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Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Invitation: Come and See

The Gospel of John describes the first disciples of Jesus as Andrew and John himself.  They were followers of John the Baptist.  Maybe they had been baptized by him even before Jesus came seeking baptism.  They witnessed John's proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God, and, because of his proclamation, they followed Jesus.  The first contact was hesitant.  They did not run after him calling his name, but they just followed him.  Jesus noticed them and turned and said "What do you want?"

The Bible does not record any teaching yet, but they called him Rabbi which means Teacher.  Perhaps it was a title of honor and they just wanted to show respect.  Maybe they were startled by his question, but they didn't say, "John says you are the Lamb of God, and we want to hear about that."  

They only said, "Where are you staying?"  A mundane question, but it might let them know where he would be in the future or an opening for further conversation. 

He wanted to maintain the open door, too.  "Come and see," he said.  They stayed the rest of the day; that might mean 6:00 or suppertime or bedtime.  In any case, it was time for a longer conversation.
  • What do you want to ask? 
  • What does Jesus say to you do when you are alone?
  • What does it mean to be the Lamb of God?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Prostitute in Our Midst?

Do you know about Rahab?  She was a prostitute and certainly not someone I would want to visit with.  I mean"What would people say?"  If she is going to live among us, she will surely have to clean up her act.  And she brought her whole family, too.  I wonder what they're like.  Not that I really want to take on introducing them to my friends.

They say she saved the spies who went to look over Jericho, but when she bargained for her own life, she included her family as well.  I have to admit she did have integrity and family loyalty.  She hid the spies until the troops of the King of Jericho left, and she told them how to escape.

Of course she would want to join us.  She told the spies that everyone she knew feared Israel, and she jumped on our band wagon as soon as she could.  She had heard of the miracles God did to protect our people in the desert.  She was just trying to save herself since she knew that God would give Jericho to Israel.  For a while I wasn't so sure.  I mean they had the best position,
 after all.

It really seems sort of flighty of her to believe things she had only heard about and to hide the spies under stalks of flax on the roof.  If they had found the spies, she would surely have been in big trouble.  Only if you really had great faith or you were really stupid would you take that risk.  Humphff.
But Joshua kept the promise and rescued all the members of her family after the walls fell.  I guess that's one reason they went to her house in the first place--the house was on the wall.  The other reason we won't discuss.  I wonder who intruduced her to Salmon?  She was a foreigner, after all.  I wouldn't think his family could have been very happy about it.  She did bear him children.  I think Boaz was the first.  I really wasn't sure he would ever amount to anything, but who knows.

Read the story of Rahab in Joshua 2, 6:22-25, Matthew 1:5.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Balaam in a Quandry

Balaam was a prophet.  His story is recorded in Numbers 22-24, and he is mentioned by other prophets, too.  He was the son of Beor and he lived in Pethor.  He was a Midianite.  He had a reputation of prophesying for profit.  The people of Moab approached the people of Midian with fears of the Israelites because of what they had done to the Amorites.  "They will lick us up like an ox licks up grass."

Balak the son of Zippor was the king of the Moabites, and he sent messengers to Balaam telling him of the huge number of the Israelites and asking for help to stand against them.  "Come over here and curse them for me," he said.  "I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed."

Balaam received the entourage and invited them to spend the night.  God spoke to him saying that he must not curse the Israelites because they were blessed.  He refused to go with them.  They returned to Balak with the message.  Balak was not to be triffled with.  He sent a more distinguished delegation and a larger bribe.  Balaam received them and assured them that it didn't matter because God had blessed Israel, but he allowed them to spend the night to find out what God would say.  God gave Balaam permission to go with them, but he was to say only what God allowed. 

God was angry that Balaam went with the delegation.  I searched but found no cause for his anger.  I surmised that, perhaps, Balaam was tempted by the bribe or he sought some grievance against Israel, too.  In any event, Balaam saddled his donkey and went.  The donkey saw the angel of the Lord on the path and turned aside.  Balaam beat him and forced him back on the road.  Two more times the donkey refused to move and pinned Balaam's foot against a rock and lay down on the path.  Each time Balaam beat the animal.  His behavior was due to the presence of the angel, but he was hidden from Balaam's eyes. 

Finally the animal spoke to Balaam, "Why are you beating me?"  Balaam responded, "You have made a fool of me!  If I had a sword I would kill you now."  The donkey continued to chide Balaam, and then the angel revealed his presence, and Balaam was revealed as the fool.  The angel allowed Balaam to continue to meet Balak, but with this new evidence of the power of the God, Balaam was reminded that he could not say anything that God did not ordain.

Balak and his officials and Balaam made sacrifices before going out to view the outskirts of the Israeli camp.  They erected seven altars at Bamoth-Baal and offered sacrifices on them.  Then Balaam went up the mountain and spoke with God.  When he returned, he could only speak blessing on Israel.  "How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?...Let my final end be as theirs."

Balak did not give up.  They went to a site on Mount Pisgah where they again viewed the Israeli camp.  They built seven more altars and made more sacrifices.  Balaam went up the mountain to hear God's message.  When he returned he confirmed what he had said before.

“Arise, Balak, and listen;
   hear me, son of Zippor.
God is not human, that he should lie,
   not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
   Does he promise and not fulfill?
I have received a command to bless;
   he has blessed, and I cannot change it."

Balak  begged Balaam not to bless them if he couldn't do as he had asked.  Balaam said, "I can only say what God has said to me."

Balak took them to a different place on Peor overlooking the wasteland.  They built seven altars and offered seven sacrifices.  This time the prophesy was of a land of plenty with gardens and water, strength and security. 

In his anger Balak sent Balaam away without reward.  But Balaam was on a roll.  He prophesied about future events that included the rise of Israel as a strong nation and the defeat of the lands of the Amalekites and the Kenites, and the rise of Cyprus to defeat Ashur and Eber.

Balak did not get what he bargained for and Balaam was not paid for his efforts.  Everybody went home to see what the future of Israel would produce.  The lessons in this story are numerous:  It is useless to try to change the will of God; even a donkey knows better than to challenge an angel; don't try to curse what God has blessed.  There may be a reciprocal of the last one:  Don't try to bless what God has cursed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What Would God Do?

It is a common exercise for preachers and teachers and writers to comment on "what God would do."  The favorite one I encounter has to do with Hell.  I hear and read that a good and loving God would not send anyone to Hell.  Some people like to conclude that there is no Hell.  Others relagate Hell to Satan and his fallen angels.  If we are to believe the Bible, we must deal with the facts and information about Hell contained in it before we dismiss them because we don't like the implications.

Jesus is quoted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke discussing Hell and it's inhabitants.  The authorities who questions whether God would send anyone to Hell read these passages as an allegory or illustration.  Many passages in Revelations discuss the activities of demons and the risk of being abandoned to them. 

I guess I am more interested in discussing the person of God than in proving the reality of Hell.  The Bible is our only reference for the character and personality of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  The character of God is often read as changing from harsh and judgmental in the Old Testament to loving and merciful in the New Testament.  Hebrews 13:8 states that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  Jesus was the incarnated revelation of God and he is no different from God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is always and continually in communion and agreement.  God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- has not changed.

God was always ready to welcome the Children of Israel when they asked for his mercy.  He was not particularily pleased when they sought him for their own material gain or when they planned evil.  He criticized them and allowed punishment to fall on them when they sought after other gods.  Their other gods did not do much to help them.  God was always there to restore, uplift, and strengthen.  When they corrupted the scriptures and denied aid to poor, God allowed their course to be determined by their behavior.

I keep coming back to the view of God that says he will send sinners to horrible, unyielding torment in eternal Hell.  That's not the way I read it.  I have a choice--accept Jesus or refuse his offer.  If I accept Jesus, I follow his lead; I become like him; I learn his righteousness, and I draw on his grace.  It is not an easy path.  If I refuse his offer of salvation, I am free to seek my own path.  I can do anything and live anyway I like.  It doesn't mean I am a bad person.  I just do it my way. 

Revelations describes the Book of Life which has recorded in it the names of those who accepted Jesus' gracious offer of redemption and salvation.  For those who wanted to belong to Jesus, the path may have been difficult, but they saw an outcome that was blessed.  Those who refused his salvation also made a choice.  It was a personal choice.  God did not make it for them.  God does not send anyone to Hell, but if you don't want what Jesus has to offer Hell is the result. 

Accepting Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Redeemer leads to a disciplined life of obedience, holiness, and sacrifice.  Refusing his offer is a personal choice.  You may find power and wealth or emptiness and loss, but it was your choice.  Joy in eternity rests in Jesus.  He calls you to come to him and enter a new life, but it is your choice.  Hell is available too.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Does Grace Require Repentance?

I'm still stuck on grace.  I like grace; I like to explore the meaning and limits of grace.  Are there any limits?  I'm not sure, maybe there aren't.  God's grace is as deep as God wants or allows it to be.  It's not really up to me.  He will forgive and heal and save at his discretion, not mine. 

Some preachers and teachers of the Word say that there is no end to the grace of God.  He will forgive and receive any of us even if we do not repent and change our behavior as long as we claim grace and believe that he died to make us righteous. Jesus said that we should forgive our brother repeatedly even to 70 times 7 times.  I think he meant that as an analogy for infinity.  I should not try to set limits on forgiveness because God does not.  He forgives me over and over.

Paul said that the law was given by Moses to teach mankind the meaning of sin, but where sin was plentiful, the grace of God was even more plentiful. (Romans 5:20 my translation.)  Grace trumps sin.  So does it matter that we do things God doesn't approve if he is going to forgive anyway?  In Romans 5:8 Paul states that when we were still sinners Christ died for us to remove the barrier that separated us from God. 

If this is true and grace is poured out for us, even in spite of our sin, we might surmise that the more we sin, the more of God's grace we can claim.  No!  God forbid it, Paul says in Romans 6:1.  When we were saved and brought into the grace of God, we were not saved to continue in sin, but to be released from its grip.  Jesus died and we were redeemed and freed from sin to live a holy life before God.  We are always moving closer to the life of purity Jesus followed, and the more we walk with him, the closer we come to that perfection.

Does it make sense that we would be saved from the sin that is common in the world, but continue to engage in it?  No.  It's like a child growing to  adulthood.  If the boy at 10 is no closer to manhood than he was at 1, something is terribly wrong.  The senior in high school who can only do basic addition is not learning his lessons.  The person who continues in sin refuses to grow into the Christian Christ died to create. 

Yes, we are forgiven over and over, but we are obligated to repent and forsake the sin when we recognize it.  It damages our souls, our lives, our relationships to God and to others.  The consequences are damaging and damning.  John the Baptist, Jesus himself, Paul and preachers over the centuries have pleaded with sinners to repent.  It is still a valid message.  Repent!  Repent and walk in grace.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stuck on Grace

Amazing Grace, First version, in "Olney H...Image via WikipediaGrace is so amazing and so abused that Christians often don't understand what it means.  Grace means more than we know how to accept because there is no cost or level of performance and no minimum standard to achieve it.  We are used to things being free--free chips when you buy a hamburger, kids eat free when the parents buy a meal, free tickets to a sales presentation.  There is always a catch.  You have to pay somewhere.  But grace doesn't have any catches.  Grace really is free.

The  definition goes like this:  Grace is the unmerited love and mercy of God toward sinners.  In Romans Paul said it like this: " ...God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." NKJV, Romans 5:8.  Before he knew there would be any believers, he paid the cost of sin before God.  That's grace.  God pours out salvation on sinners when they just ask.  There are no trial memberships.  We are accepted on our word alone. 

Now is there a catch?  Sort of.  God does not require any payment or level of performance, but he does indicate that we must ask for what he has to offer.  1John 1:9 says that he will forgive our sins when we confess.  That's all.  We confess that we are sinners and he forgives the sin.  We live in a litigious society--there must be more to it that that.  Well, there is.  He will not allow us to stay in the state of sin he found us in.  He wants us to become a reflection of himself  He wants us to be pure.  "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect."  That doesn't sound like he is satisfied with just any old confession.  Watchman Nee uses the illustration of a draftee versus a volunteer.  Once we are Christians we are obligated to become like him.  We have to wear the uniform and conform to the rules.  He accepts us in whatever condition he finds us, but his will is to change us to what he wants us to be.

Now let me return to grace.  By grace we are saved, and by grace we are united with him.  Then by grace we are changed to become what he wants us to be, and the change may be, probably will be, a painful and daunting metamorphosis.  He will love us, but never doubt that you will be different than he found you when this is all over, and that what you will become is not what you envisioned when you began.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

When I See the Blood

In Leviticus 17 Moses gave instructions about how the children of Israel were to deal with sacrifices and blood offerings.  It also explains why they were not to consume the blood.  In verse 11 he says that life is in the blood and God has given it to you to make atonement for your sins.  They were to drain the blood and use it as the offering because the blood was the agent that gave life to an animal.  They burned the fat and ate the lean meat, but the blood was for God alone.

In Exodus 12:13 Moses told the people to take of the blood they drained from the lamb and put it on the doorposts of their homes.  God said, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you."

Isaiah 53:7 records that Jesus would be "led like a lamb to the slaughter."  It was not simply punishment, not just beating, not even agony on our behalf.   It was a blood sacrifice.

John 19:34 "...one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water."  (Scientists say that the manner in which Jesus died would concentrate the blood in his heart.  When the heart was perced, the total blood supply flowed out.)  Jesus was our lamb, our offering, one time.

Hebrews 13:12 states that Jesus gave his life to make believers holy through his own blood.

When I read these scriptures in sequence, it becomes obvious that God chose blood to represent life.  The life of a person or an animal is in the blood.  Making a sacrifice means that the blood which was poured out on the altar was a symbol of the life of the animal.  When the Israelites were told to use a lamb as a sacrifice. the lamb was meant to represent the sinner, to take his place.  The blood represented my life and your life.

I tried an exercise this week in which I was required to read a passage of scripture and use my name in place of the pronoun in the text.  Here is what I wrote adapted from Isaiah 53:4-6:
Surely he took up my infirmities
   and carried my sorrows,
yet I considered him stricken by God,
   smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for my transgressions,
   he was crushed for my iniquities;
the punishment that brought me peace was upon him,
   and by his wounds I am healed.
I, Gayle, am like a sheep, I have gone astray,
  I have turned to my own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
   my iniquity.

The requirement for a blood sacrifice for sin is so abhorrent that we turn away in disgust.  God could just forgive us and let it pass, couldn't he?   No, this is the value he puts on our forgiveness and redemption.  We are too important to God for him to ignore our sin.  He found a way to make us right with him through his Son, through the death of his Son, through his Son's blood.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is the Gospel of Grace an Easy Message?

Figure of Jesus on the Cross at The Cloisters,...Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr There was a day when preachers expounded on the sins of parishoners and communicants urging them to repent and be saved.  That was a hard message that left no one untouched by guilt and remorse.  Jonathan Edwards was a champion of the fire and brimstone messages of the 18th century.  John Wesley was not lax in challenging his listeners with the state of sin in their lives.  His friend and fellow preacher George Whitfield also bore a message of repentance and surrender to the claims of Jesus.  These men were noted preachers during the time known as The Great Awakening in North America, England, and Europe. Their messages focused on repentance from sin and acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A century later Charles Spurgeon was still preaching that message.  His sermon entitled "Why Many Cannot Find Peace" contanins this statement:

Dear Friend, without the fullest confidence as to your saved condition, you have no right to be at ease and I pray you may never be so!*

I cannot define the time when this emphasis on sin and repentance lost favor, but as of this date, it is a lost art.  The current theme in Christian circles is grace:  "Grace greater than all our need."  Grace is defined as the unmerited favor of God.  It is the overflowing love of God toward us that is not the product of our own efforts and cannot be secured by human wisdom, subtrefuge, or sacrifice.
Grace is so wonderful and powerful that we can hardly understand it.  Grace, forgiveness, love in abundance poured out for sinners, poured out for me.  And I didn't have to do anything to get it.  Being a Christian is easier than I thought.  Paul's call to grace in Ephesians 2:8 says that "...we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves--it is a gift of God not of works lest anyone should boast."

Other scriptures record other words of Jesus.  In John 3 Jesus gives a dissertation on the meaning of salvation and the new birth.  We don't receive God's grace in an unsanctified state.  Jesus said  “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."  Now go back to Ephesians 2:8 and reread the sentence until you come to the words "through faith."  But the faith is in Jesus Christ and he died.  Grace does not pour out on unredeemed souls.  Salvation comes to a sinner by the goodness and love of God because he, the sinner, has been made righteous by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.

Matthew 4:17 records Jesus saying, "Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."  This is after Jesus was baptized by John and before he had called his disciples.  It almost seems like Jesus is taking up the ministry of John.  John's message had been a call to repentance marking that change in their lives with baptism. 

After John was put in jail, Jesus became more urgent: he chose twelve disciples and moved to Capernaum.  He chose them from the crowd of people who listened to his preaching.  His message was not a light one:  He proclaimed that their righteousness must be greater than that of the current religious leaders to gain heaven.  He told them they must love their enemies.  And he began to talk about his own death.   As his message became more urgent, it also became more difficult. 

In John 6:53: Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."  Eating bread in a field while he preached was one thing, but to translate that into eating of his flesh and drinking his blood was a far more demanding discipline.  What kind of belief, what kind of commitment was that?  Many in the crowds that had followed him took offense at this.  Many of them followed him no more.

Will those who have embraced his grace back off when they hear the rest of the story?  When they learn that self sacrifice is part of the package, they may find, like the followers that enjoyed the healing and the bread, Jesus's call is a "hard saying."  There are other words of Jesus, other commitments, and other levels of participation.  Righteousness, obedience, and sacrifice do not creep in quietly in the dark hours before dawn unhearlded.  They come with demanding effrontery in the full light of day and they require attention.  And you and I and every believer will have to address their requirments.  Don't believe an easy gospel.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is Eye Witness Testimony Reliable?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...Image via Wikipedia Lawyers seem to have a real affinity for eye witness testimony even though all the tests and evaluations seem to indicate that eye witness are not usually very accurate.  If five people witness an accident, they will give very different accounts of the events.  And yet we still believe what the eye witnesses say.

In Acts 1 Luke depends heavily on eye witness accounts.  He investigated and found a unity in their reports that was convincing evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Luke talks about the various behaviors Jesus engaged in.  He says Jesus ate with them and talked to them.  Mostly, he emphasizes that he was among them, alive, walking, talking, and eating.  He says Jesus gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. 

No matter that they may remember the events differently, an eye witness is someone who was present.  We want to know what the witness saw and heard and did.  In Luke's account, he is intent on making his readers know that the proofs were real.  Jesus had been dead.  They had buried him.  Then he rose and he was alive.  They saw him taken up into heaven.  He went into heaven alive.  This was real.

Read Acts 1 for yourself.  Note all the ways Luke wants to prove that Jesus was alive.
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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Introduction to the Minor Prophers II

Some months ago I wrote a post entitled Introduction to the Minor Prophets, but my post did not live up to the title.  In it I talked about Elijah as one of the important non-writing prophets and about how  Moses filled the office of a prophet, but I never really got to the minor prophets.  I hope this post is more organized than the original one.

There are several categories of prophets: non-writing prophets and writing prophets, major prophets and minor prophets.  Some prophets were also judges or priests.  Samuel was a judge and a prophet.  Miriam was the sister of Moses and she was a prophet.  Deborah, the only female judge, was also a prophet   Some examples of non-writing prophets are Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan.

Of the writing prophets, the only distinction between Major and Minor prophets is the volume of prophesies they wrote.  There are four Major prophets:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  There are twelve Minor prophets:  Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The writings of the Minor prophets were no less inspired or important than those of the Major prophets, but they may not have covered as long a period.  Their message may have addressed one issue or time period, but it was recorded and preserved.  The messages of the Minor prophets come from different period in the history of Israel.  Prophesies are referred to as the pre-exile prophets, the prophets in exile, and the post-exile prophets.   The messages of the pre-exile prophets tell of the coming judgment.  The messages of the prophets in exile are intended to strengthen the Israelites to endure.  The messages of the post-exile prophets call for return to righteousness.   The two prophesies written during the exile are Daniel and parts of Isaiah. 

Several of the prophesies are written to different nations. 

Hosea prophesied to Ephriam whose capital was Samaria.  Ephriam was part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Joel prophesied to Judah, but included Phonesia and Philistia.

Amos prophesied mostly to Israel, but he also included the surrounding countries.

Obadiah prophesied to Edom of destruction because they were destructive to the Children of Israel.

Jonah prophesied to the city of Ninevah in Assyria.

Micah prophesied to Samaria, Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem about the evil in them.

Nahum prophesied to Ninevah in Assyria.  Because of their repentance, the city had not been destroyed when Jonah prophesied, but this time they did not repent.

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah after the fall of Israel and their deportation.

Zephaniah prophesied to Judah and the nations surrounding her.

Three prophets prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem after the exile: Haggai called the people back to the Lord and stressed the Messianic theme. 

Zechariah was also a priest.  He called for a return to obedience especially in matters of justice, mercy, and compassion.

Malachi stressed the faithfulness of God toward his people and their lack of faithfulness toward him.  He called them to repentance.

Many of these books are short and easy to read.  Spend a few minutes gleaning treasures from them.

Introduction to the Minor Prophets
Also see:
Go Marry a Prostitute  a commentary on the book of Hosea
The Just Shall Live by Faith a commentary on the book of Habakkuk

Friday, September 16, 2011

Does Word Order Matter?

NT Resources, a blog I accessed through the Biblegateway site, shared a quote that spoke about the dangers of changing any element that relates to religion or culture.  The quote is a warning about improving or clarifying items we have come to understand in a specific way, and the danger that improving it will cause a revolution.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible.  Now we view it as the old standard for all Bible reading.  Many people assume it is written in Old English.  I will hasten to assure you that it is not even written in Middle English, but in what modern English.  Of course some things are dated and the original would look very strange to us, but that's still modern English.

I said all that to say this:  change is strange and foreign.  We have been reading new translations of the Bible for at least sixty years, and I think there are still people who believe the KJV had it right.(I think the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament was published in 1946 and the Old Testament was published in 1952.)  I do believe you can be as well taught from the KJV as from the NIV or the RSV, or any of the others, and they are numerous.  The truly intelligent way to study the Bible is to compare the versions.  Reconcile the differences, and you may come to understand the Bible better.

One of the most difficult and meaningful experiences I ever had was translating passages from the Latin to English.  I had to use a dictionary on almost every word.  I had to understand the rules for translation and the cases of the nouns and the tenses of the verbs.  And I had to do all that with 618 verses of the Old and New Testaments.  Understand another thing--the Vulgate was translated around 400 c.e. from the Hebrew and Greek.  Changing the word order or the translation does not negate the Bible's message or God's truth.  Let it inform you, and let God make it real in your experience.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sins of Saul

Map showing states around Israel and Judah. Th...Image via Wikipedia
Saul reigned in Israel for 42 years.  For most of that time he knew that his kingship would not survive him, and his son would not be heir to the throne.  He had an opportunity, but he lost it.  He was brave in battle, he commanded troops, and he followed the instructions of Samuel, but when Samuel wasn't around he did not stay focused on God's goals.

Even from the beginning, he wanted to chose his own path and use his own judgment.  In his first campaign he had a good handle on the situation at Geba.  But Samuel was late.  The Philistines rallied and came to make a good show, but, without Samuel, Saul offered a sacrifice.  His men had become restless and begun to desert.  He felt he had to do something.  What else could he do? 

He could have prayed.  He could have sent a runner to seek for Samuel.  He could have prepared for battle.  But he chose to offer the sacrifice.  Bad choice.  A few minutes more, just a few more minutes and Samuel was there.  Saul lost the kingdom in that first
dramatic error.

There were other bad choices in Saul's life, other times when he should have known better.  When God told him to kill Agag, he chose not to obey.  He wanted to tease and taunt the beaten king.  When he saved the herds of Agag to make a sacrifice to God, he should have known better.  How foolish he was to think he could sacrifice the thing God had already condemned.  When the evil spirit tormented him, it is easy to see the toll of his own guilt.  The attacks on David were the result of jealousy and greed.  David was favored and Saul was endured.

Saul did expel the mediums from the land, but there is no indication when that happened.  On the night before his death, Saul sought out the Witch of En Dor.  He needed a confidante.  He needed guidance.  He needed reassurance.  She did not provide him with any of these; however, she did not lie to him.  Her predictions were accurate.  She did identify Saul although he had sought to conceal his identity.  She did call up Samuel from the dead.  She did share a truthful message.  She did serve him supper before he left.  In all this Saul sinned and failed again to trust the Lord.  Seeking help from the witch was Saul's last transgression.

As predicted he and his sons died in battle the next day.  Saul was Israel's first king.  When he was young and small in his own eyes, he had been God's choice.  When he lost his concentration on God, he became great in his own eyes, and all God saw in him crumbled.  God was long-suffering toward Saul, but Saul was was not faithful to God's call.
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bible in 90 Days

My preacher has asked members of our church to join the program which leads people in reading the Bible through in 90 days.  I have heard about it, but the Sunday school class I attend did not choose to adopt it as a project.  There will be a Bible study group for those whose class doesn't follow it also.

I don't plan to do the Bible study either, but I do plan to do the reading.  I think I can say I have read the whole Bible, but I never did it in one push or one effort.  I always get side tracked and lose my focus.  I find some books or some stories fascinating, and there is where my reading program goes awry.

This morning I have read the first 13 chapters of Genesis.  I should be able to finish Genesis in the next three days.  But here is where I have the weakness:  I don't just want to read it through.  I want to study the references and examine the text for details.  I want to know what the customs of the people were and why Babel was a huge city.  What references are there to Nimrod in other ancient literature?  90 days is a long time to just read and not wander off on a research trip.

In the thirteen chapters there are a lot of what preachers call "preaching points."  The one I found interesting this morning was Abram's interest in building altars.  When he was called to a new place or he heard a new message from God, he built an altar.  He marked those times of change or inspiration by worship, by sacrifice, and by obedience.  Maybe as I engage in this endeavor to read the Bible in 90 days, I can use this writing as a record of the places where God speaks to me like Abram's altars.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Argument in the Roman Courts

Paul was a brilliant and learned disciple who came to faith in Christ after the resurrection. One of the blessings of reading his teachings comes from his acquaintance with the Hebrew scriptures, and another is Paul's excellent use of Roman rhetoric and logic.

Romans 5:12-17 is a passage which uses both of these influences to create and describe a new truth.   Much of what Paul wrote was new.  The Old Testament contained truth that was revealed by the birth, life, teaching, and death of Jesus, but we were not prepared in how to use those teachings.  Paul and the other New Testament writers showed us the lenses through which we should see the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

In this passage, Paul explains how we are taught the meaning of sin.  Paul says that sin entered the world by the fall of Adam.  He set a pattern for men when he violated the first command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Sin, therefore, was present in the world even though man did not have a definition of it until Moses brought the Law.  Death came by sin.  Death reigned even though there was no prohibition; death came on man as a consequence of life.  The penalty for sin was not exacted since the sin had never been defined, but the result was still death.

Jesus came to the earth to eradicate the world's captivity to sin and death.  Jesus died as the acceptable sacrifice that would satisfy the justice of God, and when he died, God proclaimed that his sacrifice was sufficient.  The fact that he rose from the dead proves that the power of sin had been destroyed and sin no longer held mankind captive.

There is another factor to consider in this transaction.  By one man's sin, sin entered the world, and by one's man's sacrifice, sin was removed.  The consequence of the sacrifice was more than the removal of one sin, however.  All men followed the example of Adam's, and all became liable for sin.  All who place faith in Jesus will have their sins removed, but that is the part that God requires of us.  We must believe on him to see the  transaction completed.  It is a gift, but the gift must be accepted.  He will not force it on us, but is available to anyone and everyone

Read the passage from your Bible and claim the gift.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

The Just Shall Live by Faith

Chapter 2 of Habakkuk makes a somewhat strange claim.  Verse 4 says that the just shall live by his faith.  We must deal with a little human wisdom here to try to sort out this verse.  Don't people who are just live by righteousness?  If a person is just, should not that righteousness be the ground on which he or she stands before God?  Human reason may want to read the verse again.

That's not the way Habakkuk records it.  God measured the earth and found it's people and standards lacking.  Chapter 1 lists the sins and Chapter 2 goes on to list the woes to those who commit sin.  Almost hidden in the middle of this tirade of accusations, Habakkuk has this epiphany:  The just shall live by his faith.  Even when we have behaved righteously, our access to God is by faith.

Read in the light of the New Testament, this makes sense.  We are not saved by righteousness--obedience to the Law--because the Law has no power to save.  The Law can only condemn.  The blood brings the healing, the restoration, the new life.  Faith in the blood saves.  Even the just live by faith. 

Chapter 3 tells of Habakkuk's prayer of faith.  He records the vision of the nation that will attack and demolish his country, but he holds fast to the vision of God.  Habakkuk heard with fear and trembling, and he felt as if his bones would crumble as he waited for God to destroy the invader.  Even if there were no crops in the field, even if the olive trees did not produce, even if the cattle and lambs died, Habakkuk would wait upon the Lord.  His testimony depended on God: 
18. ...yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
   I will be joyful in God my Savior.

 19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength...

God calls us to be righteous people.  We have that obligation, but our standing with God and our salvation do not depend on our righteousness.  Salvation is always a matter of faith in him.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is Righteousness Important?

Genesis 15:6   Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness
This simple proclamations is profound beyond my understanding.  I have a hard time processing Abram's simple act of faith and the extremity of its consequence.  He just believed God.  His sacrifices or acts of obedience did not place him in this exalted position, but his belief did.

Let me take this one step further.  This is an accounting term.  In the NIV the word translated as "credited" is "counted" in the KJV.   In accounting terms, when you credit a payment, you take away the debt that has been incurred, and on the other side of the ledger, you add the amount of cash that was received.  God marked Abram's sin account paid because he accepted Abram's faith as equal value to righteousness.

Matthew 5:6   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Righteousness is not judgment.  Seeking or even being filled with righteousness does not give license to pronounce judgment on others.  Righteousness is its own blessing.  It doesn't make you Superman and it doesn't shield you from temptation.  It puts you in a right relationship to God. 

There are fruits of righteousness.  Things happen as a result of righteousness that don't come any other way.  You have a clear conscience.  You can stand and bear scrutiny.  Your word is sure.

Matthew 17:17-20  In this passage Jesus addresses his disciples as "wicked and perverse."  They had tried to heal a boy, but they couldn't.  They pressed him to explain.  He pointed out that it was not a matter of the size of the disease, but the size of the faith that caused the failure.  Abram had believed God.  Did they believe Jesus?  Do we? 

Righteousness is not a topic that Jesus takes lightly.  We do sometimes.  We neglect it and claim grace to cover us.  We excuse our failures and sins and kick righteousness under the rug.  Jesus is called God's righteousness.  He calls us to be like him in righteousness, to grow into him in faith.  If we are exercising faith, we cannot avoid righteousness.

I heard a preacher say he didn't like to preach about sin.  I don't like to hear my sins deleniated while the congregation silently approves either.  I guess they're not, but I feel the conviction.  I can't see any reason not to preach and teach on the things we know God does approve.  God approves of righteousness.

Matthew 5:10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What if your persecution is not because of your righteous behavior or attitude?  Maybe you deserve it.  Sometimes persecution is deserved.  You commit an act that causes others to harrass and torment you.  You consider this persecution, but is the harrassment and torment justified?  Make sure you are faultless before you claim God's involvment.  Remember that Jesus says you will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, not that your suffering will be relieved.  Your reward may be reserved for a future time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Reason for the Law

Romans 7:1-14
Paul gives a very good explanation for the purpose of the law.  God never expected that men and women would be obedient to the law.  He told Adam and Eve not the eat of the fruit of only one tree.  They were free to eat of all the other pleasures in the garden, but this one tree was special and reserved.  They knew it was forbidden, but they ate anyway.  With disobedience came death. 

Until the Children of Israel were ready to leave Egypt, death was the consequence of their lives.  Some found grace and blessing through obedience, but there was no general law until Moses received the Commandments.  The Commandments never made people righteous.  They only showed us what sin was.  In the Passover, God showed them the blood of the lamb smeared on the doorpost as a symbol of the sacrifice for their sin.  They ate the dinner inside the house and the Angel of Death passed over the places where the blood was.

Now Paul says that the Law is good and spiritual and righteous, but in us it is intended to show where the sin resides.  The stark perfection of the law reveals the sinful attitude and broken promise of a human life.  The Blood of the Lamb obscures the sin and covers the black mark with his sacrificial purity.

It is not that the law is no longer effective, but that we have died to the law by being made alive to Jesus Christ.  This is a difficult concept to understand.  We don't feel dead to the Law:  We feel condemned by it.  If we could move on to the point that we feel our sins condemned by Jesus, rather than the law, we may be able to understand the forgiving and cleansing that comes through his blood.

When we feel condemned by the Law there is no recourse.  The Law says:  The soul that sins shall die.  Jesus says: The soul that sins shall be forgiven.  Of course he called us to die to sin and to the Law; then we are raised to resurrection life by his forgiveness, by his blood.

Friday, July 15, 2011

On the Question of Homosexuality

Genesis 2:24 is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 19:4 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:31--"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 

The question arises about the position of people of homosexual orientation before God.  Gays and lesbians are the same as heterosexuals--we are all sinners before God, and we all require salvation to live in communion with him.  Sexual orientation is not the dividing line.  Sexual behavior is.  Sex is not essential to life and you can live without it.  Many of us should.  If you are not married, you should not be engaging in sex.  Yes, heterosexual as well as homosexual sex is forbidden when the participants are not married. 

There are a number of passages that denounce the practice of homosexual behavior.  They seem vague and non-specific to a litigious generation.  In Leviticus 20:13 the Bible says that man must not lie with a man as with a woman.  That is pretty specific and non-ambiguous.  Some people want to exclude Old Testament passages because they say you must take all the Levitical Law or none of it.  I don't know that I agree.  Jesus took some and not all.  Paul in Romans 1:26-27 warns against all same-sex practices. Defenders of the practice claim that only one passage in New Testament condemns homosexuality, and gays and lesbians should be able to marry in the same manner as heterosexuals.  The defenders claim their civil rights are being violated, and their opportunity to experience a full life is curtailed.  I'm not convinced that God is concerned with civil rights or fair play.  He is concerned with salvation from sin.

The passage found in Genesis quoted above states what God approves; however, not every instruction applies to everybody.  Paul in Ephesians says you may marry or stay single.  There are people in the Bible whom God did not permit to marry.  Some traditions, like multiple wives, were tolerated for a while, but eventually abandoned.  If the Bible is not specific in forbidding homosexual marriage, it certainly never approves it.

Nothing in the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus implies that we should expect to be happy and content.  Homosexuals and heterosexuals are equally commanded to be obedient, to love the neighbor, to live righteously, and to confess their sins.  If these commands limit human happiness, so be it.  Marriage is between men and women.  Other practices are not approved by God.  I can't see the value of saying that we might get away with it since there is only one direct and specific prohibition against it in the New Testament.  I think it is presumptuous to assume things to be the way I want just because it will make me happy.  God is not concerned with my happiness, but my salvation.  King Saul experienced the consequences of acting presumptuously before God.  It cost him his sanity, the Kingdom, and eventually his life.

There are considerable risks to rewriting the Bible!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Proverbs 7--The Woman on the Corner

"Warning: these enemies are still lurking...Image via WikipediaThe first five verses of Proverbs 7 records a father's urging to his son to remain virtuous and avoid foolish behavior and cherish wisdom as a sister.  The father is insistent in his charge to his son to rehearse the teachings and commands that will spare him much trouble and distress.

The father then tells a story of the young men he saw in the street from his window.  Among them was one who lacked good judgment.  Perhaps he had not been taught to avoid foolish choices, but, in any case, he allowed himself to be influenced by a sinful woman. 

He seems to have known where she would be and how to find her.  He knew the corner she frequented, and he knew where her house was.  As night fell, he made his way there.

She came to meet him dressed to allure him.  She was crafty, and her intent was to seduce him.  She went to the town square and the shops advertising herself in a brazen manner, and she had no modesty or virtue about her.  Her intent was to sell herself for money.  This simple, foolish young man would be easy for her.

She assured him that she had performed her duties of fellowship offerings.  It is strange to think that she had taken pains to obey the law in this matter, but she felt no pang of guilt for her adultery or for destroying his honor.  She described her husband's trip and absence which gave her leave to behave in a scandalous manner.  It is not clear whether she desired sexual experience in her husband's absence or money for her service, but all her motives are equally disgusting and destructive.

The writer offers many metaphors to describe her violation of the foolish young man:  She pursuaded him with smooth talk and flattery; she led him like an ox to the slaughter; like a deer stepping in a noose; like an arrow piercing his liver; like a bird in a snare, and he doesn't even realize that it will lead him to death.

The deadly consequence of his yielding to her call is not explained in the text.  Perhaps it indicats the prevelance of disease in sexual contact with many partners.  Perhaps it refers to the death of the soul in sin.  Perhaps it means the loss of honor that would make him unacceptable for marriage.

The final four verses are an appeal to the son to prevent this from happening to him.  He had been taught righteousness, and his father had shown him the result of the sinful path.  It is true that experience is the best teacher, but it is possible to learn from the experience of those around us.  We don't have to experience everything.  Others had been slain by association with her and her sin. 

How much easier would life be if we learned from the wisdom of parents?

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Inspiration of the Reader and the Listener

the Stainned Gless of depicting the Holy Spirit.Image via WikipediaThere is a great deal of emphasis on the inspiration of speakers and writers.  We all feel blessed when a gifted speaker or writer enlightens us on deep matters, and we label that one INSPIRED!

What about the readers and listeners?  I believe we are inspired to receive teaching through the written word or through the spoken word when God confirms his truth to us.  That is inspiration too.

In Luke 24:30-31 the disciples who ate with Jesus after the resurrection recognized him "when their eyes were opened."  They saw him, but they did not know him until he revealed himself to them.  Their spiritual eyes were opened.  Their inspiration had begun while they were talking with the risen Jesus on the road.  They testified that their hearts had burned within them when he opened the scriptures to them.  They had been inspired.  Their spirits had grasped God's truth even before they knew who they were talking to.

Believing the scriptures when we read them is a different quality of knowing and understanding than having them revealed to us by divine counsel.  The disciples on the road were Jews who knew the Old Testament and understood its instructions, but Jesus opened a new level of truth to them through the Spirit and their hearts burned.  

Paul supports this understanding of inspiration for both speakers and listeners, writers and readers, in 1 Corinthians 2:9:

 “No eye has seen,
   no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
   what God has prepared for those who love him."   

Then he continues to promise that God has revealed by his Spirit these truths.  They are intended for us to know and understand.  They are available and we can apprehend them.  They require us to surrender our minds and wills and attitudes for the Spirit to instruct.  It will be a demanding discipline, and he will correct and convict as he instructs.  Submit to the Spirit and receive of his teaching and be inspired.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Faith Comes from What We Know

In the first nine verses of Romans 6, Paul takes pains to lay a foundation defining what we know.   In verse 3 he says that we know we have been baptized into Christ.  We are not casual followers or hangers-on.  We are not just acquainted with him.  We have taken steps that placed us IN HIM.  Baptism was not a nice little ceremony:  It was a profound judicial action. 

We define baptism as a outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible grace.  It takes place in the spirit of the believer and in our church with the preacher, but it also takes place before God in spiritual realms that are invisible to us.  By God's decree, we are placed in Christ.

 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Romans 6:3, NIV)
Verse 3 makes it clear that we enter into the life of Christ at the point of his death.  Knowing that is the foundation of our life in him.  Our life is a life of resurrection. 

Paul says it again:  For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. (Roman 6:6, NIV)  It may take a long time to rid ourselves of the habits and evidence of sin, but by God's decree it has been accomplished in the spiritual realm.

In verse 9 Paul emphasizes that as Jesus lives by the Spirit, we also follow him in a spiritual life.  Death no longer has any dominion over him.  We will indeed die in the body, but the Spirit has already secured us in Christ for eternal life.  We KNOW these things, and our faith rests of knowing his truth.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

David--Honorable Before God

National Cathedral_King David (Parmelee window...Image by catface3 via FlickrDavid walked a fine line in his journey to the throne of Israel.  He was committed to Saul, but he knew from the time of his annointing by Samuel that he was destined to be the king (1 Samuel 16:12).  Samuel feared that Saul would kill him for this act of obedience to God.  

David first came to the court of Saul to play the harp to soothe him when the evil spirit came upon him (1 Samuel 16:15-21).  When Saul realized that David was popular with the people and accomplished in war, he feared his rise to power and assualted him with a spear in his tent (1 Samuel 18:5-11).  David escaped and   Jonathan Saul's son brought peace between them.  Again the evil spirit came upon Saul while David played the harp, and Saul tried to pin David to the wall with a spear.  David fled from Saul's presence and  lived in the desert with men who believed in him.

David taunted Saul by cutting off the hem of his robe without him knowing.  David did not cause harm to Saul, but he wanted him to know that he could have (1 Samuel 24:5).  Then he was conscience striken because he had humiliated him, and he refused to allow his men to attack.  David said, ‘I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD’s anointed.’

David spared Saul's life a second time when he refused to kill him during a raid on his camp, again saying, "I would not lay a hand on the Lord's annointed." (1 Samuel 22:23) 

Saul attempted to take David's life twice and twice David refused to take Saul's.  When Saul died in battle, David executed the man who brought the news because he rejoiced over the death of Saul.  David mourned for him and honored him in. 

This seems like a strange paradox.  Saul was mad, perhaps in the girp of a psychotic depression.  He was powerful, and David was only acting in self defense.  David was committed to Saul, not necessarily because he was the king or even because he was his friend's father or because he was his father in law, but because he was God's chosen man.  He honored Saul as his master and as God's annointed.  He would not hasten Saul's death even though he knew God had called him to be king.  He fled and lived in fear and torment in the desert.  God tested David during this time, but he never deserted him. 

Even when Saul failed, David did not doubt God's promise or provision.  Can we be so faithful to God during a time of testing?  Have we secured our promise to God with cords of love and obedience so that human failures do not disturb our peace with Him?
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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Cross and The Flame

Acts 2:1-13 describes the scene in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit fell on the believers in Christ who were gathered as he had instructed before he ascended into heaven.  It is not a lengthy passage.  The rest of the chapter, another 34 verses, describes Peter's sermon and the early coming together of believers to form the Church.

I belong to the United Methodist Church.  The Cross and the Flame symbolize the United Methodist Church around the world.  The cross attests to our faith that Jesus is the Savior, the Lord of the universe.  He died to redeem people from sin.  The flame represents the action of the Holy Spirit in empowering the church to carry the message of Jesus.  The symbol reminds the members of the centrality of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to our lives.  There are other symbols that remind us who we are in Christ, but this one speaks to who we are as a Church.

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  This day comes fifty days after Easter.  For Jews it marked the day they celebrated in honor of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.  That is why there was such a large gathering of people from all over the world in Jerusalem.  That is why it is so important that this huge body of people witnessed the descent of the Spirit.  The miracle of language that allowed the believers who were inspired by the Spirit to witness to the visitors of foreign lands planted seeds of faith in far-flung places.  The Church grew exponetially from that time. 

As I study and pray and work in my church, I am impressed that the Holy Spirit was not a phenomenon for an ancient sect.  It is still the power of God for a new generation.  The Holy Spirit does unexpected things in expectant people.  Praise God!
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Caleb--A Man of Honor

HebronImage by Oregon State University Archives via FlickrYou might think of Caleb as a minor Bible character, but think again.  Caleb was the kind of person God calls us all to be.  We find Caleb first in chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers.  He was chosen to accompany Joshua and 10 other leaders to go into the Promised Land to scout it out. 

Caleb was an honorable and trustworthy son of Jephunneh from the tribe of Judah.  When the 12 men returned from their trip into the Promised Land, they assured the Children of Israel that the land was everything they had hoped for.  They spent 40 days exploring and viewing the land.  It had vineyards and orchards with fig trees and pomegranate trees and well-watered plains.  They said it "flowed with milk and honey." 

Then the opinions were no longer unanimous.  Joshua and Caleb assured Moses and the people that they should go up and take the land for they were well able to do it, but the other 10 spies pointed out the strength and power of the inhabitants.  They lived in fortified cites: the descendants of Anak lived in Hebron; the Amalekites lived in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites lived in the hill country; and the Canaanites lived near the sea.  There was no place where they could settle that they would not have to fight a strong, settled population--it would be foolishness to try to take the land.  "We looked like grasshoppers next to them," they said.   

That night they wept because the land was good but they were weak.  The people discussed choosing a new leader and returning to Egypt.  For the second time Joshua and Caleb wept and tore their clothes in an attempt to persuade the people to obey the Lord, but they would not listen.  Joshua and Caleb were in danger of being stoned with Moses and Aaron.

The Lord appeared to the whole assembly at the Tent of Meeting.  He told them the penalty for disobedience--they would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  The ten spies that brought the evil report were struck down by a plague.  All the people who were 20 years old when they left Egypt and were counted in the census would die in the desert except Joshua and Caleb.  They would wander the desert as shepherds, a year for each day of the spy trip.  The next day they decided they would enter the land and they marched out to meet the Amalekites and Canaanites, but neither the Ark of the Lord nor Moses went with them.  God had given them a new command which they disobeyed in presumption, and they were defeated.

Caleb lived to enter the land.  Joshua gave him Hebron in the Hill Country. 

Caleb exhibits the kind of character we admire but don't see much.  He stood firm in righteousness against personal insult and attack.  His strength is an inspiration to us today.  May we be open to receive his example.
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