Thursday, June 30, 2016

Strange Fire and Holy Fire, Part 2

The Lord said, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50, NASBU) I have come to understand this “fire” to be identical to John the Baptizer’s prophesy that the Lord would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16, NASBU). This is the work of spiritual cleansing and transformation of the character, disposition and behavior of the redeemed person. Only the Lord can affect this kind of change in a human being and he can only do so with the full cooperation of that person! 

God’s purpose remains to make his people holy (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 1:13-16). This is a process requiring the perpetual offering up of ourselves, as we become more self-aware; this process is both of learning to say “NO” to evil things and to be open to God’s blessed Spirit. Grace is given again and again as I renew my faith again and again at each new stage of self-understanding (in the light of God’s truth).

“Just as each poison has an antidote, every sin has its opposite grace. And the Christian who wants to walk in the power of holiness must not only work to avoid sin but to possess this contrary grace. In Scripture we read of a house which stood empty because the Holy Spirit did not come in after the evil spirit had been driven out. A merely negative Christian, then, will leave the sin he once walked in but still will not move toward holiness.” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2 [Banner of Truth], p.175)

God knows us completely. Thus he knows our potential and the damage our choices to sin (and the impact of others offenses against us) have had on our souls and bodies. If we resist the Holy Spirit’s conviction and guidance to either avoid sinning (old patterns especially) or to embrace practicing his new way of living rooted in the “new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24, NASBU) what does this demonstrate about us? We have not yet come to believe (to be convinced of) the grace of God. For if we did we would not hesitate to gladly give ourselves over to the Holy Spirit and to fully cooperate, so far as we are aware of how to do this, with God in our own spiritual transformation. 

God is quite serious about combating sin and evil in human beings and the world. The test of true worship and true service to God is the degree to which you and I are actively participating with God in this warfare. God will not accept anything less than our whole persons offered up wholeheartedly in faith. In this perpetual offering of oneself is the blessedness of eternal life begun to be experienced on earth now. 

The Psalmist expressed well this dynamic relationship with the living God:

“Remember your word to your servant, in which you had made me hope. This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life. The arrogant utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from your law. When I think of your ordinances from of old, I take comfort, O LORD. Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, those who forsake your law. Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home. I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and keep your law. This blessing has fallen to me, for I have kept your precepts.” (Psalm 119:49-56, NRSV)


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Strange Fire and Holy Fire, Part 1

There is a provision in the legislation of God’s Torah regarding proper worship that I think is very instructive. That is, the instructions for making incense (see Exodus 30:34-38). This brief list of ingredients and instructions for preparing it ends with the following warning: “When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.” (30:37-38, NRSV)

The priests were to utilize this incense as part of the daily worship in their work of representing the people before God. This task was gravely serious and God proved it by taking the lives of two of Aaron’s sons. For Aaron’s sons, taking up censers,

“after putting fire in them, placed incense in it and offered strange fire before the LORD which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2, NASBU)

This appears to be a harsh response until we begin to realize the context. These were the sons of the high priest, Aaron. Their vocation was defined by understanding and obeying God’s commands as they related to the worship of God in his holiness—in his sanctuary (“Tent of Meeting”). God stated clearly what was required in order to approach him in worship and the priests, above all others among the Israelites, were to insure that they obeyed these directives explicitly because they were assigned the task of leading and teaching the people (see Leviticus 10:8-11) in worship of the holy God who had delivered them.

Why had they not followed God’s explicit instructions regarding making and preparing the incense? We are not given any indications in the text—the text simply states that they had offered before Yahweh, the Holy One, “strange” or “unholy” fire. But what is clear from the Torah is that God expected his priests to fear him and thus to obey him. Did they not think that God was serious about maintaining the distinctiveness of the worship of the Holy One? Apparently they thought that they could improvise or alter the way they prepared the designated instruments used for worship. This incident demonstrated how serious God was about distinguishing what God had set apart as holy and what was common to everyday human life.  

Now I know that through the Lord Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection God’s people are made holy and righteous. Indeed, because of this act of grace to activate the power of the blood of Christ into our believing persons we can now make all things holy (set apart for God’s worship and usefulness). This is just one aspect of the blessing of God’s eternal covenant enacted and ratified through the Lord Jesus (see Hebrews 10:1-14; 13:13-16). Is not God just as serious about making us holy today as he was for the ancient Israelites? Dare we think that God’s purpose of holiness for his people has been relaxed simply because the fullness of grace has been revealed, demonstrated and sealed in the Lord Jesus? 

The human heart has not changed over thousands of years. We are still just as prone to set aside God’s explicit commands when we decide that doing what God said does not match up with our desires. One of the Proverbs states this well: “Those who walk uprightly fear the LORD, but one who is devious in conduct despises him.” (14:2, NRSV) The sons of Aaron despised God. This is what their conduct demonstrated. (Another example of priests who were bent on doing evil while supposedly serving God is Eli’s sons [see 1 Samuel 2:12-17].) 

Our unfaithfulness has no remedy outside of Christ himself and our choice to place our faith (trust) in him. God’s ways are good—for the Torah was given to instruct the people in what was good, healthful and just for their common life together. This revelation was for their good and a guide for how to practice their faith in the God of heaven and earth who had delivered them as a people from Egypt. But it required faith on their part.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Folly of Passing Snowplows

Some years ago, while I was living in Oregon, there was a severe snow storm that blanketed Portland and the surrounding areas. While listening to the radio I recall hearing a bulletin put out by the State highway patrol that I did not expect. This bulletin warned of dangerous conditions on all roads and freeways and specifically stated a request to “not pass the snowplows.” 
I have never forgotten this because it spurred this question in my mind: Why would someone pass a snowplow on a road covered with multiple feet of snow? Is this not safe? Of course it was not safe—thus the State highway patrol was asking people to refrain from doing this. 

Yet there is something in the fact that people were “passing the snowplows.” Why could they not wait till the road had been cleared and there was a safe path established by which to travel? Impatience is one obvious answer. Stupidity perhaps? Or better yet reckless pride. All the above may be fitting. 

I think that this a fitting example of how many people think of spirituality and relating to God. They can simply pass by the established authorities and guides which have been sought out for thousands of years and push ahead through the depths of so-called “spiritual” paths to God. Modern people are utterly confused when it comes to spirituality because they have abandoned even the very concept of Truth—at least in so far as it has anything to do with morality or spirituality. This is the generation of “do-it-yourself spirituality.” 

The Scriptures testify to God’s standards, decrees and instructions for how to be a “spiritual person.” And the prophets of God came to plow through the confusion of lies and false worship of idols so as to show what the path to the One God is.

“Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ Also I raised up sentinels for you: ‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’” (Jeremiah 6:16-17, NRSV)

I would suggest that the reader consider Leviticus as an example of this instruction. (Yes, I am serious about this.) Specifically, I have in mind Leviticus chapters 1 to 7. God’s instructions show that he wants everything from those who worship him and that nothing less than this will satisfy the living God. 

For example, there is that principle of the life-blood of the animal. In order for God to find the offering of worship and sacrifice acceptable there must always be blood—offered as a means of atonement or poured out as a sacrifice to God by the priest. This represents death in that its life was given up to the God who created it. Thus no one was to ingest blood under any circumstances. And this restriction was also true of the fat of the animals given. “It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood.” (3:17, NASBU) Further, even an offering of grain was to be given in totality and before it could be accepted it had to be broken and seasoned (see chapter 2). 

It seems to me that these regulations teach important principles for true spirituality. One is that the people they must always come to him in his own appointed way and use the means (animals, grain, etc.) as he has prescribed. Two is that they need to set themselves apart for God (be clean) before approaching the Holy One. Three is that any sin must be acknowledged and confessed before the priest while offering the appropriate sacrifice. Fourth is that this process of making restitution with God always costs the worshipper something (sacrifices). Fifth is that the priests, who are an essential intermediator in the worship, must themselves be in a state of “cleanness” before they can rightfully eat their designated portions of the sacrifices (see 7:19-21).  

Further, the repetitive pattern of the specific process for bringing animal sacrifices and the rational for that process demonstrate that the weakness, error and sin are that of the person bringing the sacrifice. The whole process is a means to make restitution to God, and God in great mercy, will forgive. This is grace. The animal or grain that the person brings does not “save” him or her (thus the statement in Hebrews 9:9-10; 10:1-4). This was the means to approach God that if enacted would being one to a position of learning that God alone can forgive and restore of his own hesed (covenant love; often translated as “loving-kindness”). These requirements are symbolic of what is ultimately required to have relationship with the holy God (see Hebrews 10:1-18). 
And then, in order to make it clear that sin against God includes harm caused to other people. For if one sins against another person then confession of the exact deed and restitution must be made—in addition to sacrifice to God (see 5:1-13). Confession, forgiveness, restitution are all necessary in the covenant relationship with God and with one another. 

Is this not a demonstration of the two greatest commandments (as identified by the Lord himself)? The principles (stated above) describe what true worship of God involves and requires of the worshipper. And how one treats one’s neighbor directly impacts, if one sins against one’s neighbor, what one must do to restore relationship with God and that neighbor. 

We modern Christians have much to learn from the Scriptures and God has much to teach us. This brief reflection merely touches the surface of the gold mine of insight in Scripture that the Holy Spirit wants to open our hearts to see and receive. But can we listen? Will we listen? Will we seek him in the way he has established for us to find him? From my perspective I am not sure unless the living God moves with power to stir us up again to seek him wholeheartedly and steadfastly. 
The whole cultural tide of modern culture is pushing aside Truth and any universal means of relating to God. All is relative to one’s cultural perspective and religious background. So many of us who identify as Christians are not only terrified to testify to the truth of God’s word but also to even put it into practice ourselves. The remedy for this is for each person to accept the Lord’s discipline and learn to abide in the Lord Jesus, seek to know and practice the teaching of the word of God and walk in step with the Spirit “so that finally we may not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:32, The New Testament: A Translation in the Language of the People, Charles Williams)