DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT REALLY STILL APPLY?

 

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Jesus did not come to make it OK to sin. He came to make us holy from the inside out. He came to defeat sin. Jesus didn’t come to change the law. He came to change us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 14

Matthew #14. Matthew 5:17-20

 

“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20, HCSB)

Christians commonly forget that Jesus said this. It is important for the rest of the sermon on the mount, so let’s unpack it a bit.

First, let us understand that Jesus talking about the Old Testament in its entirety, not just certain “laws” or “rules.” The New Testament is written in Greek, but it is safe to assume that Jesus spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew. The word “law” in Hebrew is “Torah” and it refers not just to specific commands, but to all of the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called “The book of Moses” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). “Prophets” is the way Jews referred to all the rest of the Old Testament. In other words, when a Jewish person said “The Law and the Prophets” he meant “the entire Old Testament.” In short, Jesus is affirming that the entire Old Testament remains valid, even for those who follow him.

Jesus got even more specific than that. He said not one “iota or least stroke of a letter” can be removed from the law (and by implication, the rest of the Old Testament. This is an extreme statement. Look at this word in Hebrewיֹּ֗יֹּ֗אמֶרַ This is the Hebrew word “said.” The smallest letter in Hebrew is “yodh” which is the first on the right on this word, the one that looks like a comma up in the air. The equivalent letter in Greek is “iota” which is like an i without the dot. The second letter in from the left is “Mem.” On the right hand side at the top of the Mem is a little stroke that looks a bit like a horn. The expression “least stroke of a letter” refers to little marks like this. Jesus said, not even an iota/yodh, not even the little horn on a Mem will be undone. In other words, Jesus is very serious about this. We can’t “fudge” on God’s word. Right here, Jesus says that it will remain until “heaven and earth pass away.” In addition, he says that he himself fulfills its purpose. Christians typically don’t think this way. How can this be?

First, and I’ve mentioned this in other sermons, yes, the whole law applies to Christians. For example, even the koshers laws still apply to Christian. Now, before you click away, read this paragraph. The New Testament clearly teaches that we don’t have to eat kosher any more. Have some pork chops, bacon or fried shrimp, and feel no guilt. But in the life of a Christian, there are still applications for the kosher laws of the Old Testament. The main reason for those laws was to keep God’s people from worshipping pagan deities (which were sometimes demonic powers – Paul associated idol worship with demons in 1 Corinthians 10:20). A second reason was to help God’s people trust him more: pigs were some of the easiest animals to raise for meat, and by forbidding pork, the people had to rely upon God that much more for their food. Finally, the kosher laws showed everyone that God’s people were different.

Now, should we still refrain from worshipping pagan deities and demons? Of course! Should we still trust God to provide for us? Absolutely! Should we still be noticeably different from those who don’t follow God? You betcha. So the kosher laws still apply. Not in an exact, literal sense, but we don’t eliminate them from God’s word to us. There is something about those laws which still brings benefit to Christians, and should still have force in our lives.

In terms of Jesus fulfilling the laws let us consider the following:

In the first place, the promises of the Old Testament are about Jesus Christ, and are fulfilled in him:

Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:27, HCSB)

Then [Jesus] told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45, HCSB)

For [Paul] vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 18:28, HCSB)

To remove part of the law or prophets is to remove part of the revelation of Jesus Christ; to weaken the promises that are fulfilled in him.

Second, Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly himself.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15, HCSB)

God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God. (2Cor 5:21, NET)

Jesus not only affirmed the law and fulfilled its promises: he himself personally obeyed every part of it.

Third, Jesus reconciles us to the standards of the law.

There is no problem with the law. The problem is with us. Put simply, the Law is God’s holiness translated into human terms. It shows us what holiness looks like in a human being. The Law is not wrong. It is not evil. It accurately shows us the standard required for holiness.

The standard is what it is, because holiness is what it is. It is a law of God’s nature. And what the law shows us, is that we cannot reach the standard. It makes it clear that the standard is impossible for us. That is all that the law can accomplish. It shows us that we are not holy, that we are sinners. And every time you try and reach that standard, the law will show you the same thing again. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we were born without a chance. We were born with a congenital illness called sin, and the law shows us that we simply cannot overcome that. The law is not a means to get right with God. It is a measurement that shows that on our own, we can never get right with God.

Jesus did not come to get rid of the law. He did not come to change the standard. He says the law will remain. Instead, he came to fulfill the law Himself, to meet the standard on our behalf, to fill us up with His own holiness.

If we try to set aside the moral requirements of the law, we are saying “anything goes.” There is a tremendous difference between “anything goes” and “anything can be forgiven.” If we try to set aside the law, we are saying “anything goes.” That doesn’t mean sin is forgiven, it means there is no wrong – but it also means there is no right. That doesn’t mean God loves us, it means God doesn’t care. It means he doesn’t care if you lie to your boss or sleep with someone outside of marriage. But it also means he doesn’t care if someone rapes you or murders you, or steals your job or your spouse. If there is no sin, there can be no justice. If nothing is wrong, if there is no standard, then the powerful can do whatever they please, and it is just bad luck for everyone else. The concept of: “there is no sin” would be very bad news for the human race.

So, we cannot set aside God’s standard. It is absolutely wrong to say: “You don’t have to be holy anymore,” or “the law isn’t valid anymore.” Jesus repudiates that idea in the verses. Jesus did not come to make it OK to sin. He came to make us holy from the inside out. He came to defeat sin.

Jesus didn’t come to change the law. He came to change us. And that is terrific news! The standard remains. It is just that now, if we will trust him to do it, Jesus meets that standard on our behalf.

That is another way in Jesus came to fulfill the law. The law is good and right. But before Jesus, it was incomplete. It gave us the standard, but no way to meet the standard. Jesus completes it, because through him, the standards of law can be satisfied for us.

This is also the key to understanding what Jesus means when he says “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had turned God’s Holy standard into a set of rules. For instance, where the Old Testament said “remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy” they had created a set of rules to define what that meant. The defined righteousness as “following the external rules of our religion.” You could hate God, but if you followed the rules, the Jewish religion would still say you were right with him. But Jesus knew two things:

· The man-made rules defined by the Jewish religion were not the same thing as God’s holy standard, defined by the Old Testament.

· The focus of the scribes and Pharisees was all external. The evil and depravity of their hearts was left unaffected by the fact that they outwardly followed rules.

So when Jesus tells us his followers must be even more righteous, he is telling us that we need him to fulfill the law on our behalf, and to make us truly holy – especially within our hearts. The way to be even more righteous than the Pharisees and scribes is to trust Jesus to make us holy from the inside out, and keep saying “yes” to him as he works that holiness into our everyday lives.

There is no point in pretending that we are capable of doing what the law requires. But to set aside the law is to invite chaos, brutality and injustice. The answer, is to trust Jesus to fulfill the law. We still seek to apply in ways that are relevant to our daily lives. We still try to follow it, because Jesus, living inside us, wants to follow it. But, in Jesus, we are free from the condemnation that comes when we fail.

 

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GRACE FROM A STUPID LAW

silly-string-illegal-law-parade

Even the dumbest-seeming parts of the bible can turn out to have a profound message of grace. Instead of dismissing them, we should pray for help in understanding them, and then apply what we know about how to understand the bible.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 8

 

Understanding the Bible #8

We recently looked at how to interpret the laws we find in the bible. To help us solidify our understanding of that, let’s put together what we have learned, and look at some Old Testament laws.

In the very first part of this series, I mentioned a verse that at first seems offensive and barbaric. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that when a virgin (who is not betrothed to anyone) is raped, her rapist should pay her family 50 shekels.

Not long ago I read a blog that used this verse as an excuse to avoid the moral laws contained in the bible. The Blogger’s basic point was this: “If we don’t want to obey the bible and deal with rapists in this way, what right do we have to insist that people should obey the bible about things like sexual purity, or honesty, or loving our neighbor?”

It’s kind of a cheap shot, an easy way to call any Christian a hypocrite, because nobody literally follows all those old laws anymore. So, if insist that the bible teaches that you should love your neighbor, you’re a hypocrite unless you try to deal with rapists by having them pay their victim’s family 50 shekels. On the surface, it is a nifty argument, but it is also ignorant and dishonest.

If you haven’t read the rest of this series, I strongly encourage you to go back and read them all. That will help you tremendously in understanding how we approach such things. For those who have read, you know that there are three kinds of laws. This law about rapists was clearly about crime and punishment in the ancient nation of Israel – what we call a civil law. So right away, we should be aware that we cannot apply it directly and literally. In fact, to do so, might violate the laws of the country in which you live. This law was meant to be directly applied to ancient Israel. In addition, we know that this law (like all of the Old Testament laws) was fulfilled spiritually in Jesus.

But there is more. The New Testament tells us that everything that was written in the bible – even the Old Testament laws – was written for our instruction. We don’t obey it as we would obey the civil laws of the country in which we live. We trust that Jesus has fulfilled the spiritual purpose for that law. But we also believe and understand that this law contains some underlying principle or teaching that will instruct, inform or encourage us as we seek to follow Jesus. In other words, we don’t simply throw it out. We still see this law as valid – in the sense that it must teach us something true and worthwhile, even now.

At first glance, everything about Deuteronomy 22:28-29 seems repulsive to 21st Century Western culture. Unless we start off with the belief that the Holy Spirit can teach us something worthwhile here, we will simply ignore it, or wish it wasn’t in the bible. But if we go forward believing that we can learn something, we will be surprised and rewarded.

Let’s apply what we have learned. First, we must read it in context. The blogger I mentioned only said that the rapist must pay the parents of the victim fifty shekels. He did not consider the whole context. Deuteronomy chapters 21 and 22 contain many civil laws for ancient Israel. Many of the laws in this section of the bible are concerned with situations where there are no witnesses to establish exactly what happened. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is about unsolved murders. 22:13-21 is about a he-said/she-said situation, where a husband claims his betrothed bride was unfaithful to him. 22:23-27 is about rape. If a woman claims it was rape, and yet it occurred with people around and she didn’t cry for help, then it may have been consensual. On other hand, when a woman claims she was raped where there were no people to hear her cry for help, she is to be believed. That leads us to the verses we are looking at:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deut 22:28-29, ESV2011)

First, we see that the situation is ambiguous. The “meeting” may refer to meeting in open country, where there are no witnesses to verify what happened. In other words, this may or not be consensual. There’s something else important here. The woman who is raped is in specific circumstance – she is a virgin, and she is not yet betrothed to anyone. This is important, as we move on. Notice this also: the punishment is not merely that the rapist pay a fine – he must also marry the young woman, and he may never divorce her.

Now, again, at first blush, this addition of marriage does not seem to help. In fact, it seems like it makes it even worse. However, as we have learned, let’s consider the historical and cultural context of this law.

Women in the ancient Middle East generally lived in situations that we consider terrible today. Since most men are physically stronger than most women, men generally did what they wanted with and to women. To save her from abuse and poverty, in those days, a woman needed a man who would protect her from other men, and provide her with food and shelter. Without such a protector-provider, her future would be very bleak indeed.

Women were expected to be virgins when they were married (which was usually between ages 13-18). No self-respecting man would marry a previously unmarried girl unless she was a virgin. Therefore, a young woman who had been raped would be considered unmarriageable – no one would ever be interested in her. A betrothed woman who was raped, was considered as if she was already married. The rape would not end the betrothal, or stop the marriage. But a young woman who was raped, and not betrothed, would probably never find a husband willing to marry her. As a result she would never have the protection and provision that a husband offered. She would become an object of abuse and scorn for any man who wanted to mistreat her. Her future would most likely be in prostitution and begging.

We need to remember also that virtually all marriages were arranged. Many people found that love could grow and blossom in an arranged marriage, but almost no one expected to start out by loving the person they would marry. First came marriage, then came love.

So what it all amounts to is this: A young woman who was raped before betrothal had an incredibly bleak future. She would be an outcast, abused and forgotten for the rest of her days. Instead of allowing this to happen, God, through Moses commanded that such a young woman must be protected and provided for – for the rest of her life. That is what marriage did for women in those days. By marrying her, without the possibility of divorcing her, her rapist became committed to providing for her and protecting for her entire life. He was on the hook for her bills and her reputation until he died. His payment was not just fifty-shekels – it was a lifetime of providing for his victim’s needs.

Now, I know, it sounds horrible that she would have to live with her rapist. But remember there is ambiguity here – the rape may not have actually been a rape. In other words, she might have been a willing lover, in which case she would probably be happy to be with the man in question. The law prevented the man from using her, and then casting her aside. And even if it was rape, the young woman would not have expected to love her husband anyway – certainly not at first. Rape is a tragedy, and this certainly was not a perfect solution. But it was a solution that provided extensive ongoing care and protection for the rape victim. It kept her from the almost certain fate of being abused by other men. It made the rapist responsible for the life he would have ruined, and there was no way he could get out of it by divorcing her.

Before we dismiss this as barbaric, compare it to our own laws about rape.

Today, when a man rapes a woman and is convicted, he goes to prison. The average sentence served by a convicted rapist is about five years. While he is in prison all of his physical needs are provided for – food, shelter, clothing and medical care. And yet there is no law in our current system that requires the rapist to provide any of these things to the victim. We focus exclusively on locking up the perpetrator. The victim is on her own. Now of course, there are programs and groups for rape victims, but they are not part of the legal system, and they are optional, and they are not paid for by the people who commit the crime.

Who are the barbarians now?

This crazy Old Testament law about rape, the one we think is so terrible, actually contains a powerful message: look after those who have been hurt; provide for the one who has been deprived of a future. Care for the victim, and make the criminal undertake all of the costs.

Shouldn’t we be more concerned about helping victims than we are? Shouldn’t we make sure that we take care of the most vulnerable people in our society and protect them from abuse?

You see, when we understand this law, we see that it reveals God’s concern for the vulnerable, his desire to provide for those who need provision, and protect those who have no protection. Those are not messages that we should scorn, or ignore, or throw out.

So, to answer the blogger, we still see this law as valid. Don’t you think it is still appropriate for Christians to protect and provide for those who, through no fault of their own, are needy and vulnerable? We aren’t hypocrites. We still value this, and every law. We value and seek to apply the principle, the reason behind the law. When we find that reason, we still seek to apply it appropriately to our present times.

I hope you care coming to see the incredible value of the bible as we go through this series. Even a “stupid law,” such as the one from Deuteronomy 22:28-29, turns out to be an expression of God’s grace and care.

WHAT DO CHRISTIANS DO WITH SILLY OLD TESTAMENT LAWS?

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Jesus did not set aside the laws of the Old Testament. He fulfilled them. This is very important, as we seek to understand the law-genre we find in the bible. When we really understand how to interpret those ancient laws, there is tremendous blessing and grace there for us.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

 

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 7

 

 

 

Understanding the Bible #7 .

One of the most misunderstood and misused genres in the bible are the laws, particularly the laws contained in the Old Testament.

Here’s an example. I have heard it said, many times: “In the same section of the bible where it says homosexual sex is wrong, it also says eating shellfish is wrong. It also says it is wrong to wear clothes with more than one kind of fiber. Therefore, unless you want to stop eating shrimp and wearing anything that isn’t 100% cotton, you can’t say that homosexual behavior is a sin.”

Let me say that I do understand the confusion. However, let me also say that if you say some such thing, it reveals that a) You haven’t read the bible in context and b) You don’t understand how to read laws in the bible.

First, let me remind you about context. The verse in question is Leviticus 18:22. The immediate context includes more laws regarding sexual behavior. The verses just before 18:22 prohibit incest, including child sexual abuse. The verses just after it prohibit sex with animals, and also the practice of burning babies alive. So, if you throw out Leviticus 18:22 because of context, congratulations! You’ve now endorsed incest, bestiality and the brutal murder of live infants. You don’t get to the part about two kinds of cloth for another 28 verses, and before you get there, you find laws protecting the poor and prohibiting oppression and hatred. By the reasoning I shared above, you ought to throw those things out also! (By the way, the verse about shellfish isn’t anywhere near Leviticus 18:22 – it’s in chapter 11).

However, there is a legitimate core question here. Let’s move the question over to Leviticus 19:17-19, to make it more clear:

“You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.

“You are to keep My statutes. You must not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material. (Lev 19:17-19, HCSB)

Here we have a law that says you should not hate or hold grudges. It says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Immediately after, we have a law against cross-breeding and also the one against wearing clothing made up of mixed fibers. Why do we agree that we shouldn’t hate, but yet we have no problem wearing something that is 75% cotton and 25% polyester? That’s a legitimate question.

There are three types of laws given in the bible: Laws for Ancient Israel; Ceremonial Laws for Worship; and Moral Laws. One of the difficulties is that the bible doesn’t always make it clear which ones are which kind; even worse, sometimes you find all three different types of laws mixed together. Sometimes you might have a moral law (“do not commit adultery”) combined with a law that applies only to ancient Israel (“adulterers must be put to death”) as in Leviticus 20:10. Since we feel free to not execute adulterers any more, does that mean we should also feel free to commit adultery?

The laws for ancient Israel are exactly that: laws that applied literally and directly to the nation of Israel from about 1400 BC until Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC. No one lives in ancient Israel any more – that nation has not existed for more than 2,000 years. There is a modern nation of Israel, but they are set up with a constitution and a set of laws that are different from those given by Moses. So when we read a law that applies to citizenship in ancient Israel, we know right away that we should not apply it literally without further investigation.

Some Jewish leaders once tried to trick Jesus with one of these ancient laws. They caught a woman in adultery, and brought her to him, and said “According the Law, we should stone her.” The truth was, they weren’t serious. At the time of Jesus, the Jews lived under Roman law, which forbade such things. It was illegal for them to stone her. If Jesus affirmed the Old Testament law, they could bring him before the Romans for attempted murder. If Jesus rejected the law, they could claim to his followers that he did not follow the teaching of Moses. It’s the same thing I’ve seen countless times on blogs and facebook posts: “You claim to follow the bible, but the bible says this. Are you going to do that, or not?”

Jesus knew it was a trap. He couldn’t explain about ancient laws without being misquoted. So he said

“The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, HCSB)

Caught in their own trap, they left. When they were gone, he told the woman that he did not condemn her (meaning, condemn her to death) but he also said: “Go, and from now on, do not sin any more.” (John 8:11). The whole story is in John 8:1-11. It shows us Jesus’ attitude toward two kinds of laws. The laws of the ancient nation of Israel no longer apply in the literal sense. Jesus himself changed all that (more on that in the next paragraph). But the moral law – “do not commit adultery” – still applies. Jesus called it a sin, and told the woman to stop it.

There is something else. The law of death for adulterers was fulfilled. There was death for the woman who committed adultery, the one they brought to Jesus. Only, it wasn’t her death. Jesus died in her place. He did not set aside the law – he fulfilled it. Death came as a result of her sin. This is why she did not have to be condemned – he chose to fulfill the law on her behalf. He also chose to fulfill the law on our behalf. Do you see, how (as Jesus said) all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus? When we understand that, so much more of the bible opens up for us.

I want to pause here and reiterate something I said earlier in the series. Even though the ancient laws of the Israelite nation no longer apply in a direct, literal sense, they do still apply in the sense that they teach us important eternal principles. We no longer directly apply the law “death to adulterers.” But it still means something for us. It means that adultery is a very serious thing in God’s eyes. It is a graphic illustration, even today, that sin leads to death. It shows us again our need for Jesus, and how amazing is his love and grace to us.

By showing us Jesus’ attitude toward Old Testament law, I just did something that demonstrates the final common sense principle of bible reading. I used one part of the bible to help us understand another, more difficult, part. We call this rule Scripture Interprets Scripture. The idea includes several things.

First, we let the clear parts of the bible shed light on the obscure parts. Remember our book on penguins? The author said “Penguins are large, flightless birds.” Later she said she rejoiced as she observed them “soaring and diving through the open blue.” The first statement is very clear – it tells us that penguins are birds that cannot fly. Therefore, when we look at the second statement, we already know that it must not mean flying. We should use the bible in the same way. Much of it is very clear. We should use the clear parts to help us understand the more difficult things.

There’s another thing with the bible, however. The New Testament quotes and explains the Old Testament on numerous occasions. We use the explanations of the New Testament to help us understand the Old. The bible explains itself in many places, if we pay attention.

Scripture Interprets Scripture is a very helpful principle when it comes to understanding the laws of the Old Testament. What I mean is, the New Testament helps us a great deal in understanding those laws. Let’s look at how:

1. Laws of Ancient Israel. We’ve already looked at how Jesus viewed these. He fulfilled them in his life, death and resurrection. What remains are not things for us to do, but principles that we can learn. Paul demonstrated this when he referred to law about not muzzling oxen (1 Corinthians 9). That is no longer a law for anyone to obey literally. But that ancient law does contain an eternal principle that we should try to apply to our own lives as Jesus-followers. The same is true of all of those ancient-Israel laws. Sometimes it takes work to uncover the principle. We have to read in context, and learn the cultural and historical setting of those laws. We are guided by the New Testament. We don’t apply these thing literally. But there is good stuff for us there.

2. Laws regarding worship ceremonies. There are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament about how the people of Israel were to worship God. Among these are laws about what makes a person ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” – including what we call “kosher” laws about food. Thankfully, the New Testament is very clear about all of this. Jesus himself said this:

“Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

Mark comments “As a result, He made all foods clean.” He is clear that Jesus eliminated the kosher laws, while, at the same time, affirming the moral laws.

Peter had a vision that confirmed the fact that kosher laws are not necessary for those who are in Jesus (Acts 10:9-16). The first apostles wrestled with what the law meant after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Acts 15:28-29 records their conclusions:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from idol-offerings, and from blood, from smothering [abortion], and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

(Acts 15:28-29 My rendering from Greek. The word variously translated “what is strangled” or “smothered” was a colloquial expression referring to the practice of smothering unwanted newborn infants)

In other words, the New Testament permits you to eat all the shellfish you want, and wear what you choose.

In addition, the book of Hebrews deals extensively with the laws regarding worship. The short version is this: All of the Old Testament worship ceremonies and practices were designed to do two things: 1. Show us our need for a Messiah, a savior and 2. Help us to understand what he would do for us.

Therefore, Jesus fulfilled all of these laws. It is not necessary for us to practice them any more.

These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree He is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been legally enacted on better promises. (Heb 8:5-6, HCSB)

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. (Heb 10:1, HCSB)

So we do not need to sacrifice animals in worship, or wear special clothes, or burn incense, or live “kosher” or follow any of those Old Testament regulations for worship or festivals and feasts. However, learning about those things can still greatly enrich our appreciation and understanding of Jesus and what he has done for us. For example, our family has celebrated the Passover Feast for the past 20 years. We don’t believe it is necessary. But it is a helpful tradition that points us toward Jesus and reminds us of all the promises God fulfilled in Him. We can learn similar things by studying these other Old Testament worship laws. But we do not have to literally follow them as written.

3. Moral Laws. The moral laws in the bible are a reflection of God’s Holy nature. They do not change. The ten commandments are moral laws. Laws about not hating and sexual purity and loving others are all moral laws. The New Testament teaches that Jesus fulfilled the entire moral law for us, so we do not have to do the impossible task of keeping the moral law perfectly. However, Jesus, living inside us, wants to continue to keep the moral law. He doesn’t want to hate, or murder, or commit sexual sin or lie or cheat. Therefore the moral law remains a standard for Christians. Jesus himself affirmed the ten commandments. He affirmed that sexual purity is found in abstinence before marriage, and faithfulness in marriage. He affirmed that we should love others, and not hate. He taught that lies and oppression were sinful. The apostles of Jesus also affirmed the moral law in every book of the New Testament.

We can’t keep it perfectly, but when we break the moral law, it is sign that there is something wrong in our relationship with Jesus. We are not meant to engage in a lifestyle in which we regularly break the moral law that is a reflection of the Holy nature of God. When we do as we please, and consistently, deliberately live in a pattern of breaking the moral law, we reveal that either we don’t have real faith in Jesus, or that we are in danger of rejecting Jesus.

Thanks to Jesus, the moral law is no longer a standard we must reach in order to be reconciled to God. Jesus has already done that for us. Even so, it’s a good thing to want to please God by doing the right thing. I’m pleased when I see my kids following the moral law – being kind, being responsible, staying away from drugs and so on.  But it doesn’t cause me to love them more nor does it have any bearing upon their identity as my kids.

In addition to showing us how God would like us to live, the moral law remains like a warning sign. The moral law tells us when we are danger of messing up our lives. It tells us when we are in danger of moving away from Jesus, and heading toward rejecting who He is, and what he has done for us. It is a message that shouts “Danger! Wrong Way! Turn Back! Death Ahead!” We ignore the moral law to our own peril and destruction.

I encourage you to take some time with these sermon notes. This is an important subject that too few Christians genuinely understand. As you do, I encourage you to listen to the Holy Spirit. As we Christians, we do not need to be afraid of the law any more. In Jesus, the law is no longer dangerous and condemning – it is a blessing. The ancient laws show us God’s grace and compassion. The ceremonial laws show us God’s holiness, and how much we need Jesus. And the moral laws protect us, by keeping us away from danger, and close to God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

The Main Point of The Bible: Jesus

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Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 4

Understanding the Bible #4.

Last time, we talked about the documentary history of the New Testament. In other words, we learned that it is, without doubt, the accurately preserved teachings of those who knew Jesus Christ when he walked on the earth.

One question I did not address is about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. I’ll talk about it briefly here, and then we’ll move on.

Last time we learned that no ancient document has been as verifiably well preserved as the New Testament. Since we get a lot of our knowledge about history from ancient documents, that, in and of itself, should give us confidence that the New Testament is historically reliable. If the writings of Tacitus, or Julius Caesar are to be accepted as reliable sources of ancient history, then the New Testament should be accepted in the same way; even more so.

However, many skeptical people, including scholars, insist upon a position of assuming that the New Testament is wrong until proved right. No doubt, this is because they do not want to believe what it says about Jesus. Even so, time and time again, the New Testament has been proven right, while the skeptics have been proved wrong. Let me give you a few instances.

Luke Chapter 2 talks about a census taken by Caesar Augustus. He said that it happened while Quirnius was governor of Syria. This is a historical event. Roman records (not as well preserved as the New Testament) do indicate a census during the time of Emperor Augustus. But there has been no Roman record uncovered that mentions a governor of Syria named Quirinius. Skeptics long held out that this proved that the New Testament is unreliable. First, let’s consider the logic of that claim. Those skeptics did not have actual evidence that contradicted the New Testament. What they had was a lack of evidence to confirm it. Of course, they had an equal lack of evidence to contradict it. However, eventually, some coins were excavated in the ancient Roman province of Syria. In those days, provincial coins were stamped with the name and likeness of the governor who ruled at the time the coin was made. The coins discovered in Syria were from the reign of Caesar Augustus, right at the beginning of the “common era” and they were stamped with the name “Quirinius.” In other words, we now have positive proof that Luke wrote accurately. The skeptics were wrong.

Another place where skeptics held there was a “lack of evidence” was for the existence of a high priest named Caiaphas. Caiaphas was involved in the trial of Jesus. Archaeologists had not found any record of him outside the New Testament. Then, in the mid-1990s, excavations were made to build a water park in Jerusalem. The excavators discovered an ossuary – a “bone box.” It was labeled as holding the bones of Caiaphas, who was identified as a high priest in Jerusalem.

There are many more areas where skeptics never even had a chance. The New Testament names dozens of Roman officials, and makes references to hundreds of little cultural details that have all been affirmed by archaeology and other ancient documents. There can be no question that the New Testament is entirely historically reliable.

Let’s use the rest of our time right now to consider how the New Testament can help us understand and interpret the Old Testament. Last time, we looked at the idea that the New Testament was the unveiling of a mystery that began with the record of the Old Testament. Jesus himself, and his apostles, affirm this. The mystery, the key to the entire Bible, is Jesus himself. Jesus said to the Jews who believed the Old Testament:

The Father who sent Me has Himself testified about Me. You have not heard His voice at any time, and you haven’t seen His form. You don’t have His word living in you, because you don’t believe the One He sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me. (John 5:37-39, HCSB)

Both before and after his resurrection, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how the scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) looked ahead to the Messiah, to Him:

He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory? ” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27, HCSB)

Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45, HCSB)

Paul also used the Old Testament to share the good news about Jesus:

For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 18:28, HCSB)

The specifics of how Paul did that are all throughout his letters. That is one reason why it is helpful to understand the New Testament first – it gives us a guide for understanding what came before. The key is Jesus. Therefore, one very helpful trick in reading the Old Testament is to ask this question of every passage: “Where is Jesus in this passage? What part of the message about the Messiah is this? How does it teach me something about Jesus? Does one of the people in this story act in a way that reminds me what Jesus is like? Is it a prophecy about his life on earth, or what he will do at the end of time? What does it tell me about my need for a Messiah?”

Jesus is the main point of the entire bible. Reading the bible should help us get to know Jesus better. It should encourage us in our faith in Jesus. Reading the bible should strengthen us spiritually, from the inside out. That is what is for. So read it with that in mind.

There are also some secondary things. When we put our trust in Jesus, and let him lead our lives, it has enormous implications for everything in life. So the main point of the Bible is Jesus. In addition, there are many “secondary” points that flesh out what trust in Jesus means for us in hundreds of practical, emotional and spiritual ways. So Paul writes:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:14-17, HCSB)

Of course, Paul didn’t know that his own letter to Timothy would be included in the bible. But Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit had Paul write this, and that it is intended for both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus spoke prophetically about this:

“Therefore,” He said to them, “every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52, HCSB)

The “old treasure” in the storehouse are the writings of the Law and the Prophets – that, is, the Old Testament. The New Treasure is the mystery, now revealed, of Jesus Christ. Peter wrote about the scripture:

First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2Pet 1:20-21, HCSB)

Christians have believed for almost two-thousand years that this is as true of the New Testament, as well as the Old.

So, all scripture (both Old and New Testaments) is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness and equipping. So, first we read in order to get to know Jesus better. And as we do, the Bible teaches, trains, corrects and so on. It gives us instruction.

Paul said it a different way in his letter to the Romans:

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. (Rom 15:4, HCSB)

I want to look at two examples today of how all scripture is to help us get to know Jesus, and how it is for our instruction.

First, consider these words from Isaiah:

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. (Isa 53:4-7, HCSB)

…My righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities (Isa 53:11)

This was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. There is not a scholar in the world who disputes that. And yet, it is clearly the message that someone (Isaiah doesn’t know whom) would take the sins of others upon himself, and through his suffering, bring us peace with God. That someone would not object to the suffering imposed upon him, but engage in it willingly.

This passage is in the Old Testament. But clearly, it points to Jesus. It is about Jesus, and what he did for us, though it was written long before he came into the world. So we read the Bible, even the Old Testament, and find Jesus.

Now, let me give you an example of instruction.

Deuteronomy 25:4 says “Do not Muzzle an ox while it treads out grain.” Now, not too many people who read these sermon notes own oxen. I bet none of you even own a muzzle for an ox. So what is the point of this verse for you today? Remember, it was written for your instruction. All scripture is given by God and is useful for teaching, training, correcting and encouraging. So we should not read a verse like this and say “Well, I don’t have an ox, so never mind about that one.” Instead, we should read a verse like this and pray something like this: “Holy Spirit, I’m not getting much out of this one. Please show me something about Jesus here. Or give me some instruction or teaching. Speak to me through this verse.” I have added, sometimes, “I dare you,” because, like you, I find many bible passages hard to understand at first.

In the case of the non-muzzled ox, we have it easy, because the apostle Paul showed us the way.

For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?

However, we have not made use of this right; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the offerings of the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:9-14, HCSB)

It was written originally about oxen. It taught the people of Israel to be kind and even generous with the animals that worked for them. It taught them that the harvest was to be shared – even with the animals. Paul sees an enduring principle here that applies to preachers of the gospel. Paul writes, “Is God really concerned with oxen?” Asking questions is always a good way to begin to understand the underlying principle. I’m sure God is concerned about oxen, but if we treat our oxen well, shouldn’t we also treat people well? If we are generous with the animals who make the physical harvest possible, what should we do with the people who make the spiritual harvest possible? Paul concludes: “Those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel.”

This is not directly about Jesus. But it is instruction for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus. It tells us that we should financially support those who are called to teach the bible. You may not have oxen, but you probably have a pastor, or at least some leader or ministry from where you get spiritual leadership and solid biblical teaching. This passage about oxen doesn’t apply to oxen any more (unless you still own them, and use them to tread out grain). But it still applies to our lives as Jesus-followers. We are still supposed to share generously with those who help us spiritually.

By the way, of course I am one of those that preaches the gospel, and I know this passage applies to me and to my ministry. But I don’t share it here as a covert way of asking for money. I have no problem doing that directly: If the Lord leads you, then give. Use the donate button on the blog site, or send a check the address I used this passage because the New Testament serves it up for us on a platter. It’s a clear example of how we can use even what appear to be silly ancient laws to hear what the Lord wants to teach us.

We will look at some of these principles of bible interpretation later on in the series. For now, we need to know that that the entire bible, even the Old Testament is to help us get to know Jesus better, and to provide us with instruction, training and teaching in how to be his disciples.

WHERE DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT COME FROM?

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This is fact: the bible is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 2

Understanding the Bible #2 . How We Got the Bible & Can we trust it? (Old Testament)

Psalm 119

Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. The next few weeks I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” and other part-truth/mostly lies stories that have been floated about the bible for years. For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.

Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”

If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.

Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank. Patsy, the trusty squire is shot by an arrow. He says: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the word that the Sicilian kidnapper, Vicini, says all the time. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!

Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C., which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use because it was “worn.” It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. In other words, new copies were long before manuscripts became difficult to read. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.

Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in. Since that time, architecture with inscriptions referring to David has also been found.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court-commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BC. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BC. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.

Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:

The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.

What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

But the bible isn’t just a history book. There are many kinds of literature in the bible: family histories, genealogies, laws, national histories, biographies, poetry, prophecy, letters and songs. All those different books, written in different times and places by people in widely varied life situations, carry message. The message is easier to understand in some places; in other parts, it takes time and patience to hear it. But it is there throughout the entire bible.

Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, picture Willie Nelson (a country-western singer) singing Silent Night. Now, try to imagine Barbara Streisand singing the same song. Picture it done to swing-rhythm, crooned by Harry Connick Jr. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by Frank Sinatra. Hear it done by Reggae artists.

All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.

This is kind of how the bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the bible. Like with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.

Paul puts it this way:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, ESV2011)

The bible comes to us through various human writers and poets and kings. But it is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Another way to look at it, is like an amazing building, say a cathedral. One architect designs the cathedral. He plans it. Many builders of different types are involved in actually building the cathedral, but it all comes together under the plan and direction of the one architect. If someone asks, “who built this cathedral?” we would probably say the name of the architect, not the many and various laborers who put it together. So, many people contributed to the bible, but it was God who planned it and put it together.

The best way that I know to start understanding the bible is to start reading it. It is very difficult to understand in little bits and pieces, especially if you get those bits and pieces from other people, or the internet. I would recommend, if you have never done this, to start reading one of the books of the New Testament, say, Matthew. Read a chapter a day (or more, if you are so inclined), until you’ve read the whole book of Matthew. Then find another New Testament book (any one of them, except Revelation. Leave that until you have more understanding), and read it the same way. After you’ve read the New Testament, go back, and pick an Old Testament book, and try a few of those. I would return and read a book in the New Testament after every second or third Old Testament book. Some people, in addition to this kind of reading, also read one of the psalms every day. That’s a great reading plan. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Psalm 119 talks about “the law.” It really means “the scripture” in general. Verses 97-103 says this:

97 Oh, how I love your law!

I meditate on it all day long.

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,

for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,

for I obey your precepts.

101 I have kept my feet from every evil path

so that I might obey your word.

102 I have not departed from your laws,

for you yourself have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Have you tasted the “sweetness” of God’s message to you through the Bible? I encourage you to start reading it, and experience that for yourself!

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

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 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHERE DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT COME FROM?

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If you’ve ever wondered where the bible came from and why it is considered reliable, here’s a good place to start. Since we recently talked about the New Testament, this is a mid-week re-post about the origins of the Jewish/Christian Old Testament.

Last week we considered the Bible from a non-spiritual standpoint, evaluating it as if it were merely a system that was developed to guide human behavior (that is, a “moral” system). We found that objectively, the Bible offers a superior guide to human behavior than other “holy books” and one that is much superior to any “individual morality” that individuals choose for themselves. This week I want to dig more deeply into the origins of the Bible. This will help us to evaluate spurious claims like those of the “DaVinci Code” and the “Judas gospels” (which were touted by National Geographic last year). For now, we’ll just consider the Old Testament. We will tackle the New Testament later in the series.

Several early portions of the Old Testament were originally recited orally and passed down from generation to generation through memorization and repetition. Most of Genesis, as well as probably Ruth and Judges were all originally spoken, rather than written. How do we know this? Well, the first portions of Genesis, if accurate at all, took place before reading and writing was widespread. But even more than that, examining the Bible texts in Hebrew (which was the original language) shows several easily recognized mnemonic devices (that is, verbal cues used to help people memorize a recitation). One way to picture it this: those texts which were originally recited orally, look (at least in Hebrew) more like a play than a novel. Usually, these little memory points are lost in translation to English, but one passage in which the NIV has preserved them fairly well is Genesis 5:1-31. There are seven small sections in these verses. Each section begins with “When [somebody’s name] had lived [a number] of years…” and then some details about that person and his descendants. The section closes with “and then he died.”

If this is the first time you have heard of that, this may make you a bit uncertain about how reliable those portions of scripture could be. This is because our culture has mostly lost the art and practice of memorization. But the fact is, there used to be professional oral historians. These were people who were responsible to memorize the oral histories, word for word and teach them to the next generation. Not only that, but in the case of the Hebrew people and the Old Testament, every father had a duty to teach the spiritual history to his children. People are capable of remembering a great deal. The philosopher Socrates, who lived almost a thousand years after the time of Moses, lamented the fact that during his lifetime the Greeks started writing things down in books. He felt that if books came into widespread use, people would stop remembering things, because they would be able to simply look them up in a book. He felt memorization was a much superior way to preserve knowledge for future generations.

Even in the twentieth century, Michail Gorbachev memorized the entire text of all four gospels when he was a child. We remember more, and better, than we realize. If you have seen the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I bet you can fill in this blank: “I’m not quite ______ yet.” If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride” I bet you know the special phrase that Wesley says to Princess Buttercup. It has three words. These are things we memorize – word for word – without even trying. How much more are people capable of in a culture where oral history is valued and practiced!

Aside from the oral histories, other parts of the Old Testament were written down, more or less at the time the events occurred or the words were spoken. The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch; they are also known by Jews as the “Torah,” or “Law.” Over time the Torah, and the writings of the scribes and prophets were compiled into what today we call the Old Testament. We don’t know the exact date at which the Old Testament was considered to be “closed,” but it is probably around 250 B.C.E, which is the approximate date most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint). We don’t have any original copies of the Old Testament. Professional scribes carefully copied the originals when they became worn, and then destroyed the originals. When the copies became worn, new copies were made and the older copies destroyed. For many years, the oldest copy that had been found was made in the 800s A.D. — much newer, in fact, than many New Testament manuscripts. Because of this, many scholars assumed that if the Old Testament manuscript copies were compared to the originals, there would be many errors. However, it should be noted that later manuscripts agree very closely with these earliest texts, which shows that the scribes took great care when making copies. In 1947, the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered. These are not all Biblical writings, but among them are parts of the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 1000 years before those previous Old Testament manuscripts. As it turns out, at least in the texts that are available for comparison, during those thousand years very few copying errors were made, and none were significant. Again it is an example of how carefully the Old Testament was preserved by the scribes. I have personally seen a scroll of Isaiah that was made in about 1400 AD and used in a synagogue in Germany for 400 years — until the mid-1800s, when it was taken out of use. It looked cleaner, clearer and more pristine than these sermon notes. Taken all in all, it has been demonstrated thoroughly that the contents of the Old Testament have been preserved, largely unchanged, from when they originated.

Now, in spite of these well-preserved texts, there is a prevalent and long-standing tendency to discount the Old Testament as “religious writing” and therefore inaccurate. For many decades the trendy thing was to doubt everything the Bible said – even the “normal, historical” parts of it – unless it could be confirmed by some sort of archaeological discovery. For instance, until very recently, Skeptical scholars claimed that king David of Israel was a mythical figure who had been made up by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately for them, archaeologists discovered a reference to David in the writings of another culture in the middle east. The reference to David matched the approximate time period that the Bible puts him in.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes about the invasion of the Assyrian army. He describes how they laid siege to the town of Lacish, and then how they came and surrounded Jerusalem. He mentioned Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor at the time. Over where Assyria used to be, they have uncovered some of the records and court commissioned art from the time of Sennacherib. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Assyrians recorded some of the same events, and even mentioned the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time, according to the Bible.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho in about 1400 BCE. According to archaeologists, Jericho was indeed destroyed about 1400 BCE. There is not enough time and space to describe all of the archaeological discoveries which have, over and over, proven that the Bible is a reliable historical source. The people it talks about were real people; the situations it describes were real. The history it records really happened. The texts were truly written or memorized when the events they record were actually happening.

Millar Burrows, a PhD graduate of Yale University, and one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said this:

The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be soften explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that if fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly as specific points. Name of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods.

What is strange is that some people persist in doubting the Bible until is proven by some non-Biblical source. The truth is, there is no non-biblical source that has been so thoroughly verified as the Bible itself. It is, without question, the best documentary record of life and history in the ancient middle east.

It seems to me that people are inclined to doubt the Bible because, in addition to history, the bible contains records of supernatural activity. It doesn’t just talk about kings and wars – it also talks about miracles, healings and God’s standards. It’s commonly thought that people who believe in miracles do so because their faith-system requires them to, while people who don’t believe in miracles are merely looking at the evidence. But in fact, the opposite is true. Everyone believes the Bible when it talks about a war. Why don’t some people believe it when it talks about a miracle? Because some people are inclined to disbelieve in miracles, whatever the evidence may say.

Let’s consider it from another angle. Do you believe in murders? I would guess that 100% of adults reading this, believe that murders happen. Have you ever seen a murder personally? I would guess most of us have not. Have you ever known anyone, personally, who was murdered? Again, I would guess that most of us have not. Why then, do we believe in murders? Because of the testimony of other people. Some murder testimony is written – we might see it in the newspaper. Other testimony is spoken – someone tells us about it. People write stories and TV shows about murder.

There is nearly as much written and spoken testimony throughout history about miracles as there is about murder. If a man tells us of a murder, we tend to believe it. If he tells us about a miracle, many people tend to not believe it. Why not? Because they already have a belief against miracles. They may say, “Ah, but the people telling us about miracles are unreliable. We can’t trust them, because they are biased.” The problem with that is, they would trust them if they were telling about a murder. In other words they believe in murder, so they accept what people say about it. If you don’t believe in miracles, it really doesn’t matter what anyone says – you won’t believe it. In fact, the only reason you think someone telling you about miracle is unreliable, is because you start off by not believing in miracles.

To put it simply: the reason to believe in miracles is because there is so much evidence for them. The reason not to believe in them, is because you are already starting with a belief that they don’t happen.

So it is with the Bible. We know that the texts and contents have been preserved accurately, reliably and authentically. It has been proven reliable in how it records history. We we know we can believe it when it tells us that King Sennacherib invaded Judah. The natural, objective approach would be to believe it also when it tells us of God and the supernatural.

Psalm 119:97-103 says this:

97 Oh, how I love your law!

I meditate on it all day long.

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,

for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,

for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,

for I obey your precepts.

101 I have kept my feet from every evil path

so that I might obey your word.

102 I have not departed from your laws,

for you yourself have taught me.

103 How sweet are your words to my taste,

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

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But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

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 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

GRACE IN JUDGMENT

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Judgment always has this purpose: to turn people back to God, where they can find joy and grace.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 2 Samuel Part 22

2 Samuel #22 . 2 Samuel Chapter 24

This is yet one more of those difficult passages in Samuel. Thankfully, it is the very last chapter of the book J. Even so, as with the other difficult parts, there are rich and grace-filled lessons to be learned here.

This same incident is also recorded in 1 Chronicles 21. I’ll be using both passages to help us understand. It says here that the Lord was angry at Israel, and stirred up David to take a census. In Chronicles, it says that Satan, plotting against Israel, incited David to sin by taking a census. Either way, we can see that the consequence of David’s sin was that all Israel suffered. I think one of the first questions should be, “Was it God or was it Satan?” As I have mentioned in previous messages, there are several other places in the Old Testament where the Lord used evil spirits to accomplish his purposes: Judges 9:23-24, 1 Kings 22:18-23 1 Samuel 16:14, and Job 1:6-12. In each case the picture we get is the Lord allowing an evil spirit to affect a particular person or group. In each case, the evil spirit wants to do the evil, but must get permission from God first. God’s permission seems to be limited to what will accomplish his purpose. In most of these cases, the purpose is to bring judgment, and if possible, repentance. [For a longer discussion of this issue please go to one of my previous sermons: Does God Send Evil Spirits?]

So it is entirely consistent to see God allowing a limited evil influence upon David in order to accomplish his purposes. It was Satan who tempted David, but it was ultimately God who allowed it. The answer to our first question then is: both. It was both God and the devil.

The next natural question is, “Why did God let this happen?” My most honest answer is, “I don’t know for sure.” I do have some ideas, however.

Clearly, the Lord felt that there was something not right in David’s heart – and also not right in the hearts of the people. Let’s start with an clear biblical understanding of sin and punishment and judgment. There is only one satisfactory and just punishment for sin. According to the Bible that one appropriate punishment is eternal separation from God. Since God is the source of all Life and all Good, that separation means death and unimaginable suffering. So if David and the people of Israel were not killed and sent away from God’s presence forever (that is, hell) then they were not being punished for doing wrong. They were being judged. There is a difference. In fact, it was God’s punishment for our sins that Jesus took upon himself.

In the Bible, God’s judgment establishes that his actions are right and good, and that ours are wrong and sinful. God uses judgment to try and get people to repent and turn to Him and receive life, hope and forgiveness in Jesus. Judgment always has this purpose: to turn people back to God. It isn’t vindictiveness or anger or even righteous punishment. It is an extreme measure of love. It is like amputating a limb to keep the deadly cancer from spreading, or taking the cars keys away from someone who drinks too much. It seems harsh, but it is intended for good, for love.

So God allowed the sin in the hearts of David and his people to be revealed through temptation, and then he brought judgment to turn them back to Himself.

When I was fifteen I tore open the back of my heel in accident, and had to have stitches. The wound became infected. It sealed up on the outside, but underneath, it was filled pus and infection. Left alone, it would have looked all right, but eventually it would have developed gangrene and rotted my foot and leg, finally killing me. My dad realized what was happening. He made me lie down, while he clamped my leg to hold it still. He squeezed around the wound and it was incredibly painful. The wound burst open and what came out was truly disgusting. For almost a week afterward I had a gaping hole in my heel. I still have a scar. But it was absolutely necessary that the infection be exposed and cleaned out.

So, the Lord exposed what was hidden in the hearts of David and of the people, and then cleaned the infection, though it was a painful, awful-seeming process. My dad inflicted pain upon me in order to bring about my healing. He didn’t cause the infection, but he did cause me pain in order to first expose it, and then eliminate it. So God did not cause the problem in the hearts of his people, but he loved them enough to engage in the painful process of exposing it and judging it, to bring them back to himself.

Now, another question that I have is, what was so bad about taking a census? Moses did it twice – because God told him to. So why shouldn’t David do it? How did the census expose the sin of David and of Israel? I think this is an important question to ask.

I want to admit, this part is speculative. Here are some possible reasons. Perhaps it was pride. Maybe David wanted to know how great his kingdom was. Or maybe he was contemplating a new conquest that was not sanctioned by the Lord, and he wanted to know if his army was big enough to do it. Another possibility is that he was afraid of another rebellion, and was using the census to ferret out any potential enemies. The men of Judah and those of the other tribes were recorded separately. So maybe David was afraid, and was trying to see if the men of Judah had enough soldiers to defeat the other tribes if it came to civil war again.

In any case, it did not arise from faith. Romans 14:23 says: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” We want a book of rules, so we can just take care of things on our own, and not make the effort of staying close to the Lord. Rule 447, paragraph 8, section c: “Do not ever take a census.” But living that way actually separates us from God, because it allows us to function “righteously” without really interacting with him. Even if we do the right thing, it needs to be because we are living in right relationship. Taking a census is not always wrong. But David was not walking in faith.

Here is one other possibility with this census. It could be that David ordered it to be conducted in a way that violated something the Lord said in Exodus 30:11-16.

The LORD spoke to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, each of the men must pay a ransom for himself to the LORD as they are registered. Then no plague will come on them as they are registered. Everyone who is registered must pay half a shekel according to the sanctuary shekel. This half shekel is a contribution to the LORD. Each man who is registered, 20 years old or more, must give this contribution to the LORD. The wealthy may not give more and the poor may not give less than half a shekel when giving the contribution to the LORD to atone for your lives. Take the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will serve as a reminder for the Israelites before the LORD to atone for your lives.” (Exod 30:11-16, HCSB)

The point of this was to recognize that the Lord owns all of the people. They don’t own themselves – they owe their lives to the Lord. In the same way, no leader owns the people – they all belong to God. It may be that the people did not want to pay the census fee, nor did David want to require it of them. This exposed that in their hearts they were not serious about belonging to God as a people. This may be the sin in the hearts of the poeple that God was exposing.

With the sin exposed, God acted in judgment, to bring the people back to himself. Because David repented so quickly, the Lord gave David a choice about the form of judgment: three months more of rebellion and battle, or three years of famine, or three days of a plague. David chose the last one, as I would have. He trusted God’s mercy (in the form of the plague) more than the “mercy” of a human enemy.

As the plague was coming to Jerusalem, David apparently had a vision of God’s angel striking the people. He cried out for mercy for them, pleading with God to limit the judgment to himself, to strike him and save the people. God did not do that, but he did end the plague at that point. The angel in the vision stopped. David’s plea to be punished instead of the people echoes the heart of the ultimate chosen one, Jesus, whom God did strike in place of all sinful people.

What follows is very interesting. The Lord sent the prophet Gad, who told David to make sacrifices and offerings on the spot where he saw the angel stop. If you remember, Jerusalem in David’s time was fairly small, maybe ten or fifteen acres. It was on the tip of a ridge, with deep ravines to the east and west and south. Behind David’s city to the north, the ridge rose to the top of the mountain. It was there, at the top of that ridge or mountain, where David went to offer his sacrifices. This was about 1/3 of a mile from the south wall. The picture below gives you a rough sense of the geography, though it is not 100% accurate.

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He found the land was owned by a Jebusite, not an Israelite. Refusing to take it as a gift, David purchased the land, and made offerings and sacrifices there. This ridge-top was the very place where Abraham had taken his son Isaac, when he obeyed God’s call to sacrifice him. On that mountaintop, Isaac, not knowing what was to come, asked what they were going to use for a sacrifice. Abraham answered prophetically, saying, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8, HCSB). God stopped Abraham when he saw that he was willing to give up even his son. Instead, God planned to give his own son. And so on this same spot, almost eight hundred years later, the plague was stopped. On this same spot, David offered his life in exchange for his people, but again, the Lord refused that sacrifice, looking ahead to the time he would offer his own son. And this same spot, purchased by David, Solomon built the temple of the Lord, where for years they offered sacrifices that were all a shadow, pointing toward the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus to save people from their sins.

So David ended his reign, still being used by the Lord to point toward the ultimate messiah. 2 Samuel 23 records the last psalm he wrote:

These are the last words of David: The declaration of David son of Jesse, the declaration of the man raised on high, the one anointed by the God of Jacob, the favorite singer of Israel:

The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me, His word was on my tongue.

The God of Israel spoke; the Rock of Israel said to me, “The one who rules the people with justice, who rules in the fear of God, is like the morning light when the sun rises on a cloudless morning, the glisten of rain on sprouting grass.

Is it not true my house is with God? For He has established an everlasting covenant with me, ordered and secured in every detail.

Will He not bring about my whole salvation and my every desire? (2Sam 23:1-5, HCSB)