Contagious Cleanliness

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The prophet Haggai ministered to the nation of Israel as they were seeking to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed by the Babylonians some 70 years earlier. But it has been slow going. Israel’s sin has soiled their souls and is stymieing their success. Amid this struggle, Haggai asks the priests of Israel, as the nation’s spiritual caretakers, a couple of questions:

“If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?” The priests answered, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” “Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.” Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in My sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.” (Haggai 2:12-14)

Haggai notes that when someone or something is consecrated to and clean before God, its holiness is non-transferable. One cannot share his holiness with another. But when someone is soiled by sin, their sinfulness is highly contagious. Their sin can become a temptation that leads other people to stumble and fall. And this is what has happened with the nation of Israel. The sinfulness of some of its people is a virus that has infected the whole nation and is leading to its downfall.

The sad state of Israel’s affairs poses a tremendous tension. If cleanliness and holiness are non-transferable, but sinfulness is highly contagious, how do we avoid getting sacked by sin? Won’t sin, because of its virulent character, simply infect us all and take us all down? How do we stay safe? How do we get well and live well?

In Matthew 8, Jesus meets a man who has been infected by leprosy. In the first century, such an infection was nothing short of a death sentence. As the bacteria that caused leprosy grew, people would develop lesions and would lose feeling in their limbs and injure themselves. Their injuries would often become so severely infected that the affected person would die. So, when Jesus meets this leprous man, he is desperate for help. He cries out:

“Lord, if You are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. (Matthew 8:2-3)

The prophet Haggai says that consecration and cleanliness are non-transferable. But defilement and sinfulness are. But here is Jesus, reversing everything. He does what Haggai says no one can do. He transfers His holiness and cleanliness to a man who has been languishing in leprosy. He makes him clean.

What the priests of Haggai’s day could not accomplish, God’s High Priest, Jesus, did accomplish. He transferred His holiness and perfect cleanliness to a leper – and He does the same for us through the cross. Our holiness is non-transferable. But Jesus’ holiness is highly contagious. And that’s something that, by faith, anyone can catch.

August 29, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Joy in Trials

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I love joy.

I love watching a child’s eyes light up when dessert is served. I love watching a dog wag its tail in anticipation of fetching a tennis ball. I love watching a couple on their wedding day look into each other’s tearful eyes and hold each other’s hands tight.

I love joy.

And yet, joy can sometimes be tough to come by – or at least to sustain.

Joy is often overcome by anger when we see injustice in our world. Or it is overtaken with loneliness when we feel isolated with no one to talk to. Or it is overwhelmed by grief when we lose a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, or another loved one.

The prophet Habakkuk ministered to the nation of Israel during a season when joy was tough to come by. The nation of Israel had fallen into spiritual corruption and the Babylonians were on their way to attack – and eventually conquer – Habakkuk’s home. In the midst of all this, Habakkuk, as most of us would, struggled to find joy. He opens his book by questioning – and implicitly accusing – God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Or cry out to You, “Violence!” but You do not save? Why do You make me look at injustice? Why do You tolerate wrongdoing? (Habakkuk 1:2-3)

“Nothing is going well,” Habakkuk complains. “There is no reason to have joy.”

Except that, according to Habakkuk, there is.

Habakkuk closes his book:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

“Even when all else fails and is lost,” Habakkuk writes, “I still have the Lord. And He is enough for me to have joy.”

The apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). This injunction, at first read, feels impossible. We can understand rejoicing, but to do so always seems ridiculous. But if Paul gives us the “what we are to do,” Habakkuk gives us the “how we are to do it.” We are to be joyful in God our Savior. Joy found in things other than the Lord will always come and go because other things always come and go. Joy found in anything other than the Lord is ultimately unsustainable. But joy that is in the Lord can endure always – because He is with us always. Find your joy in Him.

August 22, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Punishment and Patience

Credit: “Jonah foretells the destruction of Nineveh” by Jan Luyken (1712) / Public Domain

At the end of the book that bears his name, the prophet Jonah is seething. God has just spared city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which is the arch-enemy empire of Israel. Jonah had seen this coming. In fact, he was so concerned that God might allow Israel’s arch-enemy to stand after God called the prophet to go and try to help Nineveh that he tried to hop a ship sailing the opposite direction from Nineveh to Tarshish. Jonah was not interested in giving any opportunity to God to extend mercy to the Ninevites. And he says as much:

Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (Jonah 4:2)

Jonah wanted the Lord to be a judgment juggernaut – not a gracious God.

And yet, around 150 years later, God’s judgment does come for Nineveh, but through a different prophet – the prophet Nahum. This is what Nahum has to say:

The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh: “You will have no descendants to bear your name. I will destroy the images and idols that are in the temple of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.” (Nahum 1:14)

It turns out that the Ninevites repented of their sin during the time of Jonah, but then fell back into their sin after the time of Jonah. And now God’s judgment will come on them.

So often, like Jonah, we want God’s judgment to come in our way and on our schedule. We want to be judge, juror, and executioner of those who have sinned against us, or even of those who are morally opposed to us. But Jonah’s experience with Nineveh echoes the apostle Paul’s words:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is Mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:18-19)

God will judge – but not always in our way and on our schedule. Indeed, as Nahum – the prophet who does announce of God’s judgment – says:

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (Nahum 1:3)

The Lord does have power and punishment for sinners, but only after the Lord practices patience – lots of patience – with sinners. And for this, we should be grateful. Because God is not only patient with them, but patient with us. So, let’s be patient with God and allow Him to carry out His mercy and His judgment in His way.

I have a feeling He might know what He’s doing.

August 15, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

God’s Open-Door Policy

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In Exodus 19, as God is preparing to give Israel the Ten Commandments on the summit of Mount Sinai, He issues a stern warning to the people through Moses:

Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. (Exodus 19:21)

And again to the priests and the people of Israel:

The priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or He will break out against them. (Exodus 19:24)

Everyone, it seems, would love to have some time with God. But as the Law is being introduced, the Israelites, instead of getting time with God, are being separated from God. The people are to remain at the foot of the mountain while Moses receives God’s Law at the top of the mountain. And to try to get close to God while He is giving His Law – to try to force their way into His presence in the midst of His law – will only result in their death.

Jesus makes a fascinating, perplexing, and seemingly passing statement in Luke’s Gospel:

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. (Luke 16:16)

“The Law” to which Jesus refers is the Law Moses received up on Mount Sinai, and “the Prophets” are those who proclaimed the Law, up to and including John the Baptist. But now, instead of a mountain, there is a kingdom. And now, instead of being sternly warned not to force their way up the mountain, people are openly and fearlessly forcing their way into the kingdom. Why? Because while the Law separated us from God because of our sin, Jesus came to undo that separation by forgiving our sin. We can force our way right in to see God. In Christ, God has an open-door policy.

So, what do you need to see God about? A worry? A sickness? A sin? A need? Feel free to barge right in. He’ll be happy to see you – and to help you. Because He loves you.

August 8, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

What makes God, God?

What makes God, God? Traditionally, God’s fundamental attributes have been described as omnipotence – that God has power over all – omniscience – that He knows all – and omnipresence – that He is with all. Certainly, these are all true and critical attributes of God. But as the prophet Micah closes His book, He sees something else foundational to God.

Micah begins with an announcement from God that He will rescue Israel in power. God says to Israel:

“As in the days when you came out of Egypt, I will show them My wonders.” Nations will see and be ashamed, deprived of all their power. They will put their hands over their mouths and their ears will become deaf. They will lick dust like a snake, like creatures that crawl on the ground. They will come trembling out of their dens; they will turn in fear to the Lord our God and will be afraid of you. (Micah 7:15-17)

God’s power will overpower all the powers of the world, Micah says. This is God’s omnipotence at its most expansive. But it’s not just this traditional attribute of God that makes God, God. For Micah continues with a critical question:

Who is a God like You? (Micah 7:18)

What is it, Micah muses, that makes God so unique? What is it that sets Him apart? His answer is as stunning as it is soothing:

Who is a God like You, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

It is God’s mercy – and not only His power, knowledge, or even presence – that makes God, God. What makes God utterly unique is that He does not treat us as our sins deserve. Instead, He hurls our sins away and, by doing so, becomes our hope and stay.

Martin Luther spoke of two types of God’s work – His strange work and His proper work. God’s strange work is His work of judgment in power. It is a work that is meant to reprove and, if not heeded, condemn. But though God does this work, it is strange to Him. It is not His preferred mode of operation. His preferred mode of operation – His proper work – is that of mercy and grace. God’s desire is to redeem and not just to reprove – to commute the sentence of sin instead of condemning people in sin. This is what makes God, God. And for this, we can be thankful. Because it is God’s mercy that allows us to approach Him, to rely on Him, and to find our rest in Him.

In Hebrew, the name Micah means, “Who is like the Lord?” The answer is, of course, “No one.” But because of what the Lord is like, we can like the Lord. We can love the Lord. Because He loves us.

August 1, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Raising Up a Remnant

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The prophet Micah ministered during a dark period in the nation of Israel’s history. Externally, the Assyrians were menacing Israel, and internally, both the secular and spiritual leaders of Israel had become corrupt. The secular leaders were abusing their privilege to take advantage of the powerless:

They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. (Micah 2:2)

The spiritual leaders, in turn, were willing to overlook such gross misuses of power because they were being paid by the secular leaders to do so:

Her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.” (Micah 3:11)

With depravity running rampant throughout the nation, it was tempting to feel as if no one righteous was left – as if evil had gotten its way and seized the day. And for a time, that looked to be the case. The Assyrians not only menaced Israel, but eventually routed Israel, followed by the Babylonians who did the same thing a little over 100 years later. Israel had fallen and righteousness had been extinguished.

But Micah knew better. Micah understood that, even amid much fallenness and darkness, God could preserve and raise up a remnant of people for Himself:

The remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many peoples like dew from the Lord, like showers on the grass, which do not wait for anyone or depend on man. (Micah 5:7)

Micah declares that much will have been lost by the time Israel’s judgment is through, but God will nevertheless raise up a few.

It is especially important to note how Micah describes this small group. They are “like showers on the grass, which do not wait for anyone or depend on man.” The key difference between those who fall in judgment and those who are raised up in a remnant is that those who are raised up in a remnant “do not…depend on man.” Their status as part of God’s remnant does not depend on any person, any treaty, any riches, any social status, or any act of human power, but on the righteousness of God. It depends not on human efforts, but on faith in God. Their status as God’s remnant is not their achievement, but God’s gift.

In a world where we can sometimes feel isolated because we see sin all around us or we struggle with sin within us, we can rest assured that we are part of God’s people – His remnant. As Jesus put it: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). God’s flock may be little, but it is real. And by simple faith, anyone can be a part. May this be a promise we all take to heart.

July 25, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Cleansing and Telling

Credit: Christ Healing the Leper (1534) / Wikimedia

As Matthew 8 opens, a leper comes to Jesus, desperate for healing from his chronic, and ultimately terminal, ailment:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed Him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)

Jesus’ words to this man upon his healing are puzzling: “See to it that you don’t tell anyone” (Matthew 8:4). What? Why? The story opens with “large crowds” (Matthew 8:1) following Jesus. It’s not as if this healing was done in secret, so it’s not as if this man could have kept this healing a secret. Why would this leper not tell anyone about a healing that everyone had just seen?

The key comes not in who Jesus tells this man not to tell, but in who Jesus tells this man to tell: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4). The priests were the ones responsible, according to Leviticus 14, for ceremonially cleansing someone who had been cured of a skin disease. The process involved an examination, the sprinkling of blood, a guilt offering, and a sin offering. Jesus instructs the leper to go to the priest and go through the rigmarole of the cleansing ritual, but not so that he may be cleansed. For he already has been. Jesus has already ordered the leper’s skin to “be clean” (Matthew 8:3)! Instead, the leper is to do this “as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4) – a testimony that the One who can fully cleanse the unclean has come. Sadly, we know that the priests – along with many other Jewish religious leaders – did not receive this man’s testimony, but instead were offended by Jesus and “plotted how they might kill Jesus” (Matthew 12:14).

Who Jesus tells this leper to tell and not tell can be instructive for us, for we can all be tempted to talk about our faith in Jesus only with the crowds – with people who are predisposed to be impressed with our message. But sometimes, Jesus invites us instead to turn our attention to the skeptical and even the hostile and share our faith with them “as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4). This is difficult and frightening. But it is also very needed. For even the skeptical and hostile need cleansing – cleansing from guilt, shame, and sin. Who is Jesus inviting you to share your faith with today? You can’t coerce someone else’s faith. But you can share your own.

Remember, Jesus did not just come for the people who were friendly to Him. He came for everyone – even His enemies. May we share the message of that One with everyone.

July 18, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Bearing God’s Name

The Second Commandment is not just a prohibition, but an offer. God says to Moses:

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name. (Exodus 20:7)

Famously, the ancient Jews became so concerned with misusing God’s name that they would not even speak it. Instead of calling God “Yahweh,” the name God gave to Moses to share with Israel when He appeared to him in a burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15), they instead referred to God using a title of respect – “Lord.”

Though this instinct not to misuse the name of God is commendable, it does beg a question: Though we should not misuse God’s name, does this mean that there is no good use of God’s name? It is this question that brings to the forefront God’s offer in this commandment. Because there are most certainly many good uses of God’s name.

We can use God’s name to bless. (Numbers 6:24-26)

We can use God’s name to call to repentance. (Acts 2:38)

We can use God’s name to call to faith. (Acts 10:43)

We can use God’s name to baptize. (Matthew 28:19-20)

We can use God’s name to offer salvation. (Romans 10:13)

God’s name – even though it can be misused – is still quite useful.

In Hebrew, there are two words behind our one English word “misuse” in this commandment. There is the word sawe, which means “vanity” or “emptiness.” There is also the word nasa, which means to “take up” or “to bear.” This is why many Bible translations will render this verse: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” We certainly want to avoid sawe. But we also want to embrace nasa. We want to bear the name of God in our lives and through our lives. As one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, reminds us: “Praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).

To whom is God calling you to bear His name this week? It’s a name worth sharing because it’s a name that our world needs to hear.

July 11, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Freedom and Limits

Happy 246th birthday, America.

On this date in 1776, these United States were formed when the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. At the heart of the Declaration was a yearning to be free:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.

Freedom is the bedrock of the American experiment. But freedom is also funny. Freedom is a precious gift – one that I believe ought to be granted to all people everywhere – and yet, freedom also works best when it is given limits. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam and Eve.

God gave history’s first couple tremendous freedom:

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden.” (Genesis 2:16)

But on their freedom, He also placed a limit:

“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17)

When Adam and Eve transgressed this limit, rather than gaining freedom, they lost freedom, for they became slaves to sin and cursed by death.

In order to be freed from this slavery and curse, a perfectly free God placed limits on Himself as He became incarnate in Christ. As the French Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Falque explains in The Metamorphosis of Finitude:

What makes Christianity is not solely the extraordinary in Christ’s revelation of His glory … It is also and indeed primarily the sharing by the Word incarnate of our most ordinary human condition independent of sin (that is, human finitude and the humanization of the divine).

The phrase “human finitude” is one of the most ponderous mysteries of our faith. In Christ, the infinite became finite. The perfectly free limited Himself for you and for me. And yet, in the apostle Paul’s telling, this finitude and limitedness becomes the basis for true freedom – our freedom:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1)

As we rightfully celebrate our freedoms today, let us remember that our national freedom was won by men and women who willingly gave up their freedoms as they served and sacrificed for this nation. There would be no land of the free if we were not also the home of the brave. And, as we live out of our freedom in Christ, let us also remember that our eternal freedom was won by a man who willingly gave up His freedom as He served us and sacrificed His life for us on a cross.

July 4, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Day of the Lord

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One of the most prominent themes in Scripture is the Day of the Lord. This is the day God will reveal Himself in His power and glory. And what a day this will be. It will be a day of awe. It will be a day of fear. It will be a day of judgment. And it is a day that is near.

The prophet Obadiah describes this day thusly:

The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. (Obadiah 15)

In Obadiah’s telling, the Day of the Lord will be one of recompense. What you have done – both good and evil – will boomerang back to you on this day.

For me, this sounds terrifying. I have done some good in my life – but I have also done plenty of bad. There are things I have done to others that I would not want done to me. A day of recompense, for me, would be a day of ruin.

And this is precisely what Obadiah wants his readers to worry about. He continues:

Just as you drank on My holy hill, so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been. (Obadiah 16)

God warns that the nations will “drink continually” – a metaphor for the pouring out of divine wrath. The wrath that God pours out on this day will be so intense and God’s destructive judgment so definitive, that it will be as if there had never been any nations.

But it does not have to be this way. In the middle of a day of inescapable divine judgment, there will be a refuge:

But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and Jacob will possess his inheritance. (Obadiah 17)

Zion will be a place of refuge from the judgment all around it. Jacob – that is, Israel – will receive an inheritance. But how?

A parent bequeaths an inheritance to a child for the simple reason that they are a child. It is not something that is earned – and often not even deserved, for many children are scoundrels – it is simply given out of love.

The apostle Paul writes:

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. (Galatians 3:26)

This is how we are rescued from the recompense for sin that comes with the Day of Lord and, instead, given refuge in spite of our sin at the day of the Lord – through faith in Christ. Jesus is the One who turns a terrifying day into a triumphant day. He is the One who delivers us.

When the Day of the Lord comes, it will be either a day of wrath or a day of redemption in Christ. Which will it be for you?

June 27, 2022 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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