Friday, September 28, 2012

Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar--the Day of Atonement.

"Kippur" is from the same root word for the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover." That is, the solid gold lid that was placed on the top of the Ark of the Testimony. The Ark was a box made of acacia wood covered in hammered gold. In the box were placed the stone tablets upon which were the Ten Commandments written by the very finger of God. Also, a jar of manna and the rod of Aaron that budded (testifying to his selection as the High Priest--see Heb. 9: 4).

The Mercy Seat was made of gold with images of two cherubs looking downwards towards the box. In Isaiah chapter six, it is the cherubim who seem to protect the holiness of God. Thus, the symbolism here is that man's sinfulness contrasted with God's faithfulness is represented by the items in the box. The cherubim form a barrier to God's holiness.

And since their wings formed the back and armrest, the ark formed a throne where God, the Eternal King, would meet with Israel. But this could not happen unless God's holiness was satisfied.

On the Day of Atonement every year, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies behind the curtain and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat. Thus, God's holiness was guarded as the sins of Israel were expiated (covered) and God's wrath was propitiated (satisfied or appeased). This allowed God Himself to meet with Israel at the place of atonement.

Even the word "atonement" is a theological word introduced from the adverb "atonen" which meant "in accord" or "at one" and probably first used in Tyndale's translation in the early 16th century.

In Romans 3: 25, Paul tells us that Jesus was the "sacrifice of atonement" for us. The word is so difficult to translate that the KJV renders it "propitiation" and the NASB "expiation." Propitiation looks God-ward in relation to our sins (God is satisfied). Expiation looks sin-ward (sins are covered). Atonement actually has both aspects in mind. Our sins are covered, God is satisfied and we are now reconciled, or made "at one" with God.

But the underlying reality is that Paul has the Septuagint word-group that the Greek translators used for kofer in mind. Perhaps we should read it more like this:
"God presented Jesus Christ as the Mercy Seat--the place where our sins are now covered and His righteous wrath is satisfied--the place where we are now made at-one with God."

The same Greek word-group is used infrequently in the New Testament, but when it is used, to incredibly powerful effect. Four of these occurrences:

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18: 13).

He is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 2: 2; 4: 10).

"For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he may be made a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2: 17).

The good news for us is that the Day of Atonement happened when "he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9: 12). And now we ourselves can "have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way..." (Heb. 10: 19-20a).

Although the Day of Atonement has now happened, for each person, God is calling us to place our faith in Jesus so that we can experience at-one-ment with Him. In this sense, every day can be the Day of Atonement. Have you placed your faith in Jesus, the one who, in Himself, is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours, but the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2: 2)?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Was Jesus Married?" and Other Red Herrings

Every few years someone "discovers" some amazing new archeological scrap of evidence that threatens to overturn a major assumption of our faith.

Today, news is breaking that some fragment of a 4th century document, supposedly quoting from a 2nd century source, hints that Jesus had a wife. Of course, this will provide further "proof" to people who swallowed the fiction novel, The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, as if it were uncovering a 2,000 year-old conspiracy to hide this same thing. It made for a fun read, as long as you did not spend years studying the actual ancient documents, or if you already hated the Catholic Church or Christianity and just wanted another reason to hate them.

The only problem is that you would have to ignore the vast preponderance of the evidence to believe that this proves anything more than that there was a movement in the 2nd century, dominated by the Gnostics, to re-invent Jesus for their own purposes. Young Christians are often duped into thinking that something like "The Gospel of Thomas" is another suppressed writing.

There is a reason that these writings were not included in the New Testament canon (the recognized authoritative writings). They were rejected because:
1.  They were not accepted as reflecting the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles;
2.  They could not be credited to an Apostle or someone with close proximity to an Apostle.

Early writings like "The Didache" and "Shepherd of Hermas" and the epistles of Ignatius and the writings of Clement were rejected, not as heretical, but not authoritatively inspired. The early church debated canonicity for centuries. Some rediscovered Gnostic writing, was consistently rejected by contemporaneous Christian leaders centuries ago.

Thus, the four Gospels were accepted as the direct teaching of an Apostle (Matthew and John) or were the work of the disciple of an Apostle (Mark from Peter, Luke from Paul). The Gospel of Thomas was written by someone in the 2nd century using the name of an Apostle to add credibility so that a heretical Gnostic slant on Jesus would be accepted. It was soundly rejected.

The rest of the New Testament is similar. Luke, who traveled with Paul, wrote Acts. Paul wrote many epistles (although scholars dispute some authorship). James and Jude, brothers of Jesus each wrote one epistle. Peter and John wrote epistles. John wrote Revelation. The book of Hebrews was attributed to Paul, but does not match his writing style. As Origen said, "Only God knows who wrote the epistle of Hebrews." But we do know that the early church accepted the Apostolic authority that resonates in the book of Hebrews. In my opinion, if it was written by someone we know, Apollos fits the bill. It is the best Greek in the New Testament and makes many arguments using neo-platonic logic. Apollos was from Alexandria, the center of Philo's school which utilized neo-platonism. And we know that Apollos was a strong teacher, compatible with Paul's teaching and accepted as an early apostle.

So why am I spending a blog column on seemingly esoteric textual issues?

I don't want you to be shaken up by titillating news stories and History-channel sensationalism that lacks real substance. God has given us His Word and the Church throughout history has affirmed the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Don't get fooled by flashy news stories that actually lack real substance.

In Peace with God, Billy Graham tells the story from the bombing of Warsaw by the Germans in World War II. "Warsaw was flattened, but on Jerusalem Street one wall of the Old British and Foreign Bible Society remained standing. On it were these words painted in large letters: 'HEAVEN AND EARTH WILL PASS AWAY, BUT MY WORDS WILL NOT PASS AWAY.'" (p. 24).

Jesus' words were recorded exactly the same in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt: 24: 35: Mark 13: 31; Luke 21: 33).

And after 2,000 years, the New Testament continues to stand as the authoritative Word of God to us today.

So, rather than try to find some scrap of evidence that might bring down that wall--perhaps we should begin to take it seriously. If it is indeed God's Word to us, maybe it is time that we actually studied it and obeyed it.

As G. K. Chesterton said: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Redigging Wells

I live in a semi-arid region of the country--Southern California. With no big river or lake nearby to supply fresh water, and with historically rapid population growth, water rights have had to be acquired in far-reaching places like the Owens Valley and the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away, and the water has had to be moved from there to SoCal in great aqueducts, often through pumping stations over mountains. (For movie buffs, this is the underlying reality that fuels the plot of Chinatown).

But a lot of people, even in SoCal, are not aware that the northern area of Orange County, California, is served by one of the largest managed aquifer systems in the U.S.. That means that there are a series of ponds that capture rain and river runoff into "percolation" ponds that feed into deep underground aquifers. Then there are roughly 400 wells throughout the area to draw water from those underground lakes.

Wells were a very important source of water in the semi-arid herding region of southern Canaan during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we are told that Abraham dug significant wells to water his flocks. Perhaps the most famous is Beer Sheba (which means "the well of seven" or "the well of the oath").

When his son, Isaac, returned to the same areas to graze his flocks, he found that the wells that had been dug by his father had been blocked up by Abimelech and his men.

"So all the wells that his father's servants had dug during the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth" (Gen. 26: 15).

Have you ever spent time growing in your prayer life and your spiritual life, only to go through a transformation and find later that those wells of spiritual discipline have been stopped up?

And so, Isaac started to dig the wells again for himself. At first he encountered a lot of opposition from his enemies, the Philistines. Thus he names the early wells Esek (dispute) and Sitnah (quarrel). But after a while, his efforts went uncontested. The next well is named "Rehoboth" meaning "wide places." You can almost hear Isaac sigh loudly, "Ahh, at last, elbow room!"

One of the things that we must do is to revisit the significant connections with God that have been dug in the past and rediscover what we may have forgotten. Perhaps you have kept a journal. (If not, I encourage you to start now.) How often do you go back and read what you've written?

Finally Isaac swears an oath of peace with Abimelech and his commander, Phicol;
"That day, Isaac's servants came and told him, 'We've found water!' He called it Shibah (the oath), and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba (well of the oath)" (Gen. 26: 32-33).

The goal of digging the wells of spiritual connection with God is that we would be able to occupy the land that God is giving us. Figuratively, that means, that we grasp hold of the victories and the promises that God has given us and hold onto it. Rather than wandering away and allowing the enemy to steal that from us.

It does not mean that we have to live in the past. But it means that, as we move forward, we don't lose the richness of what God has already done in us.

Do you have an old well that has been stopped up in your life? Is it time to dig it up again?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Character Matters

In the midst of discussing how the Christian should endure suffering, Peter says, "But in your hearts revere (set apart) Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet. 3: 15-16).

For the last two blogs I've discussed the importance of God's manifest Presence as central to our identity as the People of God. God's Spirit, poured out upon the church, makes us who we are.

But the Spirit of God is not just poured out to empower us in ministry or to enliven our worship--the Spirit is also poured out to make us holy, that is, to transform us into godly people whose very nature is Christ-like. That's why it is called the fruit of the SPIRIT.

Character matters. When we, as a people, are transformed in our character so that we begin to behave like our Lord Jesus, it will mark us as the People of God.

Notice in this text from Peter's letter how important our character as the suffering servant is in helping us to share the message.

First, our hearts must be consecrated and dedicated to the Lordship of Christ. Campus Crusade for Christ's classic tract, "The Four Spiritual Laws" got this right. Becoming a Christian means stepping down from the throne of my own life (heart) and bowing to Christ as Lord--kneeling to Him as He takes the throne of my heart.

And this bowing to Christ's lordship is not just a one-time event that brings me to salvation. It is a life-long, daily process of laying down my will to serve the will of my Master. This is Paul's exhortation in Romans 12--to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. I think this is a great thing to do daily.

Second, we must spend time allowing our minds to be transformed. That means we learn the true story of God and how every other story is subsumed into His Story. As we grow in our understanding of the truth, we will be prepared to "give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have."

This means we not only read the Bible, but study it. And it means submitting ourselves to good teachers. Too many people get stuck in a mind-set that is unteachable. A true disciple of Jesus is a life-long learner.

Third, we must change in our character, taking on the very nature of Christ. Becoming gentle and respectful. So much so that we are known for our good behavior. The real disciple of Jesus is going to be "yoked" to Him and learn from Him--gentleness and humility. (Matt. 11: 29-30).

And it is impossible to grow in character without being committed to gathering regularly with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Like rocks in a tumbler, the slow friction between one another wears our imperfections and sharp edges away until we are shiny and the beauty of what was hidden is now exposed for all to see.

Is Christ truly "enthroned" in your heart? Why not bow before Him again today?