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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

The Purpose of Christ’s Coming

And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6 ESV).

This year I started reading the prophecy of Isaiah on December 1 — two chapters each day. It was not intentional but this practice led me to read this passage, “he who formed me from the womb,” on Christmas day. Interestingly, the reference here is to Christ himself, the one whose emergence from the womb we commemorate on Christmas.

Some scholars have described this passage as the Old Testament’s Great Commission. Christ’s coming was not simply so that we could have a quaint and sentimental celebration. His coming was to enlighten the nations to his Truth. He did not come just for Israel, He came for the whole world. That is at least part of the significance of the visit of the non-Jewish Magi in Matthew 2. Simeon told Mary and Joseph that their Baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” in Luke 2:32.

Christian orthodoxy teaches that the heart of man is inherently selfish. We tend to gravitate to what will please ourselves; we look at life from a lens that magnifies the implications of decisions on ourselves; we have trouble taking the focus off of our needs and putting the needs of others first. That is why Isaiah quotes God as saying to the incarnate Messiah, “It is too small a thing to just consider the needs of Israel; I want you to reach all of the nations.”

This inherent selfishness in fallen man is how the enemy of our souls keeps us from seeing the real purpose of Messiah’s coming. We focus on the gifts coming to us rather than the Gift that came to redeem a lost world. We are told that the physical needs of the materially less fortunate are more important than the redemptive needs of those who have never heard. By giving to material needs there can be an immediate gratification to our souls — we feel good about ourselves when we give, and we feed a subtle pride that suggests that we are better than others because we can give when, perhaps, they cannot.

There is never anything wrong with giving — we need to give; we should give; God desires that we give. We simply must guard against the pride that wells up inside as we imagine that WE gave, that others — including God — are dependent upon US.

Messiah’s purpose in coming was not to selfishly restore just His own people — His mission was to the whole world. This wasn’t the after thought to His life, death, and resurrection, as if Jesus happened to say, “BTW, before I leave, go out and tell people about Me now that I have risen.” It was the primary purpose of His incarnation.