced judgment upon Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. The often-repeated phrase “For three transgressions of _____ and for four…” is a Hebrew phrase that communicates the same message as our English phrase, “The straw that broke the camel’s back…” Sin upon sin had piled up against these nations until God had to bring judgment for “the final straw,” which He names in each case.

As the judgments are pronounced for some very violent and egregious sins of the nations, similar judgments are pronounced upon Israel and Judah for much less sins – or so it would seem (see 2:4, 6). Most of us today would think it unfair that the same severity of punishment would be meted out against Judah who merely “rejected the law of God” as it was against those who “ripped open pregnant women” (1:13) simply to enlarge their borders.

To us in the conservative, right-wing movement of America, there is hardly a more vile sinner than the abortionist who employs procedures like “partial birth abortion,” except perhaps the lawyer or politician that legalizes such a procedure (and lives high off the proceeds of their actions). But in God’s eyes, there is no hierarchy of sins. The immediate consequences of the abortionist’s sin may be more apparent, but every vile consequence had its root in the first act of disobedience, the first act of justification.

Perhaps that’s why disobedience to God’s Word is a more significant sin than we in America would like to believe.

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

A Question of Eternal Significance

Although I normally begin my blog with the verse or two that prompts my thoughts, today the passage is actually a couple of chapters in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Please look them up.

Chapter 2 describes a dream that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had one evening. Like many of us he woke up knowing that he had dreamed something but couldn’t remember what it was. Unlike most of us he recognized it as something quite significant. When his counselors couldn’t tell him the dream and its interpretation, Daniel  was called and, after prayer, God revealed the dream to him so he could interpret it for the king. In chapters 7-8 of Daniel’s prophecy, we get another picture of the same dream/vision.

What is significant about this dream is that it is prophetic, and the details are astounding. The veracity of those details are now a part of our historical record. Daniel wrote this in the sixth century, BC sometime before the fall of the Medo-Persian Empire. But Daniel not only predicted that the Greek leader, Alexander the Great, would defeat the Persians, but also that his kingdom would be divided into four parts, that one part would persecute the Jews, and that the whole would be later conquered by the Romans, during which time Messiah would come.

Rationalist philosophies down through the years have disdained predictive prophecy, but they have always been baffled by Daniel’s (and Nebuchadnezzar’s) peek into the future. It really places them between the proverbial “rock and hard place”: either deny the obvious (that Daniel had some foreknowledge which can only be attributed to a Being outside human experience) or scrap the philosophical position that they are using to deny the Truth.

Because of the constant denial of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as authoritative, many people today have not wrestled with this conundrum. Sadly, their souls will be, in part, the responsibility of those so-called Christian scholars and leaders who have decided that they will pass judgment on the Scripture rather than submitting to the Scripture themselves.

But the larger part of the responsibility will be their own. Each of us (at least in this society) has the witness of creation and the Scripture available to us. It won’t be a valid excuse to simply say, “I was too busy standing in line for three days waiting for the latest iphone to be sold, so I didn’t have time to check to see if the Scriptures were really true.”

The conundrum of whether to believe and obey the Scriptures or find an excuse to justify their rejection is one each of us has to face – even if we didn’t spend days waiting for the latest technology. On the answer to that question rests your eternity.

Fools in High Places

There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler:  Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones (Eccl 10:5-6).

 One of the important characteristics of the Hebrew language (from which this passage is translated) is “parallelism.” Rather than rhyming words such as we use in English, Hebrew poetry uses similar or opposite thoughts to draw out the meaning of the phrase. In this passage, then, the noun “rich” is to be seen as being antithetical or the opposite of the word “fools.” It is not a customary usage of the Hebrew term, but the meaning is pretty clear. The “rich” in this case are rich in wisdom.

 I happened to read this while our United States Congress was embroiled in the battle over raising the debt ceiling for our government. (Note I said, “government,” not “country.”) I concur with Solomon, “Fools are put in many high positions…” I always hesitate to criticize in this way because I know that there are many good and decent men and women who are trying to do the right and responsible thing to keep our country solvent, but they are out voted by the “fools” who simply want to buy their votes to win reelection. This was not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. (Incidentally, while I am being critical here, I also regularly pray for them.)

 It is not rocket science to understand that we cannot spend more than we take in perpetually. It is also not rocket science to understand that we already take in ENOUGH. However, bringing money back home is one of the main considerations when a politician is seeking reelection.

This is why a Balanced Budget Amendment makes sense – it’s what we must do as a family, what our church must do and what every business must do as well. Even “lower” governments – municipalities and states – must balance their budgets or lose services totally. That’s a choice some communities have opted for over exorbitant taxation.

 Since, as some say, “reelection is the principle job of any politician,” perhaps we are at the point where we need to establish term limits for the House and the Senate. After all, the Presidency has a limitation of two terms. By limiting them to a certain number of elected terms in office, perhaps it will be an incentive for them to serve the people rather than perpetuate their reelection.

I also think that someone other than these elected officials should establish their salaries. Perhaps this could be the annual, collective job of the Lieutenant Governors of each state (In our technologically rich era, this could be done quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively through a Conference Call). Perhaps they could use the same standard for Congressional raises that is used to determine cost of living increases for Social Security recipients. Or, since these people represent their respective states, take their salaries from the coffers of the individual states to remind them who they are really serving.

 Solomon had it correct that the people in low positions (we would call them “grassroots”) often are rich in wisdom. The question in each generation is, “Will we be heard?”

The God of Small Details

Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong” (Acts 25:1-5)

                 As I read this passage (actually, from a couple of different translations) I get the very distinct impression that Governor Festus had no clue that the Jewish leaders were planning to ambush and kill Paul, if he had come to Jerusalem. Luke, the historian who wrote the Book of Acts, somehow knew this, and our English translations make it to read like a parenthetical thought.

                 Yet the Scripture in its totality is God’s Word and there are no extra ideas here, so the clear meaning is that God by His sovereign direction – even over pagan or secular rulers – preserved Paul’s life in this way. Certainly He could have protected Paul even if they had brought him to Jerusalem, but it is clear that the evil plans of those who opposed the Gospel were thwarted by His oversight of the small details.

                 That principle is true in our lives as well. Life has a tendency to “throw us a curve” at times, to interrupt our carefully laid plans. These interruptions may or may not divert us from our plans ultimately, but we can be sure that if we are completely His, they are not accidents. That’s why the writer of the Proverbs says, “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (16:9).

                 In the passage above, Paul had no control over the decision of Festus to conduct his hearing in Caesarea instead of Jerusalem, but it is comforting to realize that the Lord still is watching out for us by orchestrating the small details. Sometimes when He steps into our plans we also have no decisions in the matter, but at other times, He is seeking to prompt us to seek Him for some sort of wisdom. Either way, there is nothing that happens to us that He doesn’t at least allow. What a comfort that truth is in times of trouble and bewilderment!

The Gospel Yeast

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Luke 13:20-21

                 This is one of the few times in Scripture where yeast is not compared to sin. Most often it is used to speak of the way sin changes the state of a person’s heart. But in this case, that change is a positive one. The Gospel (the kingdom of God) actually alters the very nature of human development.

                 I came to know Christ in college. To many around me, the changes that took place in my life were probably considered changes that came with maturity and human development, but I knew different. There was a significant difference between the “BC” person and who I became.

                 Though my life as sheltered and stable, I grew up with no real sense of personal value. Before I came to Christ, I had no understanding of why I existed. I was scared to try new things because I feared ridicule or that I would fail and people would think poorly of me. I’m sure it was not intentionally communicated, but I believed my personal worth was a function of some unique contribution that I knew was not in me. Had I embraced an Eastern mystical religion in those days, it would have fit my don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor. I wasn’t passionate about anything so that I would avoid being criticized.

                 But Christ changed that. His presence in my life began to permeate everything I was and did. That “small” decision to trust Him with my life suddenly impacted the whole of my life, just like the yeast did to the dough in Jesus’ illustration. I recognized the Bible as the source of Truth; I saw Jesus as the Ruler over the universe; I may not have had clear vocational direction, but I knew it was somehow connected to my relationship with Him. All the pieces of my life that had previously seemed so fragmented, now were brought into order by His presence, like a magnet does to iron filings.

                 But it makes me wonder about some of the people near me. Has their internal orientation changed because of their decision to trust Christ? (Has the Gospel yeast permeated their lives?) Rather, have they viewed Christianity as “fire insurance,” simply to keep them from hell? When small children (even my own) trust Christ, does the Gospel yeast so alter their lives that they will be true to it in the turbulent adolescent years and beyond? Certainly, I can never peer into the hearts of these near me, but He does expect me to inspect the “fruit” or see if “the dough has risen.”

The Object of Our Trust

Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:9-12).

             I certainly feel the frustration of the Roman Centurion in this passage. It seems that most of my decisions also pit the wisdom of professionals against the wisdom of revelation. Now, before I comment more about the revelation, it is important to note that the Centurion was not a believer at this point, so he did not have a Christian frame of reference and he didn’t have a clue that his only place in the history of the world was his intersection with the life of Paul the Apostle.

             Personally I can excuse the Centurion for this bad decision (hindsight is 20/20). What I have trouble excusing are believers in our day who operate a Church as if it is a business. Certainly there are some business practices that are proper to follow: financial accountability, organizational management principles and living within our means are just a few.

             But I have been in settings where the leaders ignored the example of our Lord Jesus and ruled by their directives rather than leading as servants. The secular business model took precedence over the revealed Truth of Scripture. An unbelieving Centurion might be excused; but these leaders should have known better.

             There are also times when a Church needs to consciously set aside a normal practice to obey Scripture. One example is that Scripture continually commands us to give. Think about: the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4); the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-22); the principle of sowing and reaping (II Cor. 8-9); and the explicit teaching of our Lord in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you…” These teachings are diametrically opposed to most business models. The Christian businessman may compare “faith” with “risk management,” but the object of his trust is different. The businessman trusts in an expected return on his investments based upon statistics; the Christian trusts in the faithfulness of the God he serves.

             As with Paul and the Centurion in Acts 27, our decisions always betray the object of our trust. It may not be evident immediately, but sooner or later it will become clear. This helps us make sense of the verse in Hebrews that says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6).